“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
“Sumptuously” - now there’s a wonderful, evocative word. It’s an interesting word too, with a long history. It comes from the Latin word - “sumptus” - expense . Throughout history nations have passed what are called “sumptuary laws”, laws which govern what people of different classes are allowed to wear. In Ancient Rome, only the Emperor was allowed to wear purple, dyed with the fantastically expensive Tyrian purple dye made from the tiny murex shell . Senators were allowed a purple stripe on their togas, but that was all. There were sumptuary laws in Medieval England too, laying down what kinds of fabrics and furs different ranks were allowed. Again, purple was a restricted colour. Only the royal family could wear it on outer garments. Lower ranks of the aristocracy could have it in the lining of their clothes, but ordinary people couldn’t wear it at all. The whole complicated business was designed to reinforce the pecking order. Just by looking at someone you could tell how important they were.
The rich man in Jesus’s story is dressed in that exclusive purple (presumably hoping the emperor won’t notice), and he’s feasting sumptuously not just now and then, but every day. He isn’t just rich, he is seriously rich. This is the man who has everything. The man who has believed his own PR and is quite sure he’s Somebody, with a capital S.
The original Greek word translated as “sumptuously” captures that meaning in a slightly different way. It’s the word lamprōs. It gives us our English word lamp, so you won’t be surprised to hear that it means shining, brilliant, splendid. This man’s wealth shines out of him. It announces his importance just like his purple robes do.
There’s an effortless sense of entitlement about him. He glides through life, expecting that it will all go his way. Even after death, when he’s in torment in Hades, he still feels entitled. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” he says. Why on earth should he think that Lazarus is going to traipse all the way down there to him, when he is, for the first time in his life, safe and comfortable at Abraham’s side? Yet still somehow he assumes that he only has to clap his hands and his needs will be met. And when Abraham tells him that isn’t going to happen, he still can’t give up the feeling that the universe owes him something. “Send him to my brothers then” he says… He hasn’t caught on that Lazarus isn’t at his beck and call.
The rich man assumes he is entitled, important, someone whom others should notice. And yet there’s a fascinating thing about this story. He may think he’s entitled, but actually in this story, he has no title, no name at all. It is the beggar, Lazarus, who is named. It’s the only time in any of Jesus’ parables that a character is named, so it’s certainly deliberate. The rich man could be any rich man, but Lazarus who has been treated like a nobody, is a precious individual. Luke has a habit of focussing in his Gospel on the people no one else notices. Right at the beginning, Mary sings the praise of God who “puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” This story is an illustration of what that looks like.
So, although the rich man may seem at the beginning to be the star of this story – the one who shines brightest – actually it is this overlooked, forgotten beggar who is its real heart.
So let’s put that brilliant, shiny rich man to one side and think about Lazarus instead. What are we told about him – and what are we not told about him?
Let’s start with the first half of the question.
When the story begins he’s lying at the gates of the rich man’s house, presumably because that seems like a good place to beg from, a place where people with the means to help will see him. Except that they don’t. Despite the fact that this rich man must have had to step over him and around him every time he went in and out, he seems to take no notice of him at all.
Lazarus lies there covered in sores. He’s helpless. We’re told that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” He doesn’t want to “feast sumptuously”, just to have enough “to satisfy his hunger”, but even this is denied to him. He’s out by the gate, far from the table, and the rich man can’t even be bothered to send the leftovers out to him.
Even the dogs lick his sores, we are told. Dogs were regarded as unclean, so this is the final degradation for a man who has fallen about as low as it is possible to get. If the rich man represents the epitome of wealth, Lazarus represents the epitome of poverty. But it’s all about to change.
Lazarus dies, and we are told that he’s “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham”. It’s a wonderful, flowery image – it could have come straight off the front of a sympathy card. In stark contrast , all we’re told about the rich man is that he “also died and was buried”. No angels, no Abraham, no wafting through the skies for him! But Lazarus is safe, at Abraham’s side, honoured in death as he never was in life.
So that’s what we are told about Lazarus. But what we aren’t told is, in some ways just as important. We aren’t told that he’s good, or pious, or holy or deserving. We aren’t told that he was a hard-working man who, through no fault of his own had fallen on bad times.
Jesus’ parable was almost certainly based on a well-known folktale of the time in which a poor but honest man and a rich, dishonest one find their positions reversed in the afterlife. It’s a theme which you’ll find in folktales through the ages, but Jesus’ puts his own distinctive slant on this story, and, in fact, cunningly subverts it.
This poor man is lifted up simply because he is poor, and because his abject suffering is an affront to God in itself. This is not how God wants his world to be. Throughout the Bible he tells us so. The laws of ancient Israel, given by God to Moses, were designed to prevent wealth being heaped up by the powerful. Land couldn’t be permanently bought and sold. Debts must be forgiven every 50 years. Fields weren’t to be reaped to the edges, so that the landless could share in the harvest. It was all meant to stop inequality becoming entrenched. If God’s people lived as they should, there shouldn’t be beggars at anyone’s gates.
This parable isn’t about a poor but honest man finally being rewarded for his goodness despite the fact that both rich and poor have often told and heard it that way. The rich have told it as a sop to appease the poor. “Accept your lot gracefully now, and you’ll have your reward in heaven later.” The poor have told it as a rather desperate wish-fulfilment. If I am good enough and clever enough it will all come out right for me in the end. But this parable doesn’t say either of those things. Instead it’s a blistering reminder that no one deserves poverty and that those who allow it to happen when they could have prevented it will one day have serious questions to answer. It tells us too, that poverty damages both poor and rich in different ways. If we define people’s worth by their wealth, as this rich man does, we blind ourselves to the true humanity and personhood of those we think are beneath us. We miss the gift they bring, the blessing of God that is in them.
We’re told that this parable is addressed to “those among the Pharisees who loved money”. Pharisees weren’t usually people of high status. They weren’t necessarily rich, but it seems that some of them wanted to be, and the reason they wanted to be was that they believed that God gave wealth to those he specially loved, that it was a sign of his blessing. If you were poor it meant you’d fallen out of his favour. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” as we say. Jesus story was a stark reminder that that was nonsense. Lazarus looked as poor as you could be, but God loved him and held him close. The rich man, dazzled during his lifetime by his own brilliance, found that when his light went out in death, he was on his own.
The first reading hit the nail on the head. It warns us that those who “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches” are riding for a fall. “We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it” says the reading. If we want “the life that really is life” then we will only find it letting our lives be shaped by God. It is his unconditional love for us which gives us the security we really crave, an unconditional love that extends to everyone around us too. When we have that security, we are able to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”. We don’t have to hoard what we have or put others down to feel that we matter.
Next week we celebrate our Harvest Festival and, as usual, we’ll be taking a collection for the Diocese’s Poverty and Hope appeal. You were given a leaflet with some details of the projects it supports as you came in. It’s very easy for us to skim this and forget it, even if we stuff some money in the collection next week anyway, but in some ways the stories in the leaflet are as important as the money. They tell us that what might seem like an anonymous, needy crowd, is really made up of people like us; our brothers and sisters, people with names and hopes and dreams, people with gifts to give, people in whom God lives and works, people who are an infinitely greater blessing to the world than the money we have in the bank. So I hope you’ll take the leaflets home, read them, pray about them, and give generously, so that both they and we can “take hold of the life that really is life”.