Lazarus, Robert Burns & Human Dignity: Reflections on Luke 16:19-31

This is a short reflection on human dignity in the light of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man:

In strident and uncompromising language, Jesus draws us in to the world of Lazarus, the beggar at the rich man’s gate. He lies there prostrate, drained of all energy. We can imagine him gazing into a different world, catching glimpses of an abstract opulence that was juxtaposed with his grinding poverty. Day-to-day, hour-to-hour, Lazarus was cognisant of the rich man, and his family’s reality -eating and drinking, manifestations of a comfortable life. This he did this while his own body was failing and in pain; there is, after all, only so much hunger and existential struggle a person can take.

Lazarus’ body was a pitiful sight: covered with painful sores, with no realistic hope of healing in such an emaciated state.  The longing to eat, even just the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, was overwhelming. Jesus then, depicted Lazarus as an image of a man who was neglected, unwanted and ignored; he was the epitome of the marginalized and dispossessed Jesus associated with. Lazarus was the archetypal ‘have-not’ surrounded by the ‘haves’ who ignored Jesus’ instruction: But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind’ (Luke 14:13).

man person men old
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Jesus was also tapping in to a broader reality, namely our fear of ‘the other’, a person who appears to be cut off from mainstream society. Nobody wants to be a Lazarus, helpless and at the behest of others for sustenance. The imagery presented to us in the text makes it clear that Lazarus’ had a woeful and unenviable existence.

One of my favourite poets – Robert Burns, wrote a poem, or more accurately a song, in the late 1700’s he entitled: ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’.  This poem expresses something of which Jesus’ followers would have been familiar; something that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus draws our attention to, and that is our inability sometimes to see past rank, title and status. We sometimes forget that seeing the person, as a person, is the most important thing, not their position in society or their wealth; the incontrovertible truth, articulated throughout the Bible, is that the beggar is just as worthy as the rich man. As the Psalmist wrote: For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13). When we are known so intimately by God, our worth is guaranteed and universal.

Anyway, here is the first verse of ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’ – the words might at times be a bit hard to follow, but I am sure you’ll get the meaning behind it:

‘Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd (gold) for a’ that’.

Now, it was the general assumption in Jesus’ day, that the rich were rich for a reason – because they were blessed by God; they were a manifestation of the modern day ‘prosperity gospel’. And so that extant logic dictated that the rich were elected by God; conversely, the poor were is some way deficient sinners that deserved their poverty and societal marginalisation.

But the great thing about this parable, is that it turns this mode of thinking completely on its head. It was the rich man who was worthy of Divine punishment, and this shocked him to the core. Perplexed, one can envisage his thoughts racing, asking over and over: ‘why am I being punished? I have not done anything to merit such a fate’.

And therein lies the entire thrust of the parable. By doing absolutely nothing against a backdrop of widespread suffering and pain, the rich man stripped Lazarus of his humanity and worth in the eyes of God. His sin had nothing to do with the fact that he was materially wealthy; his sin was his indifference to, and contempt for, Lazarus and those he represented.

By treating Lazarus as a worthless commodity and an inconvenience, the rich man failed to establish a relationship with the very people that Jesus reached out to and spent time with – the broken, the dispossessed, the despised and the forgotten. He was, in the words of the Psalmist: ‘a man who has riches without understanding’ and is ‘like the beasts that perish’ (Psalm 49:20).

The author and preacher George Buttrick acknowledged this when he wrote of the parable: “The story offers no support to the glib assumption that [the rich man] would have fulfilled [his] duty had he dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighbourliness”.

With that in mind, it is pertinent to ask: what is the message for us today?  I think that Martin Luther King got it spot on when he said this: “At the end of the twentieth century most of us will not have to repent of the great evils we have done, but of the apathy that has prevented us from doing anything at all.”

Today we live in a very affluent society.  We are blessed in the sense that we live in a rich country where resources are plentiful and life, for most of us, is relatively easy.  But in some ways, as a society, we are not all that different to the rich man in our parable.  Sometimes we erect subconscious barriers to shield ourselves from what is going on in the rest of the world, and even on our doorsteps; it is easier to look away than to stare into the abyss of suffering and pain.  Sometimes we are too busy dealing with the very real difficulties we encounter in our own lives to notice what is going on.  But we do it nonetheless.

The life of Lazarus is a call for us all to see life from the perspective of the marginalised.  It is our Christian duty never to be complacent, but to listen to the stories of oppression and poverty, and to act – to do whatever we can to make life better for those who have no voice.   In the words of H.E. Fosdick, in his beautiful hymn, ‘God of grace and God of glory’:

‘Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore’.


One response to “Lazarus, Robert Burns & Human Dignity: Reflections on Luke 16:19-31”

  1. Amen. Thanks for sharing.

    “True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighbourliness.”
    This is a really appropriate quote for anyone who has compassion but knows not how to serve. 🙂


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