THERE SEEM TO BE MORE QUESTIONS than answers in the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We are told that, when the beggar died, he was carried to Abraham’s bosom. We are not told why. We are also told that, when the rich man died, he was “in torment in Hades” (Luke 16:23). Again, we are not told why.
The implication seems to be that the rich man was punished for ignoring the beggar at his gate while he “fared sumptuously every day” (v. 19), but the parable does not say so in so many words. The consistent teaching of Christ as told in the Gospels, however, is that His followers must look beyond attaining material prosperity as the purpose of life. Christ’s followers must be focused on the kingdom of God.
Treasures in Heaven
In this parable, as elsewhere, the Lord Jesus invites us to see that we are given material wealth in this life, not for its own sake, but to be used as an investment for eternity. He teaches that material prosperity in itself does nothing for us in the long run unless we use it in a godly way. In the Sermon on the Mount we hear the Lord say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19, 20). Here earthly treasures are not portrayed as wrong in themselves; rather it is the use to which we put them which judges us in God’s sight.
As Jesus told the rich young man who came to Him, giving to the poor turns earthly goods into heavenly treasure (see Mark 10:21). That which gives us momentary contentment here on earth can be transformed into a source of eternal satisfaction by giving it away.
At a dinner in a Pharisee’s house, the Lord gave the following instruction: “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you; but you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). The reward of those who practice this kind of generosity will be in the age to come.
Later in his Gospel, St Luke would present us with the story of a man who learned how to use his riches: Zacchaeus the tax collector. When Zacchaeus vows to give half of his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he may have defrauded, the Lord’s response is “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9); Zacchaeus has valued godliness above material possessions. As a result he attained the kingdom of God.
How to use a person’s possessions in a godly way was a favorite theme of many Church Fathers. Commenting on the Beatitudes, St Ambrose of Milan would note that Jesus “does not condemn those who have riches, but those who do not know how to use them” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5, 69). Preaching in the cathedral at Antioch, St John Chrysostom urged his hearers to be generous to the beggars at the church door, not rushing past them as if they were “pillars, not human bodies… lifeless statues, not breathing human beings” (Sermons on Genesis 5,3).
During St John Chrysostom’s years as a priest in Antioch, the Church there maintained numerous ministries to the needy (widows, virgins, the sick, the disabled, the imprisoned and travelers) as well as providing food and clothing daily to anyone in need of them. Still, the saint insisted that church members could not hide behind these organized ministries to excuse their personal lack of compassion for those in need. “Can [someone else’s hospitality] benefit you?” he chided. “If another man prays, does it follow that you are not bound to pray?” In other words, you cannot expect to be rewarded by referring the needy to someone else!
People often excuse themselves from helping the needy by pointing to their own needs. They forget the widow whom the Lord observed at the temple treasury: “Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood’” (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus would not have approved of her action if it were not truly an investment in eternity.
It’s in the Scriptures
In the parable, the rich man and Abraham engage in a dialogue, which is actually the climax of the tale. The rich man pleas, “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead’ ” (Luke 16:27-31).
The rich man wants a spectacular intervention to convince his brothers to follow the way of compassion. But Abraham refuses: “the way of compassion is no secret; it is on practically every page of the Law and the Prophets” – what we call the Old Testament. The rich man knows that his brothers routinely ignore the testimony of the Scriptures, but that is precisely the testimony which God has provided for them.
We have more than Moses and the prophets – we have the testimony of Christ in the Gospels and of the saints in the life of the Church. The parable suggests that, if these are not enough to persuade us to follow the way of compassion, then we too will share the fate of the rich man.
On Lazarus and the Rich Man
“The rich man, in purple splendor, is not accused of being greedy or of carrying off the property of another, or of committing adultery or, in fact, of any wrongdoing. The only evil of which he is guilty is pride
“Most wretched of men, you see a member of your own body lying there outside of your gate, and have you no compassion? If the laws of God mean nothing to you, at least take pity on your own situation and be in fear, for perhaps you might become like him. Give what you waste to your own member, I am not telling you to throw away your wealth. What you throw out – the crumbs from your table – offer as alms.
“Lazarus was lying at the gate in order to draw attention to the cruelty paid to his body and to prevent the rich man from saying, ‘I did not notice him. He was in a corner. I could not see him. No one announced him to me.’ He lay at the gate. You saw him every time you went out and every time you came in. When your crowds of servants and clients were attending you, he lay there full of ulcers.”
St Jerome of Stridon