Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

The Challenge of Compassion

What place does compassion have in the face of tragedy? Can one have compassion for an enemy in times of stress? Why or why not?

We live in tenuous times. School violence has communities reeling. Terrorism against the nation has the world outraged. We as individual citizens and together as a nation feel violated. The peace we once enjoyed is gone. Only the void uncertainty remains. Anger and words of vengeance fill that void minute by minute. And, all of us want a target as a focal point of our collective bile.

Where does compassion fit into this picture? Where can adversaries enjoy the luxury of showing even the smallest bit of mercy? In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus bought these questions to the fore.

Popular Translation

Jesus told his followers:

19 Once, there was a rich man. He dressed in fine clothes and threw expensive parties every day. 20 There was also a poor man, named Lazarus, who laid begging at the gate of the rich man's mansion. 21 Lazarus was so hungry he dreamed of eating the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. Lazarus had so many sores on his body, the dogs would come and lick them.

22-23 Soon, both men died. Lazarus went to heaven with Father Abraham. But the rich man was punished in hell. When the rich man looked up, he saw Father Abraham and Lazarus in the distance. 24 "Father Abraham," the rich man called out, "have mercy on me. Send Lazarus here so he can dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. These flames are hurting me!"

25 "My child, remember! You took only the fine things in life," Abraham replied, "while Lazarus suffered evil. Now, he enjoys heaven, and you suffer. 26 Besides, there is a huge distance between you and me, so huge that no one could go from here to there even if he wanted to. And no one can go from where you are to here."

27-28 "Then, please, Father!" the rich man begged Abraham. "Send Lazarus to my five brothers. He can warn them so they won't come to this place of pain!"

29 "They have Moses and the prophets in the Bible," Abraham responded. "Your brothers should listen to their words."

30 "No, Father Abraham!" the rich man cried out. "If someone from the dead visits my brothers, they will turn back to God!"

31 "If they don't hear the words of Moses or the prophets," Abraham said, "how will they be convinced if someone rose from the dead?"

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus spun a tale between two extremes: rich vs. poor. More than the measure of wealth, the parable asked the question of compassion. When must those that have give dignity to those that lack?

Literal Translation

Jesus told his disciples

19 (Once) there was a man who (always) wore purple and (fine) linen, feasting splendidly every day. 20 But, a poor (man) named Lazarus had been laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be satisfied with the falling (scraps) from the table of the rich (man). Arriving, the dogs kept licking his sores. 22 It happened that the poor (man) died and that he was carried away to the bosom of Abraham. The rich (man) also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, having lifted up his eyes, being in torment, (the rich man) saw Abraham in the distance (with) Lazarus in his bosom. 24 Having called out, he said, "Father Abraham! Have mercy on me! Send Lazarus so that he might dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, since I agonize in these flames!" 25 But Abraham said, "Child, remember that you received your blessings in your lifetime, and Lazarus likewise (life's) curses. Now, he is comforted, while you are in torment. 26 Besides all this, between us and (all of) you, a great abyss has been set so that those wanting to go from here to you are not able, and those from there to us (can) not cross over." 27 He said "Then I beg you, Father, that you might send him to my father's house 28 since I have five brothers, so that he might thoroughly warn them, lest they enter this place of torment." 29 Abraham said. "They have Moses and the prophets (in the Scriptures). Let (the rich brothers) hear them. 30 (The rich man) said, "No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead comes to them they will repent." 31 He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead?"

16:19 "feasting" is literally "making merry." Feasting (along with his clothing) inferred the man had an active and expensive social life, like royalty.

16:20 The term "poor" also had a religious inference. The remnant that returned from the Babylonian exile and their descendants referred to themselves as "the poor." Israel itself was a "poor" nation, for it was insignificant in world politics; it was also a conquered nation. Jesus audience could spiritually identify with Lazarus, even though Jesus made an extreme case for the man in his parable.

16:21 "falling (scraps)" are either the crumbs on the floor or the leftovers that were thrown out. Either way, Lazarus longed to eat the garbage of the rich man.

16:22 "the bosom of Abraham" is a figurative phrase for the place of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus painted an image of Lazarus reclining next to Abraham in the heavenly feast.

Notice the rich man was honored with a burial while nothing was mentioned of the poor man's remains (Was he resurrected with the just at the end of time?)

16:23 "Child" While Abraham recognized a relationship with the rich man (in other words, the man was nominally Jewish), such a relationship did not ensure salvation.

16:25 "your blessings . . . (life's) curses" This is literally "good things" and "bad things." But Luke alluded to more than material possessions. "Good luck" and "bad luck" might be another way to very loosely translate the phrases.

16:29 "They have Moses and the prophets" This verse did not refer to the brothers read Scripture; that spiritual devotion hasn't really popular until the Reformation and the introduction of the Bible in the vernacular. Jesus referred to the reading of the prophets and the teaching on the Torah during synagogue service. Abraham inferred the brothers were not attentive. Hence, they were religious in name only.

Jesus painted the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in stark contrasts. On the one hand, the rich man lived like royalty (dressed in purple) and partied everyday. On the other hand, Lazarus was so poor he would have even eaten from the rich man's garbage; he was so sick that dogs, the animal all Semites hate, came to lick his sores. As detestable as the rich man was, Lazarus was pitiable. [16:19-21]

Both men died. The rich man eternally condemned himself with his hard heart. With all pretense stripped away, the rich man realized his predicament when he looked upon Lazarus in the "bosom of Abraham" (i.e., heaven). But even in his prayer and pain, the rich man treated the lowly Lazarus with contempt. [16:24] When he was denied help, the rich man prayed for a heavenly messenger (Lazarus) to visit his five brothers so they might convert. "Don't they have the Bible?" Abraham responded. This was not sufficient for the rich man. The parable ended with Abraham's response, the rhetorical question of Christian faith; if you do not believe in Scripture, how can you believe in one risen from the dead? [16:31]

Like many other parables, Luke recorded Jesus words with an eye to his audience and their advisories. In the early church, the Pharisees were seen as rich, while Christians were poor. Pharisees, who became the leaders of universal Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., ejected Jewish Christians from synagogues late in the first century. Isolated from their own people, Jewish Christians stood alone religiously. Hated as Jews by the general population, they were isolated economically. These Jewish Christians would love to live off the scraps of the rich synagogues.

At the same time, Luke recorded the words of Jesus with an eye toward great irony. The question implied in Luke 16:31 can be turned around. "If you do not believe in Scripture, how can you believe in one risen from the dead?" can be restated: "If you do not believe in one risen from the dead, how can you believe in Scripture?" This was direct challenge to the Pharisees. For the Christian, the resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate revelation, one to which all Scripture pointed. In the Christian mind, faith (and the Bible) would be impoverished without the resurrection.

Catechism Theme: Give us this day our daily bread

CCC 2831 "But the presence of those who hunger because they lack bread opens up another profound meaning of this petition. The drama of hunger in the in the world calls Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren, both in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family. This petition of the Lord's Prayer cannot be isolated from the parable of the poor man Lazarus and of the Last Judgement."

Over the past 2000 years, demographics, culture and politics have changed dramatically. There are almost one billion Catholics in the world vs. 12 million Jews. As the tables have turned, so too, has the meaning of the parable. We, as Americans and as Christians, have a responsibility for the poor. We, with wealth, are called to serve the poor as individuals and as a whole.

This petition in the Our Father reminds us of our Christian roots. We who enjoy material blessings were once the outcast poor. To ignore this heritage and to act as if the poor do not exist (like the rich man) is a serious matter (CCC 1859).

We must remember that the poor of the world are blessed by God (Luke 6:20) Like Lazarus, they walk in the company of angels (CCC 336) as we all do.

Do we recognize the special place of the poor with our service? When we serve them, do we act as if we are doing them a favor, or do we see they are doing us a favor? Do we not realize their presence is an invitation to intimacy with God?

Who are the poor? Most of the time we connect the poor with those who lack material goods. But, look again at Jesus' parable. The poor are the disdained, the hated, those kept at arms length. Those who lack goods might be distasteful to middle class sensibilities. But there are others who lack that we might want to keep at bay. They are simply not like us. They might even be our enemies. At what point do we show them compassion?

In these tragic times in which we are tempted to cry out for vengeance, let us remember we are to seek justice. For justice allows room for compassion.

How can we see the poor, the sick, the outcast, as God's angels in need of help? How can we view our adversaries as God's agents that challenge us to change?