Jesus’ story telling continues this week with another parable about another rich man. Unlike last week’s Gospel reading, however, the setting has changed. Jesus takes us out of life in this world and brings us into the next.
The story is one of complete reversal: Life on earth for two men could not have been more different. There was a poor man who suffered greatly, and a rich man who enjoyed every earthly pleasure. Then both died and their lots flipped. The poor man found relief at Abraham’s side, while the rich man suffered torment in Hades. That is the setting. The drama for the story is a conversation between the suffering rich man and Father Abraham. Seeing Lazarus at the side of Abraham, the rich man begs for relief. He asks Abraham to use Lazarus as a means to an end; first for himself, then for his brothers. Even if he wanted to oblige, Abraham is unable to send help. The chasm is too wide. The story ends with an ominous warning for those who are not listening to God’s prophets.
Many details in this parable ignite our imagination and seem to offer direction for a sermon.
- The flame which torments the rich man (verse 24) contributes to a vivid picture of eternal suffering, as does the request for a single dip of water to cool his tongue.
- The poor man’s name (Lazarus/Eleazar, which means “God has helped”) contrasts with the lack of help he received from the rich man. The fact that he is named at all (while the rich man is not) also stands out as potentially significant.
- “Father” (πάτερ) Abraham addresses the rich man as “child” (τέκνον) in verse 25, suggesting either a familial/ancestral relationship, or perhaps emphasizes immaturity on behalf of the rich man.
These and other details paint a picture which makes the story work but be careful when selecting which specifics to highlight. A basic rule for interpreting parables is to guard against making too much of minor matters. A second rule is to pay attention to what Jesus seems to be trying to do to His hearers with the parable. Context helps here, both in the immediate verses and the overall narrative. Both rules can be helpful for your sermon.
Sifting minor matters from those that are central is admittedly somewhat subjective. I suggest focusing on the “great chasm” (χάσμα μέγα) which separates the rich man from Abraham. It is an ominous, unbridgeable gap. It stands out textually because its existence makes the entire parable work. It stands out homiletically because we all understand the concept of separation. There are chasms in our lives that seem similarly uncrossable. I am thinking of the rift which exists between alienated family members. Too often there is a split between a parent and child, or between a husband and wife. We try to reach across such gorges, but they are often too wide, too broad, too deep.
We try to reach across such gorges, but they are often too wide, too broad, too deep.
Sometimes the chasm is not between us and another person, but between the life we are living and the life we thought we would be living. Fantine, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, comes to mind. Far from her childhood dreams, her life was miserable, filled with loneliness and regret. “I Dreamed a Dream,” she sang. Anne Hathaway’s version captures the agony and despair remarkably well.
The chasm in the parable is even more tragic. It separates the people of God in Heaven from those who suffer eternal torment apart from His love and peace. It also points to what Jesus was doing with the parable in the lives of His hearers. The key is verse 30. There the rich man promises, if someone comes back from the dead to warn his brothers, they will “repent” (μετανοήσουσιν). This is the first (albeit indirect) mention of the problem with the rich man. He did not repent, and neither it seems will they.
Repentance is central to the chasm too. Jesus came to His own people to bridge the rift which exists between humankind and God. The prophet Isaiah spoke about this: “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). Jesus came to call His people to repent and trust in God. Here the rich man’s reference to “father” Abraham is significant. The Pharisees also called Abraham their father (John 8:39), yet they did not love or listen to Jesus (John 8:42-43). They did not recognize Him as the one mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), the one bridge (pontifex) who can span the divide.
The mention of resurrection in verse 31 is also central to this story and leads us from the parable to the rest of the narrative. Jesus came as the fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His resurrection vindicated His claims. Abraham’s comment in the parable about one returning from the dead reminds us that the only access to Jesus’ resurrection is the prophetic promise which accompanies His resurrection. He was raised for us. His victory over death assures us of our own rising from the dead. It brings us the same eternal blessings enjoyed by Lazarus. This is the promise you will proclaim in your sermon, and it provides the only bridge across the chasm for your hearers. We have died with Him in baptism. We have been raised with Him in faith. And we will ascend with Him at His return on the last day to spend all eternity with Him and all of Abraham’s children.
But your hearers’ own resurrection is not the end. They (individually and collectively) are the means by which God continues to bridge the chasm for those who have not yet turned to their heavenly Father in repentance. After proclaiming the promise of Jesus’ resurrection for them, invite them to imagine themselves as bridge builders for others. In doing so, they will do what the rich man wanted Lazarus to do for his brothers in the parable.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 16:19-31.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 16:19-31.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 16:19-31.