There was a time when God seemed an ally of the rich. Well-being, luck, and an abundance of material goods were considered signs of God’s blessing. The first time the Hebrew word kesef (which means silver or, more commonly, money) appeared in the Bible, it was referred to Abraham. He “was very rich in cattle, silver and gold” (Gen 13:2). Isaac “sowed crops and in that year harvested a hundredfold” (Gen 26:12-13). Jacob owned countless “oxen, asses, flocks, men-servants and maidservants” (Gen 32:5). The Psalmist, too, promises the just one: “Abundance and wealth will be in your home” (Ps 112:3).
Poverty was a disgrace. It was believed to be a result of laziness, idleness, and debauchery. “A little sleep, a little drowsiness, a little folding of the arms to rest, poverty will come” (Pro 24:33-34). A change of perspective arrives with the prophets. One begins to understand that the assets accumulated by the rich are not always the result of their honest work and the blessing of God, but often of cheating, violations of the rights of the most vulnerable. Even the wise men of Israel denounce the rich: “But the rich man who has had his fill cannot sleep” (Eccl 5:11). “Gold has ruined many” (Sir 8:2).
Jesus considers both greed for goods of this world and honestly earned wealth as almost insurmountable obstacles to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The deceitfulness of wealth chokes the seed of the Word (Mt 13:22); it tends to gradually conquer the whole human heart and leave no space for God nor the neighbor. Blessed is he who makes himself poor, who is no longer anxious for what he will eat or drink, who does not worry about clothes and does not get restless for tomorrow (Mt 6:25-34). Blessed is he who shares all that he has with his brothers/sisters.
To internalize the message, we repeat: "Christ, though he was rich, became poor to make us rich."
First Reading Amos 6:1a,4-7
Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. — The Word of the Lord.
We saw last Sunday what the economic and social situation in Israel was during the time of Amos. There was well-being, peace, and prosperity but also so much injustice. The prophet raised his voice against the merchants who extorted and cheated the poor. Today’s Reading proposes another passage of the same prophet. This time he attacks the political leaders and aristocrats who live in luxurious palaces of “hewn stone”(Am 5:11) in the city of Samaria (v. 1).
Amos, a farmer, cannot stand the sight of these slackers lounging, feasting, organizing parties, and solacing while the exploited laborers toil in their fields from dawn to dusk for little pay. Amos, a rugged shepherd who used to sleep outside, feels repugnance for these festivities. The revelers of Samaria behaved as Amos comments; “they have beds of ivory; they lie down on soft mattresses; their foods are tasty and delicious; they eat only meat of kids and calves that have not yet tasted grass, which have sucked only milk. They play, dance and show themselves as songwriters; they seem to compete with David. They drink the best wines and anoint themselves with perfumes of high quality and do not care about the ruin that is going to affect the whole nation” (vv. 4-6).
The Reading ends with a terrible threat. Still, a few years and the enemies, the Assyrians, will come. They will burn down the palaces and destroy the city. The indolent leaders will be wrestled from their soft sofas and dragged as slaves to Nineveh. Amos warns—the wanton revelry shall be done away with (v. 7). Terrible words against the rich and the powerful! Words never heard before in Israel.
Second Reading 1 Tim 6:11-16
But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus, who gavetestimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession, to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen. —The Word of the Lord.
The one who writes to Timothy, bishop of Ephesus, is worried because ‘false teachers’ in the Christian community spread strange doctrines that cause the Christians to be stray. In the last part of the letter, the vices of these persons are described: they are blinded by pride; they do not understand anything; what is worse is that they consider religion as a source of financial gain. He declares: “The love of money is the root of every evil” (1 Tim 6:3-10).
The passage we read today begins after this observation. The apostle recommends that Timothy stay away from these evils and cultivate righteousness, devotion to God, faith, love, patience, and kindness (v. 11). This list of virtues is proposed to every Christian so that he can reflect on his spiritual situation. Especially those who lead the community should meditate on these virtues. The faithful should look to the leader of the community as a model to imitate.
In the last part of the Reading (vv. 12-16), the author returns to the problem that preoccupies him a lot: the false doctrines that can infiltrate the Christian community. For this reason, he calls upon Timothy to conserve the Gospel announced to him faultlessly and without flaw.
Gospel Lk 16:19-31
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. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He 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.’”—The Gospel of the Lord.
‘Dear poor people, in this world our life is hard and, at times, it seems really like hell: you live in shacks, suffer hunger, cover yourselves with rags, and you are full of wounds. Instead, the rich live in splendid palaces, squander money in feasts, luxurious villas, and dress in designer clothes. Do not blame yourselves. In the other world, the conditions will be reversed: you will enjoy while they will suffer. It is a question of having a bit of patience, and God will change their pleasures into atrocious torments.’ Understood so, the parable of the rich Dives and poor Lazarus becomes ‘opium of the people.’ It serves to alleviate the poor, nourishing in them the dream of a better future. It will be good also for the rich who, without much anguish for the hell of the afterlife, begin to enjoy their paradise in the here and now.
The most significant inequalities were practically inconceivable in ancient Israel, where it was impossible to enrich oneself at the expense of others. In fact, all must be returned to the legitimate owners (Lev 25). But the laws can always be circumvented. Those who are not afraid of the punishment of God had already begun, at the time of the prophets, to add house to house and join field to field (Is 5:8). The small family properties got gradually absorbed by big landowners, and the lands ended up in the hands of a very restricted group.
In the time of Jesus, the reversal of this situation was hoped for. The poor people used to say, ‘One day the powerful will be delivered into the hands of the just ones; they will cut their throats and will kill them without mercy. Those counted worthless will dominate over the powerful, and the poor will reign over the rich.’
The parable we read in today’s Gospel is born in this context. To understand it, we start by identifying the personages. The one who is not named is God, who, in the other world, will put in order whatever did not go well in this world. His thoughts and decisions are placed in the mouth of Abraham, who in turn, takes the role of protagonist. Then comes the rich man who also recites an important part. The dialogue with Abraham takes two-thirds of the story (vv. 24-31). Finally comes Lazarus, who always remains in the shadow. He does not say even a word; he says absolutely nothing, does not move a finger, nor makes a move. He is always seated: on earth by the door of the rich, in heaven at the bosom of Abraham, and during the trip is carried by angels.
If we would like to give a title to the parable, it would be wrong to call it: The Parable of the Poor Lazarus (who is not the protagonist) or The Parable of the Evil Rich Man because the central message of the story is about the judgment of God on the distribution of wealth in the world. In no other parable did Jesus assign names to personages. But here, the poor have a name: Lazarus. In this world, who has a name? To whom are the first pages of the newspapers dedicated to? To the rich, to those who are successful! For Jesus, the contrary is true. For him, the rich is anyone while the poor have a very expressive name; he is called Lazarus, which means the Lord helps.
After listing the personages, let us focus on each one, starting with the rich man, even though condemned, to tell the truth, does not know why. He has not done anything evil: it does not say that he robbed, didn’t pay taxes, ill-treated his servants, or blasphemed. He was dissolute or was not practicing his belief.
Perhaps he is insensitive to the needs of others, not helping the poor, so he committed a grave sin of omission. But this does not seem true: Lazarus was at his door and did not go somewhere else. It means that he was getting a few crumbs. The condition in which he was left was inhuman. He had to content himself with the crumbs with which the diners cleaned their fingers (in those times, they were not using utensils), and the details about the dogs confer an unmatched realism to the scene.
And the rich man? He lived his life reveling, dressed in the latest fashion, although always spending on his own. So—according to the current thinking and judging—he had impeccable moral behavior. Moreover, when Abraham denies him the drop of water, he does not accuse him of any fault. He simply reminds him that he was rich and enjoyed on earth while Lazarus suffered. Then in heaven, things are reversed. But it is not explained why. So it is better not to mention the “evil rich man.”
There is a tendency to demonize the rich, regard them always filled with iniquity, and exalt the poor, putting them up as models of every virtue. Lazarus would be the archetype, the ideal. But how are we so confident that Lazarus was good? What did he do to deserve heaven? Nothing. We noticed him: throughout his life, he did not lift a finger. One does not say that he was humble and educated, that he went to pray in synagogues, that he had been a laborious and exemplary family man or that he had become poor because he was struck by misfortune. How do we know that he was not a slacker, one who had squandered all his possessions? And his wounds, could they not be the result of diseases contracted with a dissolute life? Of him, we only know that on earth, he was poor and that his situation was then changed. But it is not explained why.
What to say then of the attitude of Abraham? None of us—I think—take this character as sympathetic. In Israel, it was believed that he, being the father of the people and the friend of God (Dn 3:35), could, by his intercession, remove his children even from hell. Here he denies a drop of water to a poor man. Can he be at some point heartless? The rich manifest better feelings: though in torments, he cares about his brothers.
Putting all these elements together, we can draw an initial conclusion: the parable does not give an opinion on the moral behavior of the rich and the poor. It does not mean that whoever behaves well goes to heaven and whoever does evil goes to hell because—it is clear—the rich did not commit sins, and Lazarus didn’t do good works.
So what? Simple; it means that the parable has another message. Let us delve deeper. In antiquity, stories similar to ours circulated, where the rich always ended badly. A story was told about a rich man who had exploited the poor, and after his death, he was banished into the place of punishment. He was placed under a door and a nail, on which the door revolved, was stuck in his eye, so every time someone entered or left, he suffered the torments of hell. The preachers of the time of Jesus often used these colorful images. They willingly spoke of cruel punishments because they were convinced that these threats were needed to make the people come to their senses.
Even Jesus used these images, including those terrible ones: he spoke of banquets, of abundant meals, but also of flames that torture, the gnashing of teeth, and an impassable gulf that separates the righteous from the wicked. These are the classic images created by the fertile imagination of the Orientals to represent the afterlife. It would be naive to draw theological conclusions regarding hell, punishment and eternal fire. It would be totally misleading to attribute to God the severe behavior, ruthlessness, almost as cruel as Abraham’s against a repentant sinner.
The big abyss is just a reminder for the disciple of the fundamental truth: the destiny of man is played around in this unique, unrepeatable life.
We come to the message of the parable. For many, it seems logical and natural to distinguish between good rich people and evil rich ones. The conviction thus maintained is that inequalities can continue to exist in this world and that the super-rich can live next to the miserable, provided they do not steal and give alms. Jesus considers this way of thinking dangerous. And this is the conviction that he wants to demolish. In the parable, he speaks of a rich man who was condemned not because he was evil but simply because he was rich; that is, he locked himself in his world and did not accept the logic of the sharing of goods.
Jesus wants his disciples to understand that the existence in this world of two types of people—the rich and the poor—is against God’s plan. Goods are given to all, and those who have more must share with those who have less or have none so that there is equality (cf. 2 Cor 8:13). So, before anyone can enjoy the superfluous, it is necessary that all must have met the most basic needs. Commenting on this parable, St. Ambrose said: ‘When you give something to the poor, you don’t offer him what is yours, you give back what is his because the earth and the goods of this world are of all people, not of the rich.’
The last part of the parable (vv. 27-31) shifts the focus on the five brothers of the rich who continue to live in this world. They run the risk of ruining themselves by misusing the assets. They represent the disciples of the Christian communities (number five indicates all the people of Israel) who are tempted to attach the heart to wealth.
How can they be diverted from the seduction it irresistibly exerts? The rich man has his own proposal. He repeats it insistently twice because he thinks it’s the only way of achieving the goal, to cause the conversion, to bring the five brothers to repentance. He pleads to father Abraham to convey miraculously—through a vision or a dream—a message from beyond the grave.
Abraham's response to this trust in the persuasive ability of miracles is firm and clear: the only force capable of detaching the heart of the rich from his goods is God’s Word. ‘Moses and the prophets’ was the formula which, in Jesus’ time, showed all the Sacred Scripture. Only this Word can do the miracle to let the rich man in the realms of heaven. Yes, because it calls for a miracle, a difficult miracle like letting a camel pass through the eye of a needle (Lk 18:25). Whoever does not let the Word of God strike oneself is certainly resistant and insusceptible to any other argument.