Today’s gospel passage about the rich man and Lazarus opens in precisely the same way as last week’s passage about the rich man and the dishonest manager. “There was a rich man…” Luke’s gospel is concerned with wealth, poverty, service to those in need, and many causes that today we gather under the umbrella of social justice. These concerns were important to Jesus too, especially in light of the prevailing attitudes of his day. Not so different from our own, in truth.
After the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus is ridiculed by some of those listening to him for telling such a ludicrous story. He responds by calling them out as people “who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts.” (Luke 16.15) Jesus goes on to say that, since the arrival of John the Baptist and his preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom of God, everyone has been trying to enter it by force. Pushing, shouting, and bribing their way in, when this is not the way at all. To illustrate this point, we have the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
In Jesus’s world, just as today, rich people are commonly assumed to have some measure of virtue. Their success must be the result of some combination of smarts, hard work, integrity, and merit. And very likely a man. Status and the wealth that goes hand-in-hand with it are centred on the idea of the “deserving man” in Jesus’s world, just as in ours. But, as we have all learned from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility.
Just as we often assume that people with wealth and status somehow deserve it, there are also expectations of those who have more than they need. They are expected to give of their excess for the public benefit. This might include sharing the leftovers of a meal with the poor in their neighbourhood, or contributing to public works like roads and bridges for everyone’s use. Those who did not live up to these social expectations were seen as shirking their responsibility to love their neighbour, denying the humanity of those less fortunate than themselves. As Jesus tells this parable, it is important to note that the rich man, who fails in his obligation, is never named. Lazarus, the poor man seeking aid, is more human than the one revered by his neighbours but who fails to care for one in need among them.
When the two men die, Lazarus is spirited away by angels to be with Abraham while the rich man goes to Hades and is tormented. The rich man, accustomed to a life of authority, power, and influence, first seeks to bargain with Abraham, asking for a moment of relief from his pain. Surely he is deserving of some good in death, just as he was so fortunate in life. Abraham reminds the rich man that he did nothing to alleviate suffering in life, so there will be no reprieve for him in death.
With his authority and power to bargain removed, the rich man tries a new tactic. This time, he calls Abraham “father” in his plea on behalf of his brothers. Surely his concern for them and the invocation of a familial relationship will persuade Abraham to pity him. Fathers have responsibility to care and provide for their sons, after all. Abraham does not dismiss the rich man’s brothers but does deny his request, pointing out that they already have all they need to understand. If the teachings and revelations of Moses and the prophets are not enough for them, nothing will persuade them. God has given them all that they need, just as God did to the rich man. How they make use of God’s provision and whether they listen to the wisdom of their community is entirely up to them.
This parable is not, as you may be thinking, an endorsement of Pelagianism. That is, our salvation is not dependent upon us, our works, or our actions. This parable is an important reflection on the authority and agency and power that are given to each of us, if not equally. Each of us can respond to the needs of our neighbours in some way. Some have the means and ability to build hospitals and homes, others to share a meal, others to offer a smile and a kind word, and other people in myriad other ways. This parable calls us to question how we respond to the needs of one another—our holy responsibility to one another—and to question how we discern virtue in one another. Is virtue attached to money, status, gender, race, or geography? Or is it attached to character, integrity, words, and deeds?
Christ has given us a model for holy relationships. Alleviating the suffering of the poor is a clear calling for those who would be Christians. “Little Christs.”. And we do not seek to imitate Christ out of fear of Hell or divine punishment. Fear is a poor motivator, even between humans and poorer, even nonsensical, when applied to the God of infinite love and blessing. Alleviating the suffering of the poor is part of our responsibility to one another in this world because it is precisely the sort of holy responsibility and relationship that Jesus modeled for us. Our senses of compassion, gratitude, stewardship, and vocation, were all modeled by Jesus and so many holy people who have gone before us and living in our midst are excellent motivations.
Everything that needs to be done has been done already by God, including freeing us from death as eternal punishment. We have been given the freedom of salvation and we have been blessed with all we need by God in trust that we will use it, not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of all. Whether we live up to God’s trust in us is the decision we each make today, tomorrow, and every day.
How will you and I live in holy relationship, how will we be little Christs to the world today?