The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) challenges us on many different levels. So flagrant is the sense of entitlement and arrogance of the rich man, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The attitude of the wealthy man to the poor man is carried over into fiery Hades after he dies. Even when suffering, the rich man still assumes superiority to Lazarus. He continues to demand the right to negotiate, never speaking directly to Lazarus, while insisting on special treatment for himself and his brothers. Lazarus is dirt, along with the dogs who licked his sores. His arrogance is breathtaking.
Yet the issue of justice is brought to the forefront of the discussion by Jesus without any comfortable words, however much we want to avoid his confronting demands and imagine Jesus is not actually speaking to us.
Just like early Christians, we see people living wealthy lives, who are never good to others, never sharing, never loving, never open to God. They die apparently without consequences. How do we deal with this injustice? In this mythic story Jesus tells us the rich man went to Hades while the poor man went to be with the angels and Abraham. A comforting idea for those suffering in this world because of the privilege and greed of others.
We live in a democracy, but our wealth and health is built on theft and discrimination against our indigenous sisters and brothers, crimes which have never been acknowledged or dealt with justly. It seeps out of the cracks in our social, political, cultural and economic stories, currently exposed in our AFL teams, but in every aspect of life they are treated like Lazarus at the gates of the wealthy man.
Large companies and wealthy people oppress, colonize and perpetuate violence and punishment to maintain their unearned privilege and wealth at the cost of other people’s lives.
The rich man lived with extreme wealth. He was dressed in purple and fine linen and dined sumptuously every day. Purple was the colour worn by Caesars, princes and rulers, hugely expensive to make from the spiny dye-murex snail, and daily sumptuous dining spoke of enormous wealth.
Wealth affects all of us, the more we have the more we want. Living simply so others may simply live is a catchy quote not often practiced. We look at the billionaires around the planet, accumulating obscene wealth while consigning the majority of the world to poverty and starvation. The next war will be over climate change refugees and the lack of water and food, simply because even we’re not prepared to change our comfortable lifestyle.
So what is Jesus saying to us with this story? The rich often justify their actions by saying ‘if we’d only known it was you, Jesus we would have acted.’ The rich man’s plea for his brothers shows he expects his knowledge will make them act. However, ‘knowing’ something also means people can choose not to act, the excuse being ‘innocent ignorance’, when in fact, its deliberate denial.
There is an ethical dilemma when choosing ‘not to know’ and when it enables ignorance, denial and active resistance to justice, it leads to immoral acts affecting not just people like Lazarus, but whole communities whom the powerful and wealthy can claim not to know.
This blank refusal to recognise the injustice of our economic system or to understand our role in it, creates poverty, disease and death for uncounted masses of people.
The rich man fails to understand is he is partly to blame for Lazarus’s suffering. Poverty means death. People are poor not because of bad luck or their own fault, but because the economic systems created to support others’ wealth, make them poor. We could go one step further, realising our concept of charity and help is also colluding in maintaining this injustice. What we as the rich give to the poor is simply the return of stolen goods.
Do you remember Mary’s song, her hymn of praise to God at the news of her pregnancy?
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
Luke’s gospel tells of justice for the poor and the vision Mary prophesied is at the heart of Jesus’ mission and teaching.
Conventional wisdom at the time believed poverty was a sign of God’s disfavour. We still see this in the preaching of the prosperity gospel where illness, poverty and failure are seen as consequences of sin and material wealth is promised for those who follow right beliefs or obey certain rules of living.
Lazarus was so starved and broken he couldn’t move with the dogs licking his sores. Death came as a blessing. The rich man, still thinking he can direct the course of the poor man in the afterlife, gives instructions for relief. Abraham tells him a hard truth: ‘because of the choices you made in your life, you are now beyond God’s help.’
During his lifetime, the rich man likely rationalised his thinking about the poor outside his gates: ‘He brought this on himself’, ‘they must have done something to deserve it’, ‘she hasn’t earned the right to be helped,’ ‘he’s not worthy to be helped.’
Instead, what does Jesus say to those he meets who are in need: ‘What do you want?’ ‘Do you want to be healed?’ ‘How can we feed them?’
We might despair as we look around the world with such unequal societies, the obscene wealth held by a few: cruelty and death for those who challenge them; and we might ask, where is hope?
Let us sit then with this complicated story and the bluntness of my telling because there is a different way forward. The kingdom of God does not begin after someone dies; we do not literally go to heaven or hell. These are human constructs designed to make sense of the reality we see because bad people don’t seem to get punished for their choices which kill others.
The kingdom of God is right now. Heaven and hell are now. Hell is where you don’t love anymore; it is to be cut off from others and God, to be alone, to be dead and without life. Lifelessness is to be in Hades or Sheol. It is non-life, nonexistence. We know and have met people walking around who are dead already.
God is offering us something else. God is asking us to choose life, choose love, chose sharing and communion. These last forever. We call that ‘forever’, heaven. There are three things that last: faith, hope and love. The gospel gives us the choice. The spirit of fear – of death, hellfire, judgement and exclusion, being driven to make a decision – is not the choice offered by God.
The kingdom of God is created in freedom. God respects your freedom to choose and this story tells us this. We are invited to return to a gospel of grace and freedom, creating people with dignity, life and ability to give, not out of fear but out of the choice to love. God doesn’t need fear to get things done. There is, as Abraham says in the story, a ‘great chasm’ between heaven and hell – between fear and faith, between death and life. This story is designed to help us overcome the chasm, not to deepen it.
When we see the continuing gap between rich and poor, access to money, healthcare, food and housing, we may despair and remain unconvinced Jesus rising from the dead makes any difference in the world. Where is the hope for us on this side of the great chasm?
Yet as we listen to the stories of those who suffer economic injustice and poverty, we can begin the reversal in our own hearts. Our worldviews begin to change, our desire to make a difference opens us up more widely to God’s love, our actions invite others in – we see it with Manna and Mercy and in our Op Shop. In doing all this and more, we allow our comfort to be turned into discomfort and then, perhaps through such changes, a drop of cool water may fall upon our own parched tongues. We may find we are more thirsty than we imagined for the living water.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Ed’s]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Johnson, L.T. [Harrington, D.J., S.J., Ed.] 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3. The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. A Crossroad Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.