Jesus said to the Pharisees: "There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table." (Luke 16: 19-21a)
Thus begins this Sunday's gospel, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is a familiar story. Both men die, Lazarus ascends to the bosom of Abraham, the rich man to suffer the torments of hell. The rich man asks for a drop of water, then, being denied, asks for Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his five equally selfish brothers of the horrific fate that awaits them should they continue their self-centered ways. Abraham tells him: 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.' [The rich man] said, 'Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'" (vs:29-31)
Much more than the evangelist's Mark, Matthew, and John, Luke chose to relate the Jesus stories concerning poverty and wealth. Right from chapter one, Mary, in her Magnificat, introduces Luke's audience to a God of inversion, a God who turns things upside-down, a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts.
" He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away" (Luke 1:52-53)
In his book about the world before and after Jesus, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill writes: "Luke sees Christian life as an alternation of two activities, prayer and kindness, each feeding the other. The plight of those in need sends one to prayer; prayer strengthens me to help those in need. But for Luke, there is one thing that can make a Christ-like life impossible....For Luke, looking squarely at the insidious temptations of Greco-Roman society, the one thing that can make a Christ-like life impossible is wealth."
Repeatedly, (Luke 6: 20-25; 7:25; 11: 43; 12:15; 12:16-21; 16:13; 16:19-31; 18:9-14; 18:24) Jesus warns his listeners about the dangers of wealth, position, earthly power, and the trappings of status. There is a story about St Thomas More berating people who cared much about the elegance of their clothes: "How many a man is proud of the woolen cloak on his back, not remembering that it was on a sheep's back before it was on his."
But why did Jesus find riches a problem? It beat's being poor, doesn't it? Jesus knew that riches leads to pride, the replacing of God with oneself in one's heart. We too often measure ourselves by what we own and how much money we make. Consequently, we measure the worth of other's by the same yardstick. The rich man in the parable cares only for increasing his pleasures and his wealth. The word of God doesn't reach him; the seeds of eternal life are strangled and choked beneath the care he is required to give to the maintenance and increase of his goods. It is clear, Cahill points out, that Jesus "...saw personal wealth as the preeminent blindfold to spiritual sight. [The rich man] is blind to his true responsibilities." His wealth makes him indifferent to the needs of the poor man at his door.
Still, what can possibly be good about poverty? Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book, Happy Are You Poor, points out, "The value of negative things derives, must derive, from something positive, something they make possible." Like silence clears the way for contemplative prayer, the lack of wealth makes possible something that constant concerns over material goods and riches make impossible. It can prepare us for God's Kingdom. We free ourselves from the worries and anxieties that accompany riches. When we choose to serve God instead of mammon, we detach ourselves from earthly pursuits, humble and grateful for everything we're given, and open to share it with those in need, knowing that everything is a gift from God.
There's an ancient story from China which tells how even the poor can lose sight of what's important when they get entrapped in the pursuit of riches. It's called Dreaming of Gold. It goes like this:
There once was a man in Chi who was obsessed with gold. But he was so poor, that he was never able to amass more than one gold coin, old and shabby and clipped about the sides. This man arose from his bed each morning thinking about gold and then went to bed at night to dream about it. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never earn any more gold. He went around to every rich man's house and asked for work. But the only work that he was given was menial and extremely badly paid. He tried to gamble with the rough men outside the wine shop but lost almost every time, until he had lost even his one shabby piece of gold.
One day he got up at dawn, got dressed and set out for the marketplace. He went over to the stall that dealt in gold, snatched up a great gold bar and ran off down the street. In his haste to get away he ran right into the constable and was dragged off to prison.
At his arraignment the judge asked him, "What do you think you were doing stealing someone else's gold right in front of so many people?"
"When I took the gold," he replied, "I did not see any other people. I only saw the gold" (emphasis mine)
Thus do we all often lose sight of what is really precious in our lives by only concentrating on what we wish were so, instead of what is.
Fr. Dubay concludes: "Having wealth is damaging to the pursuit of the Kingdom because the very having does something to one's inner life, one's very ability to love God for his own goodness and others in and for him. This must be at the core of why Jesus proclaimed that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven."
Greetings to all who love to wander along the paths of the Holy Scriptures! The purpose of this blog is to share some of the insights of ordinary Catholics who have begun to delve into the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures. Hopefully you will find these reflections inspiring and insightful. We are faithful to the Church, but we are not theologians; we intend and trust that our individual reflections will remain within the inspired traditions of the Church. (If you note otherwise please let me know!) Discussion and comments are welcome, but always in charity and respect! Come and join us as we ponder the Sacred Scriptures, which will lead us on the path into His heart, which "God alone has traced" Job 28:23.