Reflection for Sunday – September 25, 2016
Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
Preacher: Cathy Kamp
One excellent way to dive deep into this Jubilee Year of Mercy is by studying and praying with the parables of mercy, especially in Luke’s Gospel. We had that opportunity on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time two weeks ago when we looked at the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son, or rather, the merciful father. This weekend, we have the far more challenging parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Is this a clear instance of when God’s mercy is denied? Isn’t that a frightening thought?
It helps to take a look at what comes between the prodigal son and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. First, we have this past week’s equally challenging Gospel of the dishonest steward, followed by Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for their love of money. “God knows your hearts,” he says, “for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15) A few lines later, Jesus offers the chilling illustration of how God knows our hearts in the abominable tale of the rich man and Lazarus.
There is an amazingly stark contrast in the characters of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is described as embodying all of the signs of prestige and power: he wears colors and fabrics reserved for royalty; daily he dines on a feast. On the other end of the symbolic spectrum, the beggar is covered in sores that dogs would lick; he would gratefully feast on the rich man’s scraps.
A contrast happens in death as well, but the contrast reverses course. The rich man dies, is buried and banished to the netherworld. The poor man is carried away to the bosom of angels with Father Abraham. It is here that the rich man, not so rich any more, exposes his sinful heart. While we never know the name of the rich man we do indeed know that God’s chosen one, Lazarus, has a beautiful name. It means “God has helped.” The rich man still does not get it, even from the fires of hell. He asks Abraham to allow “Lazarus” to give him a bit of water to cool his tongue.
Calling people by name is important in the Bible. In this case, it shows that the rich man was quite aware of Lazarus. He chose not to reach out in mercy to Lazarus. He chose not to tend to his wounds. He chose not to feed or clothe him or even give him the time of day.
Thus, this is the one parable of mercy where mercy is denied by our loving and abundantly merciful God. “The mercy of God always decreases when mercy for one’s neighbor decreases,” states the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization in its study, The Parables of Mercy. “And when mercy for one’s neighbor is lacking, there is no room for God’s mercy.”
The mention of a dog licking Lazarus’ sores reminds me of a terrible habit my husband Greg and I have fallen into by allowing our very tall labradoodle, Cooper, to rest his head on the table opposite us as we eat dinner, begging with his eyes for scraps he does not need. We hope for the forgiveness of dinner guests. (Empty nesters do not make for good dog trainers.)
But there is nothing forgivable about what the rich man does. And there is nothing forgivable about what we do with those at our doors who do not have enough to sustain a life of dignity. Are they literally at our door, or across the table? Probably not. But as we dine sumptuously night after night at dinner tables in our western New York homes, adults and children in the city of Rochester and other poor pockets of the Diocese do indeed lie at the doors of our hearts.
While he had the opportunity in his earthly, human life, the rich man did not respond to the cry of the poor. The nameless rich man is condemned for all eternity and will forever see Lazarus begging for his mercy. Lazarus, by contrast, shares in the eternal peace and glory of God.
This Gospel is an urgent rallying cry in the Year of Mercy. Will we choose to open the eyes of our hearts and see those begging for a taste of the mercy God has so graciously bestowed on each of us? The choice is clear. Choose life. Choose love. Choose mercy.