Should we waste so much energy preparing for something that will be over in a flash? Or think longer term?
That’s the message of this Sunday’s readings, the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, year C.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is about the dangers of wealth, but it’s also about so much more.
Jesus tells the story of a wealthy man who ignored a poor man named Lazarus who was right outside his door. When they both die, the tables are turned. It is Lazarus who is joyful and the rich man who is in torment.
But, as St. Ambrose said about this passage, “not all poverty is holy, or all riches criminal.” It is the love of money that is the root of all evil — and in the story it is the luxurious lifestyle of the rich man, who “dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day” that doomed him. And it is the humility of Lazarus that saves him.
Jesus’ story is like a case study showing how heaven flips the priorities we have on earth.
Look at the different way Jesus describes what happens after the death of each man. On the one hand, “When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” On the other hand, “The rich man also died and was buried.”
The poor man is borne aloft by angels; the rich man gets covered in dirt alone.
Then Jesus adds, “from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”
The rich man was the one on the “inside” in this life; Lazarus is on the “inside” now while the rich man is on the “outside.” It made life on earth difficult for the poor man to have to see the rich man’s luxury; so now it makes it harder for the rich man to have to see the poor man’s happiness.
On earth, Lazarus hoped for crumbs from the rich man; now the rich man hopes for a drop of water from him.
Poor people fade into obscurity in our world. They live their lives in coach class and public transportation while the rich travel in style. Not even the deaths of poor people are much noted, while we follow every move in the lives of rich people, in news stories and reality shows, or when we see them in public.
In heaven it’s the opposite. It’s only the poor man Lazarus who has a name, and who sits in a place of honor, while the rich man begs to get his attention and fails.
This is the logic of the Beatitudes: Those who seek only material fulfillment get it. Those who seek more get that.
Jesus is not revealing anything new here. We all know that there is a soul, and it matters most.
Whether we are religious or not, human beings can’t help but notice the importance of the soul. No matter what we have, it doesn’t make us happy if nobody loves us. No matter how perfect our job is, learning that it is built on grave injustices would spoil everything. Living a lie makes joy impossible.
We need the immaterial goods of love, justice, and truth to enjoy the material things we surround ourselves with.
But religion makes this even more clear by reminding us that if we deaden our consciences to enjoy material pleasures, it will change our permanent state.
“Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses,” says St. Paul in the Second Reading, pointing to our baptism as the start of the serious pursuit of what really matters in life.
“Praise the Lord, my soul,” says the Psalm, and then enumerates the ways in which it is our spirit that fulfills us, not our body’s comfort. The folly of relying on physical comfort is caricatured in the first reading, which condemns the “wanton revelry” of those who live in luxury.
The Gospel makes our spiritual nature clearest of all, when the rich man worries about his brothers.
The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his bothers that man’s true worth is spiritual, not physical.
“If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead,” says Abraham.
People ask for miracles, but that doesn’t make them believe. Only an openness to God, followed up by a commitment to spiritual instruction, does that.
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