Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16, raises significant questions for any reader. It gives very little information about the characters outside of the fact that the rich man lives a luxurious lifestyle while Lazarus sits outside his gate begging on a daily basis. However, in the afterlife, their roles are reversed; Lazarus ends up in paradise while the rich man finds himself in eternal punishment. Because the story provides few details, the questions become hard to answer. Is Jesus providing an accurate picture of eternity, or just using poetic license for a story? Is Lazarus in heaven simply because he was poor, or did he also live a righteous life? Likewise, is the rich man condemned because he was wealthy, or were there other issues in his life? There is no way to accurately debate these questions. One thing however is clear, the rich man should have cared for Lazarus.
Poverty is a difficult subject to address. No Christian believes poverty is a good thing. No Christian wishes for others to be poor. We all long for the day in the new creation when everyone will be adequately provided for. Yet, we live in the reality of a world that will always have poverty. There will always be those who are rich, and those who are poor. Even Jesus says the poor you will always have with you. It’s a recognition that in our fallen world, poverty will be a reality.
Because poverty is a reality in our world it becomes difficult to address. While no Christian (at least no Christian I’m in relationship with) desires for poverty to be a reality, it is such a massive problem that many of us don’t know how to help. Hearing stats about how 1 Billion individuals in the world live on less than $1.00 a day is tragic and heartbreaking. Yet, while that knowledge breaks my heart, in many ways I feel powerless to change that reality. Even bringing the issue closer to home, the problems seem insurmountable. While yes it is true that some find themselves in poverty because of outside circumstances beyond their control (health problems, financial ruin, family separations), it’s also true that at times people find themselves in poverty because of poor choices or addictions. It becomes easy (even if not correct) to rationalize why people are in need. It’s addiction. It’s being lazy and not working. It’s a system that hands out free food and housing which creates a welfare state. The massive questions involved cause us to realize we don’t know where to begin. And at least on a personal level, sometimes when I don’t know where to begin or how to help, I simply end up doing nothing.
Taking care of the poor however is a Biblical mandate. Consider two passages from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 15 speaks of taking care of anyone who is poor in your city. “If among you one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) While specifically this teaching is directed to care for fellow Israelites, it’s still a reminder to not ignore the poor. Or, consider the teaching from a chapter earlier about tithing. In the course of reminding the Israelites that tithing is a celebration and gift to God, and that they should take their tithe to the temple and have a celebration, Moses also reminds the people not to forget the poor. “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all of the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns shall come and eat and be filled.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) Every third year the tithe was to be set aside for anyone in town who was in need. They would collect it in the city square and distribute it so that all would be filled. Taking care of the poor was a requirement.
Which then brings us back to trying to decide how to interpret Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We can argue back and forth about what the parable actually means, who was righteous and wicked, what the afterlife is actually like, or whether wealth is naturally evil or not. However, while those questions can be debated, one truth can not, the rich man should have done something for Lazarus. The contrast is clear; the rich man dines in luxury while Lazarus suffers. This is the part of the story that drives the rest. Not that it’s wrong to be wealthy, but to dine in luxury and do nothing for the poor at your gate is sinful. To neglect the poor in your area, to ignore the poor at your door, is sinful. The rich man may have had other sins (he probably did), but in this parable he’s being judged because there was a poor man at his gate and he ignored him. Ignoring the poor is always wrong.
Jesus does not provide an answer for how best to help the poor. We still have to struggle and debate over the best ways to help. Social programs, handouts, individual relationships…some or all are needed to help break the cycle of poverty. We don’t have a clear picture of what must be done, and different people will try in different ways. But what is clear from the parable is that we have to do something. To ignore the poor is sinful, and will have eternal consequences.