"A Rich Man and Lazarus" by Vasily Surikov (1873).
Am 6:1a, 4-7
Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
1 Tm 6:11-16
As we hear the various parables from
the Gospel of Luke it is good to keep two things in mind. First, the
context of these teachings, which were given by Jesus as he made his
way up to Jerusalem to “be delivered into the hands of men” (Lk.
9:44) and enter into his Passion. That journey was not just a
physical journey, but also a sign of obedience to the will of the
Father, a concrete expression of perfect humility and self-gift.
Secondly, his parables and discourses
given during the journey were not haphazard or random in nature, but
form a cohesive and focused whole. They are like different paths
leading to the same place and shedding light on the same event:
Jesus’ death on the Cross for the salvation of mankind. Some of
them were meant specifically for the disciples; others for the crowds
following Jesus; still others for the Pharisees and other religious
Between last week’s reading of the
parable of the dishonest steward (Lk. 16:1-15) and today’s parable
is a little bridge of five verses (16:14-18). That passage states
that the Pharisees“who were lovers of money”had heard Jesus
say, “You cannot serve God and mammon”, and had sneered at him.
Jesus then said to them, “You justify yourselves in the sight of
others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an
abomination in the sight of God.”
This sets up the parable of the rich
man and Lazarus, a story sometimes interpreted solely as a
renunciation of greed and a call to treat the poor with justice. That
interpretation is, of course, both correct and important. Today’s
reading from the prophet Amos takes up the same issue, directing a
curse toward the complacent wealthy who stuff themselves with rich
meat while starving themselves spiritually. And the first half of the
parable (vs. 19-26) is directed toward the same sort of opulent
self-indulgence and gluttonous revelry.
But there is more to it, for Jesus took
what was quite possibly a well-known motifa rich man descending
into Hadesand suddenly, as the saying goes, brought it home with
an unexpected epilogue. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to
warn his five brothers so they might escape eternal torment. Who are
the five brothers? In the immediate context, they are the Pharisees,
the ones who have and know the law of Moses and the prophets and yet
fail to pursue the will of God and die to pride.
St. Jerome, commenting on this passage,
said the rich man is not accused of greed, theft, adultery, “or, in
fact, of any wrongdoing. The evil alone of which he is guilty is
pride.” Pride, says St. Thomas Aquinas in his treatise on evil,
signifies an intentional contempt of God. Every sin, in fact, is
infected to some degree by pride. The Catechism explains that
“hatred of God comes from pride. It is contrary to love of God,
whose goodness it denies…” (par. 2094).
Pride destroys love for God and love
for others; it seeks only itself and its desires, without thought for
tomorrow or the afterlife. The Pharisees, as Abraham tells the rich
man, have Moses and prophets. They, more than anyone else, had no
excuse for being prideful and refusing to repent. But they failed to
heed John the Baptist’s warning about believing that because
Abraham was their father, they had no need for repentence (Lk. 3:8).
Jerome, providing a spiritual
interpretation, likens the five brothers to our five physical senses.
Pride often comes through physical, sensual pleasures; materials
things meant for our good can become our masters. “Blessed are you
who are poor,” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “But woe
to you who are rich…” Regardless of income and social status, all
Christians must pursue a spirit of poverty, for without it we cannot
take up the cross, die to sin, and enter eternal beatitude.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the September 26, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)