19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Luke’s Gospel is a difficult one for those of us living in the First World for so much of his account is a sustained challenge to those who, as this story puts it, “in their lifetime have received your good things,” (Luke 16:25). Luke aims so much of his Gospel at the economically wealthy and charges us with a responsibility for economic justice in our world.
As the late, lamented Clarence Jordan, farmer, theologian and one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity said it in his characteristic Southern American drawl, “[The bible] doesn’t say you shouldn’t serve God and Mammon; it says you cain’t.”
And so here we have yet another story which begins “There was a rich man who…” And this story gives a dramatic account of the negative impact of economic inequality on poor people, but also on the rich.
Just prior to the World economic Forum in Davos last January Oxfam published a report on world economic inequality.1 In it they presented evidence which demonstrated that the world’s twenty-six richest people control more wealth that 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. Billionaires around the world saw their wealth grow by $2.5 billion A DAY in 2018, and that one per cent of the accumulated wealth of the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos was equivalent to the entire health budget of Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.
Theologian Ched Myers describes the story of Lazarus as a political cartoon. He says it opens with a portrait of decadent wealth (Luke 16:19) in which the anonymous rich man is clothed in extreme luxury (incidentally a form of luxury repeated in Revelation 18:12 as part of the doomed cargo mourned by profiteering merchants of burning Babylon). By contrast the poor man is named; he is Lazarus. He sits at the gate of the rich man, as a visible opposition to the conspicuous consumption of the rich man, longing to receive charity from the indulgent wastage of this man.
Both characters die. It’s a matter-of-fact statement, indicating perhaps that wealth is no insulation against the ultimate end. In this we should be reminded of the parable of the wealthy farmer for whom death came suddenly (see the reflection on Luke 12 from the 21st March). The spatial opposition is reversed here, the poor man goes to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man to Hades (Luke 16:22-23). Myers reminds us that this is not simply a crude reversal of fortunes in the next life. Instead, “it is a severe warning that we will all ultimately become victims of the social barriers we erect if we don’t deconstruct them in this life.”
There is something unsettling here about who really belongs to Abraham’s family. This has been a consistent theme of Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 3:8; 13:16; 13:28 and even 19:9). Many who presume entitlement to a relationship with Abraham will not sit with him in the heavenly banquet.
The rich man imagines that in this afterlife the old social order still holds and he requests Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to bring some water to ease his suffering. Later, when he requests help for his family Abraham refuses saying they have the witness of the Scriptures. But even at the end he defies the biblical witness and refuses. Abraham makes a startling comment in concluding the story to the effect that the danger of privilege and piety is that it could care less about the clear prophetic witness of justice. We claim commitment to biblical authority, but we chase the spectacular and prefer if someone comes to us “from the dead” (Luke 16:30).
This is such a complex and challenging story, that Myers believes is actually the key to understanding Luke’s message of discipleship. It challenges us, as Myers says “to either ‘live against’ or ‘die with’ the inhumane disparities that divide our social landscape.” It makes us think about the persistence of economic disparities, whose implications last beyond our life here; it challenges us about the place of biblical authority and prophetic witness; about how we crave the spectacular in our walk of discipleship at the expense of the hard work of doing prophetic justice.
It’s an obvious question really, but where and who are the rich man and Lazarus today? Where do you see a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26) between peoples and people groups? What does it require of us to act in prophetic witness against such a divide?