Yes, I know I promised an article on the Bodiless Powers of Heaven this week. But then I saw that this Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), and I couldn’t resist. This is one of my favorite parables.
Have you noticed how often our Sunday Gospels are about money and giving? Did you know that, except for the Kingdom of God, Christ taught more about money than anything else? Perhaps there was a reason for that?
Saint John Chrysostom wrote sermons on this parable titled On Wealth and Poverty, available from Saint Vladimir’s Press. Likewise Saint Basil’s teachings titled On Social Justice. They sound radical. They were. That’s why they got into trouble.
In Methodist seminary, long long ago, we were taught that each parable has one point, no more. Wrong. This parable has many points, as follows:
“A rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” Tradition names him Dives but Christ gave him no name – on purpose, for in the end the rich man was a nobody. Lying at his gate was a beggar Lazarus – sick, poor, hungry, helpless, homeless, hopeless, alone. Dogs (which in those days were wild, not pets) licked his sores, and he was too weak to stop them. But no, Lazarus wasn’t alone. He’d have been happier alone, for he had to watch the rich man – well-clothed, well-fed, healthy, coming and going, this uncaring unfeeling man who had so much, while Lazarus had so little. Chrysostom says Lazarus also likely endured condemnation from all, for it was then believed that poverty and sickness were God’s punishment on the unworthy, while health and wealth were God’s reward for the virtuous. Some still believe this, contrary to what Jesus taught. Worst of all, Chrysostom said, Lazarus had no hope of eternal life and justice. He lived before Christ’s resurrection, when most Jews believed that at death they went down into the darkness and that was it. When Lazarus closed his eyes, relieved that his life of misery was over, he must have been amazed to wake up comforted, consoled, held like a child in the arms of old Father Abraham. When the rich man died and found himself in torment he must have been even more amazed. “What did I do to deserve this?”
It’s what he didn’t do. The Old Testament command to care for the poor was no secret. Jews were known for this – although ironically today rich Israel steps right over the poor Palestinians on their doorstep, but that’s another story, and in any event we should apply this parable to ourselves, not to others. By Old Testament Law all debts were remitted every 7 years so that no one fell into abject poverty. Edges of grainfields were not harvested so the poor could gather for themselves, and so on. The prophet Amos wrote: Woe to those who loll about on fancy couches and care nothing for God’s people, who sell the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. God’s command to care for the poor was very clear. The rich man had no excuse.
Who is the rich man?
A rich man elegantly clothed, well fed. “What does that have to do with me?” I ask. “I’m not rich”. Though I do seem to be well dressed every day, and I eat very well, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas I will feast. Compared to 90% of people in the world I am a rich man. Why do I not feel rich? Because in recent times we who are at least comfortably well off somehow find ourselves in enclaves (my home town Cedarburg, Wisconsin, for one) where, surrounded by people like ourselves, we take our wealth for granted. 75 years ago I grew up in a village with no extremes of wealth or poverty, and people of all sorts lived near each other. The poor were on our doorsteps, so to speak, and we knew them and looked out for them. At the turn of the 20th century much of America was like that. But today most of us rarely see the poor as we pass by them on expressways.
The gap between rich and poor in the United States is now far greater than it was only a few decades ago, the greatest it has been since just before the Great Depression. Today many of the poor (whom “you will always have with you”) work jobs (sometimes 2 jobs) that can’t lift them out of poverty and have little health care, while assistance to them is being cut back even further. To the right: from Pew Research. Likewise today we tend to have wealthy countries and very poor countries. Although the poor are not on our doorstep, they are in our living rooms on television and on our computers. But if we carefully avoid certain news programs and certain TV channels and certain publications and certain websites, we never see them. In any event, right beside us in church are the friendless, the lonely, the sick. But like the rich man in the parable, we can choose to ignore them all, step right over them.
So if I am the rich man with Lazarus on my doorstep, what should I do? That depends on whether I wish to go to hell or not. Remember the similar parable of the sheep and the goats in which even non-believers who fed the hungry, visited the sick, showed mercy go to heaven, while those who showed no mercy are sent into eternal fire with the devil and his angels. Apparently the one thing guaranteed to send us straight to hell is if we fail to love, fail to care for peoples’ needs. Like the rich man in today’s parable.
The Fathers on Wealth and Poverty
From John Chrysostom: [It is] “theft not to share one’s possessions. If you have two pairs of shoes one belongs to the poor. God has allowed you to have more not to waste on drink, fancy food, expensive clothes and all kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need. He who spends more on himself than he needs will pay the harshest penalty hereafter, for his goods are not his own but belong to his fellow servants”. Chrysostom said “If you wish to show kindness you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need. The poor man has one plea: his need. Do not require anything else of him; even if he is the most wicked of men free him from his hunger. As Christ said ‘Give to everyone who begs of you. Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful’.”
Saint Gregory the Theologian was tougher: “Justice means not seeking to have more: any departure from equality is injustice”.
Saint Basil the Great: “If you exceed what is reasonable in wealth, to the same degree you fall short in love.”
Quotes like these could go on and on.
Wealth and Poverty today
Today the rich are enormously rich. Is that a moral problem? I say: not so long as they got their money by honest means, live simply and give enormous amounts of money to charity. Today the very rich are getting vastly richer while the very poor continue to struggle. Is that a moral problem? Yes. Christ, the Scriptures and the Fathers make that clear. Do some poor take advantage of charity? Yes. You think none of the rich are working the system? How should we care for the needy? by private charity? government programs? miracles from on high? Any way you like, just so we do it. Through food pantries or meal programs or education or job training? Just so we clothe the naked and shelter the homeless and care for the sick and visit the lonely and protect the weak, both born and unborn. Just so we do it.
I know many Orthodox do just that: work at food kitchens and pantries, provide tutoring, defend prisoners, and much more. At Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, from our inception we have given 10% of our monthly income to charities. Our parish and people have a special interest in International Orthodox Christian Charities. We could all do more, for “To whom much is given much shall be required.” But the primary point of this parable is not social justice, important as that is, but the salvation of our souls: If we ignore Jesus in the least of his brethren, we will go to hell.
Heaven and Hell
The parable continues: Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man died, went to hell, saw Abraham and Lazarus far off and cried, “Father Abraham, have mercy: send Lazarus with water. I’m tormented in this fire.” The nerve of the guy! Send Lazarus whose suffering I ignored. Now that I’m hurting send Lazarus to help me! Abraham said: Son, remember in your life you received good things and Lazarus evil things; now he is comforted and you are tormented. Besides, there is a great gulf fixed between you and us which none may cross.
But isn’t God supposed to be merciful? Yes, God is merciful to those who have shown mercy. But God is just to those who showed no mercy. So it’s mercy for Lazarus and justice for the rich man who is getting what he deserved.
After death there 2 possibilities: heaven, comfort, joy; or hell, torment, fire. When we die judgment is made on which way we will go based on what we did in this life: whether we loved, had mercy and compassion or not. The Fathers say after death there is a long road ahead before we come to the heights of heaven or the depths of hell, but it is in this life that we choose which road we will take. Most Orthodox say that after death there is no going back and forth between heaven and hell. So if you plan to repent and be merciful to people, do it now. Don’t be like the rich man.
However, I almost wonder… The parable ends with the rich man showing some mercy: Father Abraham, send me back to my brothers to warn them, so they don’t end up in this place. At least the man cared about his family. I am tempted to wonder if there’s still hope for him. Jesus said that he would not snuff out a smoldering wick. Could the rich man possibly be suffering the fire of purification, not the fire of destruction? Is there is way for him to cross the gulf? I wonder… Or maybe the point is that it’s not enough for us just to care for our “brothers”, for our own kind, and ignore the rest? I don’t know. To the rich man’s question Abraham answers: What’s the point? if they didn’t hear the law and the prophets they won’t listen “even if someone should rise from the dead”.
Spiritual Wealth and Poverty
Here the parable goes off in a new unexpected direction: Indeed, Someone would soon rise from the dead. Now Christ is talking about the Jewish nation who did not believe even then. Now the rich man symbolizes the Jews, and Lazarus represents the Gentiles. Now the subject is spiritual riches and poverty. For the Jews who were spiritually rich, had the one true God, the Law, the prophets and now the Messiah, were not sharing their spiritual riches with the world. The Gentiles were on their doorstep, spiritually poor, serving all sorts of false gods, but the Jews refused to believe in Christ, refused to join him in his mission to the world. The Gentiles would soon believe, and now they would carry worship of the God of the Jews to the world. So the Jews lost it all, and the Gentiles, once spiritually poor, are now Lazarus rejoicing with Father Abraham and all the Old Testament saints in the Kingdom of God.
Herein lies another message for us Orthodox, we who possess such great spiritual wealth in the midst of a world which is so spiritually poor, we who feast at this banquet while the world on our doorstep is so spiritually hungry, feeding like the Prodigal Son on what even pigs wouldn’t eat. (Look around: Pornography. Kardashians.) Once again, now in a new way, we are the rich man. So what should we do? and what will happen to us if we do not, if we just sit on our riches and ignore the needs of the world? Brothers and sisters, you take it from there.
Next Week: Michael, Gabriel and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven
In 2 weeks: Part 3 of our series on Other Faiths -Judaism
When do we get back to traveling? Well, first… Christmas is coming – time to snuggle up by the fire and hear about “The War on Advent” and “The Real Santa Claus”