Back in the good old days (the 1970s of course!!!) the novel Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw, was turned into a popular television mini-series. The series followed the lives of Rudy (a rich man, well-educated and very ambitious) and his brother Tom (a poor man, who turned out to be a rebel). Focusing on issues like wealth and poverty, influence and subordination, this mini-series proved to be very popular. Somehow, it spoke to the intrinsic instinct in the human spirit that every form of discrimination among people was nefarious.
It would be easy to view the parable in the Gospel today as an episode in this mini-series. However, the parable is not just about wealth and poverty. In recent history, we have seen that the human desire to create prosperity and justice cannot be achieved using the philosophy of Marxism (Eastern Europe, for example). We have also seen that an unregulated profit motive does not lead to prosperity and justice either. If we were to highlight these themes (as well as the theme of Hades or Hell) as being the central element of the parable, we would be doing the text a great injustice and therefore miss the point entirely!
Like many of the parables in the Gospels, there is a surprise twist at the end, and the parable today is no different. Even though the parable is full of irony (the “great ones” of this world want to be remembered, but it is one of the “nameless ones” – the beggar – who gets named in the story while the rich man remains nameless), the real point of the parable is to be found in the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham.
A little background information and context is necessary here. Luke tells us that those who were coming to Jesus to hear what he had to say were the tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1). This made the Pharisees and Scribes jealous and so they complained. Therefore, the parable must be interpreted with this in mind, i.e. the parable is addressed primarily to the Pharisees and Scribes.
In the parable, Lazarus is described as a “poor man” (ptóchos in Greek) who lay prostrate at the rich man’s gate. In the text, however, Lazarus does not beg. How can the rich man give alms if Lazarus does not beg? In his use of the word ptóchos, Luke is hinting at something more profound than just describing Lazarus as being “poor”. The word itself means “one who crouches”, and even though it can be used to describe poverty and destitution, it is also used to describe the “spiritually poor”, i.e. humble and devout people – “Blessed are the poor (ptōchoi) in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). This is one of the main hinges on which the message of the parable revolves.
Jesus tells us that the rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen. This would not have been out of place for someone of substantial wealth at that time, but interpreted from a Biblical perspective, the wearing of purple was associated particularly with royalty. We see this, for example, when the Roman soldiers mock Jesus by putting a purple robe on him and call him king. The use of linen in the Bible was prescribed for priests (Ex 28:39).
Using this insight, we must conclude that the clothing of the rich man identifies him symbolically with the people of Israel, chosen by God to be a “chosen people”. The reason God chose Israel was that its people should be witnesses to all the other nations, confirming the blessings available to those who would obey God and keep his laws. However, in the history of the “chosen people,” we see that they did not live up to the high calling entrusted to them by God. The rich man in this parable represents the Jews of Jesus’ day, exemplified by the religious teachers, the Pharisees and Scribes.
Also important to the story is the meaning of the name Lazarus. This Greek name is a form of the Hebrew “Eleazer”, literally meaning “he whom God helps”. The use of this particular name is very significant to the message of the parable, for the Gentiles would indeed become “those whom God helped” through the sacrifice of Jesus, while the “chosen ones” would reject God. The Gentiles would become “sons of Abraham” through faith in Christ so that they would no longer be “strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). For centuries Israel had received the benefits of being God’s chosen people by virtue of being Abraham’s physical descendants (the rich man in the parable calls Abraham “Father”), but after the death of Jesus, this place of honour and blessing would be given to the people represented by Lazarus. This is the meaning of being “carried to the bosom of Abraham” in the parable.
When seen in this light, the parable takes on a totally new meaning and urgency, especially for our present age. Our Western culture is founded on the principles of Christianity, in fact, it was the Celtic monks who saved Western Civilisation from total collapse! But in our present age, we who have been clothed in the purple garments of royalty by becoming called children of God through Baptism, are no better than the people of the Old Covenant. We have failed in our calling, rejecting the very principles upon which our entire culture is founded. The problem the Pharisees had is the same problem we are faced with. The Pharisees sought approval from the wrong source and sought to be judged according to the wrong standard. They strove to be justified by the world, and their standard had to be that which the world could see and evaluate – outward appearances! We are following in their perilous footsteps!
The point of the parable is that we must rediscover how to be “ptóchoi” – poor in Spirit, like Lazarus. We have to understand and rediscover our calling to be God’s chosen people “who crouch” before the will of God, not before the riches of this world.
At the end of his life, Saint Augustine wrote his powerful masterpiece City of God. The Christian world of his time was falling into ruin and Augustine addressed those who no longer lived their faith and those who had crouched before the false values of this world. He wrote, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” We would do well to reflect upon this wisdom!