It was the practical concern of St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians that: “The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little” (8:15). This paper, based on the story Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31) about the Rich Man and Lazarus whom he referred to as a poor man, is generally a reflection on the above statement of St. Paul. It is a pastoral interpretation of that story in the light of the social teaching of the Church in an attempt to strike a healthy balance in the relationship between the rich and the poor through a recognition of the riches of the poor and the poverty of the rich.
Whenever mention is made of the poor we immediately think of what we could give to them rather than what we could receive from them because, the phrase “poor” in itself smacks of lack, absence and insufficiency. And when a poor person is approaching us, we immediately begin to think of what to give and hardly what we might be given or what we need to receive. This is the same spirit with which the story of Lazarus the poor man and Dives the rich man has been generally interpreted down the years. We are taking a different approach towards interpreting this parable by bringing out, not what the Rich Man failed to give to Lazarus, but rather what he failed to receive from him.
Pope Benedict XVI critically refers to “the pride of the rich who do not see Lazarus at the door and the misery of the multitudes that are suffering hunger and thirst.” It is precisely this pride that makes one fail to realize that, God can wrap precious gifts in a leper’s handkerchief. This is practically what he did in sending Lazarus to the Rich Man. God was as concerned for the soul of the Rich Man as he was for that of Lazarus.
All the elements of deprivation described in the situation of Lazarus cover the six characteristic requirements listed by Christ for the Judgment Day in the Gospel of Matthew namely attending to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. These woes constitute the baggage of Lazarus, which effectively is the package for the Rich Man. As we would imagine, Lazarus was dressed in rags, lying at the door of the Rich Man, a sort of imprisonment; his body covered in sores. He was ill and languishing in hunger and thirst. This abject situation of Lazarus was God’s invitation to the Rich Man to be hospitable, to be kind, to be generous, to be charitable and to be compassionate. This was the missionary message of Lazarus. But the Rich Man refused to pay heed.
The description of the poverty of Lazarus is so graphic that its physical wretchedness is almost tangible. The message is so strong and intends to touch any normal human heart and move it to action. Lazarus is presented as lying at the door of the Rich Man; his body is covered with sores, which the dogs worsen by licking them. He is so hungry he would eat from the trashcan whatever is left over. The Rich Man in the meantime takes no notice of Lazarus. He is blind to the plight of this poor man. In fact, he despises him as “a man of sorrows wrapt in grief.” Maybe Lazarus is notorious at his door by always lying there. He has become a usual phenomenon. Yet his notoriety marks the characteristic insistence of a missionary.
We gradually realize what Jesus’ intent in painting an equally graphic picture of the Rich Man to contrast that of Lazarus. He deliberately portrays the outer state of the body of Lazarus to depict the inner state of the soul of the Rich Man as covered in sores and lying at the door of eternal life unable to possess it. On the other hand, the rich man’s outer beauty (dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dine sumptuously each day) depicts the inner and spiritual beauty of Lazarus. The two characters in the story present the picture of each other in the state of their bodies. Their bodies act like mirrors respectively reflecting each other’s inner state of beauty or ugliness.
When the story unfolds and matures in contrasting situations with the interchange of positions, which puts the rich man right into hell and Lazarus at Abraham’s right hand (which we shall randomly refer to as heaven), only then do we grasp the missionary purpose and role of the poverty of Lazarus. We realize then that, Lazarus is not being comforted in heaven as compensation for his earthly poverty, but precisely, because he has accomplished a mission – the mission of the poor to the rich. Like St. Paul, he has run the race to the finish. His presence at the rich man’s door then assumes a stunning missionary ambient by twisting the story to a classical tale of relationship, where the poor need the rich as much as the rich need the poor.
Lazarus, as missionary is sent to the Rich Man not only to beg but also to give. But just as the rich man refuses to give so does he refuse to take. He lacks the humility that would enable a rich man receive a gift from a poor man. In this way, he fails to celebrate what would refer to today as the spirituality of the Incarnation, which ultimate presents us with the prescription that in a finite world, it is also by receiving that we are able to give.
The Word became man by receiving flesh from the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation thus becomes the typical acknowledgement, by God, of the gift of the poor. God becomes man. God assumes human flesh in a most unassuming manner for in the Incarnation it is actually God who plays the role of the poor beggar, the “stranger at the door”, while humanity play that of the rich giver in a relationship with the Crucified God who allows human beings to give him life and to take it away.
The proper interpretation of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus therefore, provides us with another key to interpreting and appreciating the mystery of the Incarnation – the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the world he came to save. John Saward puts it that the
Incarnation is not invasion. In becoming man, the Son of God neither abandons His divinity nor absorbs our humanity. … So precious is our humanity to the assuming Word that He does not abolish or diminish it. He comes to beautify not destroy, to raise up, not to crush. … That is why, in taking flesh from the Virgin, He does not merely employ her as a passive instrument, but, with a kind of divine courtesy, asks for and makes possible her active content.
Giving to the poor by receiving from them is a humble challenge, which we appreciate most in the Incarnation. It teaches us that God begs from human beings not because he lacks, but precisely because he wants to give. The things he begs from us are the very things desires to give us. The Lord the Giver of life receives life from Mary his mother and asks for a drink from the woman of Samaria. Finally, on the Cross when, he asks for water to drink and is refused, he allows it to gush eternally from his side-wound to give salvific meaning to the rock that gave water to the Israelites in the desert at Horeb. (Cf. Ex 17:6).
Michael H. Crosby refers to such openness to receiving from the poor as necessary for “developing a spirituality for First World Christians”_ as it can help the materially rich to cultivate an integral, reciprocal, respectful and Incarnational relationship with the materially poor. Such is the relationship that matured between Jesus and his disciples where he declared: “No longer do I call you servants, … but I have called you friends” (John15:15). To get the message from the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we need to set again the two tables that are characteristic in this story.
These are the rich man’s table and the poor man’s table. The one is physical, rich, feasible and visible, while the other of course, is spiritual, poor, delicate, invisible, and yet discernable. The poor man’s table is intimately Eucharistic and provides occasion for the Rich Man to gladly have his fill his soul from the scraps that fall from it. But while Lazarus has the humility to pick up the crumbs from the rich man’s table to fill his belly, the rich man does not have the same humility to pick up the crumbs that fall from Lazarus’ table. Consequently, his soul is famishing. We see this in the end results. As Luke records, “eventually Lazarus died” then too, the rich man. Lazarus dies first. But his death already marks the spiritual death of the Rich Man, because when Lazarus dies in his body the rich man dies in his soul. With the death of Lazarus, a veritable opportunity for saving the Rich Man’s soul is squandered. The lack of humility makes him really blind. Thus making true the statement of G.K. Chesterton that: “It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything – even pride.”_ Chesterton further asserts that: “Satan fell by the force of gravity.”_ One would suppose the rich man finds himself in hell by the same force – of pride and gravity. The English idiom has it that pride goes before a fall? Such is also the observation of St. Cyprian that, “eyes clouded with shadows of blackness and shrouded in night cannot see the needy and poor.” (To be continued)