This week’s UMC lectionary readings include Luke 16:19-31. It’s a well-referenced parable, especially when one’s intention is to speak ill about those who are greedy. But, that’s not exactly how I see this passage. The selfishness of the extremely wealthy is not what I think is the true focus of this teaching. I could be way off in my interpretation (and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time), but I want to make sure you understand that I do not think this passage is teaching us that being poor is somehow better or godlier than being rich. I believe this passage is speaking of our intentionality, where we put our focus - our thoughts and our efforts.
What do we know for certain about the two people in this story? The Rich Man was…well…rich, wealthy, dressed in purple – a sign of royalty, one who didn’t just eat every day, he feasted every day. (In ancient times that usually meant an hours-long or days-long drawn-out affair with more food than could actually be consumed by all the people in attendance.) We know the Rich Man was a Jew from the references to Moses and the Prophets. We know he died and went to a very uncomfortable place (some translations call it Hades, others do not name the place) and we know he was tormented, maybe physically, but certainly emotionally.
Lazarus? We know that he was not rich, in fact he was more than poor- he was destitute, wishing for even just the scraps from the Rich Man’s table. He too was most likely a Jew, living in the same place as the Rich Man, though he could have been an alien; alien refers to anyone from another nation, not originally an Israelite who moves into the area and agrees to adapt to the Jewish way of life. Contrast alien with a foreigner. A foreigner was from another area too, not an Israelite, but who was only temporarily there and did not adapt to the Jewish way of life. Remember the laws of Moses specifically instruct the Israelites to take care of the children, the widows, and the aliens. Sometimes the terms alien and foreigner are used interchangeably, but the laws of Moses are specifically much more accommodating to aliens than visiting foreigners. Back to Lazarus, we know he was covered in sores – which in ancient times some thought to mean that God had cursed that person. And we know that when Lazarus died he went to be with Abraham, carried by angels. Though again be careful. Going to be with Abraham in ancient times was not the same as our post-Jesus view of heaven. It could be the same, but the text is not that specific.
Now, what can we infer about the two? Well, we can assume that the Rich Man enjoyed life, probably to the fullest as the passage says, “you received good things during your life”. We can infer that the Rich Man didn’t share much, if anything, with Lazarus from the scraps of food reference. And we can assume that the Rich Man was somehow intentionally acting against God’s will…after all richness alone does not put one in eternal suffering. Let’s be very careful not to lump every rich person into the same category as this particular person, for God doesn’t will us to be poor or any specific socio-economic status. But God does will us to share what we are blessed with and provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. So you come to your own inferences as to what the Rich Man could have done, or not done, in order to deserve his placement in torment, but do not assume that he is there only because he was rich. That would be a misinterpretation of Scripture and disrespectful to those who work hard to earn what they can.
What can we infer about Lazarus? Not much as there really isn’t much written about his actions. Should we assume he was cursed by God considering the sores? Probably not since he ends up neighbors with Abraham. Can we assume that he was destitute because of some unfortunate event? Maybe. But maybe he was destitute because of his own accord. We just don’t know. He could have been poor from his own actions. Should we assume that Lazarus was a nice guy? We have no way of really knowing. So what can we say? All we can really infer about Lazarus is that he made God happy. He followed God’s will in some way whenever it was possible. And the opposite can be inferred about the Rich Man. He did not respect God’s will. So Lazarus is pulled closely to Abraham (and God) upon his death and the Rich Man is cast further away.
How do we apply this to our lives today? This text is not saying that it is a sin to be rich or that it is a blessing to be poor. And we know from Scripture that we cannot judge others, rich or poor. So we can’t judge and we can’t know for certain. Ouch! Perhaps the only thing we can pull from this passage is: that which pulls our attention away from God does permanent damage. And I would not go so far as to judge and say which specific actions will land you where after death, because again we don’t know for certain what each person did that placed one with Abraham and the other far away. What we can take learn from this is intentionality. Meaning: we all know deep inside our hearts what God wants from us – to love and respect each other, always, fully. To take care of each other and all of creation. To give our attention and devotion to our Father. How we do that is uniquely specific to each person. Unique to our lives and our abilities. In fact, humans seem to be born with the Golden Rule already written on their hearts. Experts and studies have concluded that people around the globe all agree on the Golden Rule, regardless of culture, age or religion. It’s when we ignore these divine nudges of love and respect that we slowly drift further and further away from God. Actually, we don’t ever drift away from God, for as we read in Acts 17:28, “God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist”. If this is an accurate description of our existence as humans, then perhaps the Rich Man was distracted from God while Lazarus was focused on God. Could it be that simple?
Intentionality. It’s that simple. And it’s that complex. We need to be intentional in our everyday actions and interactions with others. We need to be intentional about what we teach and pass on to our younger generations. We need to be intentional about how we use the resources God has given us. We need to be intentional about our spiritual growth. We need to be intentional about our fellowship at church and even more so in our fellowship outside of church. And we need to be intentional with our relationship with our heavenly Father. The more we do intentionally the closer we grow toward becoming Christ-like. The more Christ-like we are the more focused we are on God. And the more focused we are on God the easier life becomes, all of life. Rich or poor.
With love and respect for all who suffer,