The gospel reading for today has been the inspiration for numerous spirituals and gospel songs. And why not ? Dives the rich man and Lazarus the beggar makes for a great story. It is a parable that is straight forward and to the audience around Jesus, firmly based in Old Testament tradition. It also reflects their every day reality. Many, if not most of Jesus’ listeners were poor, and beggars were everywhere. The resentment of those wealthy men who considered themselves to be sons of Abraham had to be common. And this story addresses that perception and more.
The first part of the parable goes as expected. Dives, as tradition calls him, is wealthy beyond measure and there is a beggar starving at his door. Even the dogs of the street have more compassion for Lazarus than the wealthy man. And when they both die, as all humans do, there is a just turn around. Dives is in hell, and Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham – Lazarus is the true son of Abraham and Dives is in torment. That is a satisfying result for most of Jesus’ audience. Justice is done.
But then, there is more to be said and understood. The rich man has concern for his brothers, that they might escape his fate. And he asks that Lazarus return from the dead to warn them.
And here the story pulls the world to come – the world of Jesus’ death and resurrection – and the Old Testament law and prophets – together. If the wealthy do not heed the Law and the Prophets, they will not pay any attention either to one who has returned from the dead. With apologies to Charles Dickens and Scrooge, if their basic nature is not led by the Law and the Prophets to do what is right, encounters with the supernatural world won’t make any difference at all.
The parable takes this satisfying “justice is done” theme and brings it to another level. It is evident that a transformation of heart is necessary, and that if what one “knows” in one’s head about the Law and Prophets isn’t also in one’s heart, beggars returning from the dead won’t effect that change. Compassion isn’t forced by fear or guilt.
Now, what might this mean for us?
We are, to a one, very wealthy people, surrounded by a nation of unimaginable wealth. By the standards of the world, we want for nothing. If you look at the pictures of the refugees in the Sudan, living in makeshift huts, in the rainy season, without food and clean water, the difference in our lives and theirs is absolutely unimaginable.
But this is not a guilt trip or an exhortation on how to acquire salvation. We are living here, in these circumstances, for some reason. And as we look around us, we see that some people in our world who might be considered poor, have hearts full of compassion. And clearly, some around us of considerable means, also have hearts filled with care for others. It isn’t necessarily wealth related.
So whether, by our present standards, we have disposable income in quantity, or just a bit, it is a matter of how we regard our wealth. And this applies to our wealth of education, insight, opportunity, talent – all of it. The rich man of the parable clearly had lost sight of the origin of his wealth – all things come from Godde. And we probably don’t know anyone who would be so crass as to ignore the starving at their doorstep. As Christian people pondering the tension of being wealthy but having hearts of compassion, we can’t really see ourselves as Dives. And we can’t see ourselves sitting in a tent in the Sudan. Who are we in this story?
Our immediate world isn’t neatly divided into the crass rich and dying beggars. And we all have some seeds of compassion planted in our spirit – Godde has seen to that. It is up to us to be aware of those seeds, tend them, seek ways to nourish them, to take the Law of Love to a deeper level. Not out of fear of hell, not according to rules of giving. This is a spiritual exercise of the heart. And we come to it both with wealth of opportunity and our personal poverty.
The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
In the name of Godde: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.