It’s no secret that wealth and income inequality is a plague in our society. In recent years, affluent families have seen the value of their assets increase by tenfold. Meanwhile, dozens of millions of middle class Americans have seen their purchasing power decline sharply. And the current economic downturn has led many to fall straight into poverty.
To bring the issue of poverty closer to home, I will mention that the volume of calls that Adam has received at the Friends of Jesus fund has increased almost threefold year over year.
Indeed, wealth and income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the beginning of the last century. Today the richest 0.1 per cent earn 196 times more than the bottom 90 per cent, according to a recent UC Berkeley study.
We know that the wealth gap is an engine of social strife. It is a primary driver of our culture wars, ideological conflicts, and toxic politics. And not enough of us seem to realize how wide the wealth gap really is, how much damage it does to the social fabric, or how our government has played a key role in enabling that gap to grow.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a microcosm of the wealth gap. It is a monument to the silent cries of the poor throughout the ages and to the scandal of a world in which immense wealth and resources are concentrated in the hands of the few, to the detriment of those with not enough.
The parable is also a cautionary tale, because it shows that this state of affairs in our world does not please God. On the contrary, it cries out for divine justice. The parable is disturbing because it portrays in graphic language that the wealth gap does indeed invite divine judgment.
Lazarus lives a life of misery and pain and dies. In the afterlife, he is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man lives a life of ease and luxury and also dies. In the afterlife he is tormented in the fires of hell. In his lifetime, he satisfied his appetite with gourmet meals; in the afterlife he asks only for a single drop of water with which to cool his burning tongue.
What are we to make of this rather gruesome parable? What does it have to teach us today, a day when we need to hear it more than ever, as the evidence that everywhere surrounds us suggests?
An important key to understanding it lies in the parable that immediately precedes it. We refer here to the Parable of the Unjust Steward, which we considered last Sunday.
You will remember that the steward’s boss fires him. To ensure his survival, he goes out and finds his boss’ clients. He discounts what they owe to his boss and then settles their accounts. He thereby makes them friends, who will now be inclined to help him when he needs it.
In short, he uses money in exchange for relationships. Jesus himself draws out this lesson when he challenges his disciples to learn from the example of the unjust steward. Use dishonest wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that, when it is gone, they will welcome you into eternal homes (Luke 16:9).
Remember, as we explained last time, Jesus is not commending the steward to his disciples for his dishonesty. He is commending him as one who does not seek future security in wealth accumulation, but rather in acquiring friends.
Money can be a useful tool for making friends. It can be strong glue for cementing relationships. This is a lesson that most all of us learn—or should learn—sooner or later.
Sadly, it is a lesson that the rich man did not learn in his lifetime. He did not use his wealth to make a friend who could have welcomed him into the eternal homes; instead, he used it to indulge himself, in cruel and heartless disregard of the one he was in a position to help, while both were still living.
What becomes of the rich man warns us of what can happen when we set our hearts on riches, instead of God. It serves as a vivid commentary on the verse we heard in the epistle lesson designated for today: that those who desire to be rich fall into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge men and women into ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9).
In this parable, we certainly see a portrayal of the ruin and destruction of the rich man.
It did not have to turn out this way. Lazarus was actually laid at the rich man’s gate each day. This implies that his family or friends brought him there in the expectation that the rich man would show compassion to this man in need.
Indeed, in the religious world of the first hearers of the parable, a rich man like this one is bound to support a man like Lazarus. The more one has, the more responsibility he bears to society. The next step is that this man should go out to the gate, where Lazarus lies.
To be sure, that should have happened, but parables upset our expectations, as we have pointed out before. For example, it was the Samaritan, whom the Jews regarded as morally degenerate, who helps the bushwhacked traveler in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Here it is the dogs who go out to the gate, where Lazarus lies, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
This would not have been lost on the original hearers of this parable. In the ancient world, as indeed in many parts of the world today, dog saliva was considered to have medicinal properties. But if even the brute beasts have enough sense to show a man compassion and treat his wounds, what does this say about the man who denies it to him?
God gives us opportunities each day to be generous, to show compassion. When we see someone lying at the gate, do we ignore him? Do we even bother asking ourselves how we might meet his need? Do we make up an excuse by saying to ourselves that we don’t have the money or the resources to help him, when in fact we do?
The problem is that the more we ignore him, the less sensitive we become, and the less sensitive, the less able we are even to see need when it is in front of us. How long before the rich man didn’t even notice Lazarus lying at his gate? How long before he becomes deaf to his cries, because he can no longer feel with his heart?
If we don’t open the gate of our heart for the one in need, and the gate remains closed, soon the heart too becomes closed, and God cannot enter.
The poor man dies and the rich man also dies and is buried. It is significant that Lazarus precedes the rich man in death. Poverty is correlated with higher levels of chronic health problems and lower life expectancy rates, as studies today demonstrate.
But perhaps even more significant is that both die. Death is a great equalizer. The radical inequality between them is canceled at death. This is a theme throughout the Bible. The rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish perish alike. The fate of man is the same as that of the animal, as one dies, so does the other. All have the same breath (Eccl. 3:19).
That is why the Psalmist urges us not to be so impressed when some grow rich, when the when the wealth of their houses increases. For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them (Ps. 49:16-17).
Indeed, “the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of their busy life, they will wither away” (James 1:10,11).
Since this is the case, why show preferential treatment to the rich in Christian community? “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith, and to inherit the kingdom promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5).
Lazarus is carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. He is in heaven. The rich man is in agony in flames of fire. He is in hell.
The tables are now turned. There is a reversal of fortunes for the two men. Then, Lazarus needed what fell from the man’s table, but received nothing. Now, the rich man needs Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in cool water to cool his tongue.
The rich man addresses Abraham to send Lazarus to meet this need. This is remarkable for at least a couple of reasons.
Note here that the rich man refers to Abraham as father, thereby claiming to be his son, to belong to the people of God. Yet he gave no thought to God throughout his life. Lazarus was a daily reminder to the rich man to remember God, but he did not receive that reminder. Therefore, he has been condemned, not because of his wealth, but for refusing to show compassion to Lazarus and for failing to come to his aid (Pope Francis).
Note also that he seems to see Lazarus for the first time. But his words betray him. He does not acknowledge the wrong he did against him. He does not show remorse. He does not ask Lazarus for forgiveness for the contempt with which he regarded him. All he can say is: Father Abraham, send Lazarus.
Lazarus is no more than a servant to the rich man. He recognizes him by name, but it is only to ask him for his help. Before, he denied him even the leftovers from the table. Now he would like him to bring him a drink. Impossibly, he still seems to think he can assert his rights through his previous superior social status (Pope Francis).
It is common to say that there is no justice in the world. But even if injustice prevails in this world, it does not escape the eyes of God. Those who commit it, those who are complicit in it, will be called to give an account at the last judgment. “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). In the divine realm, injustice is redressed. All that is wrong is made right.
This is what Abraham explains to the rich man. Good things and evil things have been redistributed so as to compensate for earthly injustices.
There is an axiom that in hell you have exactly what you wanted in this life, only you find a surfeit there of what you wanted here. The wealth gap that divided the rich man from Lazarus—that is what the rich man wanted, that is what he created and sustained and perpetuated here. And this is exactly what he got there. Only there the gap has been transformed into a great chasm. Before, it was possible to work to bridge the gap. Before, it was possible to pass through the gate to reach Lazarus. Now, it is absolutely impossible. The chasm is there before him for all eternity, a lasting monument to the gap that he wanted here.
Well, remarkably, the rich man still entertains hope for his brothers. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them, even after Abraham told him explicitly about the impossibility of crossing. Abraham patiently replies that they have Moses and the prophets.
By Moses and the prophets, Abraham means the Bible, at least in the form in which it came to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.
The rich man objects. He believes that only if Lazarus returns from the dead to warn his brothers about the place of torment, will they believe and repent. But Abraham denies this as a possibility. If they do not believe what God’s word tells them, then they won’t believe even if someone returns to them from the dead.
In the last analysis, this is the rich man’s real problem. At the root of his ruin and destruction was his failure to hear and obey God’s word. “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). As a result, he could not love God, and had contempt for his neighbor. But the Word of God is living and powerful, capable of changing hearts and turning them back to God.
We should not wait for exceptional events, but open our hearts to God’s word, which calls us to love God and neighbor. Let that word then enter into your hearts, so that it may soften them, making them receptive enough to the cries of that Lazarus who lies at your gate that you go out to help him. “Those who in the present age are rich…are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-18). “Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). For if you show mercy, so also shall you receive mercy (Matt. 5:7; James 2:13). Amen.