Scripture readings: Book of the Prophet Amos 6:1, 4-7; First Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy 6:11-16; Gospel According to Saint Luke 16:19-31
“A wise man is known by the fewness of his words,” as the saying goes. Saint Benedict cites it in his Holy Rule in the chapter on humility. Benedictine scholars say the quote is not from Sacred Scripture, but from a certain Sextus, an ancient Roman expert in law. In any case, with striking simplicity and economy (that is, fewness) of words, Jesus presents a parable about extravagance and dire need, standing in stark contrast at the same door.
In the parable, a rich man, whose nickname has come to be “Dives,” the Latin word for “rich,” lives in luxury, dressed in costly Egyptian linen and an expensive purple mantle. He must have been on the “best dressed” list of his time and equally able to feast each day with extravagant waste.
At the large main gate to Dives’ home a there was a beggar, named Lazarus, unable to walk, his tattered dirty clothing somewhat hiding and protecting his body covered with ulcers. So weak was he that even dogs did not fear him to lick his wounds. Lazarus longed even to eat the bread on which the guests at Dives’ house had wiped their hands after dipping them in the common plates and had thrown under the large dining table. Yet even this was not afforded Lazarus
The rich man, who was thoughtless, egotistical and godless, was unaware of the reality lying at his door in the person of the beggar. Dives was truly “out to lunch” in the worse sense of the word! He dined, but on the food of selfishness and discrimination. In fact Dives is morally bankrupt and impoverished.
The beggar Lazarus was desperately poor materially, but his poverty had not corrupted his personality. Who says so? Jesus, by naming the beggar Lazarus, which literally means, “God helps,” or “God is my helper.” His name is significant, as he is the only named character in all of the parables of Jesus. While not the principal actor of the parable, Lazarus is a contrast figure who presence at Dives’ gate and after death in the bosom of Abraham, throws light on the brothers of Dives who are symbolic of all who are living and in need of reorienting their lives to the ways of God.
We are told in the parable that both Dives and Lazarus die, but the reversal of their fortunes is meant to speak volumes to the five brothers of Dives and all the living, that is, all who listen to Jesus.
As Lazarus the beggar is carried by angels to a place of honor after death, called “Abraham’s bosom,” the rich man lands up in torment after death, punished for the moral destitution of a life of revelry and waste. Aware of the consequences of his life on earth, Dives the rich man begs that his brothers still living be alerted to what awaits the selfish in this life after death.
In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Jesus sounds an ever recurring warning about living a careless life, heedless of the necessity of real conversion and concern for others. Thoughtless neglect of the poor as well as positive injustice toward others, whomever they may be, is equally blameworthy.
If someone cannot be humane with the Law of God in the here and now, they will unlikely be moved even if someone should rise from the dead, Jesus is telling his hearers. Heartless neglect of the great opportunities and responsibilities are at the core of Jesus’ message this Sunday.
In the teaching of Jesus both groups, the poor and the rich, are all in need of conversion. No one is exempt from turning one’s life over to God. In the process one draws closer to the living God and to true joy. Of course this is not a question of mere superficial happiness, having little or nothing to do with spiritual growth and freedom in the Lord. Rather, it is just that, a joy which God alone can give, and which God bestows on those who are progressing on the path to God’s House.
Despite what many people think or conclude, the life of the follower of Christ is essentially to be joyful and dynamic. The process may not always be easy, but even in suffering, Jesus teaches, one can grow in joyful love. Furthermore and wonderfully, the growth need have no end. Said another way, our life in Christ, difficult as it may be at times or often, will eventually result in personal transformation.
We may think at times that spiritual and emotional fulfillment only comes in the next world, in heaven. But Jesus is not limiting his promises to the afterlife alone. Rather, our daily turning to God in whatever our vocation may be, should produce results here and now as well as in the life to come.
This lesson Dives, the rich man, failed to realize. While he is a fictional character, within a parable of Jesus, the truth of his behavior must be taken as true: how we act now has consequences for the present and the future. An integral life on earth means a firm faith in heaven and the reunion at the heavenly banquet table. We possess the possibility of a real “touch of God” by a life of self-giving and love, which no one can force us to embrace nor take away from us. Orthodox Christian sometimes call the process as being “kissed by God,” something that may almost sound comical, but in fact should be eagerly sought!
Prior Christian Leisy, OSB
Monastery of Christ in the Desert
Abiquiu, New Mexico