In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story to his predominantly devout Jewish listeners. It is a story of a rich man, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Jesus draws a strong contrast in his story between this rich man and a beggar by the name of Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate. “He was covered in sores and longed to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus continues the story and describes their respective deaths. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Despite his pleas, the rich man was shown no mercy. “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you”, explains Abraham in the story. The rich man was beyond rescue.
The story leaves me uncomfortable. It is a relief to hear that the character of Lazarus is now in a place of peace. However, the rich man … this is a steep price to pay for being rich?! Wait a minute! Was that the problem? His opulent riches? Then, how the heck, did Abraham sidestep Hades? Abraham was describes as VERY wealthy. He had ample livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:1). It seems to me, that having riches alone is not the problem here. Perhaps the point of the story is that the rich man, with all his wealth, had the ability to help a dying beggar at his gate, but did NOTHING about it.
In fact, it seems that the rich man’s ailment was the same as that of the pious and pristine religious leaders of that day. They went to great length to protect their pedigree, orthodoxy and pious devotion and missed the whole damn point! “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24).” The rich man, like the religious lobby group of Jesus’ day, became blind amidst their power and wealth, and failed to notice the beggar at their gate with his horrific injuries.
I can identify with the rich man. I, too, live in opulence in comparison to over 80% of the world. I cannot recall a day in my life that I went hungry, or when I was thirsty, or cold and did not have extra clothes to put on. When I get sick, I find a doctor and buy medicine. At night I sleep in a warm house and a warm bed. In so many ways, I represent the ‘rich man’. This reality is brought home to me every single day – when I see the faces of distraught asylum seekers, when I notice the plight of my city’s homeless, when I study the horrific statistics provided by UNICEF – that 29,000 children under five die every single day due to poverty, when I talk to friends and others who suffer from mental health disorders, struggling to receive adequate care, daily facing discrimination from so many sectors of society, and as I listen to the stories of my LGBTIQ friends, marginalised by their churches and often rejected by their families who attend those churches. In comparison to the rest of the world, I am that ‘rich man’. The only question left to answer is how I will respond to Lazarus at MY gate.
So is there an antidote to ‘rich man blindness’? Are we doomed to live our lives in compassion paralysis as we hoard our goods and safeguard our assets? Do we keep making excuses for our lack of involvement in the fate of Lazarus at our gate? Perhaps we can pretend Lazarus is a threat? Some ‘other’ that has come to invade our peace and quiet. Maybe we can change the language by describing a broken, destitute man as an ‘illegal gate squatter’. That will make us feel like we have a right to ignore his needs. It would even be better if we can dump him at our neighbour’s gate and let him become their problem while we safeguard our own borders. And while we tell ourselves all these lies, the rot continues to grow inside of us. But there is another way …
Woven through the sacred text is the virtue of Generosity. Not only is it a virtue, it is the very essence of the Divine. The offence of the rich man is that another human being lay suffering at his very gate and he withheld generosity and mercy. Generosity is displayed in so many ways – our connection to others; our willingness to listen, to understand, to help; the way we see, talk and behave towards those who are on the margins of society; how we treat all of God’s creatures; and the consideration we show to our planet. The list goes on. In a culture of fear and paranoia, to live with a spirit of generosity towards others is indeed an anomaly.
In a world dominated by greed and violence, where the rich become richer, whilst feeling threatened and ‘persecuted’, and the poor continue to languish at the expense of our lusts, the story that Jesus told snaps us to attention. We need to consider our ways. Dr. Charles Birch once said that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live. When we develop a generous heart and way of life we usher in a different tomorrow, one that brings healing to the wounded and hope to those in despair. Generosity, my friend, comes to us at the price of self-sacrifice. Just like the rich man we have a choice: fear or generosity. May we choose that which brings life.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
— Simone Weil