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The Clothes Horse and The Beggar

(A brief study of Lazarus and the Rich Man: Luke 16:19-31) In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Lazarus has it tough in this life while the rich man rides the gravy train. In the next life their positions are reversed. But is this the “message” of the parable? If so, all of us with three squares a day and a roof over our heads have hell to look forward to while heaven is guaranteed to the homeless. If such is the theology of Jesus and Luke then most of us are in deep trouble and the rest of the New Testament must be jettisoned. Perhaps the parable merits a second look.

A few verses before the parable there is a discussion of mammon/money. It says, “If you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” The phrase “that which is another’s” means mammon/money/
material possessions in that all material things belong not to us, but to God. We are only stewards of them. “That which is yours” refers to “the truth” which in context means the truth of God. The meaning of the text is: Those who cheat on their income taxes will never understand the gospel. If God cannot trust us with material things he will surely not reveal to us the treasures of the spirit.

The same verses go on to say that mammon/money/
possessions become personified. Vioney sits, like an evil spirit, on one’s shoulder and whispers in one’s ear, “You will make all major decisions on the basis of what I tell you.” Like God, mammon expects to be hailed asmaster by every human being. We have to choose between them. Serving both is not an option. “You cannot serve God and mammon” says Jesus.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man follows a few verses later. It tells a story of two men. One of them has God as his master. The other is ruled by mammon. This article will look briefly at the world view of both men and examine how their attitudes toward God and mammon shaped their lives in this world and the next.

The rich man is introduced first. He sports purple robes – the most expensive available. Moreover, he “dresses himself” (middle tense in Greek) everyday in purple. He also wears busos (a Hebrew word meaning high quality Egyptian cotton of the kind used for expensive underwear!). Nothing but the best for our man! But he obviously has a problem. Why the inner need to “dress to the teeth” every day?! Apparently, the craving to impress the world with his wealth and success is never fully satisfied.

As to food – he insists on sumptuous banquets – again – every day. Naturally, that means his staff are never given a day off! Due to their employer’s self-indulgence, they cannot observe shabbot. Thus on a weekly basis the rich man violates the forth of the ten commandments, let alone the oral law of the times with its strict rules regarding sabboth observance! What then of Lazarus?

Lazarus is sick, unable to work and without extended family to assume full responsibility for him. The community, however, respects him and does what it can. The text reads, “At his (the rich man’s) gate was laida poor man named Lazarus.” Arabic and Syriac versions of the gospels have always preserved the above passive tense. The translators understood it. The rich man is the only man in town with the resources to adequately help Lazarus. Thus Lazarus’ friends carry him each day to the ornamental gate at the entrance to the rich man’s garden. The rich man and his guests cannot miss seeing him. Perhaps they will help him? It is Lazarus’ best option. But does the game plan work?

Dogs in the Biblical and rabbinic traditions are almost as unclean as pigs. Both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures are clear witnesses to this. Dogs are kept as guard dogs (Isaiah 56:10), never as pets. Only those who feed them dare approach them. A rich man needs such dogs because they are his “home security system.” The story assumes that the guard dogs are fed the scraps Lazarus longs to eat (cf. Matthew 15:27). Lazarus goes hungry. The dogs are fed.

Yet, those wild guard dogs, whom no one but their handlers dare approach, realize that the weak, sick man by the gate is their friend. They lick his wounds. The saliva of a dog’s mouth is sterile. The ancients discovered that when a dog licks a person’s sores or wounds, healing occurs more rapidly. Archeologists in Aschelon, Israel have recently uncovered a center where 1300 dogs are buried in individual plots. The site has been identified as a Phoenecian semi-religious center where the sick could go, pay a fee and have trained dogs lick their wounds as medical treatment. In this parable the master refuses to help the poor sick man outside his gate – but his wild guard dogs will do what they can. They will lick his wounds. Their master will not help Lazarus. They will. Lazarus’ quiet gentle spirit breaks through their violent hostility to humans and they care for him knowing that he cares for them.

Amazingly, throughout all of this, Lazarus is quiet. The New Testament has two words for patience. One refers to the patience of the weak and the suffering. The other defines the patience of the strong who have power over others. The first is the patience of the victim. The second is the patience of the victor. The weak who suffer need hupomone – the ability to endure. The word is often translated “long-suffering” and is the patience of the oppressed who can do nothing about the hunger, privation and/or injustice that they endure. This describes Mary at the cross and, humanly speaking is seen in Jesus who agonizes before her enduring the cross, while despising the shame. Jesus, like Lazarus, has no harsh words for the evil forces that swirl around him.

Like a clap of thunder, the drama quickly shifts. Lazarus dies and naturally has no funeral; he and his friends cannot afford one. But the angels are standing by to escort him to a banquet spread in his honor by the partriarch of the entire clan Abraham himself. At the feast Lazarus “reclines on the chest” of Abraham (i.e. has the place of honor at the triclinium banquet table).

The rich man also dies and “is buried.” He had money. So he is given a funeral. No doubt it was a grand affair. But alas, to his utter shock, the rich man ends up in Hades. The Middle East produces wonderful “pearly gate stories” by which people are able to make astute political, ethical and cultural comments on the ambiguities of life. This parable has all the markings of such stories.

The dramatic surprises continue. The rich man sees Lazarus, recognizes his face and is able to call his name. Thus, all along he saw and even knew the sick man at his gate and chose to do nothing for him! But now the tables are turned!

Middle Eastern listeners/readers of the story know full well what must transpire next. The rich man sees Lazarus in a position of power at the right hand of Abraham and must make an abject apology to Lazarus begging his forgiveness. This is not what happens. He ignores Lazarus and addresses Abraham.

Paraphrased, the rich man is really saying: Abraham, I am suffering. This is not what I am used to. When beggar types are hurting it doesn’t matter – there is always something wrong with them. But for people like me this is terrible and something must be done about it- right now! I see that Lazarus is feeling better and is on his feet. Send him down with a nice cool drink.

Unbelievable! At this point the story should explode. Lazarus is expected to let the rich man “have it!” with every four letter word in his vocabulary. Cleaned up a bit the gist of what he is expected to say is as follows:

You no-good half dead dog – you want me to serve you?! You can’t be serious! Where were you when I was hurting? You fed your dogs but wouldn’t feed me. I longed to eat the scraps you threw to them – but no – I WASN’T WORTH IT TO YOU!! Abraham! Leave this monsterous ego to fry in hell. What he’s suffering is less than half of what he deserves!

Lazarus remains quiet. In his day of power at Abraham’s side, he has no vengeance to exact. On earth each day for Lazarus was a journey of faith. Like Abraham, he went out daily not knowing where he was going. Here, Lazarus exhibits the other New Testament form of patience, that of makrothumea. This later virtue describes the ability, in the day of power, to put anger far away. God was his master. His name was Lazarus – the one whom God helps. Only with the help of God are hupomone (long suffering) and makrothumea (putting anger far away) possible.

At the end of the story, the rich man retains his class pride, his total self centeredness and his indifference to any suffering other than his own. He recognizes the resurrected Lazarus but doing so makes no impression on him. Thus, his claim that such a vision will bring his brothers to repentance is hollow and vain. Mammon continues to rule his life.

Lazarus creates meaning by the responses he makes to the pain and grace of life. And that meaning is glorious. The rich man also responds to grace and pain. But the meaning he thereby creates chills to the bone.

At the end of the day the parable offers a profound insight into the ambiguity of possessions. While they have an indispensable potential for good, possessions can also create and feed self aggrandizement and, in the process, dull sensitivities to both the rights (the servants) and the needs (Lazarus) of others. Throughout the Bible it is clear that material possessions belong to God and not to humans. What we do with our possessions profoundly influences every area of our lives in this world and the next.

In summary, what does this story say about mammon and lifestyle? I would suggest the following:

  1. Compassion for the poor. Lazarus has a name and becomes Abraham’s guest. With the exception of the rich man, all who touched this poor man reached out to him. He is the hero of the story. The parable rings with compassion for the poor in their physical needs
  2. False formulas. The formula: “Wealth always means: God has blessed you” and the related formula, “Suffering always means: you must have sinned” are both flatly rejected.
  3. The corrupting potential of possessions. The parable is not critical of wealth but of the socially irresponsible wealthy. The rich man used his resources to feed his pride and his self-indulgent lifestyle. He cared nothing for his religion, his staff or the needy in his community. In hell he continued to see Lazarus as an inferior who should serve him. Mammon became his master.
  4. Mission at our doorstep. There is human need close at hand. As in the case of the rich man, “compassion fatigue” often hides that need.

What the rich man did with his mammon, colored, shaped and finally destroyed him. Like an alcoholic he was unaware of his self-destructive behavior even after it came to its bitter conclusion. What Lazarus was able to do without mammon becomes an inspiration for all. When John Wesley died his entire estate was one silver spoon. Was it worth more than one seamless robe?

Kenneth E. Bailey, Author and Lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies Research Professor of NT at the Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem (Emeritus) Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.