TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
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.'
‘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.’”
This weekend presents us with a very troubling Gospel selection in that it embodies a number of issues very close to home but rarely acknowledged—what God thinks about material inequality, the silent but real suffering of the sick and the poor, human indifference to need, the failure of organized religion, and the hard justice that awaits us all in judgment.
So where to begin? One of the first tools of Gospel study is identifying the audience of a particular teaching. The Gospels provide many settings: the crowd, the disciples, the Twelve, Peter/James/John, Samaritans, Romans, scribes and teachers of the Jewish faith, Canaanites, and Greeks come immediately to mind, and in every case the identification of the listener(s) impacts the meaning of the message. In Sunday’s Gospel, the very first phrase identifies the target audience as the Pharisees. This is hardly the only time the Pharisees appear in the Gospels. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 (p. 1243) identifies Pharisees as laymen who put particular emphasis upon education of the Torah and the many interpretations of the Law given over the years, dating back as far as the Prophet Ezra (480-440 B.C.) Salvation in the Pharisaic theory, of both individuals and the nations, rested substantially upon knowledge of the Law; this distinguished them from the Scribes, who were in fact the official lawyers of the Temple.
“Knowledge is power,” as the old saying goes, has more than a measure of truth, but knowledge without purity of heart and a contrite spirit matters little. In the case of Sunday’s Gospel, knowledge actually renders a greater culpability. In fact, if we backtrack just a few verses from the beginning of Sunday’s Gospel, look at what St. Luke has to say to the Pharisees in 16:14-15: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this [i.e. last Sunday’s Gospel on the unjust manager] and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Jesus adds a sentence about the true sacredness of the Law, and then launches into this stunning parable.
Joel Green points out the extraordinary polarities of the story. For starters, the “purple” in the rich man’s garments came from the region of Tyre at enormous expense; Lazarus, by contrast, is covered with sores, suggesting he was nearly naked. The luxuries of this rich man cannot be overstated. Jesus describes him as one who “dined sumptuously every day.” Even the father of the prodigal son only feasted on life-and-death occasions, in his case the restoration of his offspring. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, reminding us again of the starving prodigal son, who longed to eat the pig’s food but no one offered him anything. (Green, p. 607) It is hard to forget the words of the Canaanite mother to Jesus in Mark 7: 28— “Even the dogs under the table eat the family’s leavings.” The word “dog” is sometimes a reference to pagans in the Gospels; it is possible that Luke is trying to convey a picture of the pitiful Lazarus getting more sympathy or attention from dogs/pagans than this rich Jewish householder.
Which brings us to a more dramatic polarity, the ultimate destiny of each man. The rich man, as befitted his wealth, receives an honorable burial. Nothing is said of Lazarus’ final earthly disposition; most likely he would have been eaten by beasts or burned as refuse. But in this parable, when Lazarus died, he was borne by angels to the bosom of Abraham, an indication that the parable is indeed intended for the sons of Abraham, most notably the Pharisees. Jewish thinking on the nature of death was not in full agreement at the time of Jesus; the irony here is that the Pharisees were something of pioneers in their teachings on life after death and eternal reward/punishment. Jesus is turning their “considerable knowledge” back upon their heads, using their idioms to describe the horrors that awaited them.
We do indeed get a graphic close-up of the rich man’s fate. Fancy burial notwithstanding, he is now in the underworld (Hades, perhaps) where he himself is being perpetually devoured in flames. Such is his pain that in desperation he asks Abraham to send Lazarus with a fingertip of cold water to cool his tongue. The irony of seeking Lazarus’ help after the rich man’s years of studied neglect is rich. Abraham firmly explains to him the math of God’s justice. The rich man had received good things in his life and Lazarus the bad. After death and judgment, the situations will be reversed. This, as Green observes, would come as a great shock to the now suffering rich man, who still talks as if the old arrangements were in place—Abraham still his father and Lazarus, whom he knows by name but never fed him, still an unclean, sickly bum from the gutter, still there to do the man’s bidding. (Green uses the term “audacious” to describe the rich man’s request.)
The rich man, whose attitude toward Lazarus remains shamefully unchanged, now intercedes with Abraham on behalf of his relatives and friends, a continuation of the “making friends of mammon” theme from last week. And again, with pigheaded obstinacy, the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers, presumably the same brothers who stepped over Lazarus’ withering suffering on their way to feast with their brother. Abraham’s refusal to allow such an apocalyptic appearance back home is based upon the fact that the surviving brothers always have the revelations and teachings of Moses and the prophets. Only an obtuse Pharisee would have missed Abraham/Jesus’ pointed connection to the Pharisees’ claims to be experts of the Law and the Prophets. Abraham, in effect, indicts their claims by citing their gross insensitivity to the poor and suffering.
There is one more utterance of great irony from Abraham, who states sadly but definitively that “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” This text, of course, written over 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection, is an accurate reflection of what would actually happen after Easter Sunday. Many Jews—including Pharisees—did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, despite the preaching of the early Church that the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday were in fact the climax of the entire Hebrew Scripture revelation.
Indeed, Sunday’s Gospel is a gut check for “believers.”