We hear this familiar gospel parable [Luke 16:19-31] every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest or deacon, as he reads Jesus’ condemnation of the rich man dressed in purple, when he himself is, of course, conspicuously all dressed in purple. (At least we don’t have that problem today!)
Other than his wardrobe, we know very little about the rich man. He is sometimes named “Dives,” which is just the Latin word for rich – thanks to the opening words of the parable, Homo quidam erat dives (“There was a certain rich man”). In what we like to call the “real” world, it’s typically the rich whom we remember. They are the ones we look up to, admire, and cater to. But, in the kingdom of God, it is the poor who matter; so it is the beggar’s name that everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man serves as a sort of “everyman” figure. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption Amos harangued against. Or he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society such as ours.
In traditional, pre-modern societies, where the amount of surplus wealth produced is low, there is usually a small upper class, a very small middle class, and lots and lots of poor people – not all as badly off as Lazarus, of course, but poor enough to be close to the margin. And, in such a society, there certainly would be beggars. And the danger of becoming a beggar would be a very real worry for the multitude of working poor, just barely getting by.
So the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood the parable. They could picture it. Beggars were visible, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) there was no avoiding them. Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side. But the parable suggests something more. It suggests that for the rich man side-by-side had become separate.
Within his own separately constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was especially wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that he obtained his wealth dishonestly or illegally. Within the narrow-minded world which wealth creates, he may have been seen as a fine, upstanding citizen. His failing in the parable is precisely that of that narrow-minded world which wealth creates, a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus, and his consequent personal failure to bridge the great chasm his wealth had created between himself and Lazarus. It’s not that he was particularly hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was disconnected and indifferent. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his self-constructed private world resembles the way so many live today. We may be citizens of the same country, but we live in separate neighborhoods and consume separate media, in what commentators call our separate silos of information.
In our increasingly privatized and individualistic culture, the very basis for and the extent of our shared social bonds and obligations to one another and society have become problematic to many.
In contrast, the biblical story highlights the essential solidarity of the human race in many ways, beginning with its accounts of creation itself, which reminds us, for example, how in the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of humankind. As the medieval author of The Imitation of Christ famously observed, whoever “seeks to have private possessions loses the things that are common.”
More recently, Pope Francis has stressed this point as one of the principal concerns of his pontificate: “As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family.”
In Jesus’ parable, it was that indifference, rooted in wealth, that so decisively and disastrously separated the rich man from Lazarus. But then the rich man died, and then so did Lazarus - as indeed we all will one day die. It is appointed – says the Letter to the Hebrews - that human beings die once, and after this the judgment. This is the only parable in the Gospel in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we now call “the particular judgment” – the once and for all judgment of each person immediately after death, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person I have become over the course of my life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his wealth had constructed in life between himself and Lazarus is now confirmed as permanent in eternity. Who I become now, in the span of time allotted to me in life, is who I shall be forever.
The parable ends with the rich man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers back home. Something of that sort famously does happen in a more modern parable - Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, with which I’m sure we are all familiar. There the rich man himself (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) returns to warn his business partner, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who does indeed repent in the end. Abraham, however, is not Dickens. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham relies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The obviously intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – Jesus, the one telling us the parable. Our knowing that is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.
So, are we listening?
Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 25, 2016.