There is such a thing called the “prosperity gospel” which trades on the assumption that if and when you become a “real” Christian God will bless your life with money, possessions and good health. These kind of churches flourish in the poorest parts of Africa, and have found a home in certain U.S. and British locations but you don’t need to delve too far under the surface of mainstream Christianity to discover variations on the same theme.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, if used as a parable of who goes to heaven or not (which I believe is a misuse of it) then it leterally means that those who are relatively rich in this life go to hell and only the poor and destitute go to heaven. Apart from being hopelessly dualistic, it is totally lacking in love and forgiveness.
Rather, the parable is about how comfort and wealth can provide a false sense of security and self-sufficiency in regards to our relationship to God and other people, and can blinker us to suffering, and lead us to treat others as lesser beings if they are not as rich or successful as us.
It is, like all parables a parable about how to approach life and our relationships with others. Usually a parable has just one main thrust with other details providing colour. They are lessons in how to walk the way of Jesus.
The lessons are simple yet profound.
Don’t let your good fortune and prosperity lead you to believe that you are more favoured in God’s eyes because you are not – God has an equal concern for all of his children.
There is also an associated lesson on actually “seeing” the poor and distressed. Lazarus begged at the gate of the rich man and had probably done so for years so he would have been aware of his existence I’m sure, but he never really “saw” him. He never connected with him or was interested in his life or condition. The first time he really acknowledged his existence was when Lazarus was standing next to Abraham after death, and his first response was to use him as a servant to do his bidding to alleviate his own suffering. Or if not that, then as a messenger to warn his five brothers against acting in the same way that he had.
But Abraham reminds him that the Bible is chock full of instructions and warnings about treatment of the poor in society and exploitation, and if you don’t take any notice of those why would you take any more notice even if someone came back from the dead? A prophetic statement if ever there was one.
Perhaps the most damaging spiritual consequence of wealth is that it can blind us to real need, we feel cocooned and self sufficient and specially blessed, and so therefore superior to others. We acquire a sense of entitlement, and feel really affronted when our every whim isn’t attended to immediately.
The reality that Jesus wants to confront us with and be challenged by is that no man is an island. Wealth cannot shield us forever, and we will all succumb to the ravages of age, illness and that great leveller death.
Death doesn’t care how much money you have, or where you live, or what you do. Death treats everyone as an equal.
It is good to ruminate on why Jesus told this parable? What do you think he was trying to achieve, and probably most importantly how did he think that by telling it we might change our attitude and way of living because of him having told it? The ball, as ever, is in our court.