A worldview that dominates Middle Eastern societies is one of honor and shame.
All interactions and conversations either honor a person or shame them in the way they are addressed and treated socially.
One’s standing in the community may be one of honor or shame based on their position, wealth and influence, and whether they are able to fulfill their social obligations.
In order to understand why Jesus honored the poor and shamed the rich who hoarded their wealth, it is important to know the economic structure of first-century Palestine where wealth and resources were limited.
According to New Testament scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, the concept of “limited good” is the key to understanding the dynamics of wealth and poverty and the attitudes toward the wealthy.
Modern economies operate on the basis of unlimited supplies of resources and commodities.
If there is a shortage, more can be produced. So if one person got more of anything, it did not automatically mean that another person got less.
Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the very different reality of first-century Palestine, which was based on “limited good” and where “all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed.”
“Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else. Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud,” they said. “To be labeled ‘rich’ was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his.”
The economic situation of the peasantry was precarious due to subsistence-level farming and the expenses for taxes, rents and seed as well as the threat of natural disasters and famine.
Farmers also were subjected to blackmail, bullying and overtaxation (see Luke 3:13-14); any emergencies such as accidents, ill health and crop failure forced the poor into debt and borrowing money at exorbitant rates.
If they failed to repay the loans, they would not only lose their land but also could also be enslaved or imprisoned (see Matthew 5:25-26).
As a result, most of the peasants in the rural areas did not have any surplus and were poor and destitute.
It is hard to understand the social impact of poverty in first-century Palestine and in much of the majority world today.
The lack of wealth and influence – and being unable to fulfill one’s social and religious obligations – resulted in shame so the poor were not treated as a normal part of society. They were thus marginalized and ignored.
Jesus uses this paradigm of honor and shame to teach how God treats the poor and how he abhors the rich who hoard their wealth and ignore the needs of the desperate around them.
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus goes against the cultural norm by honoring Lazarus, who was not only poor but also a beggar who had nothing and no social standing.
The poor man is named, while Jesus leaves the rich man anonymous and without lasting honor.
By giving Lazarus a name, Jesus identifies him as a unique individual and not just as one of the poor who hide in shame.
In the parable, the name that Jesus pointedly chooses for the beggar is Lazarus, which is derived from Eleazar in Hebrew, meaning “one whom God has helped.” This parable reveals the heart of God for the poor and the broken.
The poor are not just an anonymous category on a socioeconomic scale. Each of them has a name with their own dreams and struggles.
By acknowledging their name, they become human, even though they may be vulnerable and in desperate need. Because they have a name, it challenges us to acknowledge their existence.
In the parable, neither man is a great sinner. Lazarus is not accused of being lazy or being of poor moral character. The rich man is not condemned for being rich, but for not being concerned for the poor.
The problem is that his concern remains only for his family and never for those who are not part of his social circle. He excludes the outsider as not being worthy of his attention and care.
Jesus’ parable challenges this prevailing attitude that a family’s and tribe’s only concern should be for their own, to the exclusion of all others.
Rupen Das is consultant for mission and development at the European Baptist Federation based in Amsterdam, on temporary assignment from Canadian Baptist Ministries. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.