Today’s Gospel reading at Mass may be formative in this Lenten season:
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.”’ (16.19-31)
The Gospel of St Luke
Lazarus and Dives, The Abbaye St. Pierre de Moissa
The following is a short essay I wrote for admission to Duke University’s Divinity School (February 2011):
St John Chrysostom (“the golden tongue”) articulates the Gospel of Christ in various sermons he preached in Antioch, where he served first as reader, then as deacon and priest, and then as the metropolis’ bishop. In one series, On Wealth and Poverty, Chrysostom focuses on St Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The sermons’ central theme is that, while the poor may suffer misfortune, it is the duty of the rich to give alms and do acts of charity both to ease the plight of the poor and to fend off the disadvantages that accompany earthy treasures.
Unlike Origen, who precedes Chrysostom’s ministry by a century, Chrysostom’s reading of the biblical witness is less allegorical in nature and a more literal than his Alexandrian predecessor. For Chrysostom, the Gospel contains an honest and realistic call to serve the poor through the giving of alms. The parable itself is a vision of a rich man, negligent of the poor mendicant before his house’s gates, and then dying and then suffering in Hell. Chrysostom’s states for the benefit of his congregation that the rich man’s sin lies not in his wealth of earthly possessions but in his hard-heartedness and lack of care for the beggar. For Chrysostom, the poor have advantages in their lack, as they have less distraction in their honest pursuit of holiness. And while the rich may be disadvantaged as to their wealth and its distractions, the rich may give alms to the poor and therefore help to secure their own lot of penance and holiness.
Notice that in his sermons Chrysostom does not lambast the rich. His congregation in Antioch, at that time the Empire’s third largest city, no doubt had many wealthy merchants and tradesmen, and it would be easy for Chrysostom to castigate them for their material excesses. But Chrysostom does not preach hell as much as he does heaven, offering these congregants encouragement towards the blessings that accompany giving to his city’s poor. Chrysostom does not use his words and his episcopal position to condemn, but to offer gospel, that is good news, for the poor and the rich alike. Most importantly, as he does at the end of each sermon, Chrysostom askes a blessing of thanksgiving to Christ: “May we all attain this salvation, by the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.”