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On Wealth and Poverty


"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. {20} At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores {21} and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. {22} "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. {23} In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. {24} So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' {25} "But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. {26} And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.' {27} "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, {28} for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' {29} "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' {30} "'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' {31} "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

(I am exceedingly indebted to St. John Chrysostom for the inspiration for this series of lessons.)

One area of Christian thought which has caused much trouble is that of wealth and poverty. This is the starkest of incidents highlighting the difference. Because this story names Lazarus, many scholars feel it is not a parable but history. If so, we have the closest vision possible of hell - and it happens in the context of wealth and poverty.


Lazarus (probably not the same one whom Jesus raised from the dead) is a righteous man. Indeed, those who heard this story first would have concluded that he was exceedingly righteous - because his place in heaven is at the side of Abraham. From that we can draw many implications. Lazarus was tempted, but overcame temptation - the temptations and trials of the poor.


Can you imagine what it must have been like? Here you are, lying outside the gate of a mansion. Note that Lazarus was "laid" there - meaning that someone just deposited him at the front gate. He could not walk. But he could see the mansion of the rich man. The temptation is to envy the wealth of this rich man, to say, "I wish I had that kind of a house."

But Moses wrote the commandment: you shall not covet. How does a man in such a situation obey that command? It is no use trying to ignore the house! Indeed, we know that Lazarus did not ignore it, for he wanted to eat the crumbs under the table. Sin must driven out, and replaced with righteousness; there are no spiritual vacuums

(Prov 23:17 NIV) Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.

Replace envy with zeal for the fear of the Lord.


An even greater temptation is blasphemy. We no longer realize the meaning of this word. It is to take the Lord's name in vain - which includes accusing him of things which he is not. He is righteous and just; but in such a circumstance we are tempted to tell God that he is being unfair to us.

"Why did you do this to me? I didn't deserve this? You're not being fair to me?"

"And why did you bless that wicked sinner with all that wealth? If he gets that, why am I getting this?"

Job had a similar problem:

(Job 2:9-10 NIV) His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" {10} He replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

(Said after all his afflictions had been revealed.)

We need to understand, with the Psalmist, that God does not settle accounts with the wicked in the same day, but wants everyone to repent.

(Psa 73:12-17 NIV) This is what the wicked are like-- always carefree, they increase in wealth. {13} Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. {14} All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. {15} If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children. {16} When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me {17} till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.


When my daughter was born she had some difficulties which required her to go in for brain surgery at the age of 5 months. Until she had this problem, I had never heard of such a thing. Afterwards, God sent us several people with the same difficulty, so that we might bring the comfort and encouragement of experience to them. But Lazarus had no such a thing. He could see no other Lazarus. He could see the guests going in and out from the banquets, but no other soul as poor as he. Being alone is a terrible thing.

It has one advantage, however, and we may presume Lazarus used it. It forces you to turn away from all fallible, human comfort and seek your consolation from God alone. The time spent in sweet communion with him cannot fail to draw you closer to him.

Dealing with Slander

One of the common experiences of the poor is that the "righteous" will pass judgment upon them. This is not confined to poverty of money; the poor in circumstance will have this too. There is always the presumption that "you must have done something to deserve this." Indeed, it is a common thing for the victim of such circumstance to make the same assumption. Job's accusers take several chapters to say this. Paul, when bitten by the snake after a shipwreck, was presumed to be a murderer.[1] But the Christian is admonished not to judge. How painful this must have been to Lazarus - to suffer such things and then to be told it must be his own fault. Perhaps he took comfort in the Psalms:

(Psa 31:13-16 NIV) For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life. {14} But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, "You are my God." {15} My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me. {16} Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.

We are often so anxious to take our own vengeance when slandered we forget that vengeance belongs to him. To take vengeance is to steal what is God's. Rather, we should trust him for justice.


Whom the Lord loves, he chastises. Lazarus was chastised - I will insist that God permits it, for He is omnipotent - by his illness and by his poverty. But out of that chastisement came a character which was sufficiently righteous, so purified, that it was counted worthy to stand by Abraham. Perhaps we don't sufficiently appreciate poverty; it seems to have been wealth indeed to Lazarus.

The Rich Man

The major activity of the rich man in his life seems to have been eating and drinking. There is nothing wrong with that, for as Paul tells us:

(1 Cor 10:31 NIV) So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

So we have it on the authority of the Apostle himself that eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God. We must conclude, therefore, that the rich man did not eat or drink that way. Should we not learn from his failures?

An unfortunate lack of misfortune

The rich man, we are told, "lived in luxury every day." (The word "lived" really means "made merry.") He was a man who went through life without misfortune. This is not sin (my own life has been singularly free of the misfortunes I see around me, so I hope it's not) but it does carry with it a burden. There is nothing to provoke self-examination.

How often has it happened to you: God sends some misfortune your way and you react by saying to yourself, "Why did God do this to me?" Frequently, the answer is apparent. You brought the misfortune on yourself by your conduct. Even if you did not, and you are innocent, the misfortune gives you the challenge of examining yourself. Out of that examination may come repentance, and out of repentance, hope. This the rich man did not do. But there were other opportunities.

Sins of Omission

Note, however, that God gave him another chance: Lazarus. Yes, Lazarus was a chance for him to demonstrate righteousness. God gave him this beggar as a test.

The matter is most serious; we must not underrate it. We often refuse to give to beggars, saying "He's a fake" or "I can't solve world hunger." But in this instance the man was at his gate every day. God did not ask him to gamble money on what might be a fake. He had every chance to see that the man could not walk by himself. God did not ask him to solve world hunger either. He placed no army of beggars before him; rather, just one.

To make matters worse, he placed before him a beggar who was a righteous man! So even our excuse of, "It's probably his own fault" could have been discovered as a lie.

We may also add one other thing: Lazarus did not pester him. He couldn't. Even the unjust judge was moved by the widow's persistence. Lazarus was persistent in his own way: he couldn't help it. Constantly there but never nagging, the rich man ignored him.

In these things we see two ideas:

·         First, that luxury tends to bring forgetfulness. The rich man lived in luxury, but failed to see the corruption and forgetfulness that was being brought to his soul.

·         Note one other thing: there is not a note of thankfulness in the rich man's life. Do you begin your meals with thanksgiving? Why do we have such a custom? Is it not so we will remember who is the true source of our riches?

What shall we do?

A lesson is not complete without instruction for the hearer. Your algebra teacher always sent you away with homework, and this lesson comes with some too.

"Thou Shalt Not"

Envy - do not covet anything that belongs to someone else, no matter how much greater his wealth than yours. Rather, replace that envy with zeal for the fear of the Lord.

Blaspheme - do not accuse God of injustice. Do not tell him that your neighbor should not receive such blessings (how would you know?) Do not tell him that you deserve better (are you really so righteous?) Rather, trust God to do justice - and remember that his books do not close each day, but that he is willing that all should repent. You too are a sinner and have received mercy; would you deny others the same chance?

Judge - when you see the unfortunate, do not judge another man's servant. Do not say to your brother, "You had it coming." Rather, regard it as a chance to be the child of God and bring his comfort to one less fortunate.

"Thou Shalt"

Be thankful - for indeed you are rich in Christ. Does it really matter what someone else has? Should you not be thankful for what God has given you?

Accept his chastisement - it is a sign that he loves you deeply. When he sends suffering to you, let it bring you to self-examination and reflection. Let God have his way with you, and grow through repentance.

Accept the poor he has given you - they are indeed a gift from God. When God places someone in your path who is suffering - whether in poverty, illness or circumstance - do what you can to relieve the pain and suffering, without judgment.

Seek consolation in God alone. When all else around you are against you, remember that you are a child of God. The more they lie about you, the more eager you will be to hear the truth from God. Thomas à Kempis put it this way:

IT IS good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing. It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well. These things help us to be humble and shield us from vainglory. When to all outward appearances men give us no credit, when they do not think well of us, then we are more inclined to seek God Who sees our hearts. Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of men.

When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without Whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays. He wearies of living longer and wishes for death that he might be dissolved and be with Christ. Then he understands fully that perfect security and complete peace cannot be found on earth.

[1] Acts 28:4

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