The parable of the poor man named Lazarus and the rich man, sometimes named Dives (the Latin word for rich), should come as no surprise to St. Luke’s faithful readers.
St. Luke’s insistence on the dangers found in material goods is a constant theme within his Gospel. While St. Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (actually the Sermon on the Plain in the Lucan account) is much briefer than St. Matthew’s more familiar presentation, St. Luke actually adds words about the rich which are quite sharp, keen and biting: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”
On the other hand, the Evangelist has nothing but praise for the down and out, regardless of the circumstances that might have brought them to that condition: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.”
St. Luke, as is his custom, does not hesitate to introduce class warfare into his Gospel message. He highlights the actual economic and social conditions within society that will greatly determine the believer’s destiny in eternity. The poor, the hungry, the grieving and the outcast have an advantage in the mind of St. Luke since their only recourse, their only relief, their only remedy, is God himself. Their desperation is their deliverance. The rich, the satisfied, the content, and the socially acceptable are spiritually disadvantaged in the theology of St. Luke. Their earthly comforts preclude any sensitivity to the Divine.
The reversal of fortune found on the lips of Jesus in St. Luke’s version of the Master’s celebrated sermon is vividly and colorfully re-enforced by this Sunday’s parable of the beggar at the doorstep and the tycoon at his banquet table. Again no clear moral judgment is passed either on the destitute mendicant or on the enterprising entrepreneur. Maybe Lazarus brought on his own downfall through fiscal irresponsibility. Perhaps the rich man was an astute economist who earned his every penny. These details are not important to St. Luke. Penury is enough to constitute righteousness in the mind of St. Luke and wealth is sufficient to justify condemnation from the pen of this Evangelist. Perhaps St. Luke is a bit overzealous in his praise of poverty and bit judgmental in his contempt for capital. The front page of the Providence Journal is a daily testimony that poverty can engender violence just as much as it can lead to virtue. And the well-to-do can offer immeasurable opportunities for good to a community. Yet, as might be suspected, the Evangelist’s point about the danger of riches is still well taken and well pondered.
The parable concludes by underlining that insensitivity to spiritual matters, which too much of a good thing inevitably provokes. Father Abraham advises the suddenly repentant rich man: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead.” The opportunity for redemption and renewal had been offered to the Jewish people for centuries through the words of the prophets and prayers of the priests. Minds that were clouded to the beauties of the Old Testament are unlikely to be alert to the splendors of the New Testament. A spiritual sensitivity, a moral susceptibility, a religious sensibility, is part of the human psyche that can be easily dulled by the extravagance and affluence of this world. Humanity’s need for God can be easily disregarded when a man or a woman’s every need is supplied. Hard times often provoke some hard decisions; good times often postpone much vital reckoning. Unlike this parable’s rich man, the Christian is exhorted to be sensitive to the social demands of this world and to the spiritual demands of the next world.