It is hard to keep track of the crises around us. The war in Ukraine continues with an added threat of tactical nuclear weapons. Our economy is sending such confusing signals that experts cannot even agree on what the problems are. And blue and red rarely make purple. All of these are of national or even international concern, but today’s Gospel tells us that to get at the root of them we should look at Lazarus or more particularly the crisis of the rich man.
Crisis comes from the Greek word for decision and is a reminder that we are formed by the decisions we make. Sometimes we are unformed, the rich man in the parable has no name. We call him Dives, the word for in Greek for rich person for convenience. His decisions made him disappear.
In a few deft sentences, Jesus and Luke show us how this occurred. He dined sumptuously i.e. he ate meat daily which was excessively expensive and somewhat vulgar. He also dressed in Purple. This has two meanings. Purple was the most expensive color to wear because it was the most expensive to make, and only the rich could afford it. It was and indeed is the color of monarchy and perhaps indicated that Dives was connected to the ruling regime. The most common way to enter the aristocracy was by land speculation The Bible assumes that most Jews would own and till their own land. Although the law clearly protected them, crafty people found ways around it, took the land, impoverished the people, and became very rich. Jesus’ listeners might have known people like Lazarus or been afraid they could end up like him.
Dives was concerned neither with the state of the families he had impoverished nor the laws of God he had broken. He knew the order of the world in which he lived, affirmed and mastered it.
Then he died.
He is in a place of torment. Lazarus on the other hand also dies but is at the bosom of Abraham. This is an idiom for being an honored guest at a feast. The irony of their different destinations escapes Dives. He calls upon Abraham to send Lazarus to give him the relief in the afterlife that he never provided him in his earthly one. He is clearly clueless. He knows Lazarus’ name, he saw him at his doorstep but because he could not use him, he ignored him. He did not acknowledge him as human. Despite his present torment, he still thinks that the old-world order operates in the afterlife. He sees nothing odd about asking Abraham to order Lazarus to care for his needs. He has yet to realize that reality was never what he thought it to be.
When Dives is told that this first demand is impossible to fulfill, he persists in this illusion and asks Abram to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham’s response is key to the story. “They have Moses and the prophets, that is enough”. He and other leaders had wandered from their own law and indeed inverted it. Jesus’ mission is to make it right. As Mary says in the Magnificat ‘to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Lk. 1:52, the whole section can be found below.)
The parable ends with a warning to all of us. Jesus has risen from the dead as the last and greatest prophet. It is folly to believe that the way of the world is the way of God. Our first reading today is from the prophet Amos who died about 745BC, it is the same message as Jesus, and it has not changed since then.
“Crisis” developed a medical meaning in the Middle Ages. It was the point where a fever would either break or kill the patient. Dives was in the grip of the fever of greed and power; he did not make the decision to recognize Lazarus’ humanity. This first robbed him of his own humanity and then killed his soul. It is a lesson we still need to hear.
There are many fevers in our world but the situations of migrants of all kinds are privileged in the scriptures. This is a theme throughout the OT and is best expressed in the book of Leviticus. “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God”. (19:34 ) There are many other examples from the Bible, and I have included some of them in the online notes for the homily.
We have a crisis and decisions must be made. We first need to acknowledge that our borders are national and therefore this is a national problem. The abandonment of the border states to handle it on their own was unfair and they have a legitimate complaint.
Yet as we in St Charles have learned firsthand simply sending people to another state without informing those who would be receiving them in advance is treating them as Dives did Lazarus. We can never make a human being a means to an end, much less a political publicity stunt. Jesus reminds us today in the most powerful terms that whenever we ignore the humanity of others, we destroy our own at the same time
Immigrants may have the best scriptural pedigree, but the decedents of Lazarus abound. When companies will help women obtain an abortion but do not provide even modest maternity leave, is not the spirit of Dives alive and well? I take my day off in Jackson Heights and on one side of Roosevelt Ave there were virtually no deaths from Covid, the other had the highest in the country.
This is the crisis of the prosperous and how we act as Christians and citizens, as individuals and as a community towards the decedents of Lazarus in our midst will determine whether or not we join him at the bosom of Abraham
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.y
49The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.z
50His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.a
51He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.b
52He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.c
53The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.d
54He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,e
55according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Passages from the Old Testament on migrants:
- Cities of refuge were available to Israelites and foreigners in cases of accidental murder (Numbers 35:15).
- Foreigners were to be included in festivals and celebrations mandated in the Law (Deuteronomy 16:14; 26:11).
- Some of the tithe collected by the priests was to be used to not only feed them and their families, but also to help provide food for foreigners, widows, and orphans (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
- Also, farmers were instructed to leave the gleanings of their fields for the poor and the foreigner (Leviticus 23:22). And to treat the stranger as they would the poor among the Israelites (Leviticus 25:35
- Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)