Luke 16:19-31 (NRSVCE)
Why was the rich man cursed? That’s the central question at the heart of this parable. Was it simply because he was rich? Jesus does say “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25), but is that just because God despises riches? That’s anathema in the American mindset, where everything is about success and fame and personal glory. Lucky for we Americans, I don’t think that’s quite what is going on here.
I mean, Solomon was very rich. As was David. After the Flood, Noah was literally the richest man on Earth! And God chose these men for great things, even giving them riches (remember that God granted great riches to Moses in the Exodus, as the Israelites took much of pharaoh’s wealth). What matters is what we have, but what we do with it. It matters what we do with those gifts God has given us. The rich man did not use those gifts well. The rich man focused only on himself, either ignoring Lazarus entirely or, worse yet, spitting on him as he passed. He was too caught up in satisfying his own pleasures, that he never bothered to think what good he could do with the resources at his disposal. It wasn’t because he was rich that he was tormented, it was because of what he did with his riches.
So while you can read today’s Gospel passage as a message to give away everything you own, to forsake your life of comfort and become a beggar, I think that’s missing the point. We can have our possessions, we can have our comforts, and we can use them for the common good. That is commendable! Imagine if the rich man had lived in opulence, but always made sure Lazarus was well-fed, had his wounds tended to, and gave him a soft bed to sleep in. Do you think he would suffer the same fate? I think not! He would have used the gifts he was given to provide for his neighbor, which is a righteous act and a noble intention. But instead of doing that, he thought only of himself.
God did not create us to be an island. God created us to be a people, and we can only be a people if we care for one another. That is the central message of this parable. That is what we too often forget in our own day-to-day lives. “How am I caring for my neighbor today?” should be something we ask every day.