What Do We Learn from the Rich Man and Lazarus?

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable unique to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ story presents us with two contrasting figures: a rich man who lives a life of luxury, and a poor man who doesn’t even share the crumbs dropped from the rich man’s table.  When they die, the rich man finds himself in hell, while Lazarus is in heaven.

Jesus is clearly not making a simple claim that the rich go to hell and poor go to heaven.  One doesn’t get judged harshly merely because he or she has a lot of money and one isn’t automatically a virtuous person merely because they have none.  Indeed, we know nothing about whether Lazarus was virtuous or lived a sinful life, and there is no suggestion the rich man got his wealth dishonestly. 

Jesus’ readers would certainly not have heard the parable in a way that suggested riches were bad and poverty good. They were steeped in a system that saw riches as a reward for good deeds and beggars as sinners being punished for their sins.  (Given this, I suspect many of them were shocked to hear that Abraham received Lazarus into his bosom.)

 The most common interpretation of this parable is that the rich man is condemned, not for his wealth, because he ignored the poor man at his gate.   And he obviously knew Lazarus was there; in the afterlife he refers to him by name.  So he can’t say he never noticed him sitting by the door.”  Right at his door the dogs take care of the man he doesn’t even send scraps to.

This common interpretation may be true – and it is a reading we should take to heart – especially in our own day given the reality of the lives of so many poor and marginalized people in our society.  But I don’t think we can stop there, because that is a reading that doesn’t present us with anything new.  The Jews of Jesus time knew that the rich were supposed to care for the poor, and that God had special concern for the disadvantaged.  The Torah commanded them “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”  Indeed, the Hebrew term for giving alms (tzedakah) comes from the same root as the term for “righteousness.”

So what else might Jesus be trying to convey to us?  Or to phrase it differently, where might we be invited to examine our own behavior.

The parable opens “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day.” So this was not just a rich man, but one who lived a hedonistic life.  The rich man doesn’t just have wealth, he ostentatiously displays it.  He dines sumptuously every day, not just on holidays; he wears purple garments every day, not just for special occasions.  This is conspicuous consumption, a flaunting of wealth in the face of the those without, and it is something that would have conveyed a negative impression to Jesus’ audience and ought to do the same for us. 

 More than conspicuous flaunting of wealth, while wealth per se is not a problem, the parable does suggest that there are dangers to wealth.  The dangers lie first in attachment to wealth and the things wealth gives.   When we move from “wasn’t that a lovely meal we had at that nice restaurant,” to “I won’t be happy unless I have a sumptuous meal every night” or from “I found a lovely dress to wear to my daughter’s wedding,” to “I need to wear sequins every day,” we’ve moved to unhealthy attachment. 

  The danger of wealth lies second in keeping our mind away from focusing on what matters.  Ronald Rolhesier once observed that “American culture is the most powerful narcotic this planet has ever perpetrated.”  By that he means that by keeping us focused on food, pleasure, entertainment and comfort, it keeps us from living a life modeled on Christ.  If we are so wound up fine food and clothes, shopping and mindless amusements, we don’t even hear God’s call.  And even if we do, if a paramount value is our own comfort, we will shy away from God’s work where doing that work might make us uncomfortable. 

So the rich man in this parable, while not penalized simply for wealth, does symbolize for us the dangers of wealth attachment, keeping our mind way from a focus on what is important.  And, of course, failing to share what we have with those in need.

As you reflect on this parable, you might ask yourself:

Will you spend your money not only on yourself, or will you help the poor outside your door?

Will you let go of the attachments to things that prevent you from focusing on God’s will?  Whether that be money, desire for honor, or sense of self-importance?

There is also a challenge to richer nations, one particularly appropriate as we deal with issues of refugees and migrants today. Are we willing to share what we have?  Or do we think our wealth for our nation?

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