If you were not at least a little scared by today’s Gospel, then I don’t think that you were paying attention. “My child,” Abraham says to the rich man, “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.” The implication is clear: the rich man is in hell because he is rich. Of course, we know that he is in hell not because of his having had great material possessions but because, despite his riches, he did not help the poor man Lazarus – and then has the audacity to ask that the man he let starve under his richly-laden table come to relieve his sufferings in Hell! The literal implication of our Lord’s words is still clear: those who receive what is good in this life will receive what is bad in the next. And if you think that this does not apply to you because you are not rich, consider that if you drove here in a car you are richer than 95% of the people in the world. As we sit in our roofed, air-conditioned church, it is clear that we have received what is good.
So what does this mean? That those of who have been born into the developed world will have to suffer eternal torments because of our material prosperity? Surely our Lord does not intend for us to understand the parable this way. So what does he mean when he says that the rich man is punished for his riches?
The answer to this question can be found in the words of the prophet Amos in today’s Old Testament lesson: “Woe to the complacent in Zion.” Woe (pause) to the complacent. Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel are meant to shake up our complacency, our comfort. We are, in a word, too comfortable with our material prosperity.
Material possessions, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are a challenge to holiness. Let me repeat, owning material possessions is a challenge to holiness, and owning many or much of them is an even greater challenge. Wealth ought to scare us, not excite us, because wealth is a challenge to holiness. This is the change our Lord wants to bring about in our hearts: changing wealth from being an object of desire to an object of fear.
This is because material possessions bring with them worldly responsibility. In the case of the rich man, they brought the responsibility to care for the poor man Lazarus, which responsibility he clearly rejected and now pays the price for doing so. In another place the Lord puts it this way: “It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Impossible of its own power – possible through God’s power.
The material prosperity of our society also ought to make us feel uneasy because it is a sign of our society’s decadence – its obsession with material prosperity at any cost, of always being comfortable, of being willing to sacrifice what we know is right in order to make a buck, such as the thousands of businesses that have caved on supporting the natural family because supporting the gay rights agenda seems better for business.
In the Gospels, our Lord shows us precisely the opposite example. He has a great love for the poor. We have absolutely no other indication of why Lazarus went to Heaven beside the fact that He was poor, mistreated, and marginalized. Of course, none of the things are sufficient for going to Heaven, but they show us something particular: God’s love for the poor.
Here we are not speaking solely about what we do for the poor, but the love we have for them. This is why the Church teaches that a preferential option for the poor ought to be a guiding principle of our actions in the political sphere. How political policies affect the poor ought to be one of our first thoughts in evaluating the value of those policies. Even more importantly than the political dimension, whenever we are confronted with those who are less economically fortunate than ourselves, we ought to question whether our actions towards them are motivated by our love for them or by our selfishness. This doesn’t mean that we have to give money to every person that asks us for help. Truly to love is to will the good of the other – when someone I don’t know asks me for money, I don’t know if giving him or her money will actually be good for that person. But you still ought to ask yourself: Am I acting out of love?
The other day, I was working on some things in the old sacristy when I was surprised to be interrupted by someone I had never seen before. She told me a story about how she and her husband were out of work and they just needed money for gas so that they could get back to where they live in Ohio. I didn’t know her or her family and I had no way of knowing if her story was true or what she was really most likely to spend any money I might have given her on. Even if I went to my car and got her a SCRIP card for a gas station … well, there’s a lot of things that you can buy at gas stations. I told her I didn’t have any money for her, and that I was sorry that the office was closed and wouldn’t be available to help her until Monday. I was going to offer some food, but she didn’t really give me the chance.
Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. I do know, though, that I have a hard time saying that I acted out of love. I was irritated to have been interrupted, was in a hurry to be somewhere, and her impromptu arrival had meant that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to the people who had been helping me and had quietly and respectfully slipped out the door after she introduced herself. I suspect each of you has been in similar shoes. All I can do now is ask that the Lord increase His love in my heart so that I can look upon all the people I encounter as His children.
There is a lot more to being poor than not having money, though. Surely our Lord means for us to love not just those who are materially poor, but all the weak and vulnerable. The child who is killed in the womb while all the wonders of modern medicine exist to assist its safe entry into the world is surely no less a victim of injustice the poor man Lazarus starving outside the sumptuous banquets of the rich man.
And what about the spiritually poor? Those who have not received the message of the Gospel because we have been too lazy, embarrassed, or afraid to share it with them? How do we show our love for those who have never heard of Christ?
My brothers and sisters, our Lord does not want a change of action from us unless it comes from a change of heart. He wants us to convert from an attitude that sees wealth as the highest object of pursuit to not being an object of pursuit at all, but rather a trial to be endured as a risk to our salvation. With great power, we know, comes great responsibility, and the great material resources we possess in our country are a call to each of us to use those resources not primarily for ourselves but for the good of all. The more money or material goods we have the greater the likelihood that we commit sins of greed and put our eternal salvation at risk. Of course, it is right to thank the Lord for the great material prosperity of our nation. But we must also keep in mind that this prosperity is a rather ironic gift, a gift to be feared, a test to be endured.
This kind of change of heart cannot happen overnight, and it is not a change we can work in ourselves. It is a change for which we must beg the Lord on our knees in that traditional prayer, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine.” Jesus, help us to love the poor more than ourselves.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. Charles Borromeo
XXVI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVI