26th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 16,19-31
It is not hard to understand what Jesus is saying in this parable. For as long as he lived, the rich man was swamped in abundance. He had everything – except compassion for the poor man who was starving at his gate. After his death, he could do nothing to alleviate his misfortune, or to prevent his family walking, without realizing it, to the same end. Laden with riches, the rich man could not save himself or his family.
At the death of the poor man, whom nobody had helped in this life, he rejoiced forever in God’s consolation. In both cases, death changed their situation radically and irrevocably. The man who previously lacked nothing could not now get even a drop of water to cool his tongue. The one who sought only to satisfy his hunger with what others wasted, now had complete satisfaction in the company of God.
The rich man’s abundance of wealth brought about his perdition. All the poor man had to do was to survive and not lose hope in God. To enjoy life, the rich man had need neither of the poor man nor of God. The poor man lacked everything. He had nothing of his own and he did not have a compassionate neighbour, but he always had God on his side, even though he did not know it.
At that time: Jesus said to the Pharisees, 19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.
Luke presents this teaching of Jesus as intended for the Pharisees whom he had described a bit earlier as ‘lovers’ of money (Lk 16,14). We must not overlook this detail if we want to interpret correctly what Jesus is saying. He is speaking only to those who love material things more than they love their neighbour. This severe warning is addressed, not to a group of the Jewish faithful, but to those who are attached to material things.
The parable can be seen as an illustration of what Jesus had said earlier in his sermon on the plain, (Lk 6,20 -21.24-25). It contains a harsh condemnation of wealth, not because it was gained unlawfully for there is no mention of that here, but because of its evil consequences. The power of wealth makes a person’s heart insensitive and closes his or her heart to the needs of their neighbour. But there is also good news here. The story reveals where God stands and who has a place in his heart. The God of Jesus is not neutral! He is on the side of the needy and those who are overlooked, even though that may not always be immediately visible.
The story begins by introducing the characters (Lk 16,19.20). The rich man has everything, but he is given no name and no face. He could be anybody. The poor man is identified by name, Lazarus, (which means ‘God helps’) even before it mentions his hunger and his difficulties. The rich man was accustomed to daily banquets. The poor man was food for the dogs. No other words could describe the abyss that existed between them. Death decreed that the abyss which had never before been crossed now became impassable and definitive. But their fortunes were reversed.
The rich man had done nothing ‘wrong’ except to live off his wealth, but he went to hell. There is no mention of the poor man having done anything ‘good’, except to be poor, and he was taken to the ‘bosom of Abraham’. Although Jesus’ teaching seems reasonable, it is still quite surprising in a culture, like that of bible times, where riches are deemed good because they come from the good God. Jesus teaches that there is something to be valued more than wealth, and that is to care for the neighbour who is in need. The rich man learns his lesson in the conversation with Abraham, and Jesus’ listeners receive a severe warning. Lazarus, the poor man who was not helped in this life, can help no one, neither the dead nor the living who are still enjoying the good things of life. No one can help people who will not allow themselves to be helped by the law of God and by Moses and the prophets. It is God, by his will that he has made known, who opens the hearts of the rich to the needs of their neighbour. For the rich man, there is only one ‘miracle’ that can save him, and that is the poor man at his side. Anyone who is insensitive to the needs of his or her neighbour is heading for condemnation.
This is a frightening teaching: anyone who was not compassionate in this life will not be shown compassion after death. Those who love their goods more than their neighbour, will have no one to help them. That will be their hell, forever!
II. Meditation: apply what the text says to life
This parable is found only in Luke. He presents in very dramatic form, without any concessions or soft words, the danger facing the rich. It is not just that they may one day lose all they have, but that their wealth may cause them to be lost forever. It is easy for a poor person to trust in God. Who else is there to trust? But it takes a lot for a rich person to trust in God. “Put you trust in us!” riches say. There is something very ‘ugly’ in material riches. They have enormous power of perversion. The pleasure of riches can close our hearts to the poor and put us in conflict with God. The only good the poor person can count on is God. The rich, for whom the poor do not count, no longer count on God.
It is obvious that in telling this story, Jesus is taking a stance that is surprisingly critical of an abundance of wealth in this life. The rich man had done nothing wrong. At worst he had spent his wealth without showing any consideration or any pity for the poor man close to him who was suffering. And the poor man did not do anything good, except to lie there on the ground begging for help that never came.
We should acknowledge that we do not exactly like this teaching of Jesus. It goes against not only the fashion and the values of our society, but also our own way of life and the choices we make every day. There are few of the judgments of Jesus that seem so unrealizable and so far removed from the reality of the world we live in, as his judgement on riches. Nowadays, there is nobody who regards riches as an extreme danger or sees waste as a genuine injustice. Rich people can do what they like with their money. What we do not like is that they enjoy it without sharing it with us. And we who call ourselves followers of Jesus, do we not do all we can to acquire more wealth, to have a better standard of living, to be able to buy whatever we like, to spend our money as we wish? Like many people, we envy those who have more than we have, and dream of the day when we will be rich and are lucky enough to possess a large sum of money. We find plenty of reasons. Material goods are the things we need to live on. We know that money does not ensure a happy life, but the lack of it is already a cause of unhappiness.
Jesus does not condemn wealth, nor does he consider it evil in itself. But in this parable he draws our attention to the dangers of wealth. Those who have plenty, for the mere fact of having plenty, are normally less sensitive to the needs of those who have less, and often do not feel any responsibility towards them. They think they can dispose of their wealth just because it is theirs, and it does not matter to them that others may not have enough to live on. For many people today, their aim in life is to have more, to enjoy more and to spend all they like. Jesus warns us that this can become our whole purpose in life. The problem was not that the rich man was very wealthy but that he gave nothing to the poor. He wasted his goods and he wasted his life forever, not because he spent a lot, but because he did not use any part of his wealth to benefit the person in need. The problem with riches is not having them or desiring them. The problem is that those who have most give least. Jesus warns us calmly: our final destiny does not depend on how much we are able to accumulate in this life, but on how much we are willing to share. What matters is not how much we spend in this life, but how much we give to others.
All that the rich man possessed was unable to save him. He could buy everything in this life, but he could not buy a place with God after his death. The one who had most was the one who lost most, not just this life and its riches, but his life with God. The goods we have and the wellbeing we enjoy, and the money we spend, may help us to enjoy life, but they do not help us to attain God and the only genuine happiness which is to be found in intimacy him. We risk too much when we become attached to things that will perish with us. The only good that lasts is the good we do to others. The good we do for ourselves will die with us. The good we do not do to someone in need will be our condemnation. Let’s not deceive ourselves with the excuse that, at the end of the day, we are not as rich as the man in the parable. The fact that we do not have splendid banquets every day means nothing, if there is someone near us in greater need with less to eat than we have. Compared to what we would like to have, we will always be poor, but compared to those who have less than us, we are well off. If we do not help the needy, we are rich and selfish, even if we do not possess a lot. God has given us goods to do good to others, and this is how we become, not richer, but better people. Whatever we are able to accumulate in this life is given to us for our own needs and the needs of our neighbour.
Jesus does not demonize wealth in itself. He simply points out the insensitivity it can produce in the hearts of those who possess it. Anyone who does not have pity on the needy becomes deaf to the word of God and his prophets, and will not believe even in the most miraculous signs. Not even the greatest of miracles is capable of changing the heart that is unmoved by the poverty of a brother or sister. Anyone who does not listen to the voice of the needy will not obey God or listen to his voice, even if he hears it. To hear God we have to listen to the poor. The miserable condition of a poor person is the ’miracle’ that will bring about out conversion. We have enough poor people around us for us to be converted to poverty. God has given us so many neighbours in need of our help and our riches, because He wants to be our only Good. In every poor person who lives with us, God has given us a motive and a means for our conversion.
Jesus gives us a second warning in the parable. Anyone who does not show pity to a poor person will not hear the word of God and will not believe in his miraculous works. It would have served no good purpose if the rich man had returned to life, not to save himself, but simply to warn his family. Anyone who is insensitive to the needs of a poor person becomes deaf even to the voice of God and loses the ability to see miracles. Miracles are not enough. God himself can do nothing for the person who is not moved to pity by the condition of a neighbour. The greatest of miracles and the law of God are incapable of changing the heart of a person who loves wealth more than the neighbour who is in need, who prefers to waste money instead of using it to help the needy. It is not hard to see how the goods we possess finish up by possessing us. They occupy our time and hijack our better feelings, they hold our heart as a hostage.
It is bad enough that Jesus points this out to us. What is worse is that we are often spectators, and indeed victims, of that temptation to put our goods ahead of the needs of our neighbour.
If we take this parable of Jesus seriously, we will see that it also contains a promising message. As long as there is someone near us that we can help, we are not saving ourselves, but we are not yet lost forever. If there is somebody near us whose need is greater than ours, we still have hope of being with God forever. The poor person who needs our help is our assurance of eternal life! Nobody is completely lost, if there is somebody to be cared for. None of us has so little of this world’s goods that we cannot help somebody with the little we have. Whether or not God will be ours for all eternity will always depend on whether or not we put our goods at the service of those who need them more than we do. Let us make good use of what God gives us in this life, to make sure we have God forever in the next.
Instead of being surprised at the irrevocable condemnation of the rich man, or the salvation of the poor man without any great effort on his part, we should be surprised at the kind of God who is revealed in both these situations. This is the real message of this gospel passage. God grants the company of Abraham for all eternity to the poor man who lived among the dogs. God comes out in support of someone who had nothing, not even a compassionate neighbour. God does not stand for someone who mistreats those who have nothing. Taking care of the poor is not, therefore, an optional extra for those who believe. God has given us the poor because he wants to be our supreme good one day and forever.