What we have for this Sunday’s Gospel is what seems at first sight to be a straightforward parable about social justice. It is a story about the rich and the poor and in particular it is about how in the final analysis it is the poor and the persecuted who will be vindicated by God.
There is something interesting to be seen when we study the names these two characters are given. The name in the text for the poor man is Lazarus and in Hebrew this originally means ‘God is my help.’ It is easy to see just how suitable this name is for a poor man who is eventually justified by God.
In the text the rich man is not given an actual name but down through the centuries he has been known by the name of Dives. This word has the same root as the word divine and means ‘favoured by God.’ It is also very a fitting name since in his life Dives was most definitely favoured by God because he had come into great wealth and lived a very comfortable life.
Lazarus languishes at Dives gate apparently unnoticed by everyone apart from the dogs who licked his sores. When he dies he is carried away to the Bosom of Abraham. This term ‘the Bosom of Abraham’ was used in Biblical times to describe the place in the afterlife where the righteous remained awaiting Judgement Day. Then as it so prosaically says, ‘the rich man died and was buried.’ There is no Bosom of Abraham for him!
Difficult though it may have been Lazarus’ life was relatively straightforward. He lived very poorly and suffered a lot in his life and but when he dies he is destined for heaven.
In the case of Dives it is quite different. In his earthly life he enjoys his riches and doesn’t seem to notice Lazarus at his gate; but on death he is called to account for this oversight and suffers the consequences since he is consigned to the sufferings of hell.
So far it seems to be a straightforward account of the rich and the poor and how God will ultimately deal with them. Even so we have to be careful because it is not riches or poverty that distinguishes Dives and Lazarus but what they do with their wealth or lack of it. It is because Dives neglects his responsibility towards Lazarus that he is condemned, not for the simple fact of being rich.
We then move to the theological bit of the story and it is here that it ceases to be directly about riches and poverty and turns into a parable about those who fail to recognise the Messiah.
Dives first of all asks for water to cool his tongue but then when this request is refused he requests that a warning be given to his brothers and so he asks Abraham to inform them what has happened so that they can take steps to avoid his fate. As it is a parable we are dealing with we recognise that the brothers of Dives actually represent the rest of the Jewish people.
Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation and so he is a good person to intervene with God which is why Dives addresses him. But Abraham refuses his request saying that Moses and the Prophets had already taught the people what to do to get to heaven but were completely ignored.
Dives replies by saying that this may be so but if someone were to come back from the dead then they would get attention. But Abraham refuses his request once again saying that if the people rejected the Prophets then they would also reject whoever came back from the dead.
Of course, this last part of the parable is all about Christ and about how he was rejected even though his coming was foretold by the Prophets. At this point in his ministry Jesus had not risen from the dead but it is clear allusion by him that these events were just around the corner.
So in the end the parable is about Jesus and about his acceptance by some and his rejection by others. The justice and peace element about Lazarus lying at the gate reinforces this main point because those who accept Jesus are much more likely to see Lazarus and to care for him insofar as they can. On the other hand those who reject Jesus are more interested in themselves and so they are very likely to ignore Lazarus and look only to their own immediate interests.
The reason that someone who accepts Christ is more likely to see Lazarus and to try to help him is because they will realise that Christ did not come to save just one or two people in the world but in fact he came to save every single person. In the Christian understanding then every single person is of equal value.
The believer sees Lazarus not as a poor man of little worth but rather as a redeemed child of God. The believer sees beyond what is immediately apparent and sees Lazarus’ true nature shining through. The believer knows the price that Jesus has paid for the soul of Lazarus and therefore recognises his inestimable value before God.
We Christians therefore look at the poor in a different light; their dignity according to us comes from the fact that Christ has given his life for them. We think that if Christ is willing to make such a huge sacrifice on their behalf then we ought to be doing the same. We realise that Christ sees something in them which is of inestimable value; we realise that he sees that their basic humanity is of immense worth. For these reasons we cannot ever write them off or disregard their presence.
What we then ought to be doing is cherishing the poor and needy. What we ought to be doing is to learn to love them. Of course, this is not always easy and in some particular cases it can be very difficult indeed. But we need to try; we need to work at learning to love the poor and disregarded people of our world, because this is the Christian way.
The primary thing is not to treat the poor as a group but as a whole series of individuals. What we need to do is not so much to dish out money to charity as to establish relationships with the poor people we come into contact with. It is by treating them as people each with their own personal human dignity that we begin to conform to what God wants.
In this way poor people become individual human beings to whom we can relate and not a dehumanised amorphous mass who can be easily disregarded. Each person is a unique child of God and therefore each person deserves our respect and we are required to deal with them as equals and give them the justice that they deserve.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket