In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Father, brothers and sisters:
In today’s Gospel reading we hear another one of the most well-known stories in the Gospel, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus or Lazarus and Dives, the latter name being the one attributed to the Rich Man in Christian Tradition. This Gospel is a remarkable one in many ways firstly because there is some dispute within the Fathers’ interpretation as to whether it is a real story or vision as opposed to a parable. St Jerome, for example, thought that through this story, our Lord was conveying details of a real vision that a rich man had experienced about a real, known man called Lazarus. The fact that the man is named in this story makes it immediately different from the rest of Jesus’ parables where the protagonists are never given first names but instead are simply known by their role or status – the merchant, the husbandmen, the sower etc. The context of the Gospel reading also doesn’t give us much help as the story is not introduced either by the Evangelist or the Lord Himself as a parable. The reading is part of chapter 16, several chapters further on from where we were last week, a chapter which is dense in Jesus’ preaching largely against the Pharisees and Scribes.
So, as our guide to interpreting this intriguing Gospel story, let us take a Father that we have not referred to previously, St Peter Chrysologus or St Peter ‘the Golden-worded’ the 5th century Bishop of Ravenna.
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
Our Gospel reading today starts with a most tragic dichotomy between this nameless rich man living a pampered life of unparalleled luxury and, just a few feet away from his palace, we hear of this uniquely named beggar – Lazarus – in pain and misery, full of sores. This instantly brings to mind the plight of the Prophet Job who was also afflicted by sores from his head to his feet and yet also did not cry out to God. See here, the extraordinary humility of Lazarus. Not only does he not complain or curse, but he meekly seeks the ‘crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table’. This also brings to mind the reply of the plucky Canaanite woman who also was quite prepared to accept the Lord’s comparison with dogs and spoke of ‘the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’. We can also see here that the dogs put to shame the rich man as they have more mercy on poor Lazarus than any human. But then, in the next couple of verses everything changes in that topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom of God.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
St Peter Chrysologus actually wrote a series of homilies on this Gospel reading, but in the one that I have read in translation, he starts by drawing attention to the changed perspectives of Lazarus in Paradise and the rich man in hell –
Now he looks up at Lazarus in vain, he who earlier in his disdain looked down on Lazarus
We see here that the orientation and hierarchy of the world has been overturned. The rich man who spent his life looking down on Lazarus in his poverty is now looking up at him. The rich man who had spent his life in comfort and ease, wrapped in purple and fine linen, now finds himself in suffering and torment. As St Peter says,
Punishment pierces the one whose conscience was not pricked by penitence, torments plague the one whom the sores of Lazarus did not move, and it is not without purpose that he feels the sting of punishment since he was without gratitude as he wallowed in the lap of luxury.
We hear that Lazarus was now at Abraham’s bosom in paradise. This also reminds us of the contrasting virtue and perspective of Abraham, greatest of all the Old Testament Patriarchs to the rich man. In particular we might remember the Hospitality of Abraham spoken of in chapter 18 of the book of Genesis, where as soon as Abraham sees these three men coming towards him at the Oak of Mamre he jumps up to serve them.
St Peter emphasizes the distinction between Abraham and the rich man –
Abraham was far away from him who had not considered the poor man his neighbour. Abraham, a foreigner in his own right, was a fellow citizen to his guests; you, although you possessed palaces, refused shelter to a poor man.
Next we hear in the Gospel reading that the Rich Man cries out to Abraham –
And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
It seems that despite the stark change in context, that the rich man has in no way perceived the mystical reason as to his sudden eschatological change in fortune. Whilst showing deference to ‘Father Abraham’ he still seems to treat Lazarus as his own personal and dispensable slave, who even now should be at his beck and call, and should continue to come and serve his every whim and need.
St Peter looks sternly upon this rich man’s arrogance and hubris –
Thus was he crying there who had no interest in listening to people crying here; shouting is futile there for a person before whom a cry here goes unheard … now the one who shuts his hand to the poor man requests alms from a fingertip, and he who shuts off his vat of wine from giving even a drop thirsts for a drop of water.
It is also interesting that the rich man, who is in torment all over his spiritual body specifically asks for water for his tongue, which would not have been subjected to the flame. Why is this? St Peter answers-
He feels the fire more strongly on his tongue, which reviled the poor man and refused mercy to the poor man.
But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
It is thus ‘father’ Abraham who has to gently remind the Rich Man of the new reality he is experiencing and the just reason for this exchange. He is in hell now because of his lack of mercy and lack of gratitude to God. Likewise, the long-suffering Lazarus who even in poverty and hardship did not make demands or curses to God or the rich man, now enjoys comfort and solace. Again what we do in the world entirely determines where we shall be after we have left the world. In his homily St Peter contrasts the attitudes of Lazarus and the rich man to the lot that God had given them.
For such great riches neither did he give food to the poor man, nor did he make any sacrifice to God with even the slightest of offerings. But the poor man, rich in sores, without any property, naked in body, clothed with pains, was offering his life, while it was being consumed solely by its wounds, as a perpetual sacrifice to God.
And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
This passage really should make us all pause for thought. For after the Last Judgment when Christ will assign us to heaven or hell, there can be no possibility of change, the ‘great gulf’ is fixed and eternal. Here we must all reject the lazy and complacent assumptions of the world and also of heretical forms of Christianity which talk of the universal salvation of all mankind. Our Saviour here as well as in many different places throughout the Gospel is clear that this is not the case. Where we find ourselves will be entirely accountable according to how we have behaved in this world, what mercy we have shown to the poor, and the gratitude and service to God we have made of whatever material circumstances or talents that the Lord has bestowed upon us.
Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
However, it is clear that Lazarus whilst accepting the suffering upon himself, still ignores what Abraham has told him and continues to treat Lazarus, or who he now more contemptuously refers to as ‘him’ that he should return from the dead to warn his brothers. St Peter sees in this shift of tone from the rich man a resentment of Lazarus’ reward –
It is evident that the happiness of Lazarus inflames you more than the fire of Gehenna.
Then we hear the final plea and exchange from the rich man –
Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Again continuing to ignore all that Abraham has said, the rich man tries one last time to get Lazarus to do his bidding and to return from paradise to warn his relatives. But Abraham repeats that the message of Christ in the Gospels, of repentence in the face of the kingdom and of the importance of mercy to the poor and neighbour was already anticipated and preached long ago by Moses and all the prophets, who were also ignored, beaten and killed. As St Peter concludes his homily –
If they not only did not listen to Moses who crushed the kingdom of Egypt with the elements fighting on his side, who dried up the sea, hardened the waves, changed stones into water, covered the sun with a cloud, caused a light to shine out of the night, and made the sky rain down flesh and send bread down like dew, but even attempted to kill him, these people will not deem Lazarus worthy of hearing …’
We can also think here of what would happen later immediately before the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus was called to Bethany to go and raise another Lazarus from the dead. He also testified to the Jews, to the Scribes and to the Pharisees and yet still so many people did not repent.
Dear Father, brothers and sisters: today’s Gospel reading makes for stark and uncomfortable reading. Whether it is real or entirely fictitious we see in this Gospel passage a graphic realization of the Lukan Beatitudes –
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Even as I prepare this sermon today, there are voices from the world telling us not to have compassion on the poor or the homeless but rather to see this as some deviant lifestyle choice that they choose to make. Our Saviour teaches us to look differently and to act with mercy. Just how many Lazaruses have each one of us passed by in the street, as we continue along our way to fill our faces, purchase yet more possessions or titillate our senses? Today we also remember the Holy apostle James and the special emphasis the Brother of the Lord makes in his epistle on the importance of faith AND works and of being ‘doers’ nor merely ‘hearers’ of the Word. Through the prayers of the Holy Apostle James, may today’s Gospel help to sharpen our own understanding of the importance of showing mercy and love towards our neighbour so that we might help the Lazaruses of the world now and so be close to them in the Kingdom of Heaven.