Formations 10.21.2018: Crossing the Threshold

Luke 16:19-31

Still from The Time Machine (MGM, 1960)

There’s a scene in The Time Machine (MGM, 1960) that doesn’t appear in the H. G. Wells novel on which the movie is based. During a climactic battle in the far future, George, the time traveler (played by Rod Taylor), is finally reunited with his time machine, which had been moved several yards from where he first “landed” to just inside the fortress of the cannibalistic Morlocks. He fights off one last opponent, leaps into the chair, and escapes to his own time.

Later, after recounting his adventure to his colleagues, George disappears again. His best friend, Filby, discovers tracks in the snow where George has dragged his machine from his back yard into his laboratory, where it originally stood.

As Filby explains to the time traveler’s housekeeper, by moving the machine the distance from the yard to the laboratory in this time, he is ensuring that the machine will be outside the Morlocks’ lair in the future. He will be on the right side of the impenetrable fortress and able to be reunited with Weena, the woman from the future with whom he has fallen in love.

The time traveler understood that actions in the present have repercussions in the future. If he wanted to be on the right side of the barrier in the future, he would have to begin his journey on the right side of the barrier in the present.

Today’s text doesn’t speak of a massive gate, but of a great chasm. Unlike the time traveler, who took the necessary measures to end up on the right side of the barrier, the rich man in Luke 16 did nothing…and ended up in agony in the flames.

The rich man and Lazarus is another parable about what we do—or fail to do—with what God has given us. The rich man is insensible to Lazarus’s desperate plight. In the afterlife, there is a great reversal: Lazarus has received good things while the rich man is in torment.

Jesus’ parable challenges us to imagine how the story could have turned out differently. If only the rich man had listened to Moses and the prophets. If only he had done right by Lazarus, opening his gate and welcoming him in, the two of them would have been together not only in this world but the next.

Discussion

• When have you reaped the consequences of past decisions? How might you have acted differently if you knew what would happen?
• If there is truly a “great chasm” (v. 26) between heaven and hell, what is the rich man’s role in creating it?
• What barriers have we built between ourselves and others?
• What influence do these barriers have on our communities?

Reference Shelf

Lazarus

Lazarus is a shortened form of the common name Eleazar, which means “God helps.” The name appears in two contexts in the Gospels. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In John 11:1-44, Jesus raises Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, in Bethany.

No connection between these two occurrences of the name can be demonstrated, but the parallels are provocative. In the parable both Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man is in torment. At the end the rich man appeals to Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers, but the response is, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:31).

In John, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Many of the Jews believed, but some reported Jesus to the Pharisees. In John it is the raising of Lazarus rather than the cleansing of the Temple that leads to Jesus’ arrest (cf. 11:8, 16, 47). Lazarus is also with Jesus at a meal following his resuscitation (12:1) and when Jesus enters Jerusalem (12:9-11).

R. Alan Culpepper, “Lazarus,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 507.

A Real Person

Interesting, isn’t it, that in this story the rich man is anonymous and the poor man named? In real life, things mostly happen in the opposite way; the street people are faceless and those who starve daily nameless, but the wealthy have their faces all over the media and their names on buildings.

Both men die. The poor man is carried by angels to “Abraham’s bosom”—in the great banquet in God’s kingdom, Lazarus shares a dining couch with Abraham (13:28). The rich man winds up in Hades, tormented by flames. Since Luke’s Jesus speaks in other places about the general resurrection of the dead, we presume that Luke thinks of the dead residing in Hades or in Paradise, either tormented or rewarded until the Day of the Lord, when all accounts will be settled permanently. In Luke’s under- standing, the dead cannot cross from one place to the other, but the wicked can observe the pleasures of the righteous, which adds to their torment (so also 4 Ezra [=2 Esd] 7:76-87).

The rich man’s request to Abraham shows us
that he knew about Lazarus—he knows his
 name—and thus was aware of his predicament.
 It also demonstrates that being tormented has
 taught him little, since he still hopes to be
served. His first words are not “please forgive me
 for my selfishness,” but “send Lazarus for
 water.” And as Abraham wryly comments, the 
rich man’s brothers are likely as thick-headed as he—unwilling to be taught by Torah to care for the poor, they will probably also ignore the teachings of the risen Jesus.

What would have saved the rich man from his doom? If he had ordered his servants to give the leftovers to the poor, would that have been enough? Not likely. The counterpart to the selfish, willfully blind rich man is the Good Samaritan, who saw another man close to death and provided him food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Jesus does not advocate giving scraps of charity to the poor. Instead, what he has commanded is that his followers seat the poor at their tables (14:13-14). The rich man in the parable does what most people, Christian and non-Christian, did and do: we turn our eyes away from the world’s needs and spend our attention, and most of our resources, on ourselves.

Hank Williams’s song “Tramp on the Street” caught Luke’s strategy of making Lazarus a real person. After a verse that describes him as “only a poor man,” the second verse makes him just like us: “He was some mother’s darling/he was some mother’s son/Once he was fair and/Once he was young/And some mother rocked him/her darling to sleep/But they left him to die/like a tramp on the street.” Luke, by naming Lazarus, hopes to force us to look him in the eyes and see him as a human, more of a human than the spending machine that left him to die on his front steps. Then Williams’s song identifies Lazarus with Christ, who was “Mary’s own darling” but also left to die “like a tramp on the street.” Luke saves his Christ-figuring of Lazarus to the end of the parable, in the last clause: “neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 531–32.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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