God’s blessing of the poor and rejection of the rich is sharply expressed in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) told to certain Pharisees whom Luke calls ‘lovers of money’. These scoffed at Jesus’ words about loving God more than money. We are not told directly that the rich man did anything bad in his lifetime (though from 16:19, 31 it is implied that he did not practise almsgiving); he was just exceptionally rich, had his consolation in this life, and after death ended up in Hades. Nor are we told that Lazarus was particularly virtuous. He was simply miserably poor in this life, and in the next received his consolation, apparently for that reason alone (16:25).
The story behind the parable
A story with which Jesus was familiar came from the Alexandrian Jews before Jesus’ time, an obvious point because Jesus uses it also for the parable of the Great Supper. It is the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican, Bar Ma’jan. When the scholar died, his funeral was unattended, while the publican was buried with great ceremony. One of the poor scholar’s friends was allowed to see in a dream a few days later the fate of the two men in the next world. The poor scholar was in gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams. Bar Ma’jan was standing on the bank of a stream unable to reach the water. In his lifetime the poor scholar, who is named Lazarus, had his pitch in the street at the gate of the rich man’s mansion where he begs for a gift from the passersby or scraps from those who had dined at the rich man’s table.
The detail lies in the beginning of the story. The rich tax-gatherer Bar Ma’jan dies and is given a splendid funeral; work stops throughout the city, since the whole population wished to escort him to his last resting place. At the same time a poor scholar dies, and no one takes any notice of his burial. How could God be so unjust as to allow this? The answer is: although Bar Ma’jan by no means lived a pious life, yet he had once done a single good deed, and had been surprised by death in the act. The moment of death could not cancel his good deed so he had to be rewarded by God with a splendid funeral. The good deed was to arrange a banquet for the city councillors, but they turned down the invitation. So he gave orders that the poor should come and eat, so the food would not be wasted. Jesus drew on this story in two of his parables.
The chilling truth for us of the parable of Dives and Lazarus is that the rich man did not even notice the poor man at his gate. The parable is not even about how one should use possessions, but more about how God views people who have or do not have a certain number of possessions. Clearly, even if it sounds extreme, God loves the poor and hates the selfish rich. Otherwise, why is God’s good news directed to the poor as a blessing and heard by the rich as a woe? Otherwise, why punish a person simply because they are rich and reward another simply because of their poverty?
Does this mean that if I have a great deal of money or property the good news is not for me? If I am rich, am I automatically excluded from God’s care? How much property or money does it take? This is not a trivial question if God favours those below a certain economic line and detests those above it. Is wealth determined by the quantity of material things I have or the degree of my attachment to them? Or is there something evil about possessions as such which taints everyone to some degree, and more so when more are owned? These are not easy questions in the face of what appears to be a decided selectivity in God’s mercy.
Luke makes a point of stating that when Jesus called his first disciples, ‘they left everything and followed him’ (5:11). Levi, the tax collector, also ‘left everything and followed him’ (5:28). All of them have left their source of livelihood as Peter reminds Jesus in 18:18 when the rich ruler came and asked what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him, ‘Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.’ In the face of the rich man’s refusal, Jesus makes the sad comment about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (18:24-25).
The consternation and response of the hearers, ‘Then who can be saved?’ (riches would have been regarded as a blessing of God for good done in this life!) leads to Jesus’ assurance that what is impossible with human resources is possible by God’s power (suggesting a way open to the rich?) Peter reminds Jesus that he and the Zebedee brothers had left their own things in order to follow him (18:28). So it appears that reward in this life and the next depends on leaving everything to follow Jesus. And following the parable of the great banquet in ch 14 where the first invited refused to come, Jesus turns to the multitudes following him to state the demands of discipleship as being willing to leave behind all close relationships and to carry the cross after him daily (14:25-27). Or ‘Whoever does not renounce all that one has cannot be my disciple’ (14:33).
Clearly God’s good news is for the poor rather than the rich. By stripping ourselves of all possessions and becoming poor we respond to God’s invitation to the kingdom. These conditions are addressed to the disciples and there does not seem to be any way of avoiding the radical demand – being a follower of Jesus demands becoming radically poor. The question which needs now to be addressed is whether this demand was made of all who accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the gospel story.
References: Jeremias, JThe Parables of Jesus , SCM Press.
Johnson, LT, Sharing Possessions , Fortress Press.