Sunday reflection: Luke 16:19–31

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 16:19–31:

Jesus said to the Pharisees:

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, 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.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

We all remember the Golden Rule from our kindergarten days: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Generally we all learned this in response to demonstrating a selfish impulse. We took someone else’s toy, or made fun of them in front of others, without a shred of empathy as to how it would make them feel. At four and five years of age, those empathy skills are still in their nascent stages, and we are the center of our own universes. Our parents, family leaders, and teachers had to constantly work on our predilection for self-centeredness so that we could understand how our actions impacted others, and more importantly, to care about it. But that core, that spark, resided in us; they only needed to instill the discipline that is needed to exercise it.

Jesus put this in much more specific terms in the Gospels: Love your neighbors as yourselves. In fact, He challenged us even further by telling us to love our enemies as well.  That does not instruct us to despise ourselves, but to see ourselves, our neighbors, and yes even our enemies in our proper place in the Lord’s kingdom.

Today’s Gospel parable clearly speaks to that teaching, and in a much more understandable manner than last week’s, which almost directly precede today’s Gospel. It echoes our first reading from Amos, in which the prophet warns “the complacent in Zion,” who have been lulled into a false sense of security through a wealth of material pleasures. They put so much focus on their own pleasure that they do not seem affected at all by “the collapse of Joseph,” the coming defeat and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel. Because they do not focus on the Lord and care for each other, they are first to go into exile, as the Lord promises to Amos just a few years before the Assyrians sack Israel, but Judah will not learn the lesson either and will fall a century later.

Jesus’ parable takes a much more direct and personal approach. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus tells the tale of a man whose wealth blinds him to the poor at his very door. In fact, the rich man isn’t really blinded at all, as we see when both he and the poor man die. He knows very well who Lazarus is; he just couldn’t be bothered to help him. Suddenly, though, Lazarus becomes very, very important to the rich man, but by then it is too late.

It’s worth noting that the rich man still sees Lazarus as more of a servant, and is still more consumed with his own predicament than Lazarus’, whom he calls into the torment to bring him comfort. The rich man still hasn’t really learned caritas, although he has enough of a sense of it to try to save his brothers from his own fate. And this, of course, is where Jesus’ parable really stings.

The Pharisees had agitated for Jesus to perform signs for them specifically in order to prove his status as the Messiah. Jesus spent his mission performing works among the poor, not the powerful, which makes this parable a reflection of his own ministry — and casts the Pharisees into the role of the rich man in an entirely different way than the literal. The Pharisees’ desire for the Lord to serve them parallels the rich man’s desire for Lazarus to make an appearance to his family for their redemption, to which Abraham replies that they should have listened to Moses and the prophets. Jesus then predicts that the Pharisees — and many others — won’t listen even if someone should return from the dead, a prophecy that Jesus Himself will literally prove not long after this meeting.

What lessons are we to learn from this? In a literal sense, the poor remind us to live outside ourselves and to orient ourselves to service rather than greed and gluttony. In the case of the rich man, he dissipated his own salvation by ignoring Lazarus, who received justice in the bosom of Abraham. But this parable also teaches us that demanding new signs and miracles as a pretext for our belief is just another way of putting ourselves at the center of the universe rather than The Lord. We have Moses, the prophets, and the Gospel, as well as the risen Christ.

And there’s another lesson, too, one directed to us by Paul in his letter to Timothy. We are to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness,” not as a means to an end or for our own sake, but for the sake of Christ and the Father. This lesson calls us to orient ourselves and our lives in this fashion in order to open ourselves to that caritas that goes beyond the Golden Rule and our often more more transactional or even karmic understanding of it: Don’t be mean unless you want people to be mean to you. Jesus’ teachings emphasize love, or in the Latin, caritas — the self-giving, self-emptying love that comes from truly wanting the best for another. Love others even when they do not love you, we are taught.

And why? Because that’s how God loves us. He loves us through our sin, our rebellion, and wants us to find our way to Him out of love rather than duty or self-interest. He wants us to join Him in a kingdom of caritas love, but first we have to orient ourselves to become part of it. When we do, we can join Lazarus, Abraham, and the saints as brothers and sisters of one Father, who desires above all else to celebrate our return to Him.

The front-page image is “Dives and Lazarus,” Leandro Bassano, c. 1600. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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