Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Lazarus the beggar is presented to us in Luke’s Gospel in a state of abject poverty. Not only materially poor, but also physically unhealthy, he is dressed in rags and covered in sores which are tended only by the tongues of dogs, while he remains starving on the street. The rich man who ignores his plight goes unnamed in Jesus’ story, though he is often referred to as “Dives”, Latin for “rich.” This evocative parable draws us into a situation we can easily relate to: how many times have we seen someone homeless and begging on the street and been unable or unwilling to offer help? The parable also takes us into the eternal, as the rich man suffers torment eternally for his lack of charity, while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham in God’s paradise.
From this parable, we can glean some important ideas. First, by using such a common example, Jesus reminds us that poverty is often visibly manifested before our very eyes. By comparing the benefits and privileges of the rich man to the privations and sufferings of the poor man, we are made to see not only that poverty exists, but that it has real consequences for real people. Second, it becomes clear early in the story that the rich man had the ability to change poor Lazarus’ circumstances, but did nothing. In this, we see a lack of justice and a failure of charity. Our ability to see this is an appeal from Jesus to our natural sense of goodness and decency. At the same time, our Lord wants to disturb our conscience just a bit as we are forced to confront our own behavior in similar circumstances. Third, the parable reminds us that our daily comportment, the action we take in life, and the hidden motivations behind those choices have genuine consequences for eternity. Lest we oversimplify the story and think that Jesus is just telling us that if you suffer in this life, you’ll be fine in heaven, or that if you don’t suffer in this life, you have to suffer for eternity, we need to keep in mind two implications. Our Lord implies first that Lazarus did nothing to deserve his poverty and suffering – he is innocent and virtuous. And the story, as already noted, makes clear that the rich man not only ignored the poverty literally at his door, but also used his resources on his own find clothing and diet, at the expense of genuine charity that could have been extended. And so the eternal separation that Dives experiences is brought about not by some karmic cause, but by his own choices and actions throughout his life. Our actions, be they virtuous or sinful, have consequences for eternity.
There is one other important aspect of the story that we might accidentally overlook. It comes through Luke’s masterful narration. The story ends with Abraham speaking to the rich man, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” This brings us back to the beginning of the Gospel reading. For liturgical purposes, it begins with “Jesus said to the Pharisees…,” but that is simply a reference that gives context to the story. In fact, a few verses earlier (Luke 16:14), we learn that the Pharisees are lovers of money. That is, this particular group of Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking are more concerned about money than they are about God. So why does Abraham talk about rising from the dead? We recall that the Pharisees were scholars of the law of God, knowledgeable about all that God had said through the prophets, and in their observance of the law, they were zealous and exemplary. Among the Jewish scholars, the Pharisees held to the theological belief that the dead would be raised one day by God. In a way, because they believed in eternal life, because they trusted that there was life after death, they had grown comfortable. So long as they believed and followed the law to the letter, they would be fine.
It is to Pharisees, those who believe that the dead will rise again, that the parable is addressed. But, as Abraham says, if these great scholars of the law and the scriptures will not listen Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead. Moses and the prophets, it should be noted, are very clear that the poor, destitute, and suffering are to be cared for, that those who have greater material means ought to provide for the care of those who cannot care for themselves. The Pharisees, lovers of money that they are, do none of those things. Even the resurrection of the dead will not persuade them. Here, Jesus is speaking to the future – in the main, the Pharisees will not believe in Jesus’ Resurrection. He is also speaking to the reality that it is not enough to say “I believe.” The act of faith is foundational, but must always be accompanied by corresponding action. The Pharisees believe, but excuse themselves from personal responsibility. How easily we do the same! Our culture actually encourages it – say the right, politically acceptable things, and you’re off the hook for actually doing anything. But being a disciple of Jesus calls us to personal involvement. We are called to help the poor person at our door, the person in need we actually encounter. And if somehow we cannot find a person in need, then the very faith we profess in the law of Moses and the prophets, the very faith we profess in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, calls us to intentionally find a way to help the poor. For weeks, the Gospels at Mass have cautioned us on materialism and the unbridled accumulation of wealth (especially wealth as an idol). Today, that caution is reiterated, and we are also presented with a remedy. To use what we have not only for our own benefit, but also for the alleviation of human suffering, and to know that such intentional behavior carries with it a value that lasts eternally.