“Blessed Are You Poor; Woe to You Rich!”

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 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 torments 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 is 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.'”

In the story of the rich man and Lazarus from today’s Gospel, Jesus offers a narrative rendering of His beatitude from the sixth chapter of Luke, the Sermon on the Plain, where He says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk 6:20, 24).

The rich man is not named, but tradition calls him “Dives,” the Latin for “rich.” He lives a lavish life, eating sumptuously every day, not merely on special occasions. His garments are the colors of royalty and wealth. But he is not a righteous man. Throughout the Scriptures, the law and the prophets speak of the demand to care for the poor. This was a fundamental obligation of covenantal fidelity according to the Torah, and the rich man fails miserably, refusing even to share the droppings from his table with poor Lazarus. He is the embodiment of the complacent in Zion whom the prophet Amos condemns, “lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! … They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.”

In contrast to the rich man is Lazarus, whose name means “My God helps.” He is lying at the doorway of the rich man, so he is probably crippled. He is hungry, covered with sores, which the dogs lick, thus emphasizing his outcast condition, as all things associated with dogs were regarded as unclean.

They both die and, while Lazarus is carried off by angels to the bosom of Abraham, testifying to his closeness to the father of Israel, Dives only sees Abraham from “far off”. In fact, he is in the netherworld and under torment. The reversal is striking. During their lives on earth, the rich man enjoyed every comfort and every pleasure, while Lazarus was tormented by hunger, sickness, and dogs. Now, it is Lazarus who enjoys the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man is tormented by the fires of Hades. Even still, the rich man remains arrogant toward Lazarus, seeing him as no more than a servant, requesting that Abraham send Lazarus to bring a finger of water to cool is scorching tongue, and later to send Lazarus to his brothers. The rich man calls Abraham his father, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me!” But John the Baptist had already warned the Pharisees, to whom Jesus is telling this story, that it is not enough to claim Abraham as one’s father. No, one must “produce fruits as evidence of repentance.” The rich man Dives failed to do so in his life, and Lazarus suffered because of it, so now Lazarus is saved and Dives is damned, and Abraham explains that there is a great chasm between the two.

Dives, realizing his own situation is hopeless, begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, who are in peril of suffering the same fate because they live their lives as Dives lived his. Abraham refuses. Rather, Abraham says, the brothers can listen to Moses and the prophets, for they are clear on the obligation to care for the poor. To listen means to obey. Dives failed to listen to, to obey, Moses and the prophets during his life. Dives knows his brothers are failing to do so, as well, for he hopes that “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” They will turn from their disobedience and obey the precepts of Moses and the prophets to provide for the poor.

Abraham, for his part, is not convinced. “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” This is an obvious foreshadowing of the Resurrection. The Pharisees, again the one’s to whom Jesus is telling this story, are described by Jesus as “money-lovers” earlier in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel. They cling to money, but they reject Jesus’ teachings. They reject Him as Son of God. They reject Him as Messiah and Lord. Jesus accuses them, through this story, of failing to live the obligation of the Torah to care for the poor, warning them of their impending damnation if they do not repent, turn from their sins, and follow Him. Did they listen? Did they obey? Likely not, for Luke is writing his Gospel decades later, and the words of Jesus that they will not be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead indicates that they were not persuaded even after Jesus rose from the dead.

Are we persuaded? Are we convinced of Jesus’ teaching that care for the poor is an obligation and not an option, so much so that, if one fails to “listen,” to “obey” this command of God it will mean our damnation? In our culture, with so many government programs that serve the poor, the infirm, widows and orphans, we may convince ourselves that our personal care for the poor is no longer expected of us, or that our participation by the taxes we pay fulfills our obligation. Frankly, I don’t think Jesus would be impressed. It is not simply to make sure the needs of those who cannot provide for themselves are met that Jesus commands us to care for the poor. It is because they are children of God, our brothers and sisters, and Jesus’ desires that we see them as such, as more than only a burden or a responsibility, but as actual family in the household of God. It is also to transform us, transform our stony hearts into hearts of flesh. Caring for the least among us can help transform us and them into saints, and becoming saints is what following Jesus is all about.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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