Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Gospel passage we read this weekend gives us several lessons in one brief parable. With the story of Lazarus, a poor beggar ignored by a wealthy man, Jesus shows us the dangers of judging by appearances and of ignoring the full content of Divine revelation, the foolishness of seeing earthly success as a sign of heavenly guarantees, the promise that sufferings in this life can actually be source of eternal reward, and the oft-cited preferential option for the poor that all of us are called to cultivate.
In contrasting a rich man with a poor beggar, Jesus paints a unique picture. Ordinarily, our eyes would be drawn to the rich man because of his wealth and fine clothing. But in the crafting of this story, our Lord draws our attention instead to Lazarus, the beggar. It becomes clear that the rich man is proud and self-centered, while Lazarus is humble. There were – and still are – many who equated earthly wealth and prestige with a sign of God’s blessing or a guarantee of salvation. Does earthly wealth demonstrate God’s goodness and blessing? Yes! Should that be as far as we go in reflecting on that matter? No! The rich man, dressed in his finery and eating to his heart’s content, is missing something essential. Surely he recognizes God’s blessings and favors, but it seems that he stops there. He has heard the Scriptures that remind us of the ways in which God blesses His faithful ones. But he has also ignored the consistent voice of the Law and the Prophets that insist upon feeding the poor and orphan, welcoming the widow and alien. Satisfied that he is blessed, the rich man ignores Lazarus in his suffering. This is an outward manifestation of the way he ignores Divine Revelation, the word of God spoken through the Law and the Prophets. It is dangerous for our eternal salvation to ignore the full content of God’s revelation to us!
Lazarus suffers in this life. After death, that suffering comes to an end and he is welcomed into heaven. Jesus speaks to the reality of heaven, that place, that spiritual reality, where all suffering meets its end. The reaction of the rich man to seeing Lazarus in heaven (note that it seems to be the first time that the rich man notices Lazarus!) shows us how desirable it is to get to heaven. He realizes his own shortcomings in life, and understands that the primary reason for his separation from heaven is not his wealth, but rather that he ignored Lazarus in his need (more on this shortly). The rich man also recognizes an urgency in making sure his relatives are aware of the value and goodness of heaven. He wants them to change, to avoid following his example. Abraham reminds us that we’ve already been told how we ought to live. Do we pay attention to what we have already been taught?
Notice that at no time in this Gospel passage does Jesus say anything about alleviating the burdens and sufferings of the poor. He doesn’t have to. Scripture is full of explicit commands to be mindful of the poor, to care for them, to never ignore them in their need. In the Old Testament, we will find this repeated many times; Jesus who comes not to abolish the law or the prophets confirms this teaching many times in the Gospel. In other words, it is not only a theme, it is an historically consistent command to Israel. Those hearing this parable, especially the Pharisees, have a comprehensive knowledge that the poor can never be ignored but must always be helped and cared for. Thus, it is obvious that the reason the rich man does not enjoy heaven has everything to do with his selfishness and failure to aid Lazarus, the poor man at his door. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will remind the Apostles that they will always have the poor with them – we will never run out of opportunities to alleviate poverty and serve those who live with much suffering. Poverty will often be right at our door. We should remember that this poverty is not exclusively material, but can also be spiritual, emotional, or physical. We will find people in our lives who are lonely, sick, hated, persecuted, depressed, or financially disadvantaged. Our access to heaven will, without any doubt, be influenced by how well we cultivate this preferential option for the poor.
A prayer attributed to Pope St. Paul VI summarizes well the sentiments this Gospel ought to stir up in our hearts: “Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands this day their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give peace and joy.”