Money is power? The Rich Man and Lazarus
by William J. Gall
And [Jesus] said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. ”
(The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1971, St. Luke 12:15)
This saying of our Lord Jesus Christ stands as a challenge to the dream, the goal, of ”striking it rich, ” as the saying goes in America, where it is asserted that any person can, by hard work and ingenuity, become rich. But often that ingenuity is being manifested simply as shrewdness, as can be seen in the U.S. financial industry, where many of the so-called best and brightest have concocted complex financial instruments that have allowed a few to amass enormous profits at the expense of people who misplaced their trust in them. After being bailed out by the government, these same predators have directed some of their substantial assets to flood the nation with campaign literature to elect politicians who would order the common life of our nation to their benefit, to lighten their tax load and to make toothless the new regulations that would prohibit these kind of financial devices, which have led to the impoverishment of many people and damaged the economic well-being of the nation. And their efforts bore fruit. Money is power; or so it would seem.
Priestmonk Christodoulos, in his book Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Holy Mountain, 1998) devotes a chapter to the Elder’s teachings on Divine Justice (pp. 61-67). On the basis of Christ’s example in the Gospels and His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Elder Paisios warns against reliance on human laws and justice, on insistence on one’s rights, in favor of trust in Divine justice and charity, by which one suffering under injustice patiently waits and confidently hopes in the sure vindication of God, holding forth hope also for the repentance of the one who is defrauding or oppressing him, in obedience to the Lord’s command to love one’s enemies. Priestmonk Christodoulos writes,
Justice is like a cork; no matter how hard we press it to the bottom of the sea, it will always come back to the surface. Therefore, we should endure with pleasure any kind of injustice done to us for the sake of Christ. He [Elder Paisios] urged us to always seek God’s justice and “all these things will be yours as well” (St. Matthew 6:33)
Saint John Chrysostom explored these matters in his sermons on Lazarus and the Rich Man. In his first sermon, St. John vividly describes Lazarus’ plight in great detail, as well as the rich man’s hardness of heart, which St. John says added to Lazarus’ sufferings, as he saw the rich man’s hardheartedness accompanied by a pleasant, easy life, which was incongruent with justice. St. John adds that Lazarus, living before the resurrection of Christ, had no hope of anything beyond the utter misery he was experiencing in this life. St. John sees and describes great virtue in Lazarus: “he strengthened himself with wisdom like dew continually refreshing a person lying in a furnace.” (St. John Chrysostom: On Wealth and Poverty, tr. Catherine Roth, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1984, 32.) As to the rich man, and greedy persons in general, St. John speaks at length of the agonies their conscience afflicts on them in this life. He exhorts his listeners to count those who amass wealth unjustly not as fortunate, but as miserable because of what awaits them: the judgment of God.
In his second sermon St. John declares,
The rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions, but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.” (On Wealth and Poverty, 40)
In this sermon he describes the plight of the rich man in Hades, and advocates the remembrance of death, quoting Proverbs 24:27, “Prepare your work for your departure, and get everything ready for the road.” Some might understand this proverb to refer to the pre-planning of funeral arrangements, including, perhaps, a sturdy, water resistant casket. How far this would be from St. John Chrysostom’s meaning! Saint John compares the rich to actors. An actor may play a king, but in everyday life is a rope-maker. The lavish furnishings and clothes of the rich are illusory, like the masks of actors; they are fleeting, unreal. Riches only truly become one’s own when they are distributed to the poor- without scrutinizing the poor person’s worthiness, St. John adds. Then they become permanent- heavenly riches.
St. John, in his third sermon, explains the meaning of Abraham words to the rich man, “You have received the good things due to you.” One’s eternal destiny hinges on one’s response, alternately, to the tribulations and the blessings one receives in this present life, such that a life of grinding poverty, with very limited opportunities, and a life of abundance with great possibilities, will be weighed differently on Judgment Day; suffering and hardship will mitigate, to a degree proportionate to its intensity, one’s sins, and one’s blessings and personal gifts in this life, in their lesser or greater proportion, will be counted as part of one’s reward for good deeds, as well as increasing the strictness of God’s judgment. St. John insists, based on numerous scriptures, that no one will enjoy a life of ease both in this life and the next. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah are brought forward as witness to this. “The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (St. Matthew 7:14) And each will be judged on the basis of his own deeds; that one’s father was a martyr will not help, unless his example is followed.
Even the rich man’s plea for Lazarus to visit his brothers to spur their repentance proved futile, Saint John says, in his fourth sermon on Lazarus and the rich man, for visitations from the departed could be discounted in many ways; for one, the devil could send false visions after this pattern, and a real visit could be erroneously discounted as from the evil one. Instead, St. John commends the authority of the Scriptures and the persistent testimony of the conscience, recounting the confession of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt, which occurred many years after their mistreatment of him- toward self-condemnation and tears, confession and complete repentance, fasting and self-control, almsgiving and charity, so that “we may become able to put away our sins in this life and to depart to the next life with full confidence.” (On Wealth and Poverty, 96)
A period of time after these first four sermons, St. John powerfully reiterates his central themes concerning Lazarus and the rich man. He speaks hypothetically of a man who “enjoys honor and authority,” (On Wealth and Poverty, 102) “who strips orphans of their property and oppresses widows,” living a pleasant and prosperous life, as most unfortunate, as one for whom sorrow must be felt, because of the fearful judgment that awaits him. Again he says,
The present world is a theater, the conditions of men are roles: wealth and poverty, ruler and ruled, and so forth. (On Wealth and Poverty, 109)
Office, authority, and power, St. John Chrysostom says, all mean nothing- only one’s works count. St. John declares,
. . . – give me your deeds … if you are a slave but nobler that a free person, if you are a woman, but braver than a man. When all the masks are removed, then the truly rich and the truly poor are revealed. (On Wealth and Poverty, 110)
There is also a final sermon in this book comparing the wide and the narrow ways of which Christ spoke, with the rich man and Lazarus exemplifying the opposite paths. St. John illustrates how the wide, easy way becomes, at its end, narrow and burdensome, and how, conversely, the narrow, hard way opens up, finally, into a broad and bountiful place. Conventional expectations which seem reasonable are upended in God’s economy.
In all these homilies St. John Chrysostom shows how Divine justice will upend the failures of human justice. This truth, however, is not to lead us to a passive acceptance of the injustices we see inflicted on others. As Lemuel, King of Massa, says, in Proverbs 31:8-9, (The Holy Bible, RSV)
Open your mouth for the dumb [or, mute], for the rights of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy.
What we may endure ourselves, trusting in Divine justice, becomes a sin of omission when we see it done to our neighbor, for whom we must do what we can. And, in light of Divine justice, we can do this with confidence, trusting the results to God, as did the prophet Jeremiah in Israel in a time of persistent, stubborn unfaithfulness and widespread injustice.
We can do this with the calm assurance of the prophet Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like hinds feet,
He makes me tread upon my high places.
(The Holy Bible, RSV, Habakkuk 3:17-19)
These prophets spoke out against injustice; Jeremiah especially is seen to have struggled long and hard to communicate the word of the Lord first to the king and princes of Judah and then to the people left in the land after the deportation to Babylon, to no avail. They refused to listen to him, and, for a time, he is thrown down into a deep, miry pit. According to St. Nikolai Velimirovic’, he was “stoned to death by his countrymen.” (The Prologue of Ohrid, Saint Nikolai, Velimirovic’, Serbian Archdiocese of Western America, 2002, P. 446) But his prophesies came to pass, and he is forever venerated in the Church and the Kingdom of God. The truth of the Lord endures forever.
Just as there is Divine justice, there is a Divine economy; we are promised that just as the sparrows are fed and the lillies clothed, we will certainly be cared for; the Kingdom is given to those who receive it as the little children do. In this Kingdom, authority and power are given for service; the one who would be greatest must be the servant of all. There is a reckoning for those who exercise their wealth, authority, and power in ways contrary to these permanent realities testified to by Elder Paisios, St. John Chrysostom, the prophets and our Lord Himself.
May the Lord grant us repentance for misused gifts.
Ageloglou, Christodoulos. Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mount Athos: Holy Mountain, 1998.
Roth, Catherine P., Trans. St. John Chrysostom: On Wealth and Poverty.Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1971.
Velimirovic’, St. Nikolai. The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, Volume 1: January to June. Serbian Archdiocese of Western America, 2002.
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence. (St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter one)