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Understanding the story about Lazarus and the rich man

Q&A With Rev. James Burklo

Question & Answer

 

Q: By Roy

As a progressive Christian, how should one read and understand the story about Lazarus and the rich man?

A: By Rev. Jim Burklo
 

Dear Roy,

In the old Vulgate edition of the Bible, the rich man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16: 19-31 is called “Dives”.  Lazarus begs for crumbs from Dives’ table.  At death, Dives is sent to Hades (the Greek version of hell) and Lazarus is directly delivered into the bosom of Abraham. 
 
Here is Martin Luther King’s interpretation of the story:
“Dives is the white man who refuses to cross the gulf of segregation and lift his Negro brother to the position of first-class citizenship, because he thinks segregation is a part of the fixed structure of the universe. Dives is the Indian Brahman who refuses to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother, because he feels that the gulf which is set forth by the caste system is a final principle of the universe. Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty.  Dives’ sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives’ sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.”

I don’t think I can improve on MLK’s commentary.  His words ring as true today as they did in 1955 when he delivered them in a sermon.

Jesus’ parable was old when he uttered it.  A similar story circulated in ancient Egypt.  The prophetic tradition has always exhorted the rich to attend and respond to the plight of the poor. 

Progressive Christians might be taken aback by the vivid imagery of hell (its Greek version, called Hades) in this passage.  But note that the modern evangelical formula for hell-avoidance is missing!  In this parable, you don’t have to “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior”.  All that’s necessary to get to the bosom of Abraham is to follow the law of Moses and the guidance of the prophets.  And there’s no mention of “heaven”.  Genesis 25 tells us that “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.”  The people of early Israel did not believe in an afterlife: being “gathered to his people” meant being buried with them.  Lazarus’ reward for following the law and the prophets was to die in peace and be gathered to Abraham and the rest of his people.  The cultural context of this parable makes it clear that it is not to be taken literally as a description of life after death.
 
But progressive Christians ought to take it seriously.  Those of us with the resources to help those who lack them must pay attention and respond meaningfully to their needs – not just with traditional charity, but with a commitment to structural social and economic change.

~ Rev. Jim Burklo

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, his latest book is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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