Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom

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Lazarus-and-the-Rich-ManToday’s Gospel reading, Luke 16:19-31, is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable is one of many that Jesus spoke about money and how God sees rich and poor people. Indeed, the context here is worth looking at. Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel begins with another parable about money and Jesus concludes that parable with the familiar words we all know or have heard: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Jesus is very clear, either you serve God or you serve money – you cannot serve both. The Pharisees who hear him say this start mocking Jesus and Luke calls them “lovers of money” (verse 14). And this confrontation with the Pharisees is what prompts the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

But this parable is not only about money. Consider first of all that the poor man in the parable is given a name, Lazarus. This is very unique in the parables that Jesus spoke, where the characters are otherwise always anonymous. And, indeed, the rich man here is anonymous. This is the exact opposite of what happens in society, where the rich and famous have the names that everyone knows while the poor are for the most part anonymous. Reversal of fortunes is one of the characteristics of God’s Kingdom. The first will be last and the last will be first, in Jesus’ own words (Matthew 20:16, Luke 13:30, and elsewhere).

Lazarus would have been satisfied with the scraps from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21); the Canaanite woman answered Jesus’ provocation by accepting the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables (Matthew 15:27); the prodigal son fell into hard times and would have been satisfied to eat the scraps on which the swine fed (Luke 15:16). In contrast to all these images of crumbs and scraps, Jesus paints visions of God’s kingdom as a banquet, a rich feast (Matthew 22:1-10 and elsewhere). There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom!

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

We pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” In the ancient world, daily bread was offered to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple, weekly bread was brought into the presence of God YHWH. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that bread is not for the gods or even for the One God; bread is for humans. We all need our daily bread. But “man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:4). God promises a feast.

Life in this world is separated by gates. The rich man lived inside a gated compound. Lazarus was outside the gate. A chasm separated them. A chasm also separated them after death! The rich man never apologized for how he treated – or didn’t treat – Lazarus, and even after death he only looked to Lazarus to serve him! He cared for his brothers and wanted to warn them – but even here, his compassion is gated compassion; it’s limited to his own.

Abraham answers the rich man’s concern for his brothers: His brothers will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead and warn them. But we answer: Someone has risen from the dead – the one telling the parable. Abraham’s punch line is a warning not to harden one’s heart. We need to take advantage of every situation that helps us to soften our hearts. The rich man’s heart was hardened, which is why he was indifferent to Lazarus even after death.

Icon of the "Hospitality of Abraham" at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

Abraham’s presence in the parable also reminds us that Abraham was known for offering hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 refers to Abraham and the encounter with the three persons who appeared to him and Sara at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). This is precisely the scene in the icon that greets people entering our church, an icon appropriately called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Paul tells us in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.”

As I conclude these thoughts, it becomes clear that above and beyond the concern with money, the parable is about those qualities that make community real. Hospitality is the key requirement for community life. We have an icon at our entrance that reminds us of that every time we enter! Community means an open gate to the world; it’s never a gated community. And community means fullness; never crumbs. In church community we find the fullness of God’s presence and we receive the fullness of Christ in the communion of Bread and Wine.

Hospitality – Openness – Fullness: Qualities that require active involvement from all of us in building community that is real and lasting. God invites us to the banquet of life.

One thought on “There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom

  1. I really enjoyed reading the biblical exposition on this snowy day… I enjoyed reading this text today very much.

    I particularly enjoyed your point about gates between people and the concern the rich man had about himself. you see this point expounded on by the Lord. Isn’t is amazing that Abraham would bring up that the rich man’s brothers should listen to Moses and the prophets. I personally doubt that the Lord is pushing legalism and Pharisaical adherence to the law, but rather I think he is talking instead about motivation. The worship of self versus the worship of God. The rich man is worshiping himself: everything revolves around him, his needs his wants his pleasures. He is the ultimate narcissist . His motivation is self. The law and the prophets preached “other” motivation… God, the poor and as you so nicely expound, community. Even the dogs were concerned with Lazarus and his sufferings. Even the animals were motivated with concern for other…but not the rich man.

    On a separate note, a comment I once heard stuck with me about this story that Jesus recounts. Unlike other parables, there is nowhere in the biblical account any indication that this is a parable and not a real actuality. The story begins with the words ” There was a rich man…” rather than the usual ” The kingdom of heaven is like…”. I know that the idea of hell may sometime seem inconsistent with a loving God, but wouldn’t a motivational commitment to putting others down for the sake of self, be hell of our own making, in the true light of day when God shines upon all deeds?

    Finally like you, I have also wondered about the poor man :Lazarus. Isn’t it interesting that one of the most prominent people that the Lord raised from the dead was also called Lazarus?

    As usual, very thought provoking article.

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