The readings for this Sunday, especially the reading from the Prophet Amos and the Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus, are not condemning of the rich for being rich, but offer a dire warning about the dangers of living a comfortable life – a life geared to pleasure and the pursuit of riches and the esteem of others. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is directed to the Pharisees who sneered at Jesus when he said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus is letting the Pharisees know that they have become slaves to wealth who, as a consequence, are unable to serve God. Even though they present themselves as religious purists – they do all the right things, because they love money and the esteem of others, Jesus says that their hearts are far from God. What they esteem amounts to a form of idolatry. The Pharisees are convinced of their own righteousness – that they are saved because of their coherence with the law. They scorn the poor and the lame, and they mock Jesus for eating with and associating with public sinners and those unable to fulfill the precepts of the law. The poor and the sinners were considered lost causes by the Pharisees. What is so surprising in the parable is that the rich man (who represents the Pharisees) is sent to a place of torment, while Lazarus, (who represents the poor, the lame, and the supposedly cursed because of his disease and the treatment by the dogs), finds comfort in the next life. The naming of Lazarus is purposeful because Lazarus is a derivative of the Hebrew name Eleazar which means “God has helped.” Those who presume to be saved because they are “children of Abraham” are condemned, while the poor and those who suffer are saved. The Pharisees believed that the poor do not deserve help because of their condition in life, but God has helped them. What is pointed out in Amos and in the parable is that the pursuit of riches and the comfortable, indulgent life, makes those who do so indifferent toward those who suffer. Why is that? When we are comfortable and free from suffering, we become detached from our need – our humanity – which is a deep need for mercy. Detached from our need for mercy, we do not recognize that same need in others, and are not moved to help; we are not moved with compassion for the sinner and those who suffer. Their suffering doesn’t affect us – we don’t see the connection between us and them – what we have in common as human beings. Amos describes the self-satisfied as “not made ill by the collapse of Joseph”, i.e., the suffering or plight of their brothers.
The rich man was no help to Lazarus. He ate sumptuously every day, but did not invite Lazarus to share a meal with him. He would not even give him the scraps from his table. The rich man knew who Lazarus was – he saw the suffering man probably every day since Lazarus was lying at his door, but he showed him no mercy. Therefore, at the time of the rich man’s judgement, he experiences no mercy. The parable illustrates Jesus’ teaching “that the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” It is only after death that the rich man realizes that Lazarus was the one to relive his torment. In this life, he saw him every day but ignored Lazarus and did not seek him out. The point is that we serve God by serving the poor. Mercy is what bridges the chasm between heaven and hell. Hell is isolation from God and neighbor; the one caught up in himself and unconcerned with others is “the first to go into exile”. Hell is also being alone in our suffering. What saves us is that Christ, for our sake became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty we might become rich (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). We serve God by being participants in his mission of mercy – humbling ourselves and not clinging to our riches in order to enter into the condition of those who suffer. The scribes and the Pharisees were scholars of the scriptures, but they did not listen to what was taught by Moses and the prophets regarding caring for the poor and feeding the hungry.
Those who have experienced suffering and allow it to bring them to their need for God – their need for mercy, find themselves closer to God and open to the sufferings of others. A childhood friend of mine recently lost a four-year-old daughter to a rare disease. The mother of the child told me that she does not know why God gave them Annabeth and this experience of terrible pain and loss, but she said it brought her closer to God. She became acutely aware of her helplessness – her poverty – when it came to curing her daughter, and this experience moved her to pray and to be open to God’s presence in her life. They did not try to hide this suffering or pretend they had a normal daughter – the sacrifices necessary to care for her were real. There was no pretending that they had the perfect life. As one would do with any child, they shared news and highlights about Annabeth on Facebook and social media. What surprised Liz, the mother, was how free her friends and neighbors felt to share their own struggles and personal problems with her. They had this sense that Liz would understand – could sympathize and relate. That woman who endured great suffering became a trusted source of comfort for others. She said that if we present the perfect picture of our lives on Facebook, we actually become disconnected from our friends and others because they know it is not real. As a priest, I often marvel at the degree to which people feel free to express their brokenness and pain to me (not just in the confessional). Even total strangers don’t find it strange to express their struggles and deep hurts to a priest. I don’t think it is because it is simply our job to listen, but at some level, there is this understanding or sense that the priest represents him who embraced all human suffering on the cross – who knows our poverty and pain, who humbled himself to enter into our condition – and can sympathize with us and came to accompany us in our need.
How do we know whether we are serving God or mammon – whether or not we are attached to the false idols of money, power, and reputation? We can just look at our attitude toward the poor and whether we are moved by their plight to do something about it in a concrete way. I would say that we can also tell by whether those who are suffering feel free to come to us in their need. Do we see the poor and the suffering in our midst? And do they see us as someone who “devises their own accompaniment” or rather is willing to accompany the one who suffers?