On Being Lazarus

In an earlier post on the Dives and Lazarus story (Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart), I made the point that wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. There is much more about attitudes than there is about possessions. After all, there is a kind of poverty that has nothing holy about it, just as there is a kind of wealth that has nothing evil about it. It is what we do with either, the way in which we are rich or poor, that counts.

Interestingly, churchgoers tend to take sides, as it were, identifying with the poor but godly Lazarus who, typically of the truly poor, never speaks for himself but is spoken for by Abraham and Dives. It is worth thinking about that for a moment. Dives has a voice; Lazarus doesn’t. Dives’ overwhelming sense of entitlement leads him to ‘explain’ to Abraham how Lazarus can be of service to him and his brothers, but it is Abraham who rebukes him, not Lazarus. Is there something here to ponder?

You will have noticed, I’m sure, how many disputes boil down to have/have not antagonisms and the resultant envy and absurdity that often follows. Having more than another doesn’t confer any special rights on the one who has more, nor does it mean that the one who has less is in any way morally superior to the other, but how often do we confuse the two. We forget about obligations or duty as we rush to assert our rights. We think we are Lazarus while all the time we are behaving like Dives. The noisier we are, the more we convince ourselves we are championing the poor. Maybe. Maybe not. We are certainly falling into the trap of thinking of the poor as people different from ourselves, to whom we do good rather than people exactly like ourselves with whom we share.

Perhaps this Lent we could spend a few minutes thinking about our attitudes to the poor — not to poverty, for that is an abstraction, but to the poor, for they have a human and individual face. If our almsgiving is to mean anything more than giving a little from our excess, it must take account of that fact; but it also means that, in an important sense, we have to become Lazarus ourselves. What might that mean for you and me?

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Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart

As we draw closer to the General Election, politicians of every stripe are anxious to be seen as good guys. Unfortunately, that often seems to mean bandying around claims and counter-claims about poverty and wealth which foster division and envy. We do not have to hate the rich in order to be concerned about the poor. We do not have to despise the poor in order to desire a prosperous society. Dives and Lazarus in today’s gospel (Luke 16.19–31) are not to be interpreted in black and white terms. Wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. Dives is in agony because during his life on earth he failed to be charitable, not because he was rich. Lazarus enjoys bliss because he was patient in adversity and never railed against God, not because he was poor.

Very often at the monastery we are invited to support some good cause or other, and we have learned to be wary. Sometimes the cause isn’t good; sometimes it is presented in a way that makes us uneasy. It is possible to do an ostensibly good deed in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy — these are not Christian values but they can be the wellspring of our actions. St Benedict borrows a verse of the psalmist to remind us to be on our guard about our own motives: ‘my every desire is before you,’ he says, and that includes those we prefer not to acknowledge. It would be a useful Lenten exercise to spend a few minutes thinking prayerfully about the things that matter to us and, without becoming tied up in knots about it, scrutinising our own intentions. A pure heart is only attained through constant watchfulness.

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