“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell[a] from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'”
[ Editor’s note: St John Chrysostom preached with great frequency on the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Selections from these sermons have been published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in the book On Wealth and Poverty. Given the wealth of insight from Chrysostom on the parable, I am disinclined to try my hand at even beginning to summarize what he says abou the Gospel text. The Acton Institute has published selections from Chrysostom’s sermons available on their blog page: Readings on Church and Poverty. Just scroll down to Week 2 to find St John’s work. These quotations do a much better job then I could of explicating the economic implications of this parable. Read St John Chrysostom, and he will explain to you the thorny questions surrounding wealth and poverty. My own concern here is more modest.]
At any given moment of my life I am either Lazarus, sitting in need at my neighbor’s door, or the rich man who ignores my needy neighbor. Mark my words carefully: I am not Lazarus, I am not the rich man. Rather I am both of them and so I vacillate between acknowledging my need and the illusion of my own abundance. In the parable, Jesus Who sees more clearly then I do, is able to make these men distinct from one another. And by that very clarity He reveals me to myself as both men.
For this reason I war within myself as St Paul says:
Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin (Romans 17: 13-25).
Unlike Lazarus, I do not accept my own poverty, my own need. I imagine myself to be the rich man, the man who is sufficient in himself and in need of no one.
But when I do that I condemn myself twice over.
First, I am condemned because I deny that my life is not mine, but the gift of God that makes me possible. I do not own my own life, my own existence. It comes to me from outside and in fact it is only that Which is outside of me that makes me possible. Try as I might, I can never grasp my own life, it comes to me, as it does to everyone, as a free gift from God or not at all.
When I refuse to acknowledge that my life is a gift, that I am a needy being who owns nothing not even himself, and imagine that I am sufficient, that what I possess is really and truly mine, I condemn myself again.
If what I own is really mine, if nothing external to my own will and desire constrains me, what excuse do I have for my lack of generosity, my unwillingness to sacrifice or to care for my needy neighbor? If I really believe that I am rich, if I really believe that am self-sufficient, and yet still do nothing, I reveal myself to be a rather miserable and petty little godling.
If I really possess myself fully, then I possess all things and nothing I give away can ever diminish me. And this makes me much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least would suffer a small loss in caring for Lazarus. But if I am really self-sufficient, if I am really wholly independent of God, my neighbor and possessions, if I am really never in need, then, unlike the widow in the Gospel, I can never give from my substance–anything I give, I give will always be from my abundance since abundance is all that I have.
And so I find myself much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least had the lame excuse of fear, what excuse do I have who imagine himself to need nothingthing from my neighbor?
In the Gospel, the rich man could look at Lazarus and see himself if only faintly. Even if he never did anything with his sympathy, even if that weak communion with Lazarus never moved him to action, he at least made that stillborn movement toward his neighbor. He compassion is ineffectual both for Lazarus and his brothers who he leaves in this life. But while the compassion is fruitless, it is at least there.
The rich man in the parable is a barren fig tree. but I am even less than that when I deny my own poverty. I am Lazarus laying at not only the Gate of Heaven, but at my neighbor’s gate as well, begging for the scraps that fall from the heavenly and earthly tables. Poor and needy Lazarus is taken by angels to Heaven to which he always reached. His need was denied again and again by the rich man, but Lazarus never despairs of Heaven’s mercy. His neighbor’s indifference never makes Lazarus bitter or indifferent to whatever small mercy he might receive in this life. He is even willing to accept the ministrations of dogs and in this he becomes for us a distressing figure of Christ Who nourishes us with His own Body and Blood.
The whole of the parable, like the whole of the Christian life, revolves around mercy.
Do I offer mercy?
Or am I, like the rich man, unwilling to give even from my surplus?
Will I accept mercy?
Lazarus in his humility did, even if the only mercy he received in this life was from dogs licked his sores.
The rich man within me, as St Paul suggests, war against my ever acknowledging that I am Lazarus, that I am poor and in need. My need is so great that even the Infinite God cannot it seems fill me. Or maybe more accurately, my need is so great that God, in His mercy and humility, allows me to take comfort not simply in Him, but in my neighbor as well.