Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
‘In his torment in Hades he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom. So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” “My son,” Abraham replied “remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.”
‘The rich man replied, “Father, I beg you then to send Lazarus to my father’s house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too.” “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham “let them listen to them..” “Ah no, father Abraham,” said the rich man “but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Then Abraham said to him, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”’
Amos, in the first reading fulfils his role as a thundering prophet. He ridicules and condemns the antics and the excesses of the rich. He pronounces a ‘woe’ on those who trust in the security of their excessive wealth and who feel ‘so safe’. They do not care for their northern neighbours. Their indifference, the prophet foretells, will lead them into exile. Their idolatrous reliance on wealth and the insolence of luxury will be their downfall.
The Gospel parable is a play in two acts. It is targeted at the Pharisees who justified themselves by the meticulous observance of the Law. In the Covenant of the Old Testament God had chosen and promised to the people a land of milk and honey in return for their following and keeping of the Law. They had forgotten though that keeping the Law meant more than simply going through the motions. They had forgotten about the demands of charity and true love in not looking after the widow and orphan for example. They remembered their duties of worship to God while disregarding their social duties in the person of their neighbour.
Act two of the parable tells of Lazarus and Dives some time later. There is still a great gap between them. It is not however the social or financial gap which separated them in life, but the gap between life and death. The valley and division which separated them on earth has become permanent and fixed. Dives now pleads for charity and for his family and for time to warn them. He is now at the mercy of Lazarus, who is rich in reward. The rich man’s name is no longer remembered. The name of Lazarus, (literally, help from God) is contrasted with that of Dives which literally means rich. The one who dressed like a prince in purple and fine linen and who dined magnificently every day has suffered a reversal of roles. Dives is now at the mercy of Lazarus who suffered humiliating poverty and loathsome disease on earth and who pleaded only for the crumbs from the master’s table. The master, on earth proved to be indifferent to the degradation of the one whose sores were licked by the dogs. At least the dogs were kinder than the master.
The lesson of the readings can’t be much clearer. The poor are a priority of Jesus and of the Gospel. God is sensitive about the poor. Social justice issues are not extras in the living of the Christian life. They are central. Living out and keeping the new covenant with God demands that we live simply, that we are sensitive to the needy and that we come to the help of the distressed. To be rich is to risk a sleeping conscience. We do not have an option for the poor – there is no option.