II was thinking about these readings while half-heartedly watching one of the morning television news shows. There was a segment on the rising number of spas for dogs, where, with compatible companions, they could get a complete makeover—haircut, shampoo, pedicure—topped off by a dose of aromatherapy. Bring back Amos thundering against the complacent in Zion for their conspicuous consumption and regal living (writing music like David)! While pet spas may be a bit humorous, they are but a symptom of the growing and massive disparity in wealth in the United States, the richest country in the world, with one of the highest rates of children living in poverty.
The Gospel narrative of the rich man and poor Lazarus is the Lukan culmination of Jesus’ teaching about the danger of wealth. Because the good news originates among the anawim, marginal and humble people who are open to God (Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, Anna and Simeon), Luke’s Gospel is often called the “Gospel for the Poor.” Yet there is far more material about the dangers of great wealth and the pitfalls the rich face in responding to the good news, so the Gospel may also be rightly called “Somber News for the Wealthy.”
Today’s Gospel begins with vivid contrasts: designation of status (rich) versus poor; dressed in purple garments of fine linen (a color and material very costly in the ancient world) versus clothed in ulcerous sores; sumptuous daily meals, most likely with other rich dinner guests, versus scavenging for food with dogs as one’s only companions. Yet the poor man’s name—names are rare in parables—Lazarus (lit. “God helps”) is a hint of the reversal of fate that will unfold.
The poor man dies and angels carry him to the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man dies and has a funeral (normally a sign of God’s favor). The parable shifts dramatically with a surprising reversal of fate: the rich man is in torment in the netherworld, but looks up, sees Lazarus with Abraham and begs “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool his torment. Abraham, as the guardian of the covenant fidelity of the people, assumes the role of teacher, disclosing to the rich man the dire fate that awaits him. The key to understanding this harsh punishment is that the rich man first sees Lazarus, who had lain at his gate, when the chasm between them is eternally fixed. During his lifetime, his wealth created a gulf that made him blind to the sufferings of the poor man. Now he can gaze on him only when it is too late.
Having realized his sinfulness, he then begs Abraham to allow him to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, who apparently are living in the same lavish style. Abraham replies that they have the same opportunities the rich man had, namely the Law and the prophets—a reference to the injunctions of the Torah to care for the poor and the needy and the warnings of the prophets, like those of Amos. Somewhat persistently, the rich man shows an even deeper blindness to God’s revelation and asks instead for some startling event such as the return from the dead of Lazarus, to convince them. Abraham again states that without listening to the Law and the prophets, the brothers will not be converted even if someone should rise from the dead.
This parable offers rich resources for reflection today. Throughout the Bible, the overriding evil of great wealth consists in the way it so takes over people’s lives that it makes them deaf to the teaching of Torah and blind to the sufferings of neighbors. Today, as many people zip along freeways from plush offices to gated communities, one wonders how they can ever see the poor at their gates. Pope John Paul II has constantly invoked this parable to challenge the rich nations of the world to see the impoverished peoples, who are often at their very doorstep.
Also of great importance is the abiding validity of the “Law and the prophets” to form Christian conscience. Christians today believe in the risen Jesus, and, perhaps, some in Luke’s community felt that this was enough. They no longer had to take seriously the Jewish tradition of justice and compassion for the weak. Stress on the risen and reigning Christ can engender a neo-triumphalism that focuses on liturgical pomp, resplendent buildings and parochial discussions of Catholic identity. But the one risen from the dead, who offers salvation to us today, is the same Jesus who listened to the voice of Moses and the prophets and offered love and acceptance to the marginalized of his day, while uttering sober warnings to the proud and prosperous. Like the brothers of Lazarus, if we cannot plumb the social message of the Jewish Scriptures, the words of the risen Jesus will fall on deaf ears.