The story of the rich man and the beggar at the gate is so familiar that it probably has lost its power to disturb us – as surely it should. Why? Well, there is no indication in the story that the rich man had broken any of the commandments – no indication that he even realized Lazarus lay in distress outside his door. So why this terrible reversal in the life after death?
The message Jesus is conveying is not just that we should be generous. Of course we should! Not just that we should comfort those in need. Of course we should! It is much more.
If we have more than we need – of anything – we are charged with finding and sharing with those who need what we have been given. As Isaiah told us the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, “. . . give of your own food for the hungry . . .” (58:10). The rich man did not do that. You possibly could hear him saying (in a modern way of expressing himself) “I felt I owed it to myself” or “God gave me this. I should enjoy it . . .” (as one of the Renaissance popes said of the papacy). Yes, gifts are to be enjoyed, but the enjoyment comes not in indulgence, but in sharing. Gifts are to be given away.
It is tempting to feel “I worked hard for what I have. I studied hard, got good grades, worked long hours . . . don’t I deserve to enjoy what I have earned?” We need to reflect for a moment. Is my aptitude for learning, my basic intelligence, of my own making? Is my motivation, the values I received from my parents, my religion, my country, my citizenship, are any of these things of my making? The truth is: it’s all gift – a gift given to be shared. It is our own selves that we need to give. After all, that is what God did in Jesus. Our future lives with God are the life of God. It is pure, eternal self-giving.We prepare for that in our earthly lives precisely by self-giving. Self-giving is not a test to see if we make the grade. It is the goal.
The story of Lazarus and the rich man sets a high standard. It should. The stakes are terribly high.
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