Lazarus—the sore-ridden beggar of the gospel parable who long for scraps from the rich man’s table—is the last person we’d think of as a model for us.
No one, after all, wants to be Lazarus. Instead, the parable is commonly read as a lesson in mercy and compassion. The antagonist in the story, of course, is the rich man who dresses luxuriously and “dines sumptuously each day” while Lazarus lies at his door. Lazarus is so starved he doesn’t even long for the leftovers. Instead, he would have “gladly … eaten his fill of the scraps” that fell from the able. Even the dogs take pity on him, licking his sores.
Lazarus, according to this reading, becomes an object for our pity.
In a series of homilies, John of Chrysostom turns this all upside down: Lazarus is a model for how we ought to conduct ourselves while it is the rich man that we should really pity.
Of course, their fates are reversed in the afterlife: Lazarus is heaven-bound, while the rich man is summarily dispatched to hell. But Chrysostom has in mind much more than just heaven and hell when he is telling us to follow the example of Lazarus.
Chrysostom is certainly under no illusions about the absolute destitution of Lazarus’ life. In fact, he elaborates on it in his homilies, delineating nine different ways Lazarus suffers. There is his obvious poverty and poor health. But Lazarus suffers as much for what he does have as what he doesn’t: no help from the rich man, strangers, no friends to console him, no one else to share in his suffering. Moreover, Chrysostom says that Lazarus is unable to comfort himself in the hope of the resurrection, as Christ had not yet extended that hope to all of humanity. (His experience of poverty and poor health and the wickedness of the rich man bring the list to nine.)
We count ten of them if we note, as Chrysostom does, that these were not momentary light afflictions for Lazarus but a life-long trial.
Just when you didn’t think it was possible to pity him more, you do.
Yet Lazarus is a model, Chrysostom insists. For Chrysostom, Lazarus is virtuous in his patient endurance of his many trials and torments. In this way he becomes a model for us:
What excuse, therefore, shall we have if, while this man bore all these excessive evils with such fortitude, we cannot bear even the half of them? For you are unable—you are unable, I say, to show, or even to name, any man who has borne such numerous and heavy evils. For this cause, therefore, Christ brought them before our notice, in order that whensoever we fall into trouble, seeing in his case the exceeding greatness of his affliction, we may, from his wisdom and patience, gain effectual consolation and comfort; for he is set as a general instructor of the whole world, for all who are suffering any kind of distress; enabling all to look to one who surpassed them all in the exceeding greatness of his woes.
Lazarus’ eternal reward is certainly one reason we should look at him as a model, according to Chrysostom. But it’s his righteousness, his patient endurance in suffering that also recommends him to us.
In like fashion, it is really the rich man who is to be pitied, according to Chrysostom. Living in poverty, he says, engenders spiritual sloth while hardship is conducive to vigilance. “You are a spiritual soldier; this kind of soldier does not sleep on an ivory bed, but on the ground,” Chrysostom says.
He urges his congregation to smell not of perfume but of virtue. “Nothing is more unclean for the soul than when the body has such a fragrance,” Chrysostom adds. “For the fragrance of the body and the clothes would be a sign of the stench and filthiness of the inner man. When the devil attacks and breaks down the soul with self-indulgence, and fills it with great frivolity, then he wipes off the stain of his own corruption on the body also with perfumes.”
“There is nothing more grievous than luxury,” Chrysostom concludes, because luxury leads to forgetfulness of God.
Chrysostom’s series of sermons challenges us to reread the parable of Lazarus and the rich man anew, seeing in Lazarus someone whose patience and perseverance should be emulated while the rich man’s spiritual sloth ought to be avoided. All this raises a fundamental question: Why is it that we are naturally inclined to identify with the rich man in the first place? Of course, none of us, at least not consciously, wants to be as callous as he was. But we still want to be the rich man: a kinder, gentler version, of course, one that would clothe Lazarus, that would save not only the scraps but even some leftovers for him, and that would perhaps let him sleep in a spare bed.
But to be Lazarus? That is a far taller order. And that is precisely what Chrysostom is challenging us to do.
image: Apostoloff / Wikimedia Commons