Is the story about Lazarus and the rich man a literal story about real people? Meaning was it a literal story meant to tell us something about a literal experience about a literal hell? There must be some other point to this parable. I think Jesus using the name Lazarus, to refer to a dead person, would probably have purposely caught their attention and helped them dig for a deeper meaning. In real life, the real Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus after being physically ill. By contrast, it was the religious leaders who shunned the sick and needy on the premise that outward manifestations of such a degree were indicators of internal sin and not being right with God.
We struggle with the same issue today: “But God, I know all of the right answers. Why is evil so-and-so being ‘blessed’ and I am not?” I think Jesus was saying to the religious leaders then what He would still say to us now: do not live by physical sight. There is more out there than what you see in front of you. Than what your religious traditions are telling you. There is so much more going on. God is way bigger than the boxes we try to put Him in.
If we applied our own logic about the blessings/righteousness correlation to Jesus, then how could we ever believe in Him? He led by example. He did not come like an earthly king or the mythical gods in our minds. He started out appearing as a bastard child. He started out being covered by humans in shame. Born not as a celebrated Savior by those who postured authority. We had no room for this God. We stuck Him in a barn with the animals. We treated Him as such His whole life. This Creator of every glorious beauty we can find and imagine. We whooped Him. We treated Him worse than we would treat an animal. He had no earthly home. All abandoned Him. Yet He was God. Was He separated from His Father because of sin? Of course not. John 8:29.
Jesus promised us tribulation, but He said He overcame the world. Whatever circumstances we find in these present times is not a reflection of any degree of being better than anyone else. The religious leaders knew this in their hearts. Surely their consciences were pricked. Not just to be irritated; I think with love The Lord is shaking their flimsy pedestals. His passionate wrath is always FOR them – also. For those that He knows will deal with their fear in the only way they see how: by destroying what threatens their thin sense of security.
The rich young ruler knew it. Nicodemus knew it. Something just wasn’t quite right and settled in them. They had everything they were supposed to have and yet there still was unrest and a lack of peace. But they were the ones who were supposed to know everything. So Jesus meets them wherever they are and He uses their own logic to shake them awake. Always loving them. Not being repulsed by their blindness or their sin. It is we who hide in trees of fig leaves. Seeking all sorts of emperors’ clothes to cover the shame we feel. God asks us where we are hiding. Not to punish us. But to turn our eyes back to Him. To see who He really is. The gates of our hell are always open. We are always welcome to return home to the Father’s heart.
These religious leaders know there is something different about Jesus. They are drawn to Him even as their house of cards is threatened by the highest authority of actual Truth. His passionate wrath for their freedom and full restoration means He can’t leave them unchallenged. He can’t stand by quietly as they persist in what is killing them. Knowing full well that He can take all they throw at Him. Like a dad correcting the toddler. Knowing the toddler doesn’t get it, but it will be better for the child in the long run. Knowing the child will throw a tantrum. Not threatened by it in the least. Even better than the best human dad. No ego. Completely unthreatened by whatever we can imagine to throw back at Him. We are and always have been safe. Not some theological exercise. He proved this in the flesh, His flesh. He cried tears and sweat blood for us. Fully God, fully Father, fully Jesus. Again, for us. For His great love for us. Not accepting that any should perish.
I think Jesus is pushing their and our logic to its ultimate end. Not to leave them alone and abandoned. Just the opposite. To show them they can’t and don’t need to do it all alone. More importantly, they never were meant to do it alone. Even more specifically: they have never been alone. Never separated. Just because they turned away and couldn’t see does not mean their perspective is reality. It was never about money, works, or knowledge.
Nicodemus: be born again. Rich young ruler: be perfect. Rich men: be Lazarus. It’s impossible. THEIR logic pushed to its limits. So their hearts can be open and ready to see and listen for something other than empty rhetoric. Ready for another way of looking at themselves, this life, and God.
For more on my thoughts about the rich young ruler, please see https://sarahnyhan.com/2017/11/16/asceticism/