Short-term gain, long-term pain
The Rich man and Lazarus
I think it is very significant that Luke puts a name on poor, suffering Lazarus and not the privileged ‘rich man’ who features so heavily in this ever relevant parable.
In contrast to the society of today (or 2000 years ago for that matter) where success is typically measured in material terms or one’s celebrity status, the hero of this parable is the man who had nothing and was overlooked throughout his tough, lonely life. This ‘anti-fairytale’ portrays the princely, insular and comfortable life lived by the elite rich man and his privileged family as being shallow and insubstantial. I believe this parable also tells us that the double tragedy of Lazarus’ suffering in this world and the unnamed rich man’s in the next, could have been avoided had they followed Christ’s timeless teaching.
For me, the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus reveals what Christ thought about those who place their exuberant material needs ahead of and at the expense of, neighbours less privileged then themselves. It is a harsh and tough lesson for those who believe they can live their lives regardless of the consequences. In trying to guess the rich man’s motivations, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he was just blind to Lazarus’ constant presence as he entered and exited his palatial home each day. Assuming this was the case, what did his actions say about a person who so rationalised the existence of the have and have nots in society that he remained totally unmoved by the poor man’s plight? What kind of man could ignore a fellow human, starving and suffering with agonising open sores by his gateway for years? Of course he was not alone in his total ignorance of Lazarus; Luke says that only the dogs in the street provided the poor man succour. So clearly the community in which the rich man lived did not pay Lazarus much heed either.
The rich man insulated himself from the suffering around him and took comfort and pleasure in the riches which made his (and his family’s life) easy. Perhaps he never gave a second thought to the next life, living for the moment and never challenging the convenient status quo. I believe this way of thinking prevails more than ever in this world, despite two thousand years of Christ’s teaching. I think humans are ever-capable of rationalising a problem away to the extent that they learn to successfully numb their conscience, convince themselves that it’s ok to be selfish and thus deny themselves their chance at redemption. In a way, the rich man was blessed to have had the daily reminder of human suffering in the world; he couldn’t but avoid poor Lazarus at his front gates. I pity those wealthy people who so isolate themselves in elitist, gated communities that they create and inhabit a Godless world for themselves.
There is another rather unfortunate side effect of wealth and riches. If the pursuit of material wealth becomes the primary aim in life, I believe it will consume our very best selves. It distances us from God; hence the warning from Christ “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. (Lk 12:34). If tangible material treasure is what fills your heart, then what room is left for God? Perhaps that is the most frightening thing about riches and the desire for wealth. It conjures up the possibility of being independent from the rest of humanity and God. ‘If I was rich why would I need anyone else’?
However I believe God never gives up on us, even the super-wealthy. Christ does not say it is impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, just extremely difficult…described in Luke 18:25 as “being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”. Wealth would therefore appear to be like excess weight. Lose the wealth-blubber and you will fit through the narrow door!
No matter how wealthy we are, we are all still vulnerable, mortal human beings, prone to the same diseases and life-threatening conditions. I believe God will always provide us with the necessary opportunities to repent; that is, the chance to turn back to Him. How? By reminding us of His presence in our neighbours in need all around us. Until we collectively listen to Christ’s teachings to instigate the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven and create an equal and just world, the poverty of those in need will always act as a reminder to slow down, be selfless and generous and take action when confronted with the suffering around us.