Jesus was a storyteller because he was a rabbi in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition is filled with rabbinic stories called Midrash, intended to illustrate spiritual ideas and to invoke questions and curiosity and change.
What questions does this story inspire in you? I have known this story since my childhood in the Catholic Church. It was a story that seemed to promote the idea of an eternal Hell where there was no escape and no compassion or relief. It was one of the stories used to impress upon me a fear of what could happen to me after I die. The after-life is usually the point of interest for many people when it comes to spiritual or religious matters. It was not until my education under more knowledgeable bible scholars that I learned to ask different questions and see different perspectives than the ones I carried since childhood.
Jewish Midrash stories like this one from Jesus’ own tradition were rarely or ever about the afterlife, but intended to make a poignant point about this life. Midrash stories were intended to make the listeners think about their own lives and the ways of society and culture. Most of Jewish spirituality is about how the community of God, the people or “nation” of God are living in this world as an example of God’s kingdom and justice.
Jesus’ audience was familiar with images similar to Lazarus and the Rich man in purple. In Jesus’ culture and time there was a huge chasm between the destitute and the opulent, and there was no expected crossing over from one side by the other. In fact, the whole concept still practiced in some cultures in our world today was that of “the untouchables.” People destitute and homeless being ignored and left to die in the streets. I have heard how in developing countries and some Island destinations, tourists are exposed to the great chasm between the impoverished and the fortunate. Stories of sitting at fine dining restaurants frequented by tourists while hungry children peer through the windows hoping for just one bite.
Perhaps the man dressed in purple was not recognized as a particularly evil or cruel man in his culture or day, but simply the more fortunate one receiving the favored share of limited wealth and goodness in the world. We read in history how this great divide between the privileged and the impoverished was recognized as a “divine rite” of royalty and bloodlines. Many cultures throughout the world accept the lavish life of royalty and wealth while the vast population lived barely and below subsistence lives.
In our own nation and time attention is being drawn to the vast chasm growing between the one, 5, and 10 percent of the population and the rest of us. We are not bothered by the huge difference of salaries between corporate executives and the labor force that creates the products, or the huge chasm between what is paid to an athlete to wow us and play a game to that given to a person who teaches our children. Or the great chasm between a person who goes to the hospital with insurance and one who does not.
I am not trying to have a political debate here but to listen to this story in a new way. I grew up thinking God was the one who created the great chasm between those who suffer without relief and those who live in paradise. But I do not believe that anymore. I think we created those chasms and we have the power to narrow and diminish them.
Many of the stories we read in the Gospels were about people, including Jesus himself, who ventured from their place of luxury and goodness for the sake of another who was suffering. The Good Samaritan Story, raising lazarus from the dead, healing the lepers, the blind, showing compassion and defending the dignity of the woman accused of adultery. The Christ story itself is about how God, the divine and holy one, became incarnate with us, closing the chasm between our suffering and shame and God’s eternal power to redeem and resurrect.
Today our culture is wrestling with long held chasms that separate ethnicities, sexualities, gender, marital status, education, nations, religious traditions. For ages doctrines have been propagated that God created those great chasms between black and white, gay and strait, male and female, Christian and Jew, Jew and Muslim, rich and poor… but I do not believe that at all. I think we created those chasms and we can close and diminish them and declare with St. Paul that in Christ there are not these chasms or differences.
The rich man lamented his lack of awareness of or effort to involve himself in Lazarus’ suffering and implies that his brothers and family were doing the same. In the story, Jesus, playing the voice of Abraham replies, “They have Moses and prophets, they should listen to them.” But the rich man insists, they will not, just as I did not, but if I come to them from the dead, they will repent!. Abraham replies, if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
We can confirm Jesus’ point. Two thousand years following the resurrection story, the great chasms between the world’s opulent and the impoverished still remain. For us who are neither opulent or impoverished we are left to ask, what does this story say to me? Whatever efforts we take to diminish the chasms that separate our own good fortune and the suffering in this world, I believe this is what Jesus intended for us all to do. And whatever we are doing or not doing that perpetuates the divide between ourselves and the suffering that we can alleviate in this world, we ought to listen to Moses, the prophets, and Jesus who came back to us from the dead and commanded… Love One another as I have loved You and whatever you do for the least among you, you do unto me.”