There may be no biblical story that so pointedly condemns what we today call income inequality. A story that disturbs the conscience. That disturbance is the essence of this passage—a troubling that reaches even beyond the grave.
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ [from Luke 16]
Interestingly, it’s the poor man who is given a name, while the rich man remains nameless. There are so many biblical stories where characters are unnamed. A Syrophoenician woman. A man born blind. Tax collectors. Sinners. Lepers. People who are considered unimportant to a community don’t have memorable names.
But in this parable, Jesus chooses to give Lazarus a name and to let the rich man remain nameless. Turning things upside down.
Not only is the beggar Lazarus named by Jesus, his condition is also vividly and horribly named and described. He’s covered with sores and is so weak he can’t shoo away the dogs that gather to lick them. We can assume that his illness is either caused by or exacerbated by his poverty and poor nutrition. Perhaps he doesn’t have access to bathing, or to basic health care. Maybe he is homeless, and exposure to the elements has increased his vulnerability to illness.
Rich Guy knows Lazarus. Knows him by name. And yet, he passes Lazarus every day as dogs lick the sores of the poor, hungry, ill one. He passes Lazarus and sees every day the evidence of income inequality, the lack of health care and food and shelter.
He passes Lazarus and does nothing.
When both Lazarus and Rich Guy die, the latter asks to have Lazarus come and give him comfort. Yes, the one who provided no comfort to the visible suffering of another while alive, requests comfort from that same other. Now suffering the torment of his own failure and faithlessness, he still doesn’t get it. Why is there a great chasm between him and Lazarus in death? Because there was a great chasm in life, a chasm that the wealthy one could have crossed any time he entered or left his home and saw a sick, poverty-stricken man who was hungry.
Rich Guy is not condemned for being wealthy. He’s condemned for ignoring the inequality, the great gulf, between rich and poor, and for not acting. Lazarus, the very symbol of poverty, is given a place of honor in God’s kingdom at death.
No matter our social and financial status, we all have responsibility for the other. A cautionary tale, this parable pushes us to see and hear the suffering of the poor and to cross that enormous gulf that exists between people, between communities. To see the poor and the sick as people with names, not just some jumble of faces. To name the injustices and illnesses they deal with. To reach out while we’re all still living, because it is the only chance we have to try and make things right.
Naming people and their situations gives them significance and reminds us that we have a responsibility toward all our fellow human beings.
Doing nothing is not an option.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier