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Am I My Brother or Sister’s Keeper?

Connie and I were asked to write a lesson for this year’s stewardship emphasis at church. Here is what we came up with:


Three-year-old George and his twin sister Devon played together every day at the Walnut Street Baptist Childcare Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Devon was the leader, and she knew it! “George,” she would say, “if you don‚Äôt do what I tell you, then you can‚Äôt come to my house to play.” George would reply, “I don‚Äôt want to come to your house to play!” The adults never quite understood how either threat worked.

Brothers and sisters don’t always get along, and it has been that way since Cain and Abel. If that is true of our blood relations, how much more when Scripture nudges us toward a more expansive definition of who counts as a brother or a sister. When we don’t even recognize our brothers and sisters when we see them, it is easy to neglect our responsibilities to the other members of our family.

A Study in Contrasts

By ancient storytelling standards, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) is brimming with personal details about the two characters. For example, not only are we told that the parable involves a “rich man,” we are given several details to show us how rich he really was. He was dressed in purple: garments worthy of a king. He also wears “fine linen.” This would have been imported Egyptian underwear made from the most delicate fabric in the ancient world.

Jesus goes on to describe the rich man’s diet. The average diet in the world of Jesus consisted of soup, bread, and fruit. One feasted only at weddings and similar major occasions. By contrast, the rich man feasts sumptuously every day. He is not your “average” rich man: he is portrayed as fabulously wealthy. In fact, his house is described as having a gate (Greek pylon)‚Äîa word used for the large gate one would see in front of a palace or temple. The rich man lives in a palace, feasts on gourmet delicacies, and dresses like a king. He is the poster child for conspicuous consumption.

Compared to the rich man, the poor man at his gate is a pathetic figure indeed. His name is Lazarus, and he is the only character in any parable of Jesus to be given a name. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, “he whom God has helped.” But why give this character at name at all? The name emphasizes the contrast between the self-sufficient rich man and the utterly dependent Lazarus.

This dependency comes out in the details of his condition. He is laid in front of the rich man’s gate. This detail may imply the Lazarus is paralyzed. At any rate, he waits there in hopes that the rich man might have pity and offer him charity from his abundance.

Lazarus, sick and perhaps paralyzed, is also starving to death. He longs only to be a scavenger after the rich man’s guests depart. It would be enough for him to be filled with the crumbs from the rich man‚Äôs table‚Äîbut he is never given even that much consideration. This is a shocking story in terms of Jesus’ cultural world, where everyone operates under the assumption that there is only so much of any good thing (including, but not limited to, material blessings) to go around and that a rich man is therefore honor-bound to share his wealth with others through public acts of charity. (That’s why there are so many beggars in the Gospels‚Äîthey provided the honorable rich with a way to display their generosity!)

Wherever there is a strong sense of community, people look after one another. One place this ethic seems strongest is in farm country. Connie learned growing up that when the garden produces more potatoes or green beans than your family needs, the neighbor down the road with all those children can use them. When someone is in the hospital, the neighbors will come together to plow or plant or harvest so that the crops are taken care of.

Jesus’ world was a lot like that, and it was considered a dishonor not to take one’s community obligations seriously. According to what Jesus taught in Luke 14, Lazarus was a prime candidate for an invitation to the banquet. Unfortunately, no invitation was coming, and Lazarus’ situation only gets worse: “even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” He was so sick and helpless he couldn‚Äôt even fend off the dogs, which were not pets but wild street dogs, the kind that were the plague of ancient cities.

A Great Reversal

Both men eventually die, and the contrasts that marked their earthly existence continue past the grave. The rich man is buried (no doubt in a luxurious mausoleum), while Lazarus receives no burial‚Äîor at best a pauper’s burial‚Äîbut the angels escort him to heaven.

After death, we find the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in “the bosom of Abraham.” Lazarus is finally made the guest of honor at a banquet, where he sits at Abraham‚Äôs side (see Jn 13:23; Lk 13:28-30). In Jewish thought, Abraham‚Äôs servant Eleazar was a type for the humble, zealous, God-fearing man of the lower classes. Here, however, in the form of Lazarus, he is the guest of honor and not a servant at all. Now the two characters’ positions are reversed. The rich man must look up to Lazarus, as the poor are exalted and the rich are humbled (see Lk 1:52-53).

Note, however, that nothing is said about the goodness of Lazarus or the badness of the rich man. Nothing is said explicitly about why they went where they did, but in the Lukan and cultural context, the rich man’s insensitivity to the plight of Lazarus is strongly condemned.

A Belated Realization

Seeing Lazarus from across the expansive chasm separating heaven and hell, the rich man cries out for mercy in his time of helplessness. One is tempted to wonder how many times Lazarus cried out to rich man. He cries out to “father Abraham,” but Luke‚Äôs Gospel would suggest that he is not in fact a true son (see Lk 3:8). He certainly has not changed in Hades. He is still arrogant, ordering Abraham around. He still thinks of Lazarus as a lackey. He is revealed to be a wicked man (see Prov 29:7).

Abraham responds by reminding the rich man that he has already received his good things, but Lazarus only bad things. He thus turns on its ear the popular theology that claims that suffering in this life is a mark of God’s punishment for wrongdoing. At any rate, it is impossible to grant any request because of the great chasm dividing Lazarus from the rich man. The rich man’s fate has been fixed; there is no repentance after death.

How long had the rich man held Lazarus at arm’s length? How often had he passed him as he left his palatial home on the way to visit with his rich friends or tend to his many investments? In eternity, he finds that Lazarus is still kept at arm‚Äôs length‚Äîbut now it is he who needs what Lazarus’ has! He discovers, belatedly, that where we place ourselves with relation to others in this life has repercussions for where we find ourselves in eternity. If he had welcomed Lazarus into his life when he had the opportunity, he would have also enjoyed a seat at Abraham‚Äôs table.

It is too late for the rich man, but he has one last plea. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, lest they come to share his fate. Is there perhaps a note of self-justification here? Is the rich man suggesting that if he had been warned, he would have behaved differently? Perhaps.

What is clear, however, is that the rich man still operates under a defective understanding of who his brothers are. Several Old Testament passages speak of the community‚Äôs obligations to help the poor (Lev 25:25, 35, 39; Deut 15:7, 9, 11; Neh 5:7). Some of these passages even suggest that we should consider such people our brothers and sisters. The Hebrew word translated “kin” in Leviticus 35 and 39, for example, can also be translated “countrymen.”

In God‚Äôs economy, there is to be no distinction between the poor and one’s kinfolk. This may well be what Abraham had in mind when he reminded the rich man that “they have Moses and the prophets.” If they would but listen to the clear word of God they had already received, they would know what was required of them.


Cain was the first person to ask, “Am I my brother‚Äôs keeper?” (Gen 4:9). He was certainly not the last. Cain’s question was a smokescreen intended to distance himself from his responsibility for Abel‚Äôs death. Likewise, people today ask the question to distance ourselves from our responsibilities toward one another as members of the community.

To what extent am I responsible for my brother or sister’s well being?

technorati tags: charity, lazarus, stewardship



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