The Rich Man
Father Hanly’s homily for 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, is on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It is beautiful.
First Reading: Amos 6:1, 4-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Second Reading: First Timothy 6:11-16
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31
This is one of Jesus’s best parables and it is probably his most misunderstood.
Many people think that it’s telling us about life after death, who goes to heaven, who goes to hell. But it’s not. It’s not saying anything about heaven and it’s not saying anything about hell.
Others think that it’s a judgment on riches, riches in themselves, like if you have riches you’re no good, and if you’re poor you’re okay. But there’s nothing in this parable that says anything about riches.
Then some people say, well, Jesus is making a choice of poor over wealthy people. But there’s nothing in the parable that says that either.
But we all project other things into this parable.
But Jesus is very clear and he only has one thing to say and that is the most important part of the whole parable.
We’ll go over the parable just a little carefully and maybe you can guess what is the real message of this parable.
Jesus said to the Pharisees
Now he had said two verses earlier in Luke that he was talking to the Pharisees who loved money. That’s important now, because there were many heroic Pharisees, and Pharisees took Jesus down from the cross, and he was buried in a Pharisee’s grave. But he was explaining this parable only to the large number of Pharisees who loved money – not had money, loved money.
And, of course, that’s very, very important, because we often say money is the root of all evil, but that’s misquoting. It is love of money, greed, that is the root of all evil and we have many sterling examples of that in recent times in our own world. The love of money can destroy nations.
Anyhow, Jesus said to the Pharisees who loved money,
“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.
In those days, they didn’t have napkins. When they ate all the food that they were eating, they would wipe their hands on special bread that was thrown under the table and the dogs could pick it up.
You notice he hasn’t said anything about the rich man being good, bad or indifferent. He hasn’t said he was wrong to be dressing up and all of these other things. He doesn’t say that. And he doesn’t say that Lazarus was a noble little poor man. He doesn’t say that either. He just says he was a man at the gate who was so poor that the dogs came and licked his sores as his only consolation.
Then Jesus says very quickly, but
“When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
Not “to God,” but “he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” It was like when we say, instead of saying “he died,” we say “he returned to his Father’s.”
It’s a very, very nice way of saying that the promise of Abraham was that he was given the promise that his people would become chosen people and special people and that when they died they would follow 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.
The rich man also died and was buried and he went into the netherworld.
The netherworld is not hell. The netherworld is Hades. It’s really the godless, loveless empty world of the dead. The main feature of the netherworld is never to love again.
And he was there in torment. And 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.’
You notice that even as he suffers in the netherworld, he demands that Lazarus serve him because he is indeed a proud man and a rich man and a valuable member of the community and he still takes it for granted that this is what is going to see him through for all eternity.
‘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.
He’s expressing, not the Hebrew scriptures, he’s expressing what the ancient world of Egypt and Mesopotamia always felt: that if you had it bad in this life, you’re going to get it better in the next. And they all had these little stories that had to do with this.
But the point of… The way Jesus tells the story is, Lazarus is supposed to wait on Dives, as he is called, the rich man.
But here’s another point before we get into the final one: the idea is that, of these two men, the rich man and the poor man, only one name. The rich man is never mentioned, he’s not given a name. It’s Lazarus and the word Lazarus means, “one who God helps.”
Now why would that stand out? Because to have a name is to be valuable and for God to give you a name means that you are really special in his eyes.
And so when the Jewish people named their children they were very careful to give them names that showed their destiny, their connection, their radical special place in the world because they were touched by God. A person without a name is a person without a vision, without a purpose, without meaning.
We all know this. We can’t wait when we have little children to give them a name. It means this is you.
And this is why in the next sentence, he says,
“‘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.’”
Now we think that he’s saying that you’re being punished for having riches, but he’s not saying that, or that Lazarus is being rewarded for being good, but he’s not saying that.
He just says there is a huge gap between you and Lazarus, and you cannot cross.
What would that mean?
Well, it can’t be anything physical, because the rich man, if it was a physical problem, would be able to solve it right away.
What is this chasm that he cannot cross?
And, of course, this is the heart of the story.
What Jesus is teaching us is that God does not condemn people to hell, or bring people to heaven because they’ve been good.
He is saying that there’s a difference, that Lazarus goes to heaven because he wants to go heaven, because this is what he always feels would happen to him: if he died he would go to heaven. And so does the rich man. But what is the way to heaven?
And then you heard Jesus, who says this all the time, he says it again and again, “If you will follow me, you will learn to love. You will love me with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and you will love your neighbour as yourself. You will be humble and follow and serve, and humble and serve and serve, and be humble and try to love and forgive and show compassion.”
That is why there is a chasm that even God, even God, cannot join together. Because the rich man has been selfish, incredibly selfish: my life, my money, my way, my this, my that. If he was given heaven, he wouldn’t know what it meant. He was where he placed himself: far from love, far from caring, far from loving, far from forgiving.
So what Jesus is trying to tell us is this: “Your heaven is here, not when you die going someplace. Your heaven is here.”
And how are you going to achieve that heaven?
“I am the life. I am the truth. I am the way. As I love, you love. As I care, you care. As I suffer and sacrifice for other people, for brothers and sisters, you do that and your heaven has arrived.”
If you wall yourself up into your little house and you ignore the needy man at the gate who has absolutely nothing, walking up and down by him every day, you could put this man in heaven and he wouldn’t even recognise it because it doesn’t come from the hunger of his heart.
For the first step to heaven is: know your need for God and know your need for each other. And you have been placed in this world not to sit around collecting money, not to sit around collecting a good name. You’re here to follow him who teaches us that if you’re looking for heaven, don’t look up in the sky.
You notice God isn’t even mentioned here. If you’re looking for heaven, learn how to love. It doesn’t say only Jews, only Catholics, only Buddhists. It says if you’re looking for heaven, you must learn how to love the way Jesus loves.
And that means that the money you have is good because you can use it to help others. And that is the proper place to put your money, is to put it where it can build beautiful things.
There is an American playwright Thornton Wilder, and he wrote a play, this is around the 1900s, and one of the characters who’s a rich man, he says, “I have money. What do you want me to do with my money?” And the lady he’s in love with smiles at him and says, “Money is like horse manure. It should be spread around to make young things grow.”
But it should never be love of money. It should be love of people and then you can spend all that you have and earn in favour of people and then you will understand the parable.
This is a lovely parable.
Abraham says this, because the rich man says, “Well, I’ve lost, now you send somebody.” He says send Lazarus, naturally, the servant, “Send Lazarus back to tell my brothers, my five brothers, so that they won’t follow me.’
And then Abraham says these very sad words, “If they do not listen to Moses, if they do not listen to the prophets, if they do not listen to me, even should someone rise from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him.”
Two weeks before Jesus died on the cross, he went to his friend’s grave, and that was Lazarus, too, the dead man Lazarus, the brother of Mary, and he raised him from the dead.
And the very next day, these same people had a meeting of the Sanhedrin and said, “This man must die.”
So even though he raised someone from the dead, not only was he not heard, the penalty was he must die.
We’ve come to the end of this parable.
Two things that you should remember is parables are tricky. They’re not history, they’re stories. They’re stories that reveal deep, deep down truths that are true for not just us, but for everyone.
And, if you follow this story and work it out and know where it’s coming from and know where it’s going, you will find your truth, because nobody can explain the story except you in your life and in your heart.
But at the centre of all life is tenderness, the beginning of all life is tenderness, and the completion of all life is to love: love here and now and love forever.