The story that Jesus tells in the Gospel of the rich man and Lazarus was probably not a story that was his, it was a story he picked up having heard it from others, a familiar story that would have been known to his listeners.
People who research the bible tell us that the story of the rich man and Lazarus can be tracked down to Egypt where it appears as a folk story with a punch moral message. It probably travelled to Israel and became a religious story again with a moral message of how to behave.
It’s an interesting thing to think about, that some of the stories and parables that Jesus taught may not have been original to him but may have been pre-existing stories recycled by him. Perhaps with a different slant, different people cast as heroes and villains, different outcomes and different conclusions.
People may have been expecting a familiar story to be told to them, only to become uneasy to see themselves in the story. Meanings and messages that were edgy, uncomfortable and too close to home.
Today we sense all of this in the story of the rich man and Lazarus as told by Jesus and reported in the Gospel. There is something deeply unsettling about the story.
The rich man, dressed well, eating well and at his door the poor man, ignored, abandoned, sick, too weak to walk, too weak scare off the dogs who lick his wounds, too weak to raise his head. Then there is a reversal of fortunes in the afterlife, it is Lazarus who is comforted and the rich man who is tortured by a terrible thirst.
The message clearly is of the iniquity of the situation of the rich man and Lazarus in the here and now. His blindness to this man who is at his gate, at his very door. He either doesn’t see him which is unforgiveable, or he sees him and doesn’t care which is even worse. But worse than this, there is a time when he cannot undo the harm he has done, he can’t even warn anyone not to do the same.
In spite of the passage of time this story remains very powerful. It describes exactly the inequalities in the world. The rich man and the poor man. The rich man at his table, the poor man at the gate with nothing. The rich man, blind and uncaring, the poor man weak and powerless. It describes perfectly, the blindness and the arrogance of the rich. They don’t even see the poor, they can’t even imagine what their life is like. There is a gulf between them. That’s nothing to that gulf in the afterlife, says the story, that will exist between the rich man and Lazarus. There is justice to be done, a price to pay.
This is not a tame story. This is a story that has fire in its bones. There is a rage in this story, a burning anger. This terrible inequality that there is in the world – of people who eat and people who don’t, of people who are clothed and people who are naked, of people who are homeless and people who live in splendour, of people who are sick and people who are healthy. There is a rage and an anger the seeps out of this story. The world doesn’t need to be like this, people don’t need to behave like this. It depicts a brutal and uncaring world, a world of luxuries and a world of want.
We know this world. We know this situation. We know the man at his table and the man at the gate. It describes the world in which we live today. Children who die in poverty, children who get no schooling, families trapped in poverty. People turned out if their homes because they cannot pay their rent. Rich people who build bigger and bigger barns to store their riches.
The story has punch. There is time to change the situation, to repair the damage, to do the right thing but there will come a time when there will be no time to do the right thing, to change and do what is right. How terrifying a thought that is, that there will be a time when things cannot be fixed, mistakes that cannot be corrected, faults and sins that will not be forgiven.
Jesus is not silent to the inequalities of the world. The story cries out and wails for the woes of Lazarus and every person like him. It cannot be right that this situation is replayed over and over again in the world.
This story would have been known to Jesus’ listeners and ti everyone. There must have been some spin or slant that he put on it that must have made it uncomfortable to people who were listening to it. It was really an explosive message, seditious, it planted seeds in people’s heads that the order of things wasn’t right. Anything that said this was ok was not ok by any standard. It was a revolutionary story that made people see the world in a different light.
Even to this day this same story makes us see the world differently.