It is very difficult to walk through any large city without encountering poor people begging. People in need frequently come to Holy Trinity in Nice or to the priest’s house – literally to my gate – asking for help or for money.
Here in the South of France, there is great wealth but real poverty dwells alongside it. This ‘rubbing shoulders’ of wealth and poverty is one of the themes of Sunday’s Gospel reading, Dives and Lazarus: a Poor Man lingers at the gate of the house of a Rich Man but the Rich Man barely notices him, just as people walk past beggars on the streets of Nice.
However, we may miss some of the force of this story because there are cultural details that we won’t necessarily understand. In Jewish society in the first century, they marginalised the poor because they believed that poverty was the result of your own or your parents’ sin.
The proximity in the Gospel story of the Poor Man to dogs isn’t accidental either. Dogs were regarded as being no better than domesticated vermin. The undeserving Poor Man and the dogs belonged together.
We are also meant to appreciate the Rich Man’s wealth by the quality of his clothes. The purple dye used for his clothes was the most expensive in the ancient world. Only the emperor and rich patricians would wear purple and to wear purple clothes was the equivalent of having designer clothes, expensive jewellery and a Maserati – something glimpsed occasionally in Nice and more frequently in Monte Carlo!
Also, although the poor majority and the rich elite lived alongside each other in Jesus’ time the rich could readily treat them as barely existing. This is exactly what the Rich Man (Dives) does.
Once the scene is set – the Poor Man, effectively invisible, begging at the gate while the Rich Man passes by and continues to indulge himself – there’s a denouement typical of folk tales. The ‘wicked’ person gets his come-uppance. The positions are reversed. After death, the (formerly) Rich Man finds himself separated from the (formerly) Poor Man, who lives in paradise while he is in hell (Hades).
But it isn’t quite as simple as that. The Rich Man when he was alive never grasped the reality of the Poor Man’s predicament and he continues to be blind to it. He thinks that his brothers who are still alive could benefit from being warned. Abraham – the father (patriarch) of Jews – says to him that behaving differently and noticing the poor and responding to their needs is part of Jewish teaching (‘They have Moses and the prophets’). If he hadn’t recognised this during his lifetime, neither would his brothers. But the Rich Man persists and asks that the Poor Man be sent back from the dead to warn (scare) them. Abraham responds that if they ignore Jewish teaching (‘Moses and the prophets’), a man from the dead will have no impact either (is this a reference to people ignoring the gospel itself after Jesus’ resurrection?).
This part of the story touches on the issue of moral character or habit. The Rich Man doesn’t just pass the Poor Man by one occasion, he does so day after day. He does so habitually.
So, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus ends up being less a warning about self-indulgent rich people getting their come-uppance than about people being ‘blind’ to the poor (and the religious tradition which taught them to take notice of the poor). The Rich Man had persuaded himself that the Poor Man was underserving and therefore that he did not need to respond to his suffering. He was unable to feel compassion (love) for another human being and that became his character.