The gospel parables, like The Chasers War on Everythingor Yes We Canberra, have a way of pursuing those who lend themselves to caricature. They also have a way of inviting the self-important to take a good look at themselves. The exploitative wealthy are a particular target in Luke’s community: ‘Woe to you who are rich….’ This Sunday’s parable presents a nasty unnamed character who is mega rich and who uses his wealth to support a totally selfish lifestyle. He dresses in the finest clothes and feasts extravagantly every day. He has no concern for or interest in the destitute and badly wounded man, Lazarus, who has been cast at his gate and who longs for a share in whatever falls (‘scraps’ in our translation) from the rich man’s table.
The reference here is probably to the pita bread commonly used by diners at banquets to wipe their hands. The bread would be discarded after use and snapped up by the dogs. Lazarus has a reasonable hope that, even if the servants fail to offer him the leftovers, the dogs might share their daily fare. Begging for food was often the sole means of sustenance for those with disabilities. There are strong hints that Lazarus has a serious disability: he is ‘sorely wounded’; he is ‘cast’ at the gate, by family or friends; he has no capacity to prevent the dogs from licking his sores.
Lazarus dies and is transported by angels into the arms of Israel’s iconic ancestor, Abraham. In contrast, the rich man dies and suffers the torment of Hades. There is no mention of angels to transport him to the place of his ancestors. The rich man’s suffering is exacerbated by the vision of the one whose needs he ignored in life, now ‘a long way off’ in Abraham’s embrace. Earlier in Luke’s story, Jesus has declared the bent-over woman to be a daughter of Abraham. Later, he will call the toll-collector Zacchaeus a ‘son of Abraham’. To be ‘of Abraham’ is to be true to the tradition inaugurated by Israel’s ancestor in faith. It is to ‘hear’ Moses and the prophets and their call to justice and right relationship.
Riches belong, not to the few, but to all of God’s people. If they are all-consuming, they destroy our capacity to see or hear what really matters. They are not much use in the afterlife. All the honour and status they might bring in life are quite worthless in the final analysis. The rich man comes to this realisation a bit too late. Even then, there is no recognition of the poor man’s shared humanity, only a desire to benefit from his services.