The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited —by Jinny Batterson
During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:
In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.
After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.
During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.
“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.” For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.
Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty.
The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas. Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.
Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help? Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing?
As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.
Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse? Happy fall, y’all!