The National Catholic Review

My post on The Dishonest Manager generated some discussion on the nature of wealth, our relationship and use of it and Jesus’ condemnation of wealth, at least in certain circumstances. In one of my comments to Marie Rehbein I stated that “Jesus does condemn the improper use of wealth in The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Marie answered my comment, saying, “Interestingly, The Rich Man and Lazarus, is one {parable} that I had wanted to mention.” She went on to offer a spiritual reading that her husband had presented and that interpreted the parable in the context of the Church and its misuse of its (spiritual) resources.  For me, however, The Rich Man and Lazarus does not deal with the Church and its misuse of spiritual resources, as for instance I would read The Dishonest Manager, at least in some ways, but with the call to use our material resources wisely because of the implications they have for our spiritual life, for our salvation, for eternity.

Money is what it is, agreed upon forms of currency which contain stored value, and which are used to pay off debt and to obtain goods and services. At least today, in and of itself, the paper and most coins have no inherent value, but even when coins have value, such as gold and silver, their value is not eternal but ephemeral. We agree upon the value contained in metal and paper. Our lives have inherent value, in and of themselves, not because someone assigns them a number, or because our bodies are made of precious metal. We are worth something to God; we matter to God.

The Rich Man in the parable, found in Luke 16:19-31, ignores Lazarus and his suffering; the Rich Man assigns no value to Lazarus; he is worthless to him. Yet, Lazarus has great value to God, as do we all. Our value does not rest in money, in the things we own, in the villas and chalets in which we summer and winter, our cars and planes, our buildings and parties, but in our very being. And when the Rich Man ignores Lazarus he ignores his humanity. My last phrase is vague and intentionally so: the Rich Man ignores both Lazarus’ humanity, but also his own. By choosing the false reality of money and wealth, and ignoring his suffering neighbor, he loses himself and he ignores God. How do we know he ignores Lazarus? Apart from the fact that Lazarus lies at his door, yearning for food, which indicates that the Rich Man should have seen him, after the Rich Man dies, he calls out to have Lazarus by name to come to him and give him comfort. If he knew his name, could he have not known his humanity, that Lazarus was a person just like him? Could not Lazarus have rightly asked, "now you remember my name?"

Prestige, fun, power and parties, amongst other things, can all be purchased with money, which, because they are all tangible things and attract many people, makes money seem so real, more real than God, or love or eternal life. And certainly more real than some sick, worthless beggar who you can more easily just walk by or step over. Indeed, it turns people into commodities. Some have value to us - What can they get me? What do they give me? - and some have no value to us - they offer us nothing we need.

It is Lazarus who finds himself in the bosom of Abraham, comforted. Why is he now in comfort? Is it simply because he suffered and received “bad” things not “good” things in this life? Is that sufficient for the eternal reward? Or is it that in being present to the Rich Man, he was showing him not just his own humanity, the humanity of Lazarus, but the humanity of the Rich Man himself. Was his presence a witness to the love of neighbor and love of God? The Rich Man, it seems,  had given up not just on Lazarus and not just on God, but on himself. Now it is true that all we are told and so all we know is that the Poor Man is in eternal comfort and the Rich Man is now in eternal despair. So perhaps the better question to ask is this, if the Rich Man had shared his “good” things with Lazarus in this life would they both be comforted in the bosom of Abraham?

John W. Martens

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 10/7/2010 - 10:06pm
John,

I don't mean that the universal sentiment is that Satan and Hell are not considered real.  However, among those Catholics (former Catholics?) who feel comfortable ignoring the many rules of the Catholic Church, there are people who believe the alternative to eternal life is to cease to exist. I would assume that if you are teaching a class in which the subject is specifically Satan and Hell that you would not attract those students who do not believe in their reality.

At one point, I recall reading of one philosopher who determined that to be on the safe side, the logical thing to do would be to behave as if God were real even if He isn't rather than the opposite.  Presumably, that would include behaving as if Satan and Hell were real.

Perhaps you are familiar, though, with the Lutheran teaching that no matter how hard we try, our deeds are no better than filthy rags and that we are completely dependent upon God's mercy with regard to our salvation.  It is less commonly discussed that it is also believed that one can choose one's fate by behaving in ways that demonstrate that we are indifferent to God's mercy or even reject it outright.  Being grateful, then, leads to good deed doing, and, as a result, every good deed is a rejection of Satan. 

In this way, it is conscious choice, not fear or a habit of obedience, that inspires the good deed.  However, over the years, I have come to appreciate how spiritual practices advocated by the Catholic Church (and that are not available in the Lutheran) are helpful support to the conscious choice.  Love is empowering.
Marie Rehbein | 9/29/2010 - 3:45pm
John,

My cursor was apparently stationed over the "report comment" rather than the "add comment".  The comment I made along with my "report" was supposed to appear here. 

In short, I wanted to convey that my impression is that those Catholics who no longer "practice" seem to be unhappy with following the guidance of the Church which is given in hopes that the following of it will lead the people to be transformed. 

I detect very little fear of hell, primarily because it and Satan are no longer considered real.

Marie Rehbein | 9/28/2010 - 2:07pm
John,

You state, "This last comment was interesting: 'Had he only shared out of concern for his own soul, he would not necessarily have escaped punishment.' I wonder, though, if he is even concerned for his soul at this point, so that, if he acted out of concern for the state of his soul, would that mean he was acting in compassion and love for someone else's soul too? Could he then have escaped punishment?"


I agree with Michelle's reply as to the neediness of the rich man prior to his death.  He appears to be indifferent or oblivious to his soul, as we all sometimes are in the way Michelle so aptly put it.  I believe that it would have been entirely possible for him to have been aware of his soul and concerned about it while still being hostile or indifferent to Lazarus.  I do not believe that an awareness of one's soul leads one automatically to compassion, if that is what you are suggesting.  I think he might well have given Lazarus food, but had he done so with disdain, he would not have met the standard set by Jesus.


I think this matter of motive in charitable acts may be a point of difference between Lutheran theology and Catholic theology.  I am sure you are aware that Lutherans still become outraged at the mention of indulgences, in contrast to Catholics who only find fault with practice of selling them.  I think they exemplify the point our class (no doubt with the gentle direction offered by our Lutheran teacher) came to.  


Doing whatever deed is prescribed for an indulgence is done primarily in self-interest for one's soul, and while it may have beneficial side effects, it is not undertaken for the purpose of accomplishing the beneficial side effects.  Performing the assigned task might lead someone to recognize another's humanity, but it could be accomplished without ever recognizing it. 


In other words, the rich man could have given his scraps to Lazarus because he feared for the fate of his soul, which could have led to Lazarus gaining in health and appearance so that the rich man could not avoid realizing that Lazarus was no different than himself.  This could have led the rich man to realize that all the Lazaruses in the world were just like him in God's eyes.  However, it could also have been the case that the rich man might have fed Lazarus his scraps in lieu of having to take out the trash (intending to keep his house clean - his soul pure), in which case he would still have been punished for his attitude toward Lazarus.
Anonymous | 9/28/2010 - 7:31am
On the subject of pain felt by the rich man I have read that it may have been increased had his brothers not eventually come. This is what the ''rich man'' acutally desired. As Dr. Martens stated earlier that it is in losing his humanity and turning away from it that the ''Rich man'' embrases an increase of of suffering by that mear act. This is just a thought and perhaps Dr. Martens can help give more insight into the meaning of suffering. Thank you Dr.
Michelle Russell | 9/27/2010 - 8:31pm
John,

I wish I could take credit for the thought of inserting our own names in place of the Rich Man's absent one, but it was not my original thought.  I was left with that idea to ponder after Mass, and then something in your blog sparked the rest of my comments.

Although I'm not sure it has anything to do with an interpretation of the parable, I am left wondering of the pain felt by both men.  Whether he realized it or not, is it possible the Rich Man only increased his pain each time he bypassed Lazarus? This being a more existential pain caused by hardening his heart toward "suffering" (something which I often think most of us feel without ever knowing what it is or why we feel it) - this pain which became "real" in the after-life. And then Lazarus had the more obvious physical pain but also mental pain from being ignored and "not wanted".  Which pain is greater? How do we show compassion to both of these men in our own lives?  Just as we are bound to help those in obvious distress and need (Lazarus), are we not similarly bound to reach out to those who have hardened their hearts (the Rich Man" who "closed his eyes" and therefore his heart) and offer them at least "a sip of water",  a glimpse of a better life?  An opportunity to learn a little of softening their hearts, breaking down the old crustiness that has built up over years and years?

I certainly don't expect answers to these questions, but it does give me a lot more to think and pray about!  Thank you for lighting a spark with this blog entry!
Marie Rehbein | 9/27/2010 - 1:51pm
Where were you when you first heard this parable?  Just like I remember where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, I remember hearing this story.  I remember it twice though.  In one instance, my grandfather told it as a bedtime story (I might have been five), because we asked for a story, and his story repetoire was what he remembered from the Bible.  Therefore, it came across as a ghost story with the focus for me being on the fact that Lazarus was not providing even a drop of water to the rich man who was suffering.  Really, it is not possible to physically reach between earth, heaven, and hell, but it is possible to communicate?

In the second instance, I was in third grade (same place I was when the President was shot).  I recall clearly, not only the story, but the emphasis on the part where Lazarus was not permitted to have even the scraps from the rich man's table.  The class seemed to be fixated on that point, as in, "how hard would it have been to throw him some scraps"?  In short, it was concluded that Lazarus was not just overlooked, intentionally or not, but consciously mistreated, and possibly even ridiculed for being disgusting.

The idea was then (remember this came from third graders) that the rich man got his punishment because of what he did, not necessarily because of what he failed to do.  The important thing for the rich man would be to care, and the natural result of that would have been for him to share.  Had he only shared out of concern for his own soul, he would not necessarily have escaped punishment. 

(I was in Lutheran parochial school in third grade)
Michelle Russell | 9/27/2010 - 1:17pm
I have often wondered why we knew the name of Lazarus, but not the "rich man".  In reading your words, and hearing a homily on this reading yesterday, I have had much to think about.  Perhaps the rich man has no name because of his lack of humanity; perhaps because we could all insert our own names in his place, at one time or another in our lives.  Certainly, the rich man had a lack of awareness of this poor beggar at his "door".  Is that also the sin?  A refusal to look, to see what needs his compassion right in front of him?  Jesus reached out to those marginalized in His society, and it seems this parable points strongly to our own tendency to ignore these "marginalized".  To look at the poor, the ill, indeed to look in their face - to meet their eyes with your own - to acknowledge their humanity...we tend not to do this.  We experience discomfort, perhaps shame/guilt, and so avert our eyes, just as the rich man had become accustomed to doing.  Are we not being challenged here?  Not merely to share our wealth, to share our good things, but perhaps more importantly to look at the face of the poor and in that looking "see" the person, their humanity, and in essence the face of God?  At even a deeper level, could Lazarus also be a symbol of that deep part of ourselves which we often ignore, that part which needs tending, which needs compassion and which needs "light", but which, because it is difficult to look at, we tend to step over and ignore it?  Is this parable not only a call to see outside of ourselves, but also to stop and look inside; a call to awareness and to see without the blinders we have placed around our eyes and our heart?