In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, today’s Gospel is one of the more famous of Our Lord’s parables: The Rich Man and Lazarus. It is so memorable in part because of the vivid imagery: The Rich Man, when still alive, is adorned in his purple and fine linen. He fares sumptuously which is to say that he lives a most charmed life inside of a privileged social caste. We may describe this caste as a kind of bosom, a life set apart for the world’s well born and elite, a society of men marked as much by their opulence as by their leisure whose social norms exist primarily to protect them and their peers from the clarion call of any moral imperatives. More than anything else the privileged bosom in which the Rich Man lives out his life exists to keep out the cries of those who suffer. The Rich Man is quite callous, yes, but even more so he is oblivious. One senses that he does not feel much of anything at all until the moment he first senses the torments of Hell and lifts up his eyes to Abraham’s bosom above.
The Rich Man sees the beggar in Abraham’s bosom; but even more so, he sees that he himself is not inside of that privileged place. What hits him the most is the vast distance between where he is and where he wants to be. This is a torment for him, of course, but this is also a kind of blessing. The Rich Man has been knocked out of his own false innocence, and in the existential crisis that has followed he has been forced finally to plea for deliverance from someone nobler than himself. This is the beginning of a moral sensibility, for the wretched cry for deliverance indeed is the first step in realizing that we need to be delivered from the fallout of our own sins. The Rich Man first wants to be consoled even if only temporarily. He begs that the beggar come down to him and cool his tongue with a fingertip of water. When that turns out to be impossible, the Rich Man is confronted with a choice that has clear moral implications: Either writhe in his own torments, and learn to hate Abraham and the beggar for the fact that his request for consolation has been denied to him, or plea yet again, but this time for the deliverance of someone other than himself. The Rich Man chooses the latter, and in so doing he has made his first timid step in the direction of getting out of his own head and acting out for someone else’s good. Perhaps this is the first glimmer of a predisposition that could mature into love. We shall never know. What we can see here is that to the extent the Rich Man now has awakened from his own false innocence, and has started to mature into something better than he had been when alive, there is grace even in his damnation. For God’s judgment is the same as God’s mercy. This is clear when we see in our punishment for our sins the occasion for all of us, like the Rich Man, to lift up our eyes finally to the hellish calamity we have wrought and to plea for someone other than ourselves.
Lazarus is described with as much vivid detail as the Rich Man. We find him so full of sores that he is not even able to feed on the crumbs from the Rich Man’s table. When we think of the crumbs falling from this table, we call to mind the incident where the Canaanite woman begs Christ Jesus to heal her daughter of a demon. In that case she acknowledges that as a Canaanite she is not worthy of the bread left on the Master’s table, but if even the dogs can eat of the crumbs that fall from the table, then she too may have a crumb of divine grace for her daughter. Lazarus is so much an outcast he does not even get that much. He is so separated out from every last privilege or even act of charity available in this lifetime that he is as far removed from the Rich Man as Hell from Heaven. And yet for all this Lazarus never succumbs to hopelessness. Like the Canaanite woman, he continues to desire even for those crumbs that remain just passed his reach. He continues to have faith that, notwithstanding his lowly estate in this life, somehow he will be fed. He may be exposed even to the dogs that come up and lick his sores, but somehow he will be clothed. He may suffer beyond measures, but somehow he will find rest. His faith endures even when everything else is gone; and so in his eternal reward he finds himself in Abraham’s bosom. He finds his peace beside the Patriarch of faithfulness, the man with whom God had made his covenant of salvation, the man who persisted with his side of that covenant even to the extent of living as a stranger in a strange land.
The parable is a cautionary tale. Be careful of investing too much into the privileges of this lifetime, for what seems good and noble here may not be all that righteous in God’s judgment. Be weary of believing the lies that we peddle about ourselves. If we always choose the easier path, the more popular stance, the position most likely to heighten our esteem and to add to our riches no matter the moral implications, then we are closing ourselves off from grace. Instead of Abraham’s bosom, we are carving out a comfortable home for ourselves and for our peers in a bosom of self-righteous lies and soft opinions. No wonder Abraham declares that as the Rich Man’s brethren “hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” God is all-powerful, and we may never presume that any one life or any one condition of man is beyond the purifying reach of the Holy Spirit; but if we take this parable at face value we may deduce two points. First, a man is capable of closing himself off from grace until it is too late. Secondly, a man may close himself off from grace simply by being soft and indifferent. There is no indication here that the Rich Man went out of his way to torment Lazarus during his lifetime. Indeed, he seems hardly to have noticed Lazarus, until he saw him at rest in Abraham’s bosom. If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the travellers are often enough listless walkers staring numbly into a handheld mirror or an iPhone. They really do not reject Moses and the Prophets, so much as they shrug indifferently while trying to keep up with the latest fashionable opinions. Though by tradition the Rich Man is named Dives, it is important that he is not named in this parable; for the Rich Man is anyone of us when we refuse to break out from our comfortable prejudices and half-baked conceits long enough to take a look at what God is actually doing in our world. The Rich Man is anyone of us when we hear the clarion call to Christ Jesus, but then put that aside to save face with our peers. The Rich Man is anyone of us when we see the calamitous fallout from sin, but then shuffle our frightened eyes away to pretend that the world is in no more need of salvation as our fine china back home may need another spot of polish.
Though cautionary, the parable is not without hope. As Lazarus finds his eternal rest in Abraham’s bosom, and as the Rich Man awakens to his hellish predicament, God’s power is shown to be transformational. God can and will turn reality upside down as needed to give the faithful their peace and to jolt the first stirrings of consciousness into the minds and the hearts of those who have been oblivious. St. Paul reminds us that we are at war with powers and principalities, and that is true; but we are also judged and given mercy by the God of Creation, the God who parted the Red Sea to save His chosen people, the God who opened the earth to swallow Dathan, Abiram, and Korah because of their impiety, the God who tore down the impenetrable Walls of Jericho, the God who lifted Elijah to the Heavens, the God who ripped the temple veil in two, and the God who rose His Son from the dead. Ours is the mighty God of the eschaton, the God who will do away with Heaven and Earth in His time and put in place the New Jerusalem for those resurrected into His image and His likeness. Like the vivid images in this parable, God paints with bold and decisive colors, and will upend our own quaint norms and soft sensibilities as needed to right all of the wrongs inflicted on the faithful and to render the damned their due. Let us pray to God for strength when faced with hardship. Let us pray for Him to open up our eyes to the real world all around us and to safeguard us from our own false innocence. It is with hope that we so pray, for ours is the God who has the power and the mercy to deliver us from ourselves.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.