We can read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19f.) as a moralistic tale. The rich man was punished for his failure to care for Lazarus. Thus, we better do good for others or else risk a similar fate. There is truth in that moral, but the larger point of the story is why the rich man failed to care for him.
We observe the octave of Corpus Christ on the First Sunday after Trinity because the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood connects with the lessons. The rich man’s neglect of Lazarus reflects a lack of sacramental vision. He saw Lazarus the way the world saw Lazarus. The rich man failed to discern the image of God.
The epistle for Corpus Christi (which we celebrated Last Thursday) is 1 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul chastises the Corinthians for their neglect of the poor in their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. As the Church gathered to celebrate the sacrament, those who had resources feasted, while those who had little went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:21-22). St. Paul warned them with these words:
He who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’ body (1 Corinthians 11:29).
How did they failed to discern the Lord’s Body? Did they fail to discern Christ in the Sacrament? Or did they fail to discern Christ in the poorer members of the church, which is also called “the body of Christ”? Most likely St. Paul meant that they failed to discern the connection between the two.
Both the rich man and Lazarus were members of Israel, God’s chosen people. The story assumes that the rich man attended synagogue where the Bible was regularly read. He called Abraham “father.” He probably kept the kosher rules. His judgment is his failure to live according to the faith he knew. He had been taught him that God made all men his God’s own image. He had heard Deuteronomy 15:11, “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” Yet, when the image of God sat at his gate in need, the rich man failed to see him.
The Ten Commandment are based on the connection between God and our neighbor. We are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind because God made us and redeemed us. And we are love our neighbor as ourselves because our neighbor bears the image of God. God is the reference point for the value of our neighbor, and our neighbor is the tangible sign of God’s presence. We cannot rightly honor one without also honoring the other.
We fall into error when we treat people according to the value the world places on them and not the value God places on them. The world values people more highly when they have more, and puts little on those who have nothing. However, God’s assessment is shown is the post mortem reversal of fortunes. Lazarus was comforted in Paradise and the rich man tormented in Hades. As Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16).
The cross highlights God’s close connection with the those who are viewed as being of little value by the world. On Good Friday, Jesus was Lazarus. He died outside the gate of the city, full of wounds and seemingly godforsaken–with no one to help him.. As Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Discerning the presence of God in other people does not mean assuming that every needy person is a Christ-like pillar of virtue and every wealthy person is greedy and covetous. Among the needy we typically encounter in America, there is fair share of drug addicts, manipulators and thieves The point is not that we should help the needy because they deserve it. The point is that we should help the needy because they bear the image of God.
The rich man also bore the image of God. However, more was required from him. In the kingdom, wealth is responsibility, not merely status or privilege. The rich man’s behavior did not reflect God’s image–for when God, who possesses all things, saw sinful man laying at his gate full of sin, he went outside his gate, he came down from heaven, to live and die for us. As St. John says, “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
The challenge is to know how we should respond in love to the image of God in each person in each circumstance and to reflect God’s image in our own behavior. We should be ready to help, with wisdom. If someone responds with dishonestly, manipulation or irresponsibility, we should hold them accountable. In some circumstances, there may come a point in time when we will no longer help, when love dictates that people face the consequences of their actions. It is not easy to help those is need. The cross was not easy and it is not always easy for God to deal with each of us. The point of the parable is that we must be willing. We cannot withdraw behind a gate so as to ignore the needs around us. We must love the image of God in others, just as God loves his image in us.
We must also resist the worldly temptation to esteem people highly just because they are rich or famous. Love requires that we be willing to speak the truth to those who have “the world’s goods,” reminding them that God requires much from those to whom he has given much. One wonders if anyone from the synagogue ever called the rich man to account for his neglect of the poor at his gate? We should esteem people on the basis of their faith, humility, generosity, virtue and goodness, not on the basis of their appearance, wealth or status in the world.
Of course, we know this. We hear it each week in the epistles and the gospels. We read it in our daily Bible lessons. We rehearse it year in and year out as we remember again the revelation of God in Christ in the church year. We pray it week in and week out in the liturgies of the church. The rich man was surprised at the judgment of God. He wanted his relatives to be given special notice lest they also share his fate. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” That is to say, God doesn’t feel the need to repeat himself. As Psalm 95 says, “Today if you will hear his voice harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8). God means what he has said, he expects us to act on it and he will judge accordingly on the Last Day. As the epistle says, “This is the commandment we have from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:21).