As an Episcopalian, I can’t help but read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus without at least a small chuckle about the reference to the rich man’s attire. With a linen suit hanging in my closet, this parable hits really close to home, but even more so, I get a kick out of the reference to the rich man wearing purple. For those of you who aren’t a part of the early-21st century iteration of Anglicanism, perhaps a photograph would help.
We’ve got that all covered in The Episcopal Church. Some two-thousand years after Jesus told this parable, I wonder if we are still tuned into the deeper meaning of the details of the story. Take the color purple for example. These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere. You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2. There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive. The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come across and the color was even harder to set. I heard a story this summer about how purple became the color of Lent in some parts of the world, while it is blue in other places. It seems that the original color of Lent was black, but black rarely stayed that color. In some portions of the globe, the berries used to made black faded into purple, elsewhere, they faded to blue. Deep colors weren’t for the faint of heart in the olden days. So this man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family. (Hence the purple in Bishop’s attire as they were once considered the princes of the Church (though it seems that Anglican Bishop’s took to purple much later than their Roman Catholic brethren, but I digress). Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but he had access to linen as well. Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain. To say he was well dressed would be an understatement.
Then there is the matter of his food, about which Jesus says “he feasted sumptuously every day.” This is an attempt by the translators to make sense of the Greek that is two words joined together: euphraino, which means “to make merry or to be glad”; and lampros, which means “magnificently or sumptuously.” He “made merry brilliantly” according to Robertson’s Word Pictures, or to borrow a modern colloquialism, this guy partied hearty every day. I assume most of us can understand the nuance in this phrase. Think about how you eat on a normal day: three meals and maybe a snack – perhaps a dessert on a special occasion. Now, think of the last Super Bowl Party you attended. You probably ate 3 or 4 times more than you normally would. You grazed on delicious snacks all afternoon, while waiting for the main course to be served and having two too many beers. Or maybe Thanksgiving is your feast of choice. This guy ate like it was Thanksgiving Day, all day, every day.
The comparison Jesus sets up here isn’t the difference between an upper-middle class guy and his lower-middle class neighbor. Instead, Jesus lays down an example of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Something like this picture from Rio De Janeiro.
I’m wondering this morning if the extreme nature of Jesus’ example makes it easy to dismiss this story as we think, “Oh, I’m not THAT rich.” What is the purpose behind such an outrageous dichotomy? As an average American, what can I take away from this parable?