‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “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. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Dives and Lazarus – Rich and Poor. We used to call the rich man Dives, but Jesus did not give any name to this character in his story: ‘dives’ is just the Latin word for ‘rich’: a translation of the Greek ‘plousios’. The poor man does have a personal name, Lazarus. (As it happens, Jesus had a friend called Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary.) St Augustine wrote: “Jesus kept quiet about the rich man’s name but gave the name of the poor man. The rich man’s name was well known around, but God kept quiet about it. The other’s name was lost in obscurity, but God spoke it. Please do not be surprised…. God kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there, indeed he gave instructions for it to be written there.”
The story tells us something about riches: the rich are inclined to define themselves by what they own, not by what they are. Riches can clog up your inner being, so that you do not know who you are. Then you look out from that place of not-knowing and you see other people, but you do not really see them; you only see what they own – or do not own. Others looked through the doorway and saw a poor man there; the rich man looked and saw nobody. That is the subtlety of this story: the rich man was neither cruel nor kind to Lazarus; Lazarus was invisible to him.
There is another rich man in the gospel – this time it was not a story but reality. When Jesus invited him to follow, “he went away sorrowful, because he was very rich” (Mt 19:22). There is nothing quite like wealth for closing the ears and the mind, for deadening the conscience. After a while it also closes the eyes, and like the rich man in the story we no longer see the poor. That rich young man is never heard of again in the New Testament. He might have become a greater apostle even than Peter or John. Sahajananda, from outside the Christian tradition, wrote this about him: “The young man became very sad because he was very rich. He identified himself with his riches.... Without them he had no existence. With these riches he could not enter into the kingdom because the door to the kingdom is narrow. Not narrow in the sense of space, but in the sense that only the essential aspect of our being goes through it; all acquired things have to be left out.... This treasure can neither increase nor decrease. No thief can get there and no moth can cause its destruction.”
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is not focused on Lazarus but on the rich man. Focused on Lazarus it might mean: Put up with your lot now and you’ll be happy in the next life; you’ll even be able to watch the rich man suffering. But no, the focus is on the rich man. Jesus told this story to the rich, to their faces, as an accusation against them. He told it to the Pharisees, who as Luke said, “loved money” (16:14). It has the same import as Luke's version of the Beatitudes: “Alas for you who are rich!” (6:24).
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