In Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man, what was the rich man’s sin?
To recap, there was a rich man who lived in luxury and a beggar named Lazarus who lay at his gate, covered with sores, longing to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. They both died. Lazarus was taken by angels to Abraham’s side, while the rich man ended up in hell. In torment, the rich man asked Abraham to let Lazarus come and dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. Abraham reminded the rich man that in life he had received good things and Lazarus only bad things, but now Lazarus was being comforted, and the rich man was in torment. Furthermore, there was a great chasm, separating them that neither could cross. (Luke 16:15-31)
It did not appear that the rich man had violated any of the Ten Commandments as originally set out in Exodus 20 or Jewish law. But he may have violated Jesus’ restatement of the commandment to love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
The rich man’s sin was not the fact that he was rich. It was his indifference. Though Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate (his neighbor), the rich man never noticed him. The rich man had let his wealth and way of life separate him from the people in need of his day.
By historical standards, many of us in America today would likely be considered rich. We do not want for food, shelter or clothing. We have employment that enables us to live in a home we have bought and provide for our families.
Our circumstances may have the effect of separating us from people like Lazarus. They still exist, but we don’t see them. We do not see them in our neighborhoods. We don’t see them at work or in our churches. There may be the occasional homeless person begging at an intersection or Metro stop. But for the most part, unless we take some affirmative action to step outside of our circumstances, our default response tends to separate us the very poor of our world.
When I read this story or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), I struggle with how much my life is separated from those in need, and the serious consequences that can result if I do not seek to remedy that separation.
So, we write checks and give used clothes to various organizations assisting the poor. I keep some dollars handy in the console of my car for the homeless soliciting at an intersection. I volunteer in the Chaplain’s office at the county jail. But do these things fulfill the spirit of the King in the above parable?
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
The tragic irony for the rich man and perhaps for us is that letting our circumstances separate us from those in need at this time can also lead to separation from God later.