Rich Man, Poor Man

Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, though many scholars doubt Paul wrote it, reflects the heart of the Christian hope that Paul expressed in his letters: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” At the end of this letter, Timothy is encouraged to imitate “Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” and “to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is at the coming of Christ Jesus that the fullness of him “who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” will be displayed. This is the cosmic perspective that makes kings, tyrants, presidents, celebrities, nobles and rich men and women seem small or, rather, allows them to be viewed in the proper light: they are people like everyone else, not inherently better, not inherently worse, created by God for the “unapproachable light” of divinity, not for the passing glory, honor and riches of this world.

But it is hard to be humble, or to share, when you are the rich man and your perspective is narrowed to this world or, even narrower, to one’s own desires. Jesus tells what seems like a simple parable in Luke 16 about a rich man and a poor man. But the poor man has a name, which alerts us that this parable may not be as simple as it seems. After all, whose name do you know better, Bill Gates or the beggar on your corner? But here we learn that the poor man’s name is Lazarus, while the rich man’s name remains unknown. Yet no one is nameless to God. We are all known by name, whether rich or poor; and no one, in the eyes of God, is superior to another. Our worth, our inherent belovedness, is not based on who we are but what we are: human beings created in the image of God.

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There is another point about Lazarus’ name that is even more telling for this specific parable. The rich man seems to be separated from Lazarus and God only because of his wealth, which seems unjust, improper, simply not fitting. Why should earthly wealth condemn one to an eternal life of misery? The parable is subtle, however; the clue to why the rich man is judged is in the details. Lazarus lay in misery by the rich man’s gate for a long time, begging for food, but his pleas were not heard. Rather, they were ignored. How do we know this? In the parable it is the rich man who identifies Lazarus by name, when he calls out: “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.” If he knows Lazarus by name in the afterworld, he knew Lazarus by name when he begged for mercy and food in this world. But the rich man decided he had better things to do than help the poor man at his gate. That decision to ignore the poor, Jesus demonstrates for us, has eternal implications.

Even accounting for the rich man’s turning away from Lazarus, the issue of wealth still discomfits. It does seem that there is something inherently distracting about worldly riches that focus our attention on earthly pleasures. In the parable Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” This is properly frightening, for it does suggest a kind of quid pro quo, where the “good things” of this life equate to agony in the life to come and “evil things” in this life to comfort in the world to come. Is this a necessary outcome?

No, for Jesus, throughout Luke and all of the Gospels, suggests that proper use of wealth can have positive implications both for those in need now and for the life to come. It is especially pertinent for those of us who are wealthier than we want to admit. We need to be certain about what truly matters to us, for it matters now and it matters eternally.

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