19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
In John’s Gospel, Lazarus is a man whom Jesus raises from the dead, the brother of Mary and Martha. But in Luke, Lazarus is the subject of a parable about a poor beggar who dies. The poor man lives at the gate of a rich man, yet he is hungry, for the rich man does not share even the scraps from his sumptuous feasts, and his body is covered in sores. Finally, the poor man dies and is carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man eventually dies as well – and is in Hades (Sheol). Now to the Pharisees this would have been a shock, for their belief was that the rich man was rich because he was righteous and lived in God’s favor, and the poor man was responsible for his own condition. It is precisely for this reason that Jesus tells the parable. He is attacking the theology of those who scoffed at his previous saying, that you cannot worship both God and wealth. Their theology said that the wealthy deserved being wealthy because they were righteous and God blessed them. It is a position that could be upheld in a number of places in the Old Testament. Jesus is saying it is wrong, and is telling this parable to prove it.
The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to help him – notice the rich man’s attitude has not really changed yet – he still thinks Lazarus should serve him. But Abraham says no – he received good things in life, and Lazarus bad; now Lazarus is comforted. And, now, their places are set, their beds were made we might say. But the rich man still wants Lazarus to serve him, by going to his brothers to warn them. But Father Abraham says they have Moses and the prophets, and they have not listened to them. Indeed, the Pharisees whom Jesus addressed have been very selective about which Psalms, which scriptures, they read and pay attention to, which laws they obey. The law of Moses clearly demands care of the poor, of the alien in their land, and of widows and orphans. There are laws that call for the giving of a tithe, and for leaving a tenth of a crop in the field for the poor to glean (remember the story of Ruth). The prophets warned Israel that they had forgotten the poor, that justice for the poor was important. Amos said let justice roll down like a river. Abraham tells the rich man (in the story) that if he and his brothers would not listen to the Law and the Prophets they would surely not listen, even to one risen from the dead. That last sentence seems to be a foreboding, a hint of what is to come. Jesus would rise from the dead and would return – would they listen to him then? Or to his message? Would we?