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The Rich man and Lazarus

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cecil John Rhodes, who lived in the 19th century, was an enormously wealthy man. He was an English-born businessman, mining magnate, and politician in southern Africa. He was the founder of the diamond company De Beers, which, from its inception in 1888 until the start of the 21st century, controlled 80% to 85% of rough diamond distribution and was considered a monopoly. Mr Rhodes, an ardent believer in colonialism and imperialism, was the founder of the state of Rhodesia to perpetuate his name. One day a newspaperman told him, “You must be a very happy man.” Rhodes replied, “Happy? No! I spent my life amassing a fortune only to find that I have spent half of it on doctors to keep me out of the grave, and the other half on lawyers to keep me out of jail!” He reminds us of the rich man portrayed by Jesus in the parable of the Richman and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), in which the rich man wants to escape from the hell fire.

In contrast to Mr Rhodes, who was born in England and migrated to the African continent to exploit the natural resources to amass personal wealth, we can turn our attention to the story of Dr Albert Schweitzer who also went from Europe to the African continent to enrich the people!

30 year old Albert, already a Doctor in Philosophy and Theology, was at the peak of his career as a professor in Vienna. He was recognized as one of the best concert organists in all Europe. Living in Vienna, the ‘City of Music’, he was a well sought after artist. At the age of 30, he left all these and pursued medicine, with a single purpose of going to Africa to help the poor. When people asked him why he had taken such a drastic decision, the only answer he could give was that the change was wrought by the famous parable of the Richman and Lazarus. Not only in Albert, but in thousands of heroic persons, this parable has brought about radical changes. This Sunday, we are invited to reflect on this parable. We hope that this parable stirs us out of our comfort zones!

We have heard of the different stages of human growth as proposed by Sigmund Freud, the first of which is the ‘oral stage’. During the first months, the infant’s palms are always closed. Whatever we extend, whether it is our finger or a toy, the infant grabs it and takes it to the mouth. For the infant, the whole world is there to be consumed. With much care, we try to wean the child from this stage. We begin teaching things like sharing… “Tom, give the candy to Jerry… No, don’t grab everything… Let your sister play with the toy for a while…” etc.

While we tend to ‘preach’ to the child noble ideas of sharing, we practice very different things. When a child sees the contradiction between what the adults say and do, it tends to follow the deed rather than the word. For not helping our children grow up to be caring, sharing adults, all of us need to stand accused. When we stand accused in the court of the world, the judgement from above will sound similar to the words used by Amos in today’s first reading:
Amos 6: 1, 3-7
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria …
You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves…
You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore, you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.

Greed creates an introverted look so that we never grow beyond our baby years, namely, the ‘oral stage’. Jesus warns us of this ‘all-for-me’ attitude in the famous parable – the Richman and Lazarus.

This parable is a treasure trove containing many lessons for our life. A detailed analysis of this parable will be quite long. We shall confine our reflections only to the first few lines where Jesus introduces the two characters – the rich man and Lazarus – and try to learn a few lessons.
Luke 16: 19-21
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores.

We can identify eight elements in the above lines, three to introduce the rich man and five to introduce Lazarus.
Rich man
A rich man
Clothed in purple and fine linen
Feasted sumptuously every day
Poor man
A poor man named Lazarus
Lying at his gate
Full of sores
Desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table
Dogs came and licked his sore
Combining these eight elements, one can draw three comparisons which can teach us valuable lessons. The first comparison is identification given to the rich and the poor men. The very opening lines of this parable must have shocked the Pharisees. Jesus mentions a nameless rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. Of all the parables of Jesus, this is the only parable where the character in the story gets a proper name. For a Jew, and more especially for a Pharisee, being rich is a blessing from God, while being poor is a curse from God. Jesus subverted this equation. He made the rich man a non-entity and made the poor man a real person with a proper name… and, what a name! Jesus gives this character the name of one of his close friends, Lazarus.

Some commentators have mentioned that the rich man lost his name and identity due to the wealth he had amassed. He probably found much more happiness in being called a ‘millionaire’ rather than ‘Mr.So-and-So’. Since he relied on his wealth so much, he lost his true identity. On the other hand, Lazarus (meaning, ‘God helps’), got his identity by relying on God.

Having lived in religious communities for many years now, I can safely say that in many of the houses, the names of the poor workers don’t get registered in the minds of the community members and most of the time the workers are called simply as ‘Hey, you’. Jesus calling the poor man with a proper name ‘Lazarus’ is a whiplash for many of us!

The second comparison between the rich man and Lazarus runs a dagger through the heart. The rich man was dressed in purple linen, while Lazarus was covered with sores. Purple, scarlet, red… all shades of royalty. While the rich man clothed himself with royalty in an artificial way, Lazarus was regal in a very different way. He was possibly a distant image of Jesus, covered with sores, hanging on the cross, which carried the title: INRI – Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews!

The third comparison is what brought trouble to the rich man. He was feasting sumptuously everyday… and therefore had to face hell. Seems like an unwarranted and disproportionate punishment. The rich man was not punished for feasting in luxury, but feasting in luxury while there lay a poor man at his gate. Actually, one can argue that the rich man was a gentle person… If he wanted, he could have easily got rid of Lazarus. On second thoughts, I feel that if the rich man had done something like that, his punishment would have been less. Is this puzzling? Let me explain. If the rich man had taken some effort to get rid of the poor man, he would have at least established the fact that he had acknowledged the presence of Lazarus as a human person. The rich man in this parable did nothing positive or negative about Lazarus. He simply ignored him. For him, Lazarus was no more than a piece of furniture in his house… Perhaps, the furniture in his house would have got enough attention by being wiped with a rag. Lazarus was laid out at his gate like a piece of rag. For the rich man, Lazarus was no more than the dust under his feet. We don’t usually pay attention to the dust under our feet unless the speck of dust soars high and gets into our eyes. This is exactly what happened in the second part of the parable. Lazarus, the dust, was carried to the bosom of Abraham and became the yardstick by which the rich man’s eternity was measured.

Ignoring a human person is the worst type of treatment one can give to another person. The rich man was guilty of this and he had to face the consequence. Far too many Lazaruses are laid out in our life’s journey. Let’s tread carefully! Treat them with care and respect.

By Rev. Fr. L.X.Jerome S.J. [Vatican Radio, Tamil language section]

September 23, 2022

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