By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 29, 2019
Luke 16:19–31 (ESV)
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”
When Jesus would teach, his favorite method was by telling stories. It is interesting how powerful this method really is. There is power in a story. The greatest tool available to each of us as we converse with those around us, is not how much scripture we have memorized or even how many apologetic question and answers we have stored in our brains, but the most powerful tool we have is the story of our lives and our faith within our lives. There is something powerful in a story.
We can always tell our stories, and for most of us we would love to listen. To tell others where we once were and where we are now, and the journey we had taken and what we have learned along the way can be extremely interesting. Even if we think we have the most boring life ever there is something we all could learn, by simply listening to your journey of faith, and the more we tell that story the more we remember and the more interesting it becomes.
Jesus was one of the greatest story tellers, but he told a different type of story. There are the true stories, which contain facts and at times personal narratives to enlighten those who read or hear it as to what might have been going through the mind of the ones involved. Another story we often encounter is a story that is fictional. These stories could come in many forms: a myth, a legend, a novel, or many others. Often in our culture we view these fictional stories as less authentic or real. We hear the word myth and immediately we think that its fiction so nothing can be gained from it than entertainment. But that is not exactly true. Jesus often taught using a similar method, a parable is a mythic form of storytelling, because a myth is a story containing wisdom while still being entertaining.
I will be honest. I have learned more about history by reading and listening to fictional accounts than reading history textbooks, because the story grabs hold of something inside me and urges me to look deeper. Of course, this largely depends on the storyteller, because I have also read many books that try to convince people of ideas that are not based on any academic reality.
Jesus was a masterful storyteller. Very few of stories that Jesus taught can be directly linked to actual events but each of the stories convey a wisdom that can reveal divine truth to those that listen. Today’s story, or parable, is one of the most unique of Jesus’s stories. The reason I say it is unique is because one of the characters has a name, Lazarus. I might be wrong, but this might be the only parable where one of the characters has a name. This has led some people to believe that this parable might be connected to a real event and is not just a fictional story. I personally do not necessarily have an opinion one way or the other on that, but most of the people that want to say it is an actual event tend to take that route because they want people to believe in a physical fiery hell.
I do not want to speak a great deal about hell, but I do want to mention a few things. Over the course of Hebrew history, the concept of hell evolved. Early ideas were simply going into a pit where the spirit would remain. As the Hebrew people interacted with different cultures concept of hell began to change, and the idea the fiery wrath of God became a greater part of the story. These concepts came from many places, one place was that they would be burned as their sacrifices to idols. But the concept that we often hear mentioned in the new testament is the concept of hell that was brought by the people returning from exile. Is hell as described? I really do not know, because the stories are often embellished with the ideas of surrounding cultures, but one theme remains throughout. That theme is that there are those that will enter a place of blessing and consolation and those that will be left separated in some way, where there is no rest or comfort. Jesus does speak of an existence that extends beyond the veil of life.
The story begins by introducing a rich man clothed in purple. I have always found it interesting that Jesus speaks of the color of the garments that this man is wearing. To have a garment in ancient times that was dyed is a luxury. Ancient methods of dying clothing was more difficult than it is today. Today we can go to the store and find dyes in the same aisle we buy laundry soaps. We can get the dye almost any color we want and can revitalize the clothes we wear, or we can make psychedelic designs on plain clothing. Dying in ancient eras took a bit more skill. They had to find the right ingredients. They had to know just how to prepare those ingredients. And then they had to know how ensure that the color would stay in the fabric and not wash out. The materials could be found almost anywhere. The soils in an area could offer the pigment, or possibly the plants in an area would be the source they would seek. They would boil some of the ingredients and with others they would mix in vinegar or even urine to achieve the desired combinations. One of the reasons people believe that Jacob’s son Joseph was disliked by his brothers, was because their father invested in dyes to make Joseph’s coat, which was expensive and time consuming. But of all the colors people tried to make dyes for purple is a color that was one of the hardest to achieve, making it the most expensive.
The main reason purple was so difficult was because it came from a variety of sea snail. Only a small amount of needed ingredient could be found in each snail. And these snails were not exactly easy to find, because they lived deep in the sea. Those that dyed garments would have to dive into the sea to harvest the snails, and they had to do it without the benefit of scuba equipment. It was dangerous, and labor intensive. Because this color was difficult to obtain it was very expensive, and because it was expensive the color became associated with those of extreme wealth.
There is something more to the story. Purple was often associated with royalty of the gentile nations, but the dye used to make purple was special. The fringe that is found on the edges of the religious garments were dyed. These garments were very sacred to the Hebrew people. Especially the prayer shawl. When a boy became a man the most important thing, they received was the prayer shawl and that same shawl would often be used the rest of their lives. It is even used to make the canopy that they would have over them as they married their wives. The meaning behind this was that the woman would be covered in the righteousness of their husbands. The dye used on this fringe was thought to be lost to history. Many could not say for certain what color it was exactly. As they studied ancient documents and traditions, they found that the same the dye used was derived from similar snails, which is why only the fringe was dyed. But they still did not know exactly what the process was. Ancient Hebrews were thought to have blue fringe, but after they returned from captivity that blue dye was lost. They knew the snail but could only get purple. When Jesus speaks of purple, he is not only is speaking of wealth but also religious. Recently they were able to figure out how again make the blue dye, it comes from a similar snail but not the same one as the purple, and when making the dye they must make smaller batches and it must be exposed to sunlight or it will turn blue.
This man was wealthy, and possibly very pious. He had lavish feasts every day. And while he celebrated his wealth, a poor beggar named Lazarus sat at his gate wishing he could eat the crumbs that fell to the floor. Not only was this man a poor beggar, he was covered in sores. Sore of which the dogs came to lick. It’s a wonderfully horrific literary picture. Lazarus wanted to eat the food of the dogs, and in the process became dog’s food. This is the ultimate insult to his humanity and the extreme opposite of the rich man.
Both individuals die, and this is where the story gets interesting. The rich man is buried. His body is celebrated and carried to a tomb where people mourn for the loss. What happens to Lazarus? Human hands are not said to have carried him, but Jesus says angels carry him to Abraham’s side. He is not celebrated or mourned by humanity, he is all but forgotten and probably tossed out with the refuse to be burned. The rich man was honored, and Lazarus did not even have a funeral.
From this point the fates of the men are turned, now Lazarus has the blessing and the man of wealth is found in torment. And he become the beggar, pleading with Abraham to assist him in his torments. When his words fail, he comes to terms with his situation and he then begs that his family will be saved from the same fate.
We often believe this is a story teaching us of the afterlife, but it is more. It is more than even judgement and wrath or blessing and rest. It is a story of humanity. The rich man in all his feasting was not moved to have compassion for the man sitting at his gate. A man whose only companionship and physical contact came from dogs. The rich man in many ways regarded Lazarus no better than food for the dog, not even human. Did he know Lazarus? Did he know what caused that man to sit at his gate? One could speculate a great deal about the story. It is likely that the reason that Lazarus was at this man’s gate was because he was at one time in his employ. It is possible that Lazarus was once an able-bodied individual that served this rich man on his estate, and over the course of time was met with unfortunate circumstances. Maybe he became ill, maybe he was injured while he worked. When hard times met this man, it is very possible that he could not pay his debt, and as a result he was removed from his home and banished. He was sick, injured and unable to work, he was removed from his home with no hope, so he sat there at the gate. One could go even deeper in the speculation. It was common in ancient times that if debts could not be paid, that members of the family would be sold into slavery to cover the amount owed. If this was the case, Lazarus might have lost the only means of survival as his wife, and his children were sold, and he being disabled and of no value was left to rot.
You might say that is just speculation and it has no bearing, and you are right. We do not know how Lazarus ended up in the situation he was in, we do not even know how the rich man gained the wealth required to obtain his fine garments and food for feasts. But one thing we do know is that the rich man called Lazarus by name. We could even say that Lazarus was known to the remaining brothers within the rich man’s family, because the rich man made a plea to Abraham to send Lazarus to speak to his family and warn them of their impending doom.
I said that this is more than a story of what happens beyond life’s veil, it is more than a story of judgement, but a story of humanity. It is a story of how we live our lives with others. Only in death did the rich man have concern for others, and then it was only after he came to the realization that there was no hope for him. When that realization found its seat in his reality the real torment began. He had every opportunity to avoid his present situation.
Life is more than the accumulation of wealth. Life is filled with relationships and experiences. When we gather together with family especially when one life comes to an end, we speak about the passions we had, and the memories we shared. We discuss the things that caused us to shine and how we shared time with one another. When my grandmother recently passed the entire family sat and listened to the stories of a life lived with others. We listened to my great aunts share about their childhoods, I listened to my mother and her siblings share stories of their life with their mom, and I listened and shared stories with my cousins. Sometimes the stories were funny, and sometimes they were hard to listen to. But the stories were filled with hope and faith, they were filled with love and relationship. This past week one of my aunts passed from this life to the next. When I heard the news, I began to remember life with my aunt and as we celebrate the life, she lived I look forward to hearing the stories.
The rich man in this parable recognized that his life was lived for himself. He realized that everything he did was focused on his own gain, and what was left at the end was poverty. Yet he looked across the chasm and he saw Abraham and Lazarus. Abraham, the father of faith, the patriarch of Israel. It was Abraham that he placed his faith, because he was his descendant one of the chosen people. That heritage meant nothing in the end. And he saw Lazarus, who man exploited, abused, and neglected. Lazarus was a man of no name or worldly reputation, he had nothing and yet he had the blessing.
This past week I have been reading the Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the book he speaks of cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace is grace where we justify the sin but not the sinner. And costly grace is where the sin is justified through the obedience of the sinner. Cheap grace is righteousness of the heritage, and costly grace is the convincement of the individual to repent and follow Christ. I thought about these things as I considered this parable and I considered our spiritual heritage as friends. Our religious society was founded on the idea that nothing could make you holy except a life lived in obedience. No outward sign of religious devotion could replace the actual life lived in devotion. I thought about these things as I spoke to my coworkers and as I interacted with various people throughout this week.
Are we loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others or is our attention somewhere else? As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends consider Lazarus, the only named character in Jesus’s parables, and the rich man in his purple garments. Consider the men and consider your life. What is your story saying?