Jesus told a story of a rich man who wore beautiful clothes, one who lived and ate well (Luke 16:19-31). We have no insight as to the character of this man, not until he dies and ends up in hell! (Not a doctrinal statement, but a story mechanism Jesus is using to make a point.) We find clues regarding the rich man’s character as it is in relationship to the poor man, the beggar Lazarus.
“Poor man” in the original language was an onomatopoeia—that of a spitting sound—and a clever device Jesus used to highlight how marginalized and scorned of society this man truly was. But, in this story of the great reversal of fortune, when the poor man died, he found himself in paradise. When the rich man died, however, he went straight to his torment.
An interesting feature in this story, is that while in hell, the rich man could see Lazarus enjoying himself with Abraham. And, the rich man could see and communicate with Abraham.* When he gets his chance, the rich man asks a question across the dimensions of life and death, heaven and earth and hell. Surely, this moment reveals transformative introspection, right?
“Father Abraham,” the rich man said, “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame,” (verse 24). But, gentle great-grandad Abraham simply told him, “Oh, son, when you were alive, you had good things. Lazarus had evil, so now he gets good things. Besides, not possible. Do you see this great gulf fixed between us?”
With this story, Jesus sticks a pin right in the sensitive spot of human want and desire. This is a story about meaning and legacy: whether what you did in your lifetime mattered, or whether you will one day wake up to find out your choices, your priorities, your beliefs and practices were all wrong. It would be too late to find that you were tied to the good things of this world, the things that satisfied in the here and now (1 John 2:16); that your biggest concern was how you could create more wealth, more security, more happiness for yourself (Luke 12:20); that you couldn’t see your way past the pressing details of life to capture that which is truly meaningful; that, as you played your role, you played the script, the one written for you by people, not by God (Luke 10:40-42).
They believed their claim to Father Abraham made them the chosen ones.
Then, this is a story about distance. Now is a good time to look into that chasm between these two characters, the “great gulf fixed.” The rich man created that black hole through his benign and daily neglect of the man lying at his gate. That man, his needs, and his helplessness might as well have been lightyears away because the few feet to get to him were just too far. The demand on his time and the social capital lost in bridging this gap was too much. Now, the gap between where he was and where he wanted proved insurmountable. Talk about a wealth gap.
Finally, this story is about privilege. We see the rich man appealing to his privileged lineage—Father Abraham, not Father God. Jesus threw that into the story because to His Jewish hearers, privilege came through Abraham. They believed their claim to Father Abraham made them the chosen ones.
“Send Lazarus who was made to be used, appropriated and controlled by me. Send him from his place in paradise, to me, so he can serve me.” Privilege sure does die hard, does it not?
“The sin of Dives [what tradition has named the rich man] was that he felt that the gulf which existed between him and Lazarus was a proper condition of life,” Martin Luther King, Jr. posited during a 1955 sermon in Montgomery. “Dives felt that this was the way things were to be. He took the “isness” of circumstantial accidents and transformed them into the “oughtness” of a universal structure. He adjusted himself to the patent inequalities of circumstance.”
King’s exposition applied the rich man’s dilemma to the segregationists, the capitalists, and the classists of his time. But, does it stretch the parabolic purpose for us to question the priorities of the religious and privileged today? Who set our priorities for care and concern, international policy, and justice? Through what—or whose—lens do we define these “hills to die on?” How can we claim the need for prayer in schools for children, all while withholding soap and toothpaste from children detained on our borders? How will decades of strategizing to protect the unborn factor on the balance sheet against the lives lost to police shootings, or drive bys, or wrongful convictions and incarcerations? Will we really garner the favor of God by seeking to support one prophetic pro-Israel interpretation, while neglecting the obvious humanitarian needs of, say, Rohingya Muslims in forced migration?
Can we question our priorities now? Can we check our practices now? I just don’t want to wake up wrong.
*(Again, an artistic device Jesus used to make His point. Compare: Ecclesiastes 9:5; Psalms 6:5; 88:10; 115;17 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.)
This article is part of our 2019 July / August Issue