Dives and Lazarus (from the Fitzwilliam Museum)
St Luke’s gospel is the gospel of the poor. No one emphasises more than Luke, the special place the poor have in the heart of God. The parable today is one of these texts, which is also firmly embedded in the Catholic imagination, always troubling us when we see someone poor. Even more, a cursory reading would suggest that the rich automatically go to hell and the poor to heaven: you had good things in life while Lazarus had what was bad. That can’t be the case since in the OT, riches were considered a blessing from God, even as it warned about the dangers of riches. They remain so in the NT.
In the ancient world, pretty much all cultures took the poor for granted. In Rome, for instance, it was considered honourable for the rich to help those in need, as their patrons. It was the principal way through which the poor received anything but there was no compulsion to do so. The poor were in their turn to sing the praises of those who helped them, increasing their honour. There was no means to cross this divide. This was completely antithetical to the Hebrew mindset. Judaism had a very strong social ethic woven into its religious and social life. The Israelite was not to take advantage or oppress the poor in any way. He had a sacred duty to defend the ‘alien, the widow and the orphan’, who were the most vulnerable in society. All of this was because the Israelite, however wealthy and prosperous, had to remember that he himself was once an alien and slave in Egypt. It was through God’s gracious mercy that they were set free from the oppression of Pharoah and brought into a land flowing with milk and honey. God was the one who listened to the cry of the poor. This liberation from Egypt made them one family under covenant with God. The poor person therefore was one’s brother or sister. The land and everything was a gift of God, not theirs by right. It had to be shared equitably with all.
Poverty was however a reality in Israel like everywhere else. Therefore, in the daily life of people, there were all sorts of laws to not just help the poor but make it a part of the way of life of people, so that they were aware of the need of those less fortunate than themselves. Chief among these was the tithe. Tithe simply means the ‘tenth’ and the Israelites would bring in the first tenth of their harvest dutifully to the Temple. This was given firstly to God and then to the poor. In giving away ten percent of their harvest, they expressed through their actions that what they had received was a gift from God and it was his blessing. The poor were equally required to bring their tithe to God. On one hand it meant that they had to be provided enough to bring their own tithe – and it dignified them with having an offering to bring. They were not to be treated as second class citizens. There were many other laws in daily living for the poor. During harvest, the corners of the field were for the poor; any grain that was dropped carrying the sheaves, was not to be collected – it was for the poor. At the gates of the city, the poor were to receive justice like everyone else. In most societies, justice was the privilege of the rich, not the poor. All of this was meant not just as a practical aid but also to inculcate in the life of the people that they were one people. The mercy of God by which they lived, had to be expressed through action.
Given all this, let us see this parable. First to look at Dives. He is not named in the parable while interestingly, Lazarus is. ‘Dives’ is not his name – it simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin. And this man is very rich. Purple and fine linen were the opulence of kings. He dresses like this every day and feasts ‘magnificently’ every day. It’s almost a caricature in how he is described. And there at the gate is Lazarus. The guests at a feast would clean their fingers with oil and bread and then throw it over the gate. The poor would be gathered there and would try to catch this and eat. Lazarus longs to fill himself with this bread but even this seems difficult for him. It seems he is unable to move because of his condition; it could be that he is crippled or too weak to go elsewhere, since by now he realises that he will get nothing from Dives. Then the reversal comes. Dives is buried with great dignity and possibly a lot of mourning and eulogising, while Lazarus is not even afforded a burial. But God knows Lazarus’ name, while Dives just disappears in the mass of humanity. In Hades, he recognises Lazarus but shockingly has no change of attitude. He asks Abraham to command Lazarus to bring him water. Finally, he pleads for his family; but once again asks Lazarus to be sent as messenger to them to save them. He does care, but it is closed in on himself and his closest circle. It never extended to the gate, where Lazarus was, where justice had to be served. Even in Hades, he wants to treat Lazarus as his slave.
This has come to us today. What can we do about this? I have three suggestions.
- Practicing Gratitude. To take time in our prayer to give thanks for what we receive each day. It recognises that everything we have is a gift from God. That is what keeps us free of anxiety, of greed and makes us compassionate towards others.
- Practicing Tithing. In the NT we do not have a law of tithing, but we have one of generosity. But Jesus always took the OT laws and intensified them. Generosity means that we average at least what the OT was asking people to do. To tithe is to set aside ten percent of my income (pre-tax!) for God and the poor. This might seem a lot – and it is – but it practically recognises that God is the one who provides for me – and what I have belongs to him. And God is never outdone in generosity. He will bless even your finances – in incredible ways. I have seen this time and again.
- Taking Time. To have money means we are always in a hurry. There are (good) things to do, opportunities to explore. The problem with Dives was that he never noticed Lazarus. He had no time for him. Do we allow ourselves to be interrupted by those less fortunate than ourselves? The poor need us to get out of their material suffering, but we need the poor to get out of our sufferings, spiritual or otherwise. God listens to the cry of the poor and saves the oppressed. When we serve the poor, stand as one with them, God will rescue us from all that oppress us as well. We will find that his hand is never closed to us in our own needs. And one day we will stand together to sing the praises of God in heaven.