The first to go: Sunday reflection

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.’”

Who have best prepared themselves for the future — the rich or the poor? Who will be the most open to salvation from the great fall of a fallen world? And how will we account for the use of those gifts granted to us in the end? Jesus ponders these questions in today’s Gospel reading, but finishes with a telling twist to his parable aimed specifically at the temple authorities as a warning.

At first glance, Jesus tells this parable for the same purpose as His other teachings. His description of the wealthy man is a little over the top, while His depiction of Lazarus as a poor man is given in excruciating detail. His sores are so bad and ill-tended that dogs lick at them, which Lazarus is apparently too weak to prevent. He lies right outside the rich man’s door in hopes of sharing in some small part of the man’s fabulous store of wealth, but he ignores Lazarus — which, under the circumstances, would be difficult to do without a concerted effort. If a poor man lay outside your front door in such bad condition that dogs were feeding on him, wouldn’t you notice?

The reversal of fortune — almost literally — is part of Jesus’ teachings throughout His ministry. The first shall be last, and the last first, which is precisely what happens to the rich man and Lazarus in this parable. Now it is the wealthy one suffering horribly outside the door of salvation, with the Lord providing Lazarus his fill. The newly afflicted man begs Lazarus for a scrap from this table, the very same hope Lazarus had in this world with the wealth man.

In this case, though, there is a key difference that points to Jesus’ larger point in the literal sense: The largesse is not Lazarus’ to give. It comes from the Lord and is meant for those who love Him and His children as much as themselves. This is the point that the rich man forgot in this world, which is why he is cast out from salvation in this parable. His wealth was meant to be shared with the less fortunate; to the extent that the Lord intended individuals to have that wealth, it was a gift that should have been put to use for the Lord’s kingdom, not used to exalt themselves while ignoring everyone else. The wealthy man was a steward — the riches came from God, and the man was responsible for how he dealt with God’s children and those gifts.

In the literal sense, this is a recounting of Jesus’ multiple warnings about wealth being an obstacle to salvation. It’s an excellent lesson even in that limited sense, but there’s more to this than just wealth. Jesus has a reason for telling this parable to the Pharisees, and it’s not because they had inordinate wealth of their own. This is also a story about power and authority, not just wealth, and Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of misusing it to the point where they no longer recognize Moses or the prophets.

Jesus puts the patriarch of all patriarchs, Abraham, at the center of this parable as a clear stand-in for the Lord, from whom all authority extends. When the wealthy man, who abused his own power and authority, prays to have his still-living family enlightened by a resurrected Lazarus, what happens? Abraham scoffs at the idea, telling the rich man that they should already know better because “they have Moses and the prophets” to instruct them on the law. That’s already a comment on the wayward authorities among the Israelites, but the final exchange is even more telling:

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.’”

That is not just a lesson; it’s a piercing forecast of precisely what would happen with the Passion and Resurrection. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, part of the temple authority, that they will indeed get exactly such a messenger, and because they have not paid enough attention to Moses and the prophets, they will not recognize it. They are too attached to their own power and authority to pay attention to the spiritual poverty surrounding them, even as dogs lick at the wounds of the collapsed kingdom of Judea. Their stewardship has failed, and it will not be long before those authorities will find themselves on the wrong side of a great chasm, both in this world and the next.

Because they have not prepared themselves for this, those who have made themselves wealthy and powerful in this world at the expense of others will be unprepared for what comes next. That’s the lesson Amos taught to the northern kingdom before its fall as well, to little avail. In our first reading today, Amos makes clear that the soft will fall first when the great cataclysm comes:

Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

Jesus’ parable uses similar imagery to describe the wealthy man, if perhaps with a bit less flourish. The message is the same; because they have fallen in love with themselves and with the material world rather than fulfill God’s law and serve as a beacon to the world, the world will come to them and wreak its destruction. Within a century, the Assyrians would conquer the Northern Kingdom and put its residents into permanent exile; two centuries later, the same fate would befall the southern kingdom of Judea, only the exile from Jerusalem would last only 70 years.

That history would have been well understood in the time that Jesus taught this parable. With that context, Jesus teaches one last lesson — the next exile will be even more permanent than that of the Northern Kingdom. That chasm will allow the comforted to be seen by those who ignored them and stepped over them on their way to selfish aggrandizement in the same way the afflicted watched it happen in this life, too. And Jesus warns that those in authority who corrupt themselves in this lifetime will be the first to feel the pain of judgment in the end.

The front-page image is a detail from “Lazarus and the Rich Man” by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1550. Currently on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.