WHEN PEOPLE THING about violating God’s law they think about sins of commission: doing something prohibited like stealing, harming another, or the like. We often forget that sins of omission – things that we neglect to do – are often even more damaging.
The rich man in Christ’s parable is not accused of any sin of commission. He is not blamed for being rich any more than Lazarus is praised for being poor: in itself having money is not a sin. We are not told how he made his money. He is not accused of defrauding people as Zacchaeus claimed to have done. The only thing he is accused of is not giving alms.
The poor man, Christ says, lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for scraps. It may be easy to ignore a panhandler on the street; it is not so easy to ignore him when he is at your doorstep day after day. Yet this is what the rich man did. He did not overlook abstract appeals from far-away charities; he passed by a flesh-and-blood person in need on his own doorstep, “the living creature,” as St John Chrysostom describes him, “for whom God cares” (On Wealth and Poverty).
The Purpose of Wealth
One of the ultimate questions behind this parable is, “What is money for?” In the ethics of the world the answer is clear: money is there for us to buy more and bigger and newer and better. According to the Scriptures, however, though we walk in the flesh, we do not live according to the flesh. We know that our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.
The purpose of money according to the vision of the kingdom of God depicted in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is set forth directly in St Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes, “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Corintians 9:8). Our resources as meant to provide us with “all sufficiency,” meaning everything that we truly need, and “an abundance” – everything more than we need – for doing good. Does having multiple cars and homes or a TV in every room fall under the heading of “sufficiency”?
The rich man in Christ’s parable may have felt that he “needed” every scrap he had acquired but, as St. John Chrysostom affirmed, he did not know what he needed it for: “If a person enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then his wealth does him good. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the great pit. This is what happened to this rich man” (On Wealth and Poverty).
Where Do We Encounter God?
Devout believers are convinced that they encounter God in worship – in the words of the Bible, in the Eucharistic presence. The Lord taught the very thing: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). When the Body of Christ comes together in worship – particularly in the Divine Liturgy – the Head is surely there as well.
But Christ also indicates another instance of His presence in our midst. He affirms that He is present in the needy of this world. In His parable of the last judgment Christ rewards those who fed and clothed Him, who welcomed Him or visited Him when He was sick or in prison. “Assuredly I say to you,” He tells them, “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).
In the Liturgy we truly encounter the glorious Christ: the candles, the singing, the incense and the icons all point to Him as He is now: at the right hand of the Father, praised by the saints and angels. But in the poor we encounter the Christ who put aside His glory and took on our broken humanity that we might ultimately share in His divine sonship. The person in need is an icon of the humiliated Christ, the suffering Christ, the dying Christ – as much an icon of Christ in its way as is the Liturgy. Most of us find it easier to see the Lord of glory in the Liturgy. It seems to take a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa of Calcutta or a Father Damian of Molokai to see Christ incarnate in human weakness.
The late Catherine de Hueck Dougherty, daughter of a noble Russian family, tells of how her parents recognized the presence of Christ in the poor. “Early in my childhood, the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parents’ example and words. No one was ever turned from our door, bum or beggar, woman of the streets or thief. The men were welcomed by my father. He gave them a bath himself, or mother would do it for the women; then they would be given clothing if they needed it. They would be served by Mother and Father and by us children – if we had been good through the week and thus worthy of serving Christ in the poor – on our best linen and from our best china in the main dining room” (My Russian Yesterdays).
The baron and baroness had clearly learned what the rich man in Christ’s parable had not: that the beggar at the gate is one whom God sends as a means for the salvation of the rich. As St John Chrysostom phrased it, “The Rich Man had in Lazarus an opportunity to learn virtue and to show forth love. Instead of accepting Lazarus’ help, he betrayed himself with heartless greed and an unwillingness to share his own wealth…
For nothing can so make a man an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.
Indeed, even though you fast, or sleep on hard ground, or even suffer unto death, but should take no thought of your neighbor, you have done nothing great; despite what you have done, you still stand far from this model of a perfect Christian” (On Wealth and Poverty).
“If we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.
“We are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance. Just as we would not call a person healthy who was always thirsty, even if he enjoyed abundance, even if he lived by rivers and springs, (for what use is all that water when his thirst remains unquenchable). Let us do the same in the case of wealthy people: let us never consider those people healthy who are always yearning and thirsting after other people’s property; let us not think that they enjoy any abundance. For if one cannot control his own greed, even if he has appropriated everyone’s property, how can he ever be affluent? But those who are satisfied with what they have and pleased with their own possessions and do not have their eyes on the substance of others, even if they are the poorest of all, should be considered the richest of all. For whoever has no need of others’ property but is happy to be self-sufficient is the most affluent of all.”
St John Chrysostom, Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man