Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 as a response to the Pharisees who were “lovers of money” and had “ridiculed” him. The parable in many ways is comparing and contrasting the two main characters; the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Rich Man was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously everyday. He was a man who knew nothing but luxury and enjoyed indulging in extravagances. His table was always so full that he often had food to waste because there was no way he could eat it all. He was living the easy life.
Lazarus was the exact opposite. Lazarus was placed at the Rich Man’s gate everyday, indicating that he was a cripple. He was covered in sores and longed to simply eat the crumbs that fell from the Rich Man’s table. He would have accepted anything, even the scraps, but none was given. He was so bad off that even the dogs came and licked his wounds. These dogs weren’t friendly household pets but instead were wild dirty animals that often carried diseases. Lazarus was unclean, thus making the separation between him and the Rich Man even more extreme.
In time, both characters die. Lazarus is carried to paradise and Abraham’s bosom while the Rich Man is carried to Hades where he was tormented. Still, the Rich Man did not learn his lesson because he kept asking for Lazarus to do things for him, as if Lazarus was his servant and thus beneath him. Later, the Rich Man asks Abraham to warn his brothers, but he is told they have Moses and the Prophets to listen to, that should be enough.
The parable serves as a classic example of the great reversal of fortunes. It highlights Jesus’s earlier teachings from Chapter 6 and the Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God…woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” It is a reminder that those who suffer on earth will not have to suffer forever. When God creates a new Heaven and new Earth all will be as it should and suffering and pain will end. Yet those who bring about the suffering and pain of others on Earth will be punished.
Yet, even more so, the parable is a reminder that we must be concerned with the poor. One teaching that is very clear in the Law and the Prophets is God’s concern for the poor. The edges of the fields were to be left unharvested for the poor and destitute. Every three years the tithe was to be brought into the town square and used to distribute to the poor and needy. Every fifty years, the year of Jubilee was to serve as an economic fresh start as all debts were released and everyone returned to their inherited property. This teaching is not set aside in the new covenant. Jesus was very concerned with the poor and often had compassion on them. As followers, we must do the same.
It is true that Jesus said, the poor you will always have among you. No amount of work on our part will erase poverty. Only an act of God, the establishment of the new creation, will be able to set the world right again and destroy poverty for good. Yet, even though as Christians we may not be able to ever end poverty, we must put forth every effort to limit its effects. To ignore the poor is to ignore one of our fundamental responsibilities as followers of God. Serving the poor can be done in many different ways and will involve individual efforts as well as communal efforts. Creativity and wisdom can help guide us in each situation. But we cannot abandon the task.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a chilling reminder that God will not excuse us if we ignore the poor. We must not fall in love with our own money and prestige that we fail to help those who for one reason or another are less fortunate than ourselves. We must not ignore the beggar at our gaits. Instead we must open the doors and share freely from our table.