I recently gave a talk about global economics and Christianity. It’s a pretty simple topic to go on, really. All you need to do is show how mind-bogglingly screwed up the distribution of wealth and resources is, then point to the bucketful of prophets and apostles who say that if we aren’t fixing it we’re working against God’s will. I’ve given talks like this a few times in different churches.
But something slapped me in the face this time.
I was reading up on the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. You’ve heard the story. Lazarus was a beggar who lived outside of Dives’ house. He was destitute, homeless and covered in painful sores. Dogs used to lick them. The he died. Jesus says that after he died he got carried by angels to a nice place. Then Dives died. His place wasn’t nearly so nice. Jesus suggests guilt on Dives because of Lazarus. Not necessarily because it was Dives who caused Lazarus’ destitution, but because he didn’t give a damn.
The neatest thing, though, is that Dives didn’t really have a name. If you read the story itself, it just calls him ‘The Rich Man’. Dives is just Latin for rich man. Meanwhile the dying beggar, covered in disease, is called Lazarus. Jesus gives this character the name of one of his best buddies.
The wealthy, influential and, likely, well-admired hard-working dude is nameless. He’s a nobody. A stat on a page. Just the rich guy.
The beggar, dying in the streets, ignored and forgotten in his suffering, has a name. A beloved name. A name that people like Jesus care about. Suddenly, in the midst of his horrible circumstance, Jesus gives that character dignity, while subtly taking it away from the one we would have thought was important.
If you’re reading this blog, I’d wager that you are rich. At least in the top ten percent of wage-earners in the world. And since you have the Internet, you probably know about the suffering that goes on in the world, just like the unnamed rich man did. He did nothing about it, and lost his dignity and importance.
The rich man was guilty because he ignored the poor man’s plight, did nothing about his destitution, failed to use his affluence to relieve the poor man’s need, and acquiesced in a situation of gross economic inequality which had dehumanized Lazarus and which he could have remedied. The pariah dogs who licked the poor man’s wounds showed more compassion towards him that the rich man. Dives went to hell not because he had exploited Lazarus, but because of his scandalous indifference and apathy.
– John Stott – Issues Facing Christians Today