Morality and resurrection
The story of the rich man and Lazarus, recounted in the Gospel of Luke (16: 19–31), has usually been regarded as an urgent warning to those living in relative comfort, if not luxury, not to neglect the poor and destitute.
In that sense, it could be seen as reinforcing the moral teaching of the Old Testament, especially that of the prophet Amos, champion of the downtrodden, who made unsparing attacks on the rich of his own day for ignoring the sufferings of the needy. Indeed, in the parable itself Abraham's observations on the rich man's failure to heed Moses and the prophets directly link the message of the parable to such teachings.
There is undoubtedly a lot of truth in this way of looking at the story. There have always been, and presumably always will be, great disparities of wealth and good fortune among human beings. So the moral message normally taken from the parable is a timeless one.
But the ending of the parable should make us wonder whether Jesus is simply giving the Pharisees of his own day, and, by implication, giving us today, a moral lesson about the responsibilities the rich owe to the poor. The ending seems to anticipate what happened after Jesus' time, when not everyone in the Church followed the Christian way of living, even after Jesus had risen from the dead.
The ending of the parable - just to recall it - has Abraham saying to the rich man in his torment, who wishes to warn his brothers about ending up the way he did, that, `even if someone should rise from the dead,' it would make no impression on them. It would not cause them to change their ways, if they were already deaf to the teachings of the Old Testament prophets.
This ending is curious, because it seems to be saying that the resurrection is not all that crucial when it comes to deciding how to live. And yet the resurrection of Jesus is regarded as highly important by Christianity, indeed as vital to its meaning and credibility. According to St Paul, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain. So should the parable of the rich man and Lazarus be interpreted in a way that seems to run contrary to St Paul's teaching? Does the parable imply that the resurrection is not so critically important after all?
Clearly, if the resurrection is of fundamental importance, then Jesus' parable can hardly be implying the opposite. It can scarcely be saying that the resurrection doesn't matter, if it obviously does. But what then might the parable be trying to get us to understand? Could it be suggesting that the resurrection shouldn't be regarded, at least not first and foremost, as something that motivates us or even helps us to be moral?
Even people who believe in the resurrection still do wrong. Even in former times, when faith in God was supposed to have been much stronger than seems frequently to be the case today, in periods like the Middle Ages, for instance, when the great cathedrals of Europe were built by a society with a strong Christian faith - even in those days, people sinned, apparently, as enthusiastically as those in more recent times, when religious faith is often said to have become weaker. So, to argue that faith in the resurrection sharpens our moral sense may not be too convincing a line of argument.
Perhaps, then, the real point being made by the story of the rich man and Lazarus is simply this: that to be moved by human need and misery is a more genuine indication of the reality of God in our lives than to have visions of someone risen from the dead. On another occasion, Jesus said that we meet him in the hungry, the naked, those in prison, the weak and the suffering.
Hence, how we treat those in need seems to be, in Jesus' eyes, the real measure and test of our faith in God, rather than whether we think we have wonderful visions of supernatural realities, important though such experiences may be for certain people at certain times.
The question is often asked: `Where is God? Who can help me to find God?' It's interesting to recall that the name Lazarus itself (which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name, Eleazar) means in its original language: God has helped. It is the Lazaruses of this world, whom we can meet every day, who can help us to find the true God. It is the Lazaruses of this world who are the most genuine witnesses to the reality of God and to the call of God on us. And how we treat them will ultimately be more important in determining our fate than any number of extraordinary religious experiences we might or might not be privileged to have in the course of our lives.
:: Martin Henry is a former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth and a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.