Last Sunday’s Gospel [Luke 16:1-13] ended with the stern warning: You cannot serve both God and mammon. Today, Jesus brings his point even closer to home with a parable [Luke 16:19-31] that surely ranks among the New Testament’s story-telling masterpieces.
We hear this parable every year on the Thursday of the 2nd week of Lent, which somewhat personalizes the parable for the priest 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 actually know next to nothing about the rich man – not even his name. (He is traditionally known as “Dives” – the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable: Homo quidam erat dives, "there was a certain rich man"). In the “real” world, it’s typically the rich whose names we remember. Here, however, it is the beggar, Lazarus, whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man functions as a kind of “everyman” figure. He could, perhaps, have been one of the complacent in Zion, whose self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption the prophet harangued against in today’s 1st reading [Amos 6:1a, 4-7]. Or he could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society.
To appreciate the scene Jesus sets, we need to remember one of the fundamental differences between a modern, capitalist society, such as ours, and a "traditional society," such as Jesus lived in – and most people have lived in for most of human history. A modern, capitalist society is much more economically productive than a "traditional" society. It produces much more wealth and for a lot more people. With so much more to go around, there is usually a large middle class in addition to the small, very rich, upper class, and there are far fewer in poverty. In less productive "traditional societies," where the amount of surplus wealth produced is relatively low, the result is usually a very small upper class, a very small middle class, and lots of poor people – not necessarily so poor as Lazarus in the a parable, of course, but poor enough to be close to the margin. That is the normal state of affairs in "traditional," pre-capitalist economies. In such a world, of course, there would be beggars aplenty; and the danger of becoming a beggar would be a very real worry for the large multitude of insecure working poor, just barely making it.
So the people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood this parable. They could picture it. Beggars were everywhere, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) there was no avoiding some direct contact between poor and rich. Thus, the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus were, so to speak, side-by-side. The parable suggests something more, however. 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 particularly wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that his wealth was obtained dishonestly or anything of that sort. His only apparent failing, in the parable, was his having created a private world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus – and his consequent failure to bridge the great chasm between himself and Lazarus. It’s not that he was personally hostile to Lazarus. Rather, he was simply indifferent – and hence disconnected. 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 people live today.
But then he died. In fact, they both died, as indeed we all will die. It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment [Hebrews 9:27]. This is the only parable in which Jesus speaks so specifically about what we customarily call “the particular judgment” – the definitive judgment of each person immediately after death, determining each one’s ultimate destiny, a judgment which (as the parable pointedly illustrates) simply confirms the kind of person one has become over the course of one’s life.
And so, in the case of the rich man, the great chasm his chosen lifestyle constructed between himself and Lazarus during their lifetimes is now conformed 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 concludes with the rich man begging Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his 5 brothers. Something of the sort famously does happen in Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, with which 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 replies. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise form the dead.”
The intended irony of the parable is, of course, that someone has, in fact, risen from the dead – the teller of this parable. That, of course, is meant to make the point of the parable that much more urgent for us who hear it today.
So are we listening?
Homily at Immaculate Conception, Knoxville, TN, September 26, 2010.