This is part two in a series of posts taken from a sermon I preached on Luke 16:19-31 under the same title: "The Trajectory of Our Hearts". You can read part one here.
Profile: The Rich Man
So here in the second half of Luke 16 Jesus begins his story and, as he sometimes does, he pulls a bait and switch on his audience. We are introduced first to the rich man—a Jew, quite possibly a Pharisee, but certainly an upstanding member of Jewish society—and he does not have a name. He does, however, have wealth—and a lot of it.
How rich was he? Most of you probably know that purple was the most expensive dye to obtain in the ancient times, so whenever you hear someone wearing purple, it means they are wearing something expensive. But this passage goes even deeper and we miss it in our English translations. The word that is translated as “fine linen” in our Bibles actually means undergarments. Not only did he buy the finest coats, but even his Fruit of the Looms were expensive! This guy wore his riches on his britches.
A final clue as to this man’s wealth is also easy to miss in our English translations. The gate, the one that Lazarus is laid in front of, isn’t just some chain link fence with a swinging door in it. This word is the same word that is used for the gates of a city and even the gates of heaven in Revelation. Don’t think white picket fence. Think the White House. Think Michael Jackson’s Neverland or Elvis’ Graceland. Or for those of you who still live in your parents’ basement, think the gates of Mordor that takes two trolls to push the doors open. So this guy had a GATE.
And remember, in the minds of the Jews, this also means he had the approval of God. How many of you remember Madlibs? The short stories with all the blanks in it so you can personalize it and come up with a funny story. Well, add this all together for a man with no name and you’ve got yourself a killer round of old school Hebrew Madlibs. Everyone listening and playing the game puts their own name in there: “There was a rich man [your name here] and his wealth showed that he had the approval of God and man”. At least that’s the way everyone—especially the Pharisees—heard it and they’re already identifying themselves with the rich man in Jesus’ story.
Profile: The Beggar Lazarus
And while everyone was identifying with the rich man in the story, no one was identifying with the beggar. First off, he’s got a name, so in your game old school Hebrew madlibs, this blank’s already filled in (something I’m certain Jesus did intentionally). But beyond that, if the rich man’s wealth implied God’s approval in the hearers’ minds, then of course Lazarus’ poverty implied God’s judgment. And to add insult to injury, the name Lazarus means “The one whom God helps”. Jesus’ listeners are probably chuckling to themselves, assuming that Jesus is just being ironic.
The verb “laid” here is the same one that Jesus uses in other stories to describe fishermen casting nets, throwing pearls, sowing seed, and being cast into prison or hell. So the poor beggar didn’t just sit down and think “This looks like a good place to panhandle”, and he wasn’t laid there, he was cast/thrown/sown/tossed there probably involuntarily. In fact, he’s so helpless that it sounds like he can’t even prevent the wild dogs from licking his sores. This state of helplessness virtually guarantees that he will remain in a state of perpetual poverty. So not only is he broke but he is going to stay broke because he is infirm, immobile, helpless, and without any means of making money.
So Jesus’ story is not just a contrast between poverty and wealth. It’s a contrast between infirmity and health. It’s a contrast between discomfort and comfort. It a contrast between wild dogs licking on you like a meat lollipop . . . and not.