A recent report on life expectancy in the UK quotes amongst other figures the news that the poorest people in Glasgow have a life expectancy of 54 years while the richest can expect 82. That’s a HUGE GAP by any standard. Our present government can always suggest that the shiftless poor actually enjoy doing without heat in winter and visiting food banks, but they have so far not argued that they enjoy being dead, although given the harshness of their lives, that might be so. An economic system which produces that amount of inequality ought to be examining itself rather than maintaining that the struggle for scarce resources ( such as life) is the engine of growth.
Those who argue for social equality are often accused of a) attempting the impossible and b) wanting to make everyone the same. I would argue that a very great reduction in inequality in the UK is both possible and desirable, but I’m a socialist. Almost everyone would agree however that gross social inequality is unjust and dangerous to social cohesion.
Certainly Jesus thought so. His parable of Dives and Lazarus addresses this issue.
Luke 16:19-31New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great gulf has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
It depicts two HUGE GAPS, one between the rich man and the poor man in life, the other between them after death. Jesus describes the social gap in its obscene injustice. The two men are part of the same society but there is no contact between them because of the economic gulf which both accept, the rich man contentedly, the poor man desperately. After death, when the positions are reversed the rich man still expects the poor man, as befits his lowly class, to serve him. Abraham puts him in the picture: not only is he being punished for neglecting the poor in his life, but there is a great gulf fixed between Hades and heaven which cannot be crossed.
Is Jesus giving a lesson in the geography of the afterlife? No, he’s making God’s justice into a divine parody of the kind of justice accepted by the rich man, whose crime has been precisely his comfortable approval of the great social gulf. There is a bitter wit in this reversal of fortunes and in Jesus’ characterisation of a man so used to privilege that even in hell he wants to order people around for his own benefit.
So is Jesus just having a laugh, while criticising the complacency of the rich? He doesn’t really mean that God will judge in this way? That would be a perilous mistake. Doubtless he did not mean people to take his story literally, but there is plenty other evidence of his view that rich people should fear the justice of God. He was appalled by the HUGE GAP in his society, and I’m sure he’d be appalled at the facts of life in Glasgow, and elsewhere.