• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Lazarus and the Rich Man

“Pure and undefiled religion…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

There’s an old Russian tale of a rich lady and her onion. It’s goes a bit like this. Once upon a time, there was a rich lady who never gave anything away, but thought only about herself. Well, one morning a beggar was passing by her estate and saw the wealthy lady working in her garden. The beggar called out, ‘Please, I’m hungry, can you spare me a little food.” And the lady barked back, “Go away. You can’t have anything.” But the beggar continues to beg for food, and finally, the lady gives in, she gives the beggar an onion.

Time goes by, and eventually the wealthy woman passes away, and finds herself in a lake of fire surrounded by other wicked people. “Help! Let me out of here! There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here!” She called out. And an angel appeared all of a sudden. “Tell me woman, perhaps you don’t belong in hell. Tell me, what good did you do in your life which merits a better fate?” The woman thinks and thinks and finally remembers her good deed. “The onion! I gave away an onion to a poor, hungry woman.”

Immediately, the angel pulls out that very same onion. “Yes, that’s the one! That’s the onion I gave away.” So the angel reaches down with the onion and tells the lady to grab hold of it so that he can pull her up. She grabs the onion, and starts lifting up out of the fire, but all of a sudden others in the lake grab hold too, clinging to the onion and to her garments. “No! Get away!” She shouts, “This is my onion! It’s my onion!” And snap, the onion breaks, and the woman plummets down back into the fiery lake.

“Pure and undefiled religion…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

Our Gospel today shows us two people at polar extremes: a rich man and a poor man.

The wealthy fellow was a bit like the rich lady with the onion. He spent his life in excessive luxury. He wore the smartest clothes of his times, and he spent every moment chasing comforts. He “fared sumptuously every day,” that is, he spent his life drinking and partying, chasing after fads and filling his belly.

Meanwhile, as the rich man partied away, a penniless beggar, named Lazarus, lay on the ground outdoors. Day after day, covered in sores and bed-ridden, Lazarus waited and begged, hoping that by chance someone would give him crumbs or scraps from the kitchen. He lived in such a state of poverty that even the dogs abused him.

Finally, death took them both. At the same hour, angels came to Lazarus and swept him up into Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man’s soul sunk down into hell.

Death has a way of revealing who we are. Lazarus’s soul was light, like a feather or an angel, and it floated upwards to God. The rich man’s soul was heavy, like a stone or a demon, and fell down with gravity.

This same lesson is often portrayed by the slight stroke of the paintbrush in Renaissance art. If you look carefully, you can see that the beggars and angels are all weightless. It looks as though, at any moment, they’ll lift up from the ground and soar with the wind. But the kings are shown to be heavy and weighed down by all their luxury. A poet comments on this in the following words: “The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards.”

This is the image we’re given in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and it’s a very challenging image.

There’s one thing that we know for sure from reading the bible, and that’s that we won’t be judged by our wealth or our poverty. The scriptures and the history of the Church show us all kinds of holy people, from every sociodemographic. Some, like King David or St. Constantine the Great, were the wealthiest men of their time and lived noble and God-filled lives. Others, like the widow who gave her last mite or St. Abraham the poor, lived without anything and begged to survive. Clearly, the rich man in our parable wasn’t judged because he was rich. Lazarus was certainly not saved because he was poor. We have to go deeper into the story to understand it.

Why was the rich man’s soul so heavy that it sunk down into hell?

He was too weighed down by the comforts of this world.

He was too stuffed full of food and pleasures…His constant food comma became a spiritual comma.

The excess of pleasures made him sleepy and forgetful – and this lesson is especially pertinent to us today in America. Whether we’re poor or wealthy, we’re all pretty much in the same boat – this is the land of food, entertainment, and overabundant stuff…and while our comforts are gifts from God, meant to inspire in our hearts love for the Gift-giver and gratitude, they can easily become ends-in-themselves and choke us.

The scriptures understand human nature all too well. Looking back to the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 8, you see it written out plainly. Here you have a message, a letter from God, addressed to all His people who live in prosperity.

“The LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills…a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.”

Clearly, God want us to have joy. Our pleasures, it states, are gifts from heaven. But, here, the scripture brings us a warning.

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord…Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God…Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down…then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God…

The warning continues: ‘You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.”

If God gives you comforts, rejoice and praise Him. If God takes away those comforts, rejoice and praise Him.

If God gives you health, friends, and success, turn your heart to God and glorify Him. If He then takes away your health, your friends, and success, turn your heart to God and glorify Him.

He brings you the good times because He wants you to be joyful. The pleasures in our lives are tastes of God, and are meant to inspire us to yearn for the Source of pleasure.

But God, who loves you, and because he loves you, walks you into the bad times, into the valleys, because without those valleys, we all so quickly forget God.

The rich man, in the parable, feasted sumptuously every day. In this manner, he weighed himself down with food and gold, so that when the hour came for his judgment, he sunk down, too heavy to rise into heaven.

But where was God in this man’s life? We might ask. Didn’t God give him the wealth? Then why did God allow the rich man to become so sick and eventually damned?

The parable answers this in a powerful way, for it shows us that God was indeed with the rich man, each day of his life. God visited him every morning in the form of poor, crippled Lazarus.

Every day, Lazarus lay down at the gate of the mansion, waiting for alms. Day by day, as the rich man feasted away, the homeless sat on his doorstep, offering him a chance to give away a little of his wealth. Lazarus is God’s gift to humanity, an opportunity for all of us to stop clinging to ourselves, and to give away to others.

If the wealthy man had only looked out of his window and stooped down to ease Lazarus’s suffering, then he would have been saved.

The poor around us, the needy people that we run into on the roads, the lonely old man and woman in the nursing home, our brother and sister who needs encouragement – that is where you will find God waiting for you.

Every time we give alms, the coldness in our heart begins to thaw.

Every time we fast from a burger or steak, our soul becomes a little less weighed down by egoism; we become lighter, like Lazarus, who was taken up into the Bosom of Abraham.

Every time we give something up to God, the very fibers of our being start to change. We begin to look at the world differently, saying in our heart, “Not I, Lord, but Thou.”

What does it mean to be a Christian?

“Pure and undefiled religion…is this:” the Apostle James tells us, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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Wichita Falls, TX, 76309