A rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. But letâ€™s begin by being more specific. The Good News Bible speaks of the rich manâ€™s â€œexpensive clothesâ€ and the â€œgreat luxuryâ€ in which he lived (Luke 16:19). A more recent translation (The Message) is more contemporary: it speaks of the â€œlatest fashionsâ€ he wore and of the â€œconspicuous consumptionâ€ of his lifestyle. The original Greek is more specific: it says that his garments were made of â€œfine linenâ€ and dyed â€œpurpleâ€, the fabric and colour associated with the aristocracy. In first century Jewish social and religious circles that would make the rich man one of the Sadducees, whose lifestyles were modelled on, and indeed subsidised by, the ostentatious Roman occupying elite. Thatâ€™s an important point, because it not only makes sense of his irresponsible behaviour to one who is, after all, a fellow-Israelite, it also adds to the acute irony of his ultimate fate. Sadducees, you see, did not believe in the afterlife, and if you donâ€™t believe in judgement, if you donâ€™t believe that one day you will be answerable for your conduct, well then, eat, drink, and be merry and donâ€™t worry about those who hunger, thirst, and despair. Which goes to show â€“ does it not? â€“ that bad theology leads to bad ethics â€“ and that both may have eternal consequences.
And then there is Lazarus. In all of Jesusâ€™ parables he is the only character to be given a name, and it is surely significant that itâ€™s an impoverished beggar who gets it. Lazarus means â€œGod helpsâ€. Interestingly, the rich man is not given a name by Jesus (though tradition calls him Dives, which is simply the Latin for â€œrichâ€). The rich man without a name, or with a name to be supplied â€“ who might he be? Jesus leaves it to our imaginations. But itâ€™s never â€œmeâ€, is it?
But what about the poverty of Lazarus? Ancient Greek has two words for poverty. One describes the status, for example, of a peasant family making a bare subsistence living from year to year; the other, however, describes the status of such a family pushed by debt off the land and into downright destitution and, inevitably, begging. Lazarus, you might say, wasnâ€™t just on Income Support, he was truly down-and-out. And, of course, we know that such extreme privation has dire implications for oneâ€™s health, so itâ€™s not surprising that someone as malnourished as Lazarus was covered with sores. An apologist for Dives might suggest that Lazarus had leprosy, very infectious, so itâ€™s not surprising that he was barred from the grounds. But Iâ€™m afraid that wonâ€™t wash, because if Lazarus had leprosy he would have been barred from begging anywhere in public. So if youâ€™re looking for excuses for Dives, the fear of contagion isnâ€™t one of them.
How about ignorance then? Perhaps Dives was simply unaware of the presence of Lazarus. But, no, Iâ€™m afraid that that wonâ€™t wash either. Because later in the story it turns out that Dives actually recognises Lazarus and even knows his name. And itâ€™s bad enough â€“ isnâ€™t it? â€“ to know that people are starving and sick, but to see their faces and to know their names, and even then to turn a blind eye in indifference, or contempt, well . . . When it comes to dire poverty, all of us are no doubt in some sense responsible, but others are actually guilty. Dives was guilty, guilty as sin. And those dogs at the gates, if they were house pets couldnâ€™t Dives at least have kept them on the lead, and if they were guard dogs, even worse for Lazarus â€“ heâ€™s lucky he got a licking rather than a mauling. Either way, they go to add humiliation to his destitution and despair.
There is a saying that â€œHell is truth seen too lateâ€, and it might be suggested that that would be an apt title of our parableâ€™s Part Two, after Lazarus and then Dives die. Of course the geography of the afterlife that the scene presents is not important, and its details are quite irrelevant. Even most conservative scholars admit that the tableau has its origins in an ancient Egyptian folk tale that was assimilated into a Jewish milieu and then adapted by Jesus, who added a twist to the end of it, and that it cannot be used as a source for a Christian theology of the Last Things. No, the point is the judgement Dives didnâ€™t expect or even allow, the reversal of roles with Lazarus (a common gospel theme: the mighty brought down, the lowly lifted up), and, finally, the warning to Jesusâ€™ audience, all of which we are familiar with and I wonâ€™t belabour. But what really interests me is Divesâ€™ reaction to his fate, which suggests to me that â€œHell is truth seen too lateâ€ is actually an over-optimistic title for the storyâ€™s denouement, for actually, ultimately, Dives doesnâ€™t see the truth at all, he just doesnâ€™t get it. And thatâ€™s the real tragedy of this tale.
For one thing, observe what Dives does when he looks across the vast chasm separating him from Lazarus and sees him at Abrahamâ€™s side: he cries out to the patriarch, pleads for pity, and asks him to send Lazarus with some water to assuage his thirst. Observe, first, that Dives cries out for mercy, not because he is repentant, not in the least, but because he is in pain. And then observe, second, exactly who Dives addresses and begs â€“ Abraham, not Lazarus! Itâ€™s as if Lazarus isnâ€™t there, as if heâ€™s invisible â€“ still invisible â€“ the beggar at the gates whose face and name you know but ignore. And insofar as Lazarus is there â€“ and Dives certainly does see him â€“ itâ€™s not as a person, a person he has sinned against, a person he should be begging for forgiveness, oh no, heâ€™s only a potential water-carrier, not a person but a functionary, someone useful to him, a means to an end â€“ his end â€“ what we would call a â€œgopherâ€. See what I mean by Dives still not getting it?
And if the audience hasnâ€™t got it, Jesus drives the point home again â€“ the point about seeing value in other people only insofar as they are able to meet your own needs. For when told by Abraham, â€œSorry, mate, but no one can get from us to you even if he wanted to,â€ what does Dives say? He entreats Abraham to use Lazarus as a gopher again! â€œSend him to my fatherâ€™s house where my five brothers live,â€ he says, â€œso he can tell them the score, so they wonâ€™t end up where I am.â€ Youâ€™d think a chastened Dives would offer to go himself. After all, theyâ€™re his brothers. But, no, having ignored Lazarus during his lifetime, in his obstinacy and arrogance he now presumes to treat him as a skivvy. He just will not learn.
But even for that Dives has an excuse! Thatâ€™s his thinking behind warning his brothers â€“ if only he himself had been warned in advance he would have done all the necessaries to avoid his terrible end. But Abraham tells Dives that, in fact, his brothers have all the warning they need â€“ and, by implication, that he had all the warning he needed too â€“ itâ€™s all there in Moses and the prophets. Cut out the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that speak about Godâ€™s bias for the poor, and the people of Godâ€™s responsibility for the poor, and youâ€™ve got a Bible full of holes in it (Jim Wallis). Not even someone returning from the dead will be more convincing than Moses and the prophets, because someone returning from the dead, well, it may be a miracle but it may just be an apparition, whereas Moses and the prophets spoke on theological and moral grounds, and those alone are the only worthwhile grounds on which to act. No, Dives just didnâ€™t get it. Even in death, in hell, he was incorrigible.
So what hope for us? Of course we can, as I suggested, give the rich man any name but our own and tick the box â€œDoes Not Applyâ€. Or we can take the parable as a story about individual morality rather than social ethics. In other words, we can take it as a lesson in personal charity. After all, the story is about two people, a rich man and a poor man, not about the rich North and Third World debt. No mention of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, Christian Aid or Cafod. Nor would I deny, in any case, that there is, and always will be, a place for compassion in dealing with poverty, both personal giving and international development. Giving is good. But the fact of the matter is that giving is not enough. As William Sloane Coffin put it: â€œGiven human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation [regulation, changing structures] is indispensable. Charity, yes, always; but never as a substitute for justice.â€ Charity and justice are companions, not choices.
â€œGetting itâ€ â€“ as Dives did not get it â€“ itâ€™s about â€œgetting realâ€. In the real world the elimination of the gross inequalities of wealth, which become more and more unequal every day, the redistribution of wealth, it just isnâ€™t going to happen through aid alone. Because nations are like Dives, the richer they get the more selfish they get with it, and the less likely they are to share it with the impoverished nations at their gates, whose names they know, whose faces they see â€“ and then ignore. The biggest economy in the world, the United States, offers a smaller proportion of its national wealth in the form of aid than any other substantial donor â€“ and this has declined as its economy has grown.
Then again, perhaps itâ€™s I who needs to get real. What can we do? But have we really become that cynical â€“ and that faithless? What is realistic? What is realistic is what happens. What is realistic is what we make happen. What is realistic is the teaching of Jesus: â€œThere was a rich man . . . And at his gate lay a poor man . . .â€ What is realistic is knowing God, and to know God is to love mercy and to do justice.