The Cost of Ignoring the Poor
Last week, we looked at what I consider the most confusing parable. The one we are looking at today is what I would call, a somewhat confusing parable. However, the confusion is for a totally different reason from the unjust manager.
What is so confusing about this parable? It concerns two questions: is it even a parable and what is the topic that Jesus is addressing? These are some pretty important questions. I would like to address these before we look at the story itself and how we are to apply it to our context.
So, why would anyone doubt that this is a parable? The reason is that the poor man is named as Lazarus. If this is a parable, this would be the only parable in the Bible that has a character with a name. This is enough for some to reject it as a parable and to consider it a true story that took place with real people. While acknowledging the significance of the naming, I still hold to this as a parable. By a parable, I mean a story that illustrates a truth without having actually taken place. But why does the poor man have a name? We need to remember that in that culture, a name meany everything. It was far more than an alternative to “Hey you.” The story presents two men, one who seems to have everything and who seems to have nothing. Yet it is the one with nothing who gets a name and the one with everything that is anonymous. Later church tradition gave the rich man a name but I think this is contrary to the point Jesus was trying to make.
The other question is about the purpose of the parable. One of the parts of the parable is a discussion of the afterlife. We find one man in comfort and the other man in torment. I will confess that when I first started reading the Bible, it was the afterlife description in this story that attracted me. There is a natural curiosity for us about the afterlife. The one thing that unites us is that we will all die. One way or another, we will all find out what happens after death. This is not just an abstract topic. We would love to have some clues as to what to expect. Perhaps this parable is the key.
I would like to suggest that the purpose of this parable is not to satisfy our curiosity about the afterlife, about heaven and hell. That is not to say there is no truth about the afterlife here, just that this is not Jesus’ purpose. We shouldn’t press the details too literally, as if we will spend eternity in the embrace of Father Abraham.
The actual purpose of the parable is to challenge us in our attitudes toward the poor and vulnerable. There is a danger that we are so interested in the afterlife that we miss Jesus’ main message. This is why we are going to spend the rest of our time looking at our attitudes toward the poor.
The Mistake of the Rich Man
This parable is a masterpiece when it comes to description. Most of the time, things are left up to our imagination, but this time Jesus presents the details in a powerful way. Normally we are not told what people are wearing. It is just not a matter of importance. But hear we are told about the rich man being clothed in purple and fine linen. Today, you can’t necessarily tell if a person is rich or poor just based on clothes. A poor person may have some brand name clothes and a rich person may enjoy wearing retro styles that they find at a second hand store. But it wasn’t that way in biblical times. If a person wore purple and fine linen, they were rich. Very rich. We are not told what Lazarus was wearing but we are told that he was covered in sores. I can guarantee you the rich man was not covered in sores. These sores are reflective of the man’s extreme poverty.
We are told that Lazarus was laid at the gate of the rich man. He didn’t go there under his own decision or power. He was placed there. Who put him there? Was he placed there by people who cared for him and hoped that he would receive some help? Or was he placed there by people who wanted him out of their sight? Whatever the reason, Lazarus received no help from the rich man. It’s not that Lazarus was longing after the rich man’s fine clothes. He didn’t even want an engraved invitation to a lavish banquet. Lazarus would have been content with just the crumbs from his table. If the rich man was like most people, he probably tossed plenty of scraps into the garbage. None of it went to Lazarus. The rich man had comfort and Lazarus lived in torment. But that would soon change.
Both men died and went to the afterlife. They probably were both shocked to see that their experiences had been completely reversed. Now it was Lazarus who was in comfort and the rich man who was in torment. Notice that once more, Lazarus is carried by others, in this case the angels. However, this time Lazarus is brought somewhere where he does receive help.
Things are too late for the rich man but he asked Abraham to raise Lazarus so that he can warns his family. Abraham refuses this request. The importance of caring from the poor was no secret, nor was it a new revelation. Caring for the poor is found throughout the Old Testament. It is a major theme in Scripture and the rich man’s family has all the warning they need. If they refuse to listen to Scripture, they won’t listen to a miracle either.
The Lesson for the Church
What does this mean for us? What lesson can we as a church get out of this story? The simple message is that the church is called to care for the poor. When I say the church, I don’t mean the organization, I mean the people who identify as followers of Jesus. We can’t be content that our congregation runs a ministry for the poor if we as individuals have no interest. The church is not a building or an organization but is people. It is us.
The message of this parable is that there is a cost to ignoring the poor. And the temptation to ignore the poor is strong. Our culture tells us that we need to look out for ourselves, not just for our needs but for our wants. How often do advertisers put a product in front of us and tell us that we deserve it? It is easy to baptize this materialism and adopt it into the church. I remember seeing a documentary about a televangelist who was bringing in millions. He was literally staying in the same hotel suites as royalty and presidents. An examination of his financial statements revealed that he was giving to the poor far less than the average person in this congregation. It was sickening.
But pointing fingers at a rich televangelist is an easy target. What about us? Again we have to ask some questions. The first is, who are the poor? Sometimes it is obvious. There are people who are homeless and are in severe want. But there are other people who might surprise you. I have lived in poverty. Our family has lived on an income far below the poverty line. We have relied on food banks and assistance from churches to feed our family. I have known what it is like to drive by a Tim Horton’s and to not have enough money to buy a tea. If you looked at us, you would have never known that we were poor. We looked like we had it all together but we were far from it.
Our second question is about what the poor need. It is not as simple as just throwing money at poverty. Sometimes some cash is needed to pay a bill and keep the heat on. Sometimes it is some food to help out a hungry family. Sometimes it is providing a warm church basement on a cold winter’s night. But there is more. People with poverty need more respect than pity. It can be terribly humbling to be in need. It is never easy to ask for help. People experiencing poverty need to be able to have some pride, not in a sinful way, but in a healthy way.
I was recently asked to define suffering. I said that suffering was the pain that comes when our reality falls far short of the hopes and dreams for our life. Nobody wants to be poor. While some cash and some food help, it doesn’t relieve the suffering from needing the help in the first place.
We need to help people with bandaid solutions that meet immediate needs. If a person is hungry, feed them. It is as simple as that. But we need to look beyond this.
We need to look at why people are experiencing poverty. We need to address mental health, addictions, job training, housing shortages and everything else that contributes to poverty. The church can be a voice in these areas, advocating for all those in need.
Way back in the third century, Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Emperor Valerian. A Christian named Lawrence was put in charge of the church’s financial resources. He took all of the treasure and distributed to the poor. Valerian found out about Lawrence and had him arrested. The Roman Emperor demanded that Lawrence hand over all the treasure of the church. As Valerian made his demands, the poor of the city began to stream in. Lawrence pointed to them and said, “These are the true treasures of the Church. The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor.”
The rich man in our story missed seeing Lazarus as true treasure. Lazarus was someone to be ignored and dismissed as an annoyance. What about us? As a downtown church, we are positioned to make a difference. You could say that the poor have been placed at our gate. What are we going to do about it? We do not want to pay the price for ignoring the poor.