Today’s gospel passage contains Jesus’ story about a rich man who dined sumptuously each day and Lazarus, a poor man, who would gladly have eaten the scraps from the rich man’s table. When the poor man died, angels carried him to the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man died, he found himself in the netherworld of torment. He was, however, able to see Abraham with Lazarus in a place of honor at his side. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus so that he might give him a drop of water to relieve his suffering. Abraham replied that this was no longer a possibility.
The rich man then asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers so that he might warn them, lest they suffer the same torment that had befallen him. Abraham replied “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” The rich man said that his brothers would repent if someone from the dead warned them. Abraham responded that if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they would not be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead.
One of the striking things about parables is that they often overturn conventional ways of thinking. If we are able to hear them with grace, they can shock us out of the illusions that we are accustomed to live by, and enable us to see things with God’s eyes. In regard to the scene of today’s gospel, our way of looking at things is not much different from the way people of Jesus’ culture looked at things. If we see a rich man and a poor man, our envy would be in the direction of the rich man. Further, we would have the feeling, perhaps unspoken, that the poor man’s miserable condition was probably a consequence of his own laziness or irresponsible action. Yet, in this story the rich man is surely not the one to be envied. What’s going on here?
At the end of the story, we feel bad that Lazarus is not able to warn the rich man’s five brothers. But the parable tricks us. We, all of us, are the five brothers or the five sisters. And it is the rich man, himself, who is able to warn us. It isn’t difficult to imagine the sort of things he wants to say.
This will be the rich man speaking. There is finality to life and to life’s choices. Don’t be in the illusion of imagining the end of your life to be something like the end of the cosmos—far in the distant future. God may say to you: “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you.” The choices you are making now have everlasting consequences. You, as I once did, have the power to establish a chasm between yourself and the Lazarus lying at your door. After you die, that chasm is forever fixed; and you will no longer be able to cross it.
I want to warn you especially about riches, riches of all kinds—of money, intelligence, health, power, social or religious status. Though all good in themselves, these riches can lead you to forget about God and everyone else except yourself. That’s what happened to me. And most people, including myself, thought I was a big success in life. Remember that God identifies with every Lazarus of the world—the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the unborn, even criminals in prison. One of them is lying at your door. If you establish a chasm between Lazarus and yourself, you are establishing a chasm between yourself and God.
That ends the rich man’s warning to us. But after all, the rich man is only a fictional character in a story Jesus made up for simple folk of a pre-scientific age. Does it any longer have meaning for us? To decide that question will be the most important decision we will ever make. Do I trust that Jesus is alive and present among us to tell me how God sees things, or do I listen to other, much louder voices that promise me more money, more knowledge, more health, more power, higher social or religious status? This homily, like most others, must end with a prayer: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. You have the words of everlasting life.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.