By: Fr. James Gross
I’ll never forget the first time I went to Los Angeles with one of my brothers, many years ago. A cousin of mine who lived there took us driving around one day through Hollywood, and we also went through a part of Beverly Hills. Afterwards my friends asked me how the trip was, and what we had seen. I told them, “with Beverly Hills, it’s not what you see, but what you CAN’T see.” Down one street after another, there were tall walls along the sidewalks or thick, well-sculpted shrubs. We knew darn well that there were opulent homes, but they were completely concealed behind the walls. In the name of privacy, the owners were separated behind their partitions, insulated from undesirables. I thought to myself, “When do they ever see the Lazaruses of the world, and what do they think of them?”
Let’s be clear about something from the start: In the Gospels, Jesus does not condemn the wealthy simply for having wealth. He speaks about the dangers that wealth can cause. One of my cousins has a favorite saying: “I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on it.” What he means is to spend your money having fun in this life while you can. But there’s a more spiritual meaning to that saying. We cannot take material goods with us. Our love for God and for our neighbor is infinitely more important. At the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta three weeks ago, Pope Francis repeated his frequent calls for a new spirit of solidarity with the poor and an honoring of their God-given dignity.
The message of Jesus advocates for a responsible humanitarianism, and nowhere does he describe this approach more vividly than in the parable from today’s gospel. It begins with two characters. The rich man is not named, but Lazarus, the poor man, is. Very rarely does Jesus give names to the characters in his parables. This gives us notice that what is about to happen requires our close attention. Lazarus is destitute and repulsive in appearance, covered with sores. He is famished, and what’s worse, only a few feet away is a house with abundant meals prepared every single day.
The head of the household, we are told, is “dressed in purple garments.” Purple was one of the most expensive color dyes. Only kings and dignitaries wore anything purple, and mostly to prove to others that they could afford to do so. Also, people of the time did not use utensils at meals. Instead, they would scoop into the dish with pieces of unleavened bread and bring each morsel to their mouths. This bread was a sort of napkin; the wealthy would use the remnant to clean the face and hands, and leave it behind. These were the scraps that Lazarus craved, and they don’t exactly sound appetizing to me.
Jesus reminds us of an important truth about the human condition: wealth does not equate wickedness, nor does poverty equate virtue. However, one could say that Lazarus had fewer distractions that could turn his soul away from thoughts of God. Secondly, for all we know, the rich man may have been an active philanthropist. Perhaps he gave large sums to charity or attended his synagogue every Sabbath. But he was a man of large affairs and “big-picture” concerns. An individual’s immediate need, literally in his own front yard, never registered on his radar screen.
The next scene fast-forwards to the afterlife. Although there is fixed an abyss between Lazarus and the rich man, they are in close proximity, almost as actors on opposite sides of the same stage. Jesus does this not so much for the dramatic effect as to remind us of human solidarity. The rich man could never really get as far away from the great unwashed as he thought, either in this life or the next. The fact that the rich man is in torment is merely a natural consequence. Selfishness makes for hell on earth: why should we doubt that it brings hell in the hereafter?
One might expect that the rich man is finally starting to see his flaws as they are, but we see that he still fails miserably. I’ve always wondered: why does he only speak to Abraham, and not to Lazarus? Why does Lazarus never warrant being spoken to directly? “Father Abraham, have pity on me; send Lazarus to help me…” We expect Lazarus to say, “You blockhead, I’m standing right here!” In his life the rich man put up walls so as to avoid mingling with the riff-raff. He had an assistant who told his assistant to do all the dirty work.
As for his request that Lazarus warn his brothers from the great beyond, the rich man appears to be drawing slightly closer to a spirit of altruism. However, the problem is not that the rich man or his brothers are ignorant. They know the Law of Moses and the sermons of the prophets in their heads. There is nothing insufficient in God’s revelation through the Old Testament. The problem lies elsewhere. What if the rich man had thought of Lazarus as a sixth brother? What if he had cared for the well-being of Lazarus during his lifetime even half as much as he cared for the souls of his siblings afterwards?
The rich man had become too absorbed in himself to see what lay beyond himself. Consequently, he is as a child even in death. One of the marks of adulthood is to love another as “other,” and to be a gift to another in freedom so as to receive love in return. The real tragedy is that this man never grew up. And when we place him in the context of the message from the prophet Amos, which we heard in our first reading, his haunting words nearly leap off the page—“Woe to the complacent in Zion!”
Lastly, let’s remember the instruction St. Paul gave to his young protégé St. Timothy: “compete well for the faith, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, purity, and gentleness.” Underlying his instructions is the knowledge that, in the Body of Christ, all of us are brothers and sisters, lovingly brought into being and called to share in the ultimate gift of eternal life. This applies to all of us, whether we are Lazarus, the rich man, or somewhere in between