The Rich Man and Lazarus
For various reasons I am being increasingly convinced that really and truly the only real direction for the Church to take is to become poor. When I say poor, I don't mean only poor in spirit, I also mean poor financially and poor materially. In doing so, a number of interesting things will happen to us and to our churches.
First, we will become rich in love. All we will have to give will be our love and our kindness, so we will overflow in those character traits.
Second, we will understand how rich we really are. We will re-learn old words and their meanings. What does grateful mean? How about bounty? We will learn about the true inheritance that is ours.
Third, our social wounds will be healed because those who love money will go elsewhere. Our churches will unite in the truth of Christ Jesus.
But some will say, "What, should we just stop working and become idle? I've got a good job and do good work." While that may certainly be true, we all need to really look at what our work does and who are work impacts. We need to shed those activities that are destructive and engage in activities that are good. I won't get into it right now, but how does our technological and financial hegemony over the world economic system really affect people in the periphery of our global economic influence? I expect that under honest analysis we will find that we are all like the rich man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We will find that those people living on the periphery are destitute because of the imperial nature of civilization.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus should teach us all to fear God and his beautiful justice.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."
But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us."
He answered, "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."
Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them."
"No, father Abraham," he said, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent."
He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
In many ways, parables are more living than non-fiction. They not only represent truth, but they also are more real than what we see with our eyes. The parables are archetypes of reality. They are the platform upon which history is built.
Yet, this well-known parable may actually be a window into reality, a story about a living person, rather than it being a true parable. For one, it is the only parable where Jesus names one of the characters. Is it only a coincidence that Jesus chose the name Lazarus for the poor beggar when one of his good friends was also named Lazarus? The coincidence is compounded by the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Note that Abraham replies to the rich man after the rich man requests that Lazarus is sent back to the living in order to warn his brother. He replies, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." I don't particularly believe in coincidences, especially compounded ones. While I could be wrong, these two facts lead me to believe that this story is literally about Jesus' friend Lazarus. Is this what happened to Lazarus when he died?
If so, what does this say about who some of Jesus' friends were? It sounds like at least a few may have been the poorest of poor, so poor that "even the dogs came and licked his sores." Martha and Mary were the sisters of Lazarus. What does this say about these two friends of Jesus? Who are your best friends? Are they rich or poor or both?
This parable was last Sunday's gospel reading. I have been pondering some of the details of this story. One is that the rich man calls Abraham "Father" and Abraham calls the rich man "son." Once again in the parables we see Jesus speaking directly to the people of Israel. He may be saying to them: You may very well be part of the covenant, however, you will have no place in the kingdom if you turn your back on the little ones. At the time, this would have been a staggering thought to the Pharisees and should be staggering for us complacent Christians as well.
How often have I heard it preached that these parables aren't really about being wealthy. The parables about wealth are really about being "wise stewards" with our resources, as in the Parable of the Talents. I keep growing into the belief that these stories are pointing us to kingdom riches rather than material wealth. They teach us how to love God and our neighbor. They teach us who our beloved Jesus really is. I am finding that Jesus means what he says when he explains that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Am I reading it wrong, or is Jesus clearly saying that to be rich in wealth excludes you from the kingdom? However, once again we were told on Sunday that this parable isn't about being rich, it's about being a good steward of our wealth. I'm not very confident in that analysis.
We were also told that that the parable was about Purgatory and how we must rid ourselves of selfishness so we don't follow the same track as the rich man. Being selfless is certainly part of the story and it is plausible that the rich man could have actually been in Purgatory. But the rich man seemed to be encountering the fires of Hell rather than the refining fire of 1 Corinthians. We were reminded that that since he cared about his brothers who were in the land of the living, the parable showed that the rich man was working his way out of Purgatory. He was being purged of his selfishness. Rather, I feel that the rich man was in Hell permanently. The reason he cared about his brothers was because he still had a consciousness. He still knew right from wrong. As a result, his suffering is that much worse. It is true that during the time of Jesus it was believed that people went to the land of the dead, which was a place of waiting like sleep. Then on the final day of Judgment, the dead would rise and separated like chaff and the wheat berries. While true, it is interesting to note that Abraham explains to the rich man that "the chasm has been fixed." There was no way for anyone to cross in either direction. All observations seems to indicate that the rich man is in the place of torment for good.
The early Church father, St. John Chrysostom, seemed to agree:
In order that this charge against luxury may be corroborated, and come home to those who are living in it, let us return in our discourse to Lazarus. And thus the warning will become clearer, and the counsel more effectual, since you will see those who live in excess instructed and corrected, not by words only, but by acts. The rich man lived in this kind of wickedness, and luxuriated day by day, and was splendidly attired; but he was bringing on himself severer punishment, stirring up a fiercer flame, making his condemnation more complete, and the penalty more inexorable.
While most of us are rich even by the meanest of standards, we are still breathing and can start placing our trust in the Kingdom. We must become poor. We must become poor individually as well as collectively (our churches). The first step to becoming poor is to realize how truly destitute we are already without our Christ Jesus among us in the flesh.
Jesus said to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy. Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.”
John 16:19,20, 22
Image: The Bad Rich Man in Hell - James Tissot