The rich man and the beggar at his gate
Sermon given at All Saints’ church, Nottingham, 29th September 2013
by Rev Christopher Harrison
Jesus frequently spoke provocatively and challengingly about riches and poverty. Think, for example, of the parable about the rich man who built additional barns in order to store his harvest, but whose life was taken from him before he could enjoy his wealth fully. He told a rich young man, who was keen to know what he had to do to follow God fully, to sell all his possessions and to follow him. The parable in today’s gospel – about the rich man who went to hell and the beggar, Lazarus, who went to heaven is in a similar vein. But what is it really saying? Let’s look more closely.
First, let’s try to imagine what kind of person the rich man might have been. Did he ever notice or even think about the beggar by his gate? Did he think to offer him some money, food or help – or even give him a job? Or did he assume that his poverty and his suffering were in some way his own fault, as certain strands of the Old Testament taught? Maybe he had adopted the philosophy which Jesus summed up in the saying, probably in circulation at the time, that ‘The poor are always with you’ – and so had concluded that it was pointless trying to do anything to help. Whatever the rich man was like as a person, he eventually paid the price for his behaviour towards the beggar, as he ended up being tortured by the fires of hell, while Lazarus gained a reward in heaven for his suffering on earth.
There have been long debates about whether riches are bad in their own right, or whether the more important thing is what you do with them. The argument is not straightforward. Jesus said, on the one hand, that it was more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle – but on the other, he did stress that it was not impossible. St. Paul did not say that money was the root of all evil, but that the love of money was the root of all evil. If you look at the other teachings of Jesus, what seems to have been particularly important to him is the principle of generosity – especially sacrificial generosity, which means giving to others even though it hurts you. For someone who is rich, it is more difficult to give truly sacrificially than if you are poor; remember that Jesus commended the widow who gave her last coins to the Temple, in contrast to the rich man who gave a much smaller proportion of his wealth.
So I believe that the parable about the rich man and Lazarus is one of Jesus’ many stories designed to get people to be more generous. If he noticed the beggar, the rich man would probably have experienced many of the same responses as people today may feel when asked for money by a beggar – “it won’t make any difference to his condition in the long run”, “he’ll probably misuse the money”, “It’s my money because I’ve earned it”. But Jesus still indicates, in the parable, that he should have been generous, and that he should have put his doubts and reservations aside.
There are three further points which arise out of this parable, which are especially relevant to us today:
(i) Notice that when Lazarus and the rich man have died, it is Lazarus who has the superior position. The beggar is the one who has entered heaven; Dives, the rich man, is now barred from heaven by a great chasm. Today we are so often tempted to regard people according to their earthly status; it is easy to conclude that those who are most important in the eyes of the world are most important in the eyes of God. This parable reminds us that this is not necessarily the case – we cannot tell who will emerge shining with the light of sainthood in the kingdom of heaven.
(ii) The parable also reminds us that our actions here on earth have more far-reaching consequences for our eternal destiny than we may like to think. We have – quite rightly – moved on from the kind of religion which scared people into a state of fear and guilt by an over-emphasis on fire and brimstone. But we may have now gone too far in the other direction. If we focus exclusively on the all-loving and all-forgiving qualities of God, we can easily forget that Jesus taught quite clearly that our earthly actions have long-lasting consequences, and may affect the destiny of our soul.
(iii) Thirdly – notice how in the parable Abraham refuses to send Lazarus to the rich man’s surviving brothers, to warn them of the possible consequences if they are as selfish and lacking in compassion as he was. Abraham points out that they have disregarded the teachings of the prophets – so they are unlikely to listen even if Lazarus returns from the dead to warn them. There are always prophets who warn of dire consequences, but whom few people heed. The problem of course is that we are not always sure which prophets to believe. Today, we have plenty of prophets predicting global disaster as a result of climate change; increasing hunger as populations continue to grow; and the eventual exhaustion of the earth’s resources. But there are just as many commentators who argue that those people are scare-mongering. So it isn’t easy, and probably wasn’t easy in Jesus’ time also to know which prophets to believe. The people Jesus is criticising, however, seem to be those who obstinately refuse to change their ways, even when the evidence for doing so becomes blindingly obvious. The Old Testament prophets were clear about the perils of riches and meanness – and yet people still failed to heed them.
How we use money is one of the great tests of the Christian life. Few people actively want to be poor; but the more money we have at our disposal, the more responsibility it brings, which is not always an easy thing to deal with. Poverty may or may not bring happiness; but riches don’t necessarily bring happiness either. It is when we lose someone who is close to us, for example, that we realise that some things in life are far more important than any amount of money.
I’d like to finish with two quotations. The first is a cautionary note from the medieval mystic Thomas à Kempis, who wrote, “If you have wealth, do not glory in it”. The second is a comment by the American oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who said, “I have made many millions, but they have brought me no happiness. I would barter them all for the days I sat on an office stool in Cleveland and counted myself rich on three dollars a week”.