I’ve just recently finished this drawing of the Rich Man and Lazarus, titled: Accursed Are The Rich [9 x 12 pen & ink on distressed paper]. I’ve had this parable on my mind for a long time. It is a parable only found in the Gospel of Luke, A story Jesus told: (Luke 16: 19-31)
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
I’ve often felt that Jesus might have used this parable to explain the Beatitudes (Luke 6) in which he says, “Blessed are the Poor.” This statement is nearly incomprehensible to contemporary people, because we often measure success or “blessing” with wealth. Jesus is saying that this isn’t true, that in fact the rich are cursed not blessed. To contemporary people this sounds like a paradox; not many wish to be poor and we do not know what the poor are “blessed” with. We might hear of a few backwards individuals who take on “poverty” as a religious exercise, but to call the poor blessed is nearly impossible for us.
What did Christ mean then? Was he wrong? Does it just sound like a nice thing to say?
Some people, in a more contemporary setting have said similar things. The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal”, essentially that “Superiority is fake”, and so is “inferiority”. No man woman or child is greater or less than another. Can we really say this? It is very natural for us to think of weak, ignorant, disabled, sick, and poor people as lower than others – having less worth, less “human usefulness”. Many contemporary government systems, be them democratic republics or communist systems try to give people equal and impartial membership in the system. The strong businessman and the perpetually ill and elderly are granted similar rights and protection by the state. Despite Jefferson’s strong words, this is not a religious truth under Christ, they are not equal, because, in fact, the rich man is inferior to the poor man. According to this parable the poor man’s character is grater, making Lazarus superior to the rich man.
The strong, the rich, the smart, turn to their strength rather than character. The Strong man, the rich man, the smart man does not need to be good–they can get what they want through their power. The poor man, in contrast, must survive through humility, service, kindness. The poor man naturally reflects these character traits – Christ would call him blessed, blessed because these are the aims of Christ. Under Christ’s view it is not a blessing to receive fame power or wealth; rather, it is a blessing to be humble, kind, and generous. This makes the poor man free, but the rich man is tied to his source of power.
No amount of wealth can make a man of character. When the weak and the poor are generous it is more risky for them, and thus it is a sign of true kindness and love. But being poor can also make a person more generous; for example, one photographer noticed that poor children were more likely to share their toys, while rich children were more possessive. http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/03/photos-of-children-from-around-the-world-with-their-most-prized-possessions/ or take a look at these:
1) Read this scientific study by Paul Pliff: “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior” – or watch the TED Talk by the same Author: “Does money make you mean?”
2) Iwan Baan suggests that being poor can make us more creative: “Ingenious homes in unexpected places” (TED Talk)
3) Dan Pink suggests that money can hamper our creativity: “The puzzle of motivation” (TED Talk)
So, I think this is partly why Jesus is saying “Blessed are the poor” – that poor people are more creative, more generous, kinder, more empathetic people. These are the things Jesus would like us to have and be. Do we see these traits in Lazarus? – Yes; Lazarus does not steal even though his life is in danger, Lazarus begs from someone who has the power to address his needs, not from those he might put a burden on, he does not ask to be honored or even sit at the table or even get good food, he essentially asks for the rich man’s garbage. Lazarus did not want to inconvenience anyone with his sufferings, and he does not complain, demand, threaten or judge.
Many people believe this parable (of The Rich Man and Lazarus) to be a warning regarding the afterlife – but honestly I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. I believe that Jesus is simply using this story as an illustrative tool to teach the value of character (kindness and humility) over “earthly possessions” (like sumptuous feasts). Lazarus represents a person lacking earthly possessions but having character, while the rich man has earthy things but lacks character. I don’t think that Jesus is saying wealthy people will burn forever and ever – but rather saying how wealthy people can feel guilt (or worse, superiority) in their lack of action. Nor do I believe that Jesus really means that Lazarus feasts every day, forever in heaven, but that “heaven” is a word for the good things that are intangible, priceless, or have intrinsic worth (I’ve written on the topic of afterlife before, if you would like to know more about my view, read: Escapism and the Avenue to Heaven).
Rather than depicting heaven and hell as literal “places” I’ve depicted them as states of mind, intangible “places”, represented by the two “halos” in the drawing. The rich man has an orb of self worth, with a black arrow pointing downward, at himself. Lazarus has an orb of kindness and self sacrifice, the “helm of salvation” represented by the pierced, upward-pointing triangle (the mentality of Jesus).
Some people might respond by saying, “This is stupid, you are saying we should quit our good jobs and give away our bank accounts, and give away our mansions and luxury cars, give up everything that gives us security and comfort in this life?” Yes, if you want to pursue the character and teachings of Jesus you cannot also pursue the self-centered, individualistic, “American dream”, and rather you must pursue a life of community, love, sacrifice, and generosity (the treasures of heaven). This is not seen as a bunch of rules, but rather freedom from earthly worries – an invitation to worry about your character, and your relationships instead of your bank account, power or status. This is good news, not condemnation. In fact, Jesus advised a young rich ruler to do this:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19: 21)
If Jesus’ disciples were enraged when a woman poured a bottle of expensive perfume onto Jesus, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor“(Matthew 26: 8-9), how much more would they be enraged with the way people live today? Jesus only excused the “waste” because it was a gesture of love, which would also prepare his body for burial (believing he would be executed in the coming days – which he was). “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.“(Matthew 26: 10-12)
The Rich Man and Lazarus is a poignant story that calls into question what is important in our lives. It changes how we see “blessing”, and challenges notions of success. It is the most dramatic story of one being cast down and another being raised up. It is full of irony because most would see no reason for Lazarus to be “blessed”, because he seems to have done nothing but beg (which is not respected in western culture). It is not a, “rags to riches” story, but rather, a story saying, “the riches are in the rags”. (Which is an excellent reason for me to draw this on a rag, distressed paper).