There is No Sin in being Rich: Some Moral Reflections on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

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Artistic Images of Dogs Licking Lazarus’ Sores

Passing by the Poor without Caring

In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich, healthy man would pass by Lazarus, the poor, unhealthy man, every day, perhaps one or more times a day, as he lay at the gate to the door of the house (cf. Luke 16:19-31). In doing so, the rich person could not make any excuses, saying, for example, “I never saw the poor man.” In fact, by going into and out of his house, it would have been necessary for the rich man to either step around Lazarus or step over him.

A Contrast between the Rich and Poor

The rich man had a good life. He enjoyed it, especially his material things, possessions. “This man,” in the words of Leon Morris, “had all he asked [for] in life and lived a life of enjoyable ease.”1 As Abraham reminded the rich man in the after–life, Hades, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received good things” (Luke 16:25a, NIV). Note well: According to Scripture, money, wealth, possessions and the enjoyment of life are “good things,” provided that such things do not change a person’s character, making him or her uncaring, indifferent or hard-hearted to the plight of the poor.

But Lazarus was not so fortunate. He did not live a life of ease. He had no “creature comforts.” In fact, he had a hard life. In the words of Scripture, he had “received bad things” (Luke 16:25b, NIV), living, for example, in need of food, shelter and a life that was befitting of human dignity.

A Reversal of Fortunes

At death, there was a reversal of fortunes. Lazarus suffered with patient endurance, trusting in God. That was why Lazarus was escorted by angels to Abraham’s bosom, which is Hades, the place of departed spirits, both good and bad (cf. Luke 16:22). The rich man was in a place of torment, while Lazarus was in a place of comfort and peace (cf. Luke 16:25).

Was the rich man wrong for being rich? Absolutely not! Was it a sin for him to be wealthy? Not at all! In fact, nowhere does the Bible teach that it is wrong to be rich. Rather, as St. John Paul II wrote,

“The rich man was condemned because he did not pay attention to the other man. Because he failed to take notice of Lazarus, the person who sat at his door and who longed to eat the scraps from his table. Nowhere does Christ condemn the mere possession of earthly goods as such. Instead, he pronounces very harsh words against those who use their possessions in a selfish way, without paying attention to the needs of others.”2

Similarly, according to St. John Chrysostom, the rich man’s sin was in not using his money to help Lazarus, specifically, not supplying him with food.3 For Chrysostom, the rich man had no mercy on Lazarus.4 That was also why, in the words of Sacred Scripture, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (James 2:13b, NIV). But “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NIV).

Spiritual and Moral Lessons for Today

While there are several spiritual and moral lessons from the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I want to mention three. First, wealth is a good gift from God, a blessing for the person who has it (cf. James 1:17). But wealth is also meant by God to be used to help others (cf. I Timothy 6:17-18).

Second, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2, NIV). St. Augustine rightly observes,

“God made both the rich and poor. … One may be needy and another may have plenty. … Through the person who has, He helps the one who needs; and through the person who does not have, He tests the one who has.”5

Third, since both the rich and poor are made by God, it follows that both are made in “the image of God” and, thus, are equal in humanity (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). The rich, then, are not superior to the poor; nor are the poor inferior to anyone. Both are loved by God and salvation is made available to both by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).

Endnotes

  1. Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Vol. 3: The Gospel According to St. Luke, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974, 5th printing 1979), p. 252.
  2. Pope John Paul II. 1979. Homily at Yankee Stadium, no. 7. The Holy See/ Vatican. [Web:] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19791002_usa-new-york.html [Date of access: 25 June 2018].
  3. St. John Chrysostom, Popular Patristics Series, Number 9: On Wealth and Poverty, ed. John Behr; trans. and intro. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981, 1984), p. 49.
  4. Ibid., pp. 21, 22.
  5. St. Augustine, “Sermon 35.” 7, quoted in Augustine Day by Day: Minute Meditations for Every Day Taken from the Writings of Saint Augustine , comp. and ed. John E. Rotelle (New York, N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1986), p. 85.

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