TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:11-16
The theme of “reversal of fortune” is a favorite of the gospel writer Luke. We see it so clearly in Mary’s beautiful Magnificat, where the Lord “scatters the proud in their conceit,” and He “casts down the mighty from their thrones” while “lifting up the lowly.” The “hungry are filled,” the “rich sent away empty.” Luke’s beloved “reversal” is seen so clearly in today’s gospel about the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man in today’s gospel parable appears to be very well off, dressed to the nines and dining “sumptuously each day.” I guess we might say that he fulfilled all his dreams, or at least so he thought.
It happens that Lazarus, the beggar, dies. The gospel tells us “he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham,” something, given the sorry state that he found himself in throughout his earthly life, he must have never thought possible. His days on earth were spent begging, constantly hungry for he was unable to support himself. As if the hunger wasn’t enough, he apparently was afflicted with some skin ailment, something that made him unclean and thus separated from most people of his day. His only comfort in life were the dogs who would come and lick his sores. Otherwise, he spent each day, laying on the door step of that very fortunate rich man, whose name he didn’t even know and whose table scraps he would have gladly eaten. We are led to believe that Lazarus hoped every day that the rich man might notice him, and toss him something to eat, but that never happened. But who cares now, for he finds himself in Jewish heaven in the bosom of Abraham.
He probably never thought it would happen so soon, but suddenly the rich man dies, “and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and,” rather unexpectedly, “Lazarus at his side.” What? This is not what the rich man expected. His worldly goods were seen as blessings from God, and since he had so many earthly pleasures, he thought his expectations of those continuing in heaven was assured. Where did he go wrong? That the rich man recognized Lazarus implies that what was going on was no sin of omission. The rich man knew who he was, and had undoubtedly seen him begging outside of his door.
Just as Lazarus would have been happy with the scraps from the rich man’s table, so now the rich man hopes to persuade Abraham to at least allow Lazarus “to dip the tip of his finger in water” so that his tongue might be cooled and he might find some refreshment in the midst of the netherworld’s flames. But it’s not that simple. There is a great distance between the two places so that people don’t cross from one side to the other. The rich man is stuck there forever, meant to no doubt ponder what it was that got him into such a predicament. The rich man was not without some redeemable qualities, for recognizing his pain caused him to think of his five brothers, who he didn’t want to end up in the same place. But Abraham reminds him that his brothers already have all they need to save them from the same fate, for they have “Moses and the prophets.” The rich man was no doubt filled with worry, for he surely knew that he too had Moses and the prophets, but look where he ended up.
Our gospel is one of Luke’s more vivid parables, and, like it surely did for Jesus’ listeners, it should also give us pause. Jesus’ audience was made up of people who were most like the rich man in today’s gospel, for He spoke the parable Luke tells us to the Pharisees, those individuals who loved ornate robes and who were surely well cared for. Like the rich man in the gospel, the Pharisees surely thought their heavenly future was assured. They were extremely, one might say blindly, observant of the Law, and if they avoided unclean persons, did all the necessary ablutions and observed the dietary regulations, most felt their arriving in God’s kingdom was assured, regardless of how they treated the poor, disenfranchised, and those they thought of as sinners. The gospels are replete with moments when Jesus confronts the Pharisees with their hypocrisy, and challenges them to look at their spiritual lives differently. True religion demands more than mere visible observance; it means taking to heart the teachings of Moses and the prophets and all of the Scriptures.
The nameless rich man failed to see Lazarus as part of his concern. He surely knew Lazarus was often outside his front door begging, but it does not appear he was ever moved during one of his sumptuous meals to share any of his food with someone in such need. He is the opposite of Luke’s Good Samaritan, who not only noticed the man beaten by robbers, but who also dressed his wounds and housed him at his own express. Had the rich man had the sensitivity of the Samaritan, he might not have ended up in the netherworld. The sin of the rich man was not the fact that he was rich. His sin was a lack of focus on the needs of so many around him. May we never fail to notice the real needs of the many who populate our world.