A Growing Chasm
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16: 19-31
Alyce M. McKenzie, Homiletics Professor at Perkins School of Theology, says that the background for this parable is a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It reflects a Greek notion that souls go to the underworld for punishment at death. Rabbinic sources contain seven versions of this story. Some rabbinic tales feature Eliezer, which in Greek is Lazaros, walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. We only find it in the Gospel of Luke.
The idea of the poor waiting for crumbs at the doors of the rich is a detail taken straight from first century village life. This one does not stay in the realm of first century. It invades our comfort zone. What is realistic about it is its portrayal of the vast gap between rich and poor. The reversal of fortunes it depicts contradicts the popular notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of sin. It is clearly consistent with Jesus penchant for turning things on their heads.
Wealth isn’t intrinsically evil. It is definitely dangerous. In helping the poor we acknowledge that riches can hinder our own salvation. We admit that we are susceptible to its seduction. 1 Timothy 6 describes the realm of riches as fraught with arrogance, traps, temptation, harmful and foolish desires, ruin, destruction, grief and wandering from the faith. The tragic realization of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” comes to mind: “These are the chains I forged in life.”
On the other hand disparaging the super rich might make us feel good, but that is a sign of sanctimony. Thank God for the wealthy women who supported Jesus, for the rich man Joseph of Arimathea who tenderly buried him, and for all the wealthy saints today who follow their footsteps.
The story of the Rich man and Lazarus is a three act play. The first act portrays the earthly contrast between a person of wealth and one of poverty. This is Jesus’ story-telling at its best, with Lazarus in such a grotesque and pathetic state that dogs are licking his open sores. When we see someone begging like poor Lazarus, it makes most of us feel uncomfortable or we have to step back because of the stench. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not even “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. The first time the rich man ever really sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” . In that way he is like those who pass by the man in the ditch in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They “see” and cross the road. The Samaritan is the only one who “sees,” “has compassion,” and crosses the road to help the wounded man.
This sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common one in the Gospels. In Luke 7:13 Jesus “saw” the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he “had compassion for her” and brought her son to life. When the father “saw” the prodigal son “still far off… he was filled with compassion” and ran and embraced him (Luke 15:20) Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus himself, when he “saw” the crowds, had compassion on them and healed, fed and taught them. In the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn’t realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them they saw and helped Jesus. By contrast others never really did see Jesus suffering and in need because they never really saw the poor. What is it that causes some people to have something or someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them? And what causes others to both have someone or something in their line of vision and to really see them?
The second act of this parable describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife. Even enduring torment in Hades the Rich man doesn’t get it. He understands the message about wealth and the poor, but he approaches Abraham as if Abraham were his peer. Lazarus remains an inferior who can be “sent” to comfort the Rich Man or to preach to his ancestors. The parable turns from the changed fortunes of the Rich Man and Lazarus to the question of people who do not get the point. Surely Moses and the prophets supply enough reason to treat other people with dignity. If people still do not repent, even Lazarus’ miraculous return will not convince them.
The third act depicts the rich man’s request to Father Abraham for a sign so that those still living can avoid his torment, a request that Abraham refuses. Luke’s readers would see the reference to one rising from the dead as an unmistakable reference to Jesus’ resurrection. The rich man’s request is refused because even a miracle such as that cannot melt unrepentant hearts or bring sight to eyes that refuse to recognize any needs beyond their own. Am I the only one who is a little gratified that Abraham does not grant the rich man’s request to send Lazarus as a messenger to his brothers? His refusal affirms the abiding power of the Old Testament prophetic witness in Jesus’ ministry as Jesus himself does earlier in Luke 16:16. “They have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.” Listening to them would impel someone to “see” the suffering of another and take action, for this social compassion is at the heart of the law and the prophets. We are to show mercy as God shows mercy.
The kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it. We don’t expect it to show up in the gap between the bearable, even pleasant, or luxurious living condition of some and the unbearable, inhumane living conditions of others. We don’t expect it to show up in the offer of the ability to see that gap and move from seeing to active compassion before it is too late. But we ought to have learned by now that the kingdom of God is not a prisoner to our expectations. The implication is that the end of our stories have yet to be written. The rich man ignored the pleas of Lazarus the beggar, and now he is the one begging for a sip of water and is denied. As a master teacher, Jesus told stories like this to awaken longing in his listeners, to help them turn the switch, to desire to be people who see the beggar at the gate and to embrace the miracle of love.
The dismal prospect that people may reject the word concerning wealth and poverty poses a difficult problem for us. The parable calls us to confront ourselves and our communities concerning our own practices, but do we really change? What is the value of holding up this message if people don’t act on the word they already know? Should we simply dwell in the hope that we might repent before the great chasm finally divides us. It does happen.
Just this week I again heard on the news of the growing gap between the rich and poor. There are important disagreements about the causes, consequences, and solutions of radical inequality, but the reality of it is undeniable. In his book Who Stole the American Dream? Hedrick Smith argues that in the last thirty years “we have become Two Americas.” A “gross inequality of income and wealth” has demolished the middle class dream. This wasn’t inevitable, says Smith. It’s not the result of “impersonal and irresistible market forces.” Rather, it’s the consequence of government policies and corporate strategies. Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist for the World Bank, came to similar conclusions in The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2013). He writes, “The top 1 percent of Americans gained 93 percent of the additional income created in the country in 2010, as compared with 2009.” Like Smith, he says this didn’t have to happen.
The issue here isn’t one of envy. Rather, Stiglitz fears that gross inequality threatens the very nature of civil society — our politics, health care, education, housing, employment, legal system, and more. Problems are worse in the rest of the world. According to the World Bank, in 2010, 2.4 billion people lived on less than $2 a day. The bitter irony here is that there’s been significant progress in the reduction of global poverty in the last thirty years. But look at the yardstick — $2 a day! These people suffer the catastrophic consequences of poverty as measured by a broad array of indices — access to safe and dependable water, life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, literacy, and so on.
But tragedy isn’t a necessity. The chasm isn’t yet fixed. We read in 1Timothy 6:6-12 “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
By sharing generously and being rich in good deeds, we “lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age,” and “take hold of the life that is truly life.”