Have you ever felt invisible? You are standing at a checkout counter and every clerk that walks by seems to look the other way just as they get near you. You are in class with your hand raised and the teacher never calls on you. You are with a group of people and every time you start to say something, someone else jumps in just before you and you find yourself uttering senseless one-word statements that nobody seems to hear.
Lazarus was all but invisible when he was alive. He begged for a living, unable to work. His body was covered with sores and his stomach constantly ached with hunger. He sat at the gate of a rich man, watching the people come and go in all their finery, and wished for even the scraps that dropped from the table, but the dogs got those, and then they came and licked him with the smell of food still on their breath.
We don’t know if Lazarus was real or just a character that Jesus made up. The only other Lazarus mentioned in the New Testament is the brother of Mary and Martha. We know because of where they lived they were very poor, and we know that Lazarus died before Jesus, because Jesus called him out of the grave as an example of the resurrection to come. But either way, there were many like Lazarus in Jerusalem.
There were also many wealthy people in Jerusalem at the same time. The person Jesus describes dresses in purple and fine linen. Both of which were expensive and ostentatious. It said look at me. I have it all. He threw many banquets and ate lavishly. Romans and those who when under Roman rule did as the Romans, were fond of trying to outdo one another in their parties, coming up with the most exotic cuisine and entertainment. Their banquets would last well into the night and the wine flowed freely.
Jesus tells us both of these men died. Lazarus was greeted by the angles and taken to be with his ancestor Abraham. Now the Pharisees would have been quite surprised by this. Lazarus lacked the ability to make the proper sacrifices and attend the appropriate rituals to receive forgiveness for his sins according to the law, and it was obvious to them from his tormented state while he was alive that he must have been a great sinner.
The rich man, probably much to his chagrin, finds himself greeted by Hades.
There are two words we often translate into English as “hell.” And neither of them are what we usually imagine, thanks largely to Dante and/or Milton.
Hades comes from Greek mythology and was the overlord of Orcus, the place of the dead. In the first century, Orcus was thought to be a wretched place in the bowels of the earth where the disembodied spirits of the wicked went when they died. Luke appears to mean that while Lazarus was greeted by Father Abraham, our rich man found himself in a Greek hell with a Greek version of Satan. He has hit the absolute bottom according to his own standards.
Gehenna or the Valley of Ben Hinnom is often used by Jesus to illustrate where you do not want to end up for eternity. It was the valley where Israelites erected ovens to sacrifice infants as a burnt offering. For those who worshiped Baal, it was a common practice to sacrifice the first born, and then others may also be sacrificed to ensure their parents prosperity. King Ahab sacrificed one of his children in an effort to turn the tide of a battle.
Our rich man, even finding himself in Hades has not lost his sense of station. He still sees himself as above Lazarus. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus and he calls to Abraham, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:24). Abraham reminds him of two things: 1) while they were alive, Lazarus suffered and the rich man had many things (Abraham doesn’t mention that the rich man could have changed that situation while he was alive). 2) There is a great chasm between us and there is no way to cross it. (There was a great chasm between them while they were alive, but the way was still open to bridge that chasm.)
Our rich man reconciles himself to his situation, but decides he does not wish this fate for his five brothers. He still hasn’t figured out that Lazarus is no longer beneath him in status and he requests Abraham to send Lazarus to his home to warn his family.
Abraham reminds him that they have been warned, over and over and over again. That is what Moses and the prophets were saying in the scriptures.
Now Jesus becomes a prophet. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) We say we believe Jesus to be prophet, priest and king, but the reality is we seldom think of him as prophet, and yet he often filled that role.
A prophet was not a fortuneteller in the sense of having some magical glimpse into an already established future. A prophet spoke more about the present and then explained what the future would look like if the people remained on their current trajectory. They always spoke with the purpose of altering the future, and with the hope that the future could be altered, if only the people would listen to them and change their ways.
Jesus was very harsh with the Pharisees, but not for the purpose of judging them, but for the purpose of changing their hearts. John tells us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17).
Paul is the perfect example of this. Paul was a Pharisee who was persecuting Christians, but when Jesus touched his heart, he did a 180 degree about face. It’s not easy, even Paul admits he was in constant battle with himself. “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand… with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:21, 25b)
The Good News is that as Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Roman 8:1)
We need to be aware of the Lazarus’ in our own lives and do what we can to ease their suffering in this life, and when we fail or forget, as we will, acknowledge it and try to do better the next time, then thank Jesus for both our blessings and his forgiveness.