If you haven’t read Luke’s famous parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16: 19–31), I encourage you to do so! It is a great challenge to us.
At one important level, the parable is all about generosity: the rich man’s utter lack of it. You have to admire the Gospel writer’s genius here. Luke groups several parables together and they all hammer the arrogance of the smug, self-satisfied, successful people of his day. In this group of parables, the underlying message is that God seeks out the lost, representing the people forgotten by the rest of society: the poor, the “sinners”, and anyone not seen as acceptable. We see this in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (the Prodigal son), and the rich man and Lazarus. The target of these parables is all of us, but especially a religious group of Jesus’ day called the Pharisees. It is clear that Jesus is targeting those who were hard of heart and lacked generosity.
At a deeper level, though, the parable includes, but goes beyond, the question of whether we are generous. Jesus is very critical of the lovers of money, because of their failure to notice the poverty right in front of them. This parable is cutting, from the very beginning. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” … and he is unnamed. In his typical style, Jesus flips the societal beliefs of his day. The rich were named, that’s Jesus’ point. The rich were noticed. They had the best seats at the table, the most honoured places in the synagogues and in the Temple itself; they were respected and respectable. The poor enjoyed none of those things. This is what is so clever about this parable. Lazarus is named. Instantly respect is his. Of course, the parable does not stop there: Lazarus is the one carried away by the angels to be seated with Abraham. He is the chosen one. He is blessed.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. This parable is not simply, not only, about generosity. Certainly, there is a clarion call to be generous. It is loud and unmistakable. Yet, there is also an explicit criticism of the kind of theology which says, “If you are poor, then, clearly, God has not blessed you. If you are rich, then, equally clearly, you are the chosen one.” Jesus’ parable challenges the system. He is critical of the belief that wealth, in and of itself, is a sign that God has blessed you.
Our eyes need to be open. We need to be aware of the suffering we see right in front of us. We also need to be open to new ideas, new ways of caring for those struggling in our otherwise wealthy society.
It is important to think of new ways of looking after the battlers, or perhaps more helpfully, getting alongside the battlers. Personally, I think that it would be worth trialling the idea of a minimum living wage: a stipend paid to everyone, so that musicians, for example, could create beautiful music, without worrying about their next pay cheque. That approach would actually generate money in the system; there would be positive, flow-on effects. That’s a personal opinion and I am cognisant of the fact that poverty is an extraordinarily complex issue. All of this, though, begins with doing precisely what the rich man does not do in this parable: being attentive.
You will notice the irony of the start of my final paragraph, given that I am writing about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but, irony has its place, so here goes …
The last time I was in Paris … well, my eldest son won a scholarship to study there as part of his university degree, so we were obliged to go! In Paris there is a surprising amount of visible poverty. Our son had warned us about this, so, when we arrived, we spoke about the dilemma that faces everyone around the world, not just in big cities like Paris, do you, “Ignore the beggars completely?” or “Do you chuck them a couple of euros?” or “Do you just smile?” or “Do you protest against the system?” as was indeed occurring while we were there and Paris was being periodically overrun by fluro-vest-wearing protestors, railing against the economic system.
Annoyingly, Jesus doesn’t list a specific set of appropriate responses to this in his parable, which is, of course, the very point of the parables. They demand that the listener think; they demand that the listener be attentive; they demand that the listener notice the world around them. Interestingly, our son told us, “Whatever you decide to do, what you must not do is ignore them.”
We are to be attentive! Be attentive to the world around you and be attentive to the inner life, including your emotions; it is from this place of attentiveness that change happens. Attentiveness leads to new ideas.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
Photo Name: Artwork outside Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
Photo Credit: Bishop Denise Ferguson.