The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke’s Gospel is a passage referenced often for its moral lessons: how to treat the poor, how to avoid the dominance wealth can have on an individual. Readers take one look at the characters and find the lessons that can be applied in their own lives. However, a recent reading of John Chrysostom’s sermons On Wealth and Poverty has encouraged me to take a longer look at this parable. Chrysostom argues that we can learn from the parable not only about the characters in it, but also about the God who saves them.
We find Lazarus in a state of great poverty. Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel that Lazarus “would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come lick his sores (Lk 16-21).” The details in this account show us that Lazarus was not just any poor person, he was the poorest. He could not afford anything for himself. He was so weak that he could not even fight small animals away. What does this say about the rich man? What kind of person must he be to pass by Lazarus without being moved to pity him? He must have passed him multiple times since Lazarus was right outside the rich man’s home. This paints a picture of a man who is not only consumed by his wealth, but is also blinded by it.
Given these two characters and the details told of them, what can be determined about God? Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Christ gives the famous Beatitudes, speaking about those who are “Blessed,” which can also mean “happy.” He says that in God’s eyes, those who are poor, hungry and weeping are the ones who are blessed and will be eternally happy.(Lk 6: 20-22) Lazarus embodies these characteristics to the extreme. And through Lazarus we see a reversal in heaven of what is on the earth. That is to say, that through Christ, those who are poor are wealthy in God.
In contrast, the rich man in the story, consumed by his desire for earthly wealth and status, finds himself in the netherworld after death.(Lk 16:23)He is the epitome of those Christ warned against in the second half of the Beatitudes. His “woe to you” lines speak out to all of the characteristics that the rich man had: money, fame and laughter. But this is not limited to a criticism of success or money, but rather reflects on how the rich man used his wealth. He did not share even the least of his possessions with Lazarus. Because of the character of God, He ends up sharing nothing of Heaven with the rich man. It echoes Jesus’ words, “What you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”(Mt 25:40)
We see Lazarus in Heaven sitting with Abraham. The hopefulness to spend eternal life with Abraham, the father of the Israelites, is what makes the poor rich. This hope given to us directly from God is reflected within Lazarus himself. God took the poorest of the poor, and elevated him to standing side-by-side with Abraham. This alludes to the mercy that God has on us, culminating with the death of Christ Himself. In this death, we see a complete reversal: the son of God accepts the poverty, humiliation, and human death that we all must experience at some point. But Christ also shows us what awaits us in Heaven: endless mercy and love.
Lazarus’s poverty, hunger, and rejection from society become his greatest strength. For what kind of person does it take to endure such ridicule? Our God is a God who notices such characteristics that go beyond that scope of the world. In this parable, we see more than just a poor cripple and a pitiless man. We see a God who is completely merciful, reversing the earthly situation Lazarus found himself in. The parable represents an eschatological reversal stated clearly in the Beatitudes: The poor are blessed and the rich are warned. Most importantly, we have a God whose mercy extends to both sides if they choose to accept it.
Thomas Coast works in the Diocese of Manchester NH and working on is MA in Theology through the Echo Faith Formation Program out of the University of Notre Dame.