There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)
What is this parable about? On the surface, we might be tempted to think that it’s a warning about the life to come and an encouragement to repent as otherwise we face the fires of hell. But I do not think that is its purpose at all. Scholars have pointed out that the parable has well known parallels in other ancient near east literature, and in all of them the emphasis is on the reversal that happens in the afterlife. The poor man in this world becomes rich in the world after; the rich man in this world becomes poor or suffers in the life to come. The point of the parable, then, is to not to provide a literal description of the fate that awaits us, but instead provides a morality tale to encourage ethical behaviour in this life.
It comes shortly after Jesus has chastised the Pharisees for their love of money and his proclamation to them that they cannot serve two masters (Luke 6:13). In this context, and in the whole Lukan context, the parable acts as a critique of those who seek to store up as much wealth as possible and fail to share it with the poor in their midst. The point of the rather gruesome depiction of hades is intended to shock us into divesting of our wealth for the sake of others. It is in short a parabolic command that our goal should be equality. If we heed its message, that is the real challenge we face.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..