The story of the rich man and Lazarus is more than a bracing reminder about our duty to the poor; it is a cautionary tale about misjudging our spiritual condition.
In Jesus’ day, material wealth and well-being were commonly assumed to be divine blessings for personal righteousness: The rich were rich because of their moral virtue, and the poor, poor because of their sin. The rich man had bought that line, only to learn too late that he had been wrong—tragically so.
Sadly, it is a line selling well today, as evidenced by the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel and its various permutations.
Jesus told His disciples that there will be people at the threshold of heaven, claiming to have done great things in his name, only to be told, “I never knew you”—people like the rich man whose spiritual valuation was all wrong.
These warnings should prompt us to consider our own spiritual well-being. If pressed, would we say that we are spiritually healthy, sick, on life support, or, like the rich man, dead men walking? Based on what vital signs?
I can imagine many folks considering themselves to be “healthy” based on some combination of religious activities: church involvement, Bible reading, worship attendance, tithing, keeping the commandments . . . probably the very things the rich man relied on, which, in the end, didn’t serve him well. And it is not hard to understand why.
Since religious activity can be the product of either spiritual formation or behavior modification, it is not, taken by itself, a reliable indicator of our spiritual state. Basing our spiritual health solely on religious activity is like basing our physical health solely on physical activity. While diminished physical ability can be indicative of a serious medical condition, many times it isn’t. Lance Armstrong was competing in, and winning, world cycling championships while harboring a virulent, undetected cancer. In the same way, religious activity alone, despite fervor and effectiveness, may never reveal a moldering interior life.
Understanding our physical risks requires that we undergo intrusive procedures—blood tests, colonoscopies, pelvic exams, and mammograms—involving needles, X-rays, scopes, and probes that can be uncomfortable, painful, and embarrassing. Understanding our spiritual risks requires an equally intrusive and sometimes unpleasant procedure: probing beneath the surface of religiosity and moralism to the temper of our heart—the attitudes, affections, and motivations that shape what we are and what we do.
Spiritual formation is an inside-out process. It begins in the head, transforming our thoughts in how we view ourselves and the world; proceeds to the heart, transforming our character as manifested in “fruits of the Spirit”; and flows out to the hands, transforming our activities from works leading to death and works of righteousness to “fruits of the Kingdom.”