5 min. to read.
Today is the 16th day of Lent. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
Luke 16:19-31 is the scripture today, the odd parable we call the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of Jesus’ weirdest stories. I’m not going to recount the whole thing here. Just head over and read it for yourself.
Nowhere else in Jesus’ words do we find such specific details about life after death. Some take that to be the primary point. They think Jesus is teaching about the mechanics and logistics of heaven and hell. Dead people are conscious of their bliss or torment! There’s no comfort or respite on the other side for sinners! See how terrible it is! These folks seem to think that knowing the structure of punishment and reward after death will serve as ample motivation to change people’s behavior.
If you think that’s the purpose of the parable, then you haven’t really read it at all.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable. Not only that, there’s good evidence that this isn’t even a story original to Jesus. Zahnd claims there are seven different versions of it in Rabbinic writings, all focusing on a rich person and a beggar who die and experience a “reversal of fortunes” in the afterlife. Those stories are morality tales meant to motivate good behavior, but Jesus changes the familiar story a bit and in doing do, he changes the point.
In Jesus’ version, when the rich man realizes his fate (too late!) he tries to intervene so his still-living brothers can avoid the same terrible outcome. To be clear, he wants to send Lazarus (who is also dead, but in comfort) to go tell his brothers to be kind to the poor because it turns out, at least as far as the parable is concerned, if you aren’t kind to the poor, you end up in hell.
Like a good joke, the closing line is the bit that matters most. Everything before sets you up emotionally so that the final line carries real weight. When the rich man asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Father Abraham refuses. Why? Because they already have all the spiritual guidance they need, and they are ignoring it. The Rich Man presses his case. “Aha! But if Lazarus comes back from the dead with this message, surely they will listen.” Here comes the punchline. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Scripture is full of instructions, commandments, and warnings about taking care of the people around us. There are laws in Deuteronomy requiring a social safety net for the poor. There are screeds from the prophets decrying the selfishness and oppression of those in power. Over and over, scripture affirms those who take care of widows and orphans. Then Jesus comes along and says that whatever you do for the hurting, the left behind, the marginalized, the least, you are doing for him. The early church had a whole structure with specific fundraising and leadership meant to take care of those in need.
In contrast, scripture has no affirmation for hoarding wealth. There are no “Take care of Number One” passages to quote. Money comes up in the Bible from time to time, but it’s almost always in the context of how troublesome it can be for your spiritual life or how often the pursuit of it leads to exploitation.
To his original audience and to us, Jesus makes the point that many are just not interested in listening to the guidance of scripture regarding taking care of those around us. If we aren’t convinced to do this by the words of scripture we already have, why would we change our mind by receiving some spectacular personal revelation, like someone coming back from the dead?
Lent invites us to let go of those things that keep us from encountering Jesus. One of the ways we encounter Jesus is by serving those around us. We know we should be generous. We know we should stand with the oppressed. We know it’s the right thing to do. But we also have reasons why we can’t, at least right now. “I don’t feel led…” “I know that’s an important ministry, I’m just not called to it.” “This isn’t the right season for me to do this.” “Once I save up enough, then I’ll help.” We do what we do, and we have miles of reasons to explain why it was a reasonable choice.
Jesus suggests that we don’t need a special holy messenger to tell us to do justice and love mercy. Lent invites us to act on the guidance we already have. This way is life.