Reflection: "Well, I'll be Damned!"
This story from Luke’s Gospel - of the rich man and the beggar called Lazarus (no, not the one whom Jesus raised from the dead, but the one who sat outside the gate of the rich man), - can discomfort us, as it has done for every generation since Jesus told it. It’s a warning about the dire danger of how wealth can affect the human personality.
Affluence can desensitise us to the rights and needs of other people. I would suggest that 9 times out of 10, really rich people hardly even notice the poor, and, if they do, it’s probably with a sense of irritation.
When the love of money gets a hold on us, other human beings cease to matter. Most shareholders of big companies don’t know, nor do they want to know, how much human misery occurs just so the company can pay them a handsome dividend every 6 to 12 months.
How often have you heard about a CEO of a company, who has lost billions of shareholders’ funds, getting a substantial pay rise? Or of politicians voting to increase their wages and entitlements whilst at the same time making cuts in payments to those who can least afford it? All because they want to fix the budget deficit.
Where money and possessions are treated like a god, people don’t seem to matter. The affluent very quickly become desensitised to the suffering of others.
And then, when they finally wake up to themselves, it’s a case of “Well, I’ll be damned.”
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus is trying to get under our defences and confront us with the disregard we sometimes have for those less fortunate than ourselves.
In it, he uses some of the common imagery of Paradise and Hades - which was current at that time. He takes that well known imagery and uses it to paint a frightening picture of the significance of our disregard for the needy.
You’ll notice from the story, that during his lifetime, the rich man didn’t do anything to harm the sore-covered beggar squatting by his front gate. He didn’t lay a finger on him, nor order him to be moved on. Maybe he would even have thought it was ok for a servant to take waste bread from his table and give some to the beggar.
Whilst he didn’t overtly hurt the beggar - the community had already done that most effectively - he ignored him.
I suppose the rich man was just following the expected social morals of a wealthy man in that time.
This kept others who were lower down the socio-economic scale, ‘in their place’, so to speak.
He was content with things the way they were, as it suited him very well.
Day by day, little by little, the rich man’s comfortable lifestyle had been digging a trench between himself and the have-nots of this world. A trench that widened and deepened into a great gulf - a chasm in the eternal, moral order of things - which nothing was likely to be able to cross in life - and certainly not in death.
Think about that gulf. Obviously, Jesus wants us to think very hard about it when he says: “Between us and you is a great gulf; we cannot pass over to your side, and your side cannot cross over to us.”
Jesus is using a picture of the coming afterlife, to address the present moment.
Jesus is saying: This selfishness is a damnable way to live and it’s damnable right now, not just in the future.
It’s actually self-damnation, as we dig the gulf ourselves and we don’t need any judge or jury to convict us.
We damn ourselves by our attitudes and choices. We damn ourselves by the things we don’t do - just as much as by the things we do. The parable is about self-damnation.
You’ll notice that the focus of the parable is on the rich man, not on the poor man.
On the rich man and, later, on his affluent brothers, who continue to live in a way that damns them.
Who are these brothers and sisters? And their children, and their children’s children? Are they among us today?
You may want to say: “Hey! Wait a moment. We’re not rich. That indictment might apply to people like Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and James Packer, but surely it can’t have anything to do with us.”
Not so fast, O ye of the quick side-step! We may not be rich compared to the top 10% of people in Australia.
But why, when we talk about being poor or rich, do we compare ourselves only with those above us in wealth?
Why not compare ourselves with those below us?
Most of us have a roof over our heads and food on the table at every mealtime, unlike many who are sleeping rough in the streets of Sydney, in third world countries and in refugee camps.
So don’t allow yourself to wriggle out from under the heavy message of this parable. Even though it hurts, even though it raises anxiety, even though we may not find any easy answers, please let this parable confront you.
I’d far prefer that we live with uneasiness and painful self-examination, than settle down into that cushioned abyss-zone of insensitivity - which is the world of the damned.
Did you notice, I wonder, what tough hides the rich have, according to the parable?
When the rich man, trapped in Hades, wants someone to warn his 5 brothers, he looks for a messenger, a lackey, to carry a message to his comfortable brethren.
He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn them.
Did you get the subtlety? Even in hell, the rich man sees the poor as the servant of the rich.
Even from paradise, they’re expected to be at the beck and call of the rich people.
“No way”, says Abraham. “They already have the teaching of Moses and the prophets; that should be enough”
However, rich men are not accustomed to being refused, so the rich man argues: “But if a person came back from the dead, they’d surely repent.”
“Don’t fool yourself,” says Abraham. “Even if someone came back from the dead, they still wouldn’t repent.”
Even the resurrection of Jesus hasn’t changed the attitude of those who are self-satisfied.
The affluent are in their comfort zone, where calls to repent will seem rather peripheral and irrelevant.
They see Jesus as only being for those who are weak or needy.
Paul, in his first letter to his disciple, Timothy, warns him (and us) not so much about the dangers of money itself, but of the dangers of developing a love of money, being arrogant and putting all our hopes in wealth, instead of in God.
He’s telling us that just being rich isn’t the problem, it’s how we treat those less fortunate than us, that’s important.
So where does this parable of Jesus, that we find in Luke’s gospel, meet us? Is it a case of “Well I’ll be damned?”
I won’t presume to answer that question on your behalf.
Nor do I have the desire or intention of berating you, nor condemning anyone.
Believe me; I have enough on my own plate in dealing with my own soul on this matter.
Jesus leaves me wondering: Have I become so insensitive that I now feel good and righteous about giving mere scraps to the poor?
It makes me think about the chasm that can surely open up between me and others less fortunate.
We remember the lonely, the sick, the sad and those who are disheartened. The list goes on.
It warns me that I’m also capable of damning my own soul - whilst feeling very comfortable in it.
It cross-examines my soul, as to whether I am unrepentant, even though I know that Jesus has risen from the dead.
We must widen our horizon and not just tell strangers to be wary, but also tell those we love to be aware of the chasm that they may be building between themselves and God.
And how about you? How are you feeling right now?
If this parable doesn’t throw us all back to grace; where we cling to the mercy of God, and seek renewal, then nothing will. By grace we can be saved from our own damnation and set free to love others as God intended.
That doesn’t mean that we can still be like the rich man during our lifetime and then on Judgement Day, rely on God’s grace and the saving powers of Jesus.
No, we need to examine our attitudes towards those who are less fortunate than we are – and do something about them before we get to stand before Jesus on the day of reckoning and have to say:
“Well, I’ll be damned!”