The Rich Man and Lazarus

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year. Am 6:1a,4-7; Ps 146:7-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31

Today’s Gospel is the last of a group of five parables addressed to the Pharisees, the Pharisees who had complained about Jesus welcoming sinners. In the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost or ‘Prodigal’ Son, Jesus shows the diverse ways in which God has mercy on sinners. In the parable of the Unjust Steward, he warns us to put our goods in this world to urgent use for the sake of salvation. Today, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we are told of the eternal consequences of what will happen if we fail to heed these warnings.

But is today’s Gospel even a parable? Generally speaking, the farmers, landowners, servants, sons and so on of parables are never named. Today, by contrast, Jesus mentions three proper names, Lazarus, Abraham and Moses. The only unnamed person is the rich man. So when Jesus says, “there was a poor man named Lazarus,” is this a story or a history? Many interpreters, including St. Gregory and St. Augustine, consider that this narrative is a literal history. There was, indeed, a poor man named Lazarus, carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham; there was, indeed, a rich man who ended in a place of torment. At least Jesus’ use of proper names seems to be a kind of warning against dismissing his narrative as mere fiction. The story may contain metaphors, but the use of names strongly suggests that what is described could and perhaps has actually happened.

Whether it is a parable or not, this story certainly emphasizes a lesson which cannot be repeated often enough: what we do here in this life, in this short span of years on earth, determines our state for eternity. We take our goodness or our evil with us, beyond the grave. So if we do not repent here, receive forgiveness through the sacraments here, and show their fruit in good works here, we shall not be able to change sides after we die, “between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.” Furthermore, in this parable in particular, Jesus makes it clear that eternity will reverse many of the apparent advantages that many enjoy in this life. The rich man, who lived well and presumably had a splendid funeral, obituaries and a costly burial, ends in torment. By contrast, the poor man, starving and covered with sores, ends up comforted in the ‘bosom of Abraham’, traditionally considered a kind of place of waiting until Jesus opened the gates of heaven by his death and Resurrection. The rich man who did not even think of giving Lazarus the scraps from his table while he was alive now thirsts for a single drop of water in the flames.

What, then, can we learn from this Gospel to prevent us making the same mistake? Well, Lazarus in a positive way and the rich man in a negative way teach us about two qualities of the utmost importance in “laying hold of eternal life”, to use St. Paul’s phrase in the second reading. It not the fact that Lazarus is materially poor that saves him, but the condition of his life strongly suggests that he has humility and its concomitant suffering. We need humility to enter heaven because cannot earn our salvation; we can only accept it as a gift from God. As St. Thomas Aquinas used to pray before Mass, “I come as a sick man to the physician who will save his life, as a man unclean to the fountain of mercy, a blind man to the radiance of eternal light, one poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.” We all come to God spiritually as beggars, but the materially poor man, Lazarus, can see this more clearly than the materially rich man or the Pharisee who is satisfied with his life and does not ask for help.

So we need humility, but we also, of course, need that quality the rich man clearly lacks, namely charity. Now there is some confusion about the obligations of charity today. The word ‘charity’ is often used simply to refer to giving money in an impersonal way to people who live far away. While this is a good action, the patron of this church, St. Ambrose, taught that the obligations of charity are principally to our ‘neighbour’, those people who are close to us in terms of the Faith, family relation, physical proximity and so on. The sin of the rich man is that he failed to act when Lazarus, a child of God, the ‘bosses' son’, one might say, lay at his very door in need of help. But what, exactly, are our obligations to neighbour? Drawing on Scripture, the Tradition of the Church identifies two groups of seven obligations: the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. The seven corporeal or ‘physical’ works of mercy are: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; harbour the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; bury the dead. There are also seven ‘spiritual’ works of mercy: convert the sinner; instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; comfort the sorrowful; bear wrongs patiently; forgive injustice; pray for the living and dead. In today’s Gospel it seems clear that the rich man did none of these things for Lazarus, and for this he ends in hell.

Now most Christians know at least some of the Ten Commandments, but probably very few know the seven corporeal and seven spiritual works of mercy. As a practical suggestion, I therefore recommend finding a list of the works of mercy, for example from catechisms or the Internet, and memorizing them. At least then we shall more easily recall our obligations when our neighbour needs our help.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 30th September 2007

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