One of the favorite Bible stories in the Middle Ages was that of Dives and Lazarus, sometimes called "the rich man and Lazarus" in modern translations. In the early modern period it became an English Christmas carol, and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a series of beautiful variations on the tune.
There are several different men named Lazarus in the New Testament. These days most people will think of the one whom Jesus brought back to life after he had been dead and buried three days--a clear prefiguration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. This Lazarus gave rise to the urban legend of the Wandering Jew, the man who could never die because he had, after all, already died once, and who has spent the last two thousand years wandering around.
This story also has the classic line (in the King James version) of one of Lazarus's sisters objecting when Jesus wanted her dead brother dug up--"But Lord, he stinketh."
Today we are talking about a different Lazarus. This one appears in a parable.
He was a poor man lying at the door of Dives, a rich man. Dives refused to give him even a crumb from his table, even though he had far more than he or his guests could eat. Instead Dives set the dogs on Lazarus and, when the dogs refused to bite him, set his thugs on him. But they couldn't touch him either.
Now I myself would have thought maybe there was some sort of message here, but Dives just laughed it off. Imagine his surprise when demons seized his soul as he died. All his wealth did him no good. The twelfth-century carving pictured above, from the abbey church of Vézelay, shows him on his death bed, money bags stacked underneath, and the demons grabbing his soul with great enthusiasm as it emerges from his body. His wife, on the left, is understandably horrified.
Poor Lazarus, in the meantime, also died (probably from starvation), but he went straight to heaven.
The remarkably clear message from this was that it was the responsibility of the rich to help the poor, as I discussed in more detail earlier. The well to do, including both noble households and monasteries, would routinely give leftover food out at the back door to poor people who gathered there. They were quite deliberately avoiding the error of Dives.
In a broader sense, the story was a radical rejection of the value of worldly wealth and power. Even though there were plenty of wealthy and powerful people (including church leaders) in the Middle Ages, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, frequently represented in church decorations (as here), was a constant reminder that wealth was not going to matter a bit when it came to your soul.
© C. Dale Brittain 2016