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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Wednesday, September 29

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
—Luke 16: 19-21

In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we have yet another glimpse into the ironic kingdom of God: the poor become rich, the rich become poor, and nothing is quite what it seems. It is one of many stories that Jesus tells about the pitfalls of wealth—and the second of two found in this single chapter of Luke. To say, then, that Jesus saw a connection between possessions and spirituality would be an understatement indeed.

One widely accepted interpretation of this parable is that the sin of the rich man (traditionally he is known as Dives, which is Latin for “rich”) was not that he was wealthy, but that he never really saw the poor man at his gate; Lazarus was invisible to him. Luke doesn’t exactly tell us this, but he implies it by his description of the poor man’s suffering. Had the rich man been paying attention, Lazarus probably would have been in better shape.

The rest of the story is equally simple. Both Lazarus and the rich man die—to the latter’s surprise, no doubt—and while the poor man joins Abraham in the hereafter, Dives ends up in hell. But it’s hell with a view: having lived luxuriously for years, the rich man is now tormented not only by flames, but also by the sight of Lazarus living in comfort.

When the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his family of what is to come, he is told that this can’t be done. Moreover, Abraham says, it probably wouldn’t do any good. The rich man and his brothers hadn’t listened to Moses and the prophets, so why would they listen now? And there the parable ends.

Citing Luke Timothy Johnson’s translation of Luke 16:26—“And in all these things, there is a great divide set up between us and you people, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us”—writer Sarah Dylan Breuer observes, “The great divide between Lazarus and the rich man didn't spring up upon their deaths or after the last judgment; it was created by the rich man while both of them lived.”

What does it take to recognize such a gulf as this? The rich man doesn’t get it, not even after death. Like the thief who repents only because he got caught, Dives seems to regret his actions only because of their consequences for him. 

What he misses altogether is the fact that the God he professes is a God who breeches every “great divide.” Only through compassion and justice can the rich man do the same.

O God, help me to see how very rich I am, and let me act with love and courage where poverty and injustice abound.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2005.