At the Rich Man’s Gate

“Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!” (Psalm 146:5)

Only Lazarus has a name. Jesus’ parables are filled with memorable characters: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Persistent Widow. But they all are anonymous.

Tradition has named the other principal character in this tale. He is Dives, “the rich man” — his life defined by his possessions. The title is fitting, for it seems that he lived only for what his money could buy. He chased every pleasure. Weighed down by his full pockets and bulging belly, when he died, he sank into hell. He seems to have hardly given a thought to what might lie beyond this life. Like “those lying on beds of ivory” in Amos’ Israel, his possessions dulled his senses. Like them, he seemed completely baffled when the world collapsed around him, and he found himself without any help.

Here on earth, Lazarus’ name was laughable to him. It means “God has helped me.” If God was helping the wretched man, surely the rich man saw no sign of it. Lazarus got no better, and every day he went hungry — the rich man refused him even the scraps from his overflowing table.

Yet Lazarus was not without his friends. He was laid at the rich man’s gate — by those who cared for him. The snarling watchdogs came to lick his sores. Kenneth Bailey has pointed out that some ancient writers knew that dog saliva had curative properties. Perhaps he was like Francis or Cuthbert, a man whose holiness gave him a particular gentle familiarity with animals. God did receive him into Paradise. Even there, when the rich man cried out in pain, Lazarus did not deride him. Perhaps he was even ready to go back and tell the rich man’s friends, if only the gulf were not so wide.

As our psalm reminds us, God is the persistent supporter of the helpless. He “feeds the hungry,” “sustains the orphan and widow,” “lifts up those bowed down.” He invites us, out of our abundance to share in this work, “to be rich in good deeds,” as St. Paul urges in our epistle, “liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future. ” Our wealth will not weigh us down if we share it with those who cannot help themselves.

Look It Up

Read John 11:1-53. When another Lazarus came back from the dead, how were Abraham’s words proven true?

Think About It

Medieval Christians constructed many lazar-houses, hospitals built by the wealthy to provide care for poor lepers like Lazarus, heeding this parable’s warning. How does our modem health-care system measure against the standard of its ancestor?


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