The Rich Man and Lazarus

Today’s Gospel for Thursday of the 2nd Week of Lent was the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Some Gospels give you goosebumps and others can rattle your bones. This one is a bone rattler.

In Jesus’ day, being born into nobility (which purple garments indicate here) and being able to eat sumptuously every day was considered a sign of divine blessing in almost every culture. On the other hand, being struck with a horrible, incurable disease and poverty was a sign of divine animosity and a curse. The audience would have been shocked to hear that Lazarus went to Abraham and the rich man went down to punishment. What’s amazing about the rich man is his attitude doesn’t change after he’s dead: he thinks Lazarus is able to jump and do him a personal favor in the afterlife, even though he’s in torment. After being set straight on that issue, he goes on to ask Lazarus to go back to warn his family; why Lazarus would do that is beyond me. The angel makes a point clear to the first audience of the Gospel: when Luke was written, Jesus had come back from the dead and many weren’t listening to him.

The danger of riches has a long biblical tradition, including the reading from Jeremiah 17:5-10. Luke’s Beatitudes says this as well “Woe to you who are rich/for your reward is now.” Possessions can own us, rewrite our priorities, take its place on a pedestal. When Pope Francis talks about the Idolatry of Money, he hits the nail on the head. That’s doesn’t mean if we have money, we’re hopeless, we have to recognize the situation and take care.

How do we take care? Charity is a nice thing, something we should do regularly for our own good as well as the good of others, however the danger is our best efforts can keep Lazarus outside at the doorway and ourselves inside at the buffet. In the Middle Ages, many nobles who lived a sumptuous and excessive lifestyle regularly endowed monasteries of several asceticism, and frequently went there on retreat: sleeping on the cold floor, wearing hair shirts, living on bread and water. Ivan the Terrible died dressed in a monastic habit and was known as Brother Jonah. Yet when they got home, they went right back to their sumptuous lifestyle, the politics of confrontation and combat, and keeping the serfs on the manors.

A lot of times we could ask ourselves how rich we are with good intentions, even bending Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” to include us, however in all honesty, in Western Culture we are all rich. There are many Lazaruses outside our doors, and at times we don’t even want to let them sit on our doorsteps; at other times, we call ourselves generous because we give them a doorstep or a park bench and a little food. This is not meant to be a Liberal endorsement: Clintons, Bushes, Obamas, Cruzes, Bidens and Boehners are all dressed in purple and if they don’t banquet everyday, they can if they want, in many different ways. How we make things right is about more than giving out money or telling people how and where to live. How we make things right is whether we insist on living upon the poverty of others.

Jesus warns us about the consequences of riches. It’s more than listening to the One who came back from the dead, more than voting for Christian principles. There is enough for everyone, if there weren’t, we could put faith in God that He could make it happen. We are all different, and hard work is worth reward, but those unable to work or have a poor work ethic (in our perceptions) do not deserve a death sentence of neglect. It’s about what we think is important in life, and how we act on our principles. If something doesn’t matter too much in our life beyond this one, then it doesn’t matter much now.

I’m surprised this reading isn’t spoken of more often in Social Justice teaching, but perhaps we don’t because it hits too close to home, it’s not easy to use if we’re trying to be heros. We are Rich Men, Lazarus is all around us, and someone has come back from the dead to warn us about what we’re doing. It’s not an easy thing to contemplate because it goes directly against the Prosperity Gospel, the Protestant Work Ethic, and the idea the undeserving poor deserve their horrible fate. We don’t want to hear we’re villains without an easy repentance and amends in sight. We don’t want to think we can’t order off the menu without looking at the right hand column when all is said and done.

Our choice is to embrace the Gospel and everything it means, including grace and charity to those we find disgusting and undeserving. Our choice is about not ordering the banquet in the first place, or giving everyone a ticket in. Our choice is living below our means, or bringing as many as we can up to them. Drive and hard work will always be rewarded, and more opportunity will probably mean more will be able to work their was up. Salvation is about freeing the serfs, rather than finding new ways to keep them in their place. Salvation is about equal opportunity, and equal respect.

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