THE parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus reiterates a central theme in Jesus’s teaching: the need to treat people and possessions in the current age in a way that reflects the Kingdom that is to come. It demonstrates the intrinsic connection between salvation and liberation.
Those who are indifferent to social and economic oppression in this world will face an eternal reckoning. By the same token, however, it is impossible to detach human liberation from the horizon of eternal salvation. The hope being offered to Lazarus is not merely of an end to his material poverty, but of eternal communion with his heavenly Father.
Jesus’s description of Lazarus emphasises social and religious exclusion as well as material deprivation: “The dog was considered in Jewish law an unclean animal, and the scene so powerfully sketched in two verses — of Lazarus, prostrate, licked by dogs, all the while yearning for crumbs from the sumptuous table of the rich man as if he were himself a dog — is one of palpable anguish” (David Lyle Jeffrey, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
What happens next is a striking reversal in fortunes: Lazarus is carried to “Abraham’s bosom”, while the rich man on his death is “tormented” in Hades. The detail of the story emphasises that the rich man was — and remains — a son of Abraham. In the dialogue between the rich man in Hades and Abraham “far away” in heaven “with Lazarus at his side”, they refer to one another as “father” and “child”.
St Jerome observes that one of the most remarkable features of this parable is that the rich man “is not accused of being greedy or of carrying off the property of another, or of committing adultery, or in fact of any obvious wrongdoing”. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explains, our reading from Amos is important for understanding the sin of the rich man: “The prophet thunders not simply against property and wealth, but against what property and wealth often produce in men: carousing, indolence, being comfortable without caring about the nation’s situation” (Light of the Word).
Like those whom Amos depicts as being “at ease in Zion”, the sin of the rich man is that of indifference. He fails to recognise in Lazarus a brother whose need demands a merciful response. That failure to be merciful has cut him off from God, who is mercy. Even when the rich man is confronted with the eternal consequence of his sin, his heart is not turned. Jeffrey notes that, when he cries out for respite, “he is in his own mind still master. He wants Lazarus, like a slave, to bring him a drop or two of water to cool his tongue.”
Our epistle also warns of the corrosive spiritual impact of “the love of money”. Immediately before this Sunday’s passage, Paul condemns teachers who imagine “godliness is a means of gain”. As Jouette Bassler explains, “The whole has been nicely structured: After the warning about the opponents’ greed or desire for ‘gain’, the meaning of true ‘gain’ is explained and defended, followed by a graphic description of the consequences of greed” (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus). Whereas the worldly treat religion as a means of gaining wealth and status, the actual “gain” of godliness is that it enables us to enjoy “the life that really is life”.
A Christian attitude to possessions sees wealth not as an end in itself, to be grasped and hoarded, but as a means to build authentic communion between human beings. It was because low wages undermined this communion that churches have been at the forefront of the campaign for a Living Wage. Poverty pay forces people to work such long hours that they do not have enough time for their immediate family — let alone time to play a full part in the wider community.
Authentic communion requires a sharing of spiritual as well as material blessings. Our deepest hungers are not met by earthly food alone. True liberation involves a restoration of our relationship with God; for we are made for eternal communion with him — and, in him, with our neighbour. We must not feast on earthly food while others stand hungry at the door. But nor should we feast on Jesus, the Living Bread, without inviting others in to find in him “the life that really is life”.