“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Luke 16:19
Here is a picture to ponder.
You wake up in a freezing cold room in the dead of winter with a screaming baby that needs to be changed. You live in a two-bedroom concrete apartment that has no hot water and no heat right now, with your extended family, which takes turns drying the baby’s wet clothes on their back because their bodies are the only source of warmth in the house, besides the stove for which you just bought an expensive propane container. But you need that for cooking. The windows are made of wood and let the draft come in from outside easily. There is no dish washer, no dryer, no disposable diapers, no washing machine except your own hands, heat and hot water only now and then. Formula for baby is hard to find and you can forget about breast milk pumps or bottles. The market just does not have them yet. You use mason jars.
You get up and get dressed, go to your car to drive to work. But it is old, it doesn’t start. You have to fix it before you go. You don’t have a mobile phone to call work so you will just have to explain to your boss why you were late and hope he doesn’t fire you. You are paid about $100/month and the wife isn’t working right now as what she would make would not offset the needs of the baby at home. Worrying about what you will eat tomorrow is a reality. But you are resourceful and your family has somehow not gone hungry yet. You get to work and your boss does not fire you. You get back from work and the family is well and fed. The heat is finally on. The baby is asleep. The car did not break down on the way back home. And lo! There is hot water. You can take a shower. Today was a good day. You are poor. But you are blessed. You are happy.
Here’s another portrait of life.
You wake up in your warm apartment. It snowed. You wouldn’t know unless you looked out the window. It’s nice and cozy inside. You walk to the kitchen in your PJs and unload the dishwasher, which was busy doing work for you in the middle of the night. You drink your hot coffee from the Keurig. You take a hot shower. You live alone or perhaps have a small family, not extended, just the nuclear version. You visit your folks for Christmas, maybe, and the holidays. They can be a bit much sometimes so going for the holidays is enough.
You walk down to the garage where your car is and head to work with no problems. Traffic is a bit bad and it annoys you that it takes an extra 10 minutes to get to work. But you text your boss and he gets it. He’s stuck in traffic too. You finish up a work day that pays a typical American wage, a few thousand dollars a month perhaps. You get home and relax, maybe watch some Netflix, put in a load of laundry, order some takeout, and complain about politics, the weather, or your rich neighbor who’s touring some foreign country this month for the Nth time. Or perhaps you sit down and calmly count your blessings?
This first story described a day in the life of my father during my childhood years in post-communist Romania. But make no mistake about it. He was happy. We all were. My childhood was full of magic and wonder and I lacked for nothing ... that I knew of. But you would not guess it looking from the outside. And there are many to this day who live like this or with even less around the world.
The second story was a general description of most Americans’ lives right now. You have a dishwasher, a dryer, a car that works, a laptop, heat, food in abundance, security of your person and family, running water, electricity. You, my friend, are rich. And, since I now live here and in this way, I am too.
Yet when Jesus spoke the parable about the rich man and Lazarus, he spoke of someone living a life closer to post-communist Romania than nowadays regular America. Kings of old could not have imagined the luxury and abundance that would be brought to us by human innovation and free market exchange. All of us living the “normal American life” are rich beyond historical and even modern-day comparison.
While life in Romania might have changed for the better, it still does not compare, wage wise, market wise, technology wise to the U.S. and its lavishness. And we’re not even talking about a non-developed country, where life looks even more different.
So, it’s not your Mercedes-owning, vacation-collecting friend who is rich. You are. They might have more than you but you yourself have so very much. Your life is easy. You do not need to survive. You have the luxury of being able to thrive. Your old age diseases will be ones of comfort, likely easily treatable by modern medicine -- not ones of want, which might shorten your life in a less developed society.
But take it from someone who has lived on the other side and yet was very happy: luxury (for that’s what it’s called) is deceptive. It is a fair weather friend. It is dangerous...if you are not aware of it. Odd, isn’t it? When you live in poverty and are unaware of it, you can be so very happy. But when you live in luxury and are unaware of it, you can be so gravely unhappy.
The poor man Lazarus had a name, but the rich man is not known by any. He is known only by his social status.
So tied can one’s identity become to the things they have or the comforts they enjoy that their very essence melts away. It is not being wealthy that is the problem. What poses the danger is letting one’s identity become dissolved in matter, forgetting death (so easily done in a culture of distraction from both mortality and life), forgetting the spirit, forgetting, in a way, one’s name.
The most precious gems to be found in a rich society are purpose, existential motivation, self-awareness, kindness, empathy. Let us all who live normal lives in well-developed nations see ourselves for how rich we are and try to counter the soul-numbing effects of material plenty through spiritual pursuits and living a life aware of itself.
The rich, nameless man, was too attached to his lifestyle. Perhaps he confused comfort with joy. They are not the same. They spring from different sources and lead to different outcomes. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).
So, how attached are we to hot showers, coffee, our streaming services, our car or takeout food? How about our job title? What about that new pair of shoes? How proud are we of our diplomas or intelligence? How much of our identity rests in how people perceive who we are? How often does something simple sound ridiculous to us? How foolish are children in our eyes? What about the uneducated?
In all this luxury, where are our hearts?