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.
The parable which Jesus relates in today’s gospel has two characters. The poor man is Lazarus, whose name means “God helps.” The rich man is nameless; he is his possessions and nothing more. In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt. 6:21) If our heart is the core of our personality, one whose heart is centered on wealth and possession is not really a person. In what Luke’s gospel presents as “the great reversal” at the end of time, Lazarus will reap the fruit of a life of dependence on God, while the rich man will suffer the continued non-existence that is the fruit of his reliance on wealth and power.
In the United States we live in a time of extreme growth in inequality. The richest among us continue to grow richer at an alarming rate, while the majority must work harder and harder to maintain a quality of living for themselves and their families. Recently, as a friend and I reflected on this reality, he asked the question: “Why does there need to be such extreme personal wealth?” Put another way, it can seem as mysterious that many who are wealthy seem never to have enough. They are driven to accumulate and possess yet more and more.
Later on in Matthew 6:24 Jesus tells us: “No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” If our heart becomes deformed and turned inward, rather than moving in it’s proper direction, which is love of God and others, then, in our narcissism, we become a bottomless pit. We dedicate ourselves to filling the hole of our absent personality with whatever wealth and goods we can accumulate. These can be monetary, physical, or emotional. In our hearts, God’s world has been supplanted by our own needs — and if we are serving those needs full time, there is no space to serve that which is outside of and beyond us
The rich man essentially does not see Lazarus, just as he never really hears during his life the words of Moses and the prophets. The Word of God is directed not primarily to our ears but to our hearts. The Word comes alive when our heart is touched, moved, and activated by it. Abraham tells the rich man that it would be futile to send a messenger, even one risen from the dead, to his brothers because if they have no space in their hearts for the words of Moses and the prophets, there is nothing else that can break through to them.
What makes us truly human is our heart’s capacity to be touched. We cultivate this capacity by refusing to turn in on ourselves but rather by keeping our heart open to all that is outside of and beyond us. This is difficult because the more fully we do so, the more we experience our own indigence, lack, and disappointment. We are always, in our pride, tempted to reduce life and its “satisfactions” to those things that we can control and accumulate. But, as Jesus says, if we fall prey to this treasure, our hearts shall over time begin to atrophy and our own self-interest will dominate and subjugate our hearts. We shall not see or hear the appeals of Lazarus all around us — appeals not only for our help but also appeals that are offers of love to us.
Yesterday the newly elected U.S. government officially submitted its budget. It calls for large increases in defense spending and large cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and other social programs. It also call for a large cut in foreign aid. As it is, this, the richest country in the world, already spends less than one percent of its federal budget on foreign aid. More is spent on defense than the next seven highest spending countries combined. The more that is spent on defense, it would seem, the more fearful a country’s people become — and the less they are inclined to generosity and openness toward others. The gospel today suggests, it would seem, that the more the dispositions of the wealthy and powerful control a country’s leadership and direction, the more fearful, self-centered, and closed its policies will become.
The gate around the rich man’s house is both physical and psychological. It is a defense and protection against Lazarus and against everyone and everything that does not contribute to his own wealth and security. We need not be wealthy to suffer from these same tendencies. As long as we deny our poverty and lack, in the deepest sense, as long as we attempt to repudiate our need for others and for God, our hearts shall be directed only toward attaining, by our own power, a security that is impossible. “The rich man also died and was buried.” Our spirits and our hearts are so much bigger than our bodies and our psyches. Our soul, which mediates between our spirit and our physical life, is always suffering from the lack that our spiritual aspirations evoke in us. It is in a communion with all others whereby we share our poverty that we come to discover our true wealth — one that belongs to all of us in common. We suffer a loneliness and sense of abandonment that is only overcome by an open and vulnerable presence to each other. As long as the other is ignored, forgotten, or vilified, we shall never know security, for all our attempts to the contrary. “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:38)
The Apostle Paul tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). It is the main cause of corruption and a source of envy, strife and suspicion. Money can come to dominate us, even to the point of becoming a tyrannical idol (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 55). Instead of being an instrument at our service for doing good and showing solidarity towards others, money can chain us and the entire world to a selfish logic that leaves no room for love and hinders peace.
The parable then shows that the rich man’s greed makes him vain. His personality finds expression in appearances, in showing others what he can do. But his appearance masks an interior emptiness. His life is a prisoner to outward appearances, to the most superficial and fleeting aspects of existence.
The lowest rung of this moral degradation is pride. The rich man dresses like a king and acts like a god, forgetting that he is merely mortal. For those corrupted by love of riches, nothing exists beyond their own ego. Those around them do not come into their line of sight. The result of attachment to money is a sort of blindness. The rich man does not see the poor man who is starving, hurting, lying at his door.
Looking at this character, we can understand why the Gospel so bluntly condemns the love of money: “No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money” (Mt 6:24).
Pope Francis, Lenten Message 2017