Poor Lazarus reveals the danger of riches

Published: July 27, 2015

This is the seventh column in a 12-part series.

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Jesus’ parables brilliantly illustrate a well-known proclamation of the prophet Isaiah. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Jesus’ parables were meant to leave his listeners pondering just how different were the ways of God than what they assumed to be the fixed way of things in the “real” world. Jesus’ parables were meant to open the door to an ultimate reality — the reality of a life lived in the embrace of God’s will.

In the parable found in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus confronts us with an extremely wealthy man and a very poor man. The first notice that the parable is upsetting the cart of traditional expectations arrives with identifying the poor man with a name, Lazarus, while the rich man is left nameless. After 2,000 years, it’s still unsettling. The rich have forever had their names heralded while the poor are almost always anonymous.

Giving someone a name humanizes them. It recognizes them as a unique person rather than just one of a category of humans. Lazarus is somebody, however poor and pitiable, while the rich man is only that, a rich man. Readers down the centuries were so acutely aware of the need for names that they began to call the rich man “Dives,” which is simply Latin for “rich.”

Lazarus lies at the rich man’s door, to be encountered daily, one would assume, by the man who never uses his riches to alleviate the other’s suffering. The only help Lazarus receives in life is from the dogs that lick his sores.

Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is carried away by angels where he enjoys the perpetual embrace of Abraham, the father of all the faithful. The rich man, though, is taken to Hades. From that place of fiery torment he can, however, see how Lazarus is comforted and cared for by Abraham. Depending on the translation, Lazarus is depicted as being in the bosom of Abraham, or at his side.

Either way, it means he is comforted with his head on Abraham’s chest. In our culture such an embrace is often seen as a maternal gesture of love and comfort. This physical closeness is the same as described in John between Jesus and the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” who lay his head on Jesus’ chest at the last supper (John 13:23).

Amazingly, while the rich man can see the now redeemed Lazarus, he can’t see any change in their relationship. He expects that poor Lazarus should act as his servant by alleviating his own suffering. But, when told by Abraham that Lazarus cannot go to him, he asks that Lazarus deliver a warning that will save the man’s five equally rich brothers from his own fate in Hades.

It is important to note that this parable clearly states that the rich man’s brothers have all they need to lead them to repentance and secure a place along with Lazarus in the embrace of Abraham: they have Moses and the prophets. This leads both Jewish and Christian scholars to reaffirm that Jesus understood his mission as being well within the living traditions of Judaism.

Would a warning from one risen from the dead bring about the wealthy brothers’ repentance? Not if they were intent on ignoring Moses and the prophets. In the Gospel of Luke, Moses and the prophets clearly point to Jesus, his suffering and resurrection (see Luke 24:25-27, 44-45).

Is the nameless rich man evil because he is rich? Is Lazarus righteous because he is poor? In Moses and the prophets those who are rich have a moral obligation to see that the poor in their midst receive their basic needs (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Zechariah 7:9-10). God hears the cry of the poor (Exodus 22:21-26). Outside this parable, Jesus firmly warns against the ultimate dangers that accompany wealth (Mark 10:23-27; Luke 8:14).

The message of this parable lies in its great irony, not in its brief but explicit description of the afterlife. What Lazarus couldn’t tell the rich man’s brothers, the parable does: God is mindful of the needs of the poor, and those who have wealth must therefore also be mindful of the poor.

Study Questions

  • Why is identifying Lazarus by name such an important part of the parable?
  • Why wouldn’t Abraham send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s brothers?
  • What message do you think the parable sends to those who have great wealth (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Zechariah 7:9-10)?
  • Who are the poor at the doors of your community? How might God be asking you, your parish and your community at large to better serve their needs?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 25, 2015. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.