07 Lazarus and the Rich Man - October 22, 2006

2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9

Luke 16:19-31


The central lesson of this morning’s Gospel story of Lazarus and the rich man is about the love of money versus the love of God. It is a difficult story to understand; but the more I ponder it the deeper it gets and the more there is to say. Its lesson about money is good for us to ponder any time of the year, but perhaps especially this time of the year as we make ready to enter the season of Advent, which is now but three weeks away, in order to prepare our hearts and minds for the beautiful feasts of Christmas and Theophany, that we may keep them in their true Spirit and be truly edified and enriched by their spiritual meaning.

This story of Lazarus and the rich man is the climax of a talk Jesus is giving to an audience in which both his disciples and the Pharisees are present. In the middle of his talk, he gives his main point: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (or worldly wealth)” [Lk 16:13]. It is at this point in the Lord’s talk that St Luke tells us that the Pharisees were also present in the audience along with the Lord’s disciples. Of the Pharisees who were there, St Luke says: “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” The Lord responds to their derision of him by telling them this story of Lazarus and the rich man. But before he tells his story, he says some very strong words to the Pharisees, which include these puzzling remarks regarding marriage and divorce: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery” [Lk 16:18]. These remarks are puzzling because one wonders how they fit into Jesus’ talk on the love of money versus the love of God. We shall return to this point.

As for the story of Lazarus and the rich man, from its overall context, one recognizes the rich man immediately as the Pharisees who are lovers of money. Lazarus must therefore represent the Lord’s disciples, the other members of his audience, who are lovers of God. Lazarus certainly looks like a disciple of Jesus as St Paul describes himself and the other apostles in his letter to the Corinthians: “Even to this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place” [1Cr 4:11]. More specifically of himself, St Paul says: “I have been in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” [2Cr 11:27].

As for the sores that afflict Lazarus, they seem to correspond to what St Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews of the faithful in the OT, who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy” [Heb 11:35-38a].

As for the dogs licking Lazarus’ sores, I don’t know what to make of them. Could they stand for the wild beasts the saints of the early Church faced in their martyrdom? Or might they have a positive meaning, referring to the four beasts mentioned in St John’s Apocalypse who stand about the throne of the Lamb of God, “each of them with six wings full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” [Rev 4:8]; so that, licking the sores of the beggar, the dogs stand for the beasts who come from the throne of God to give the aid of divine grace and power to those who suffer in this life for the sake of Christ and his Gospel?

As for Lazarus being laid at the rich man’s gate and desiring to eat from his table even if it meant eating just the crumbs that fell from it: well, on Friday we read this from St Luke’s Gospel: “The Lord appointed seventy others also and sent them two by two before his face into every city and place where he himself was about to go. And he said, ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house, and [if they receive you] remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give. Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you. And heal the sick there, and say to them, the kingdom of God has come near to you’” [10:1-9].

These biblical associations seem to confirm Lazarus’ identity as a disciple of Christ who has renounced the world and sold all that he has for Christ’s sake, and who has been granted the grace to suffer in martyrdom, in witness, to the superiority of the Gospel of Christ to the pleasures of the world. In desiring to eat at the table of the rich man, Lazarus as a disciple of Christ hopes to be received by the rich man so that he can share with him the good news of the Kingdom: viz., that Christ is Coming! (Christmas draws near!) and bring to him the healing of Christ from the sickness that is unto death, namely, the sickness of greed and avarice that has fallen upon us who are rich because of our love of money.

But the rich man does not receive Lazarus. We encounter rich men a number of times in the Gospels. Except for Joseph of Arimathea and a few others, the rich never receive Christ. They choose to hold on to their worldly riches and the bodily comforts they provide rather than to take up the ascetic life of self-renunciation in prayer and fasting which Christ enjoins on those who would follow him.

St Maximus the Confessor writes that love of material wealth is produced by three things: self-indulgence, self-esteem and lack of faith. [Philo II p. 85] And of money, he says: “It is not so much because of need that gold has become an object of desire among us as because of the power it gives most people to indulge in sensual pleasure.” [Ibid] “If a man loves someone,” St Maximus goes on to say, “he naturally makes every effort to be of service to that person. If then, a man loves God, he naturally strives to conform to his will. But if he loves the flesh, he panders to the flesh. Love, self-restraint, contemplation and prayer accord with God’s will, while gluttony, licentiousness and things that increase them pander to the flesh. That is why ‘they that are in the flesh cannot conform to God’s will’ (Rm 8:8).” [Ibid, 84]

In terms of this morning’s Gospel story, this is why there is between the bosom of Abraham and hell an abyss that cannot be crossed. For Abraham’s bosom is on the side of the abyss that loves God; and hell is on that side of the abyss that loves the flesh and money. The abyss is formed by what we love: God or money. As we are taught in the bible: “You cannot serve – you cannot love – God and money. There is no fellowship, no communion, between light and darkness – between love of God and love of the flesh.”

Perhaps now we begin to see why Jesus, before he told this story, said what he did about marriage, divorce and adultery. I think he is reminding the Pharisees who are lovers of money of the covenant between God and Israel. The prophets liken the covenant to marriage; and in this covenant, this marriage, between God and Israel, God, the Bridegroom calls to his bride, Israel, to love him with her whole heart, soul, strength and mind. Love for God, moreover, produces love of one’s neighbor as oneself. Out of love for God, the Israelites were to serve justice to the oppressed, take care of orphans and widows, and show mercy to the stranger and the outcast. As the holy fathers make clear, love of money proceeds from selfishness, which they describe as mindless love for the body. Love of money is self-love that shows no desire to attend to the needs of one’s neighbor. And so, to love money, to pander to the flesh in self-love, is in effect to file for divorce from God and to marry the idol of money because of the bodily comforts and pleasures it can provide for oneself. In these terms, it is not just the Pharisees, but we Christians, too, who may find ourselves under the judgment of adultery if we are lovers of money. For through our baptism, our chrismation and holy Eucharist, we have been married to God and we are faithful to him only if we love him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

I believe that we would like to be faithful disciples, lovers of God; but we may be looking into our souls right now and seeing that in fact, we are lovers of money, and we may have a sinking feeling that our fate is that of the rich man because we are not able to love God and our neighbor as he commands. But I believe this fear is the evil one tempting us to despair so that we will give up altogether the ascetic life of a Christian and in an attitude of ‘what’s the use?’ fall into spiritual adultery and live for the comforts of this world rather than for God. Is this story telling us that lovers of God are expected willingly to make themselves destitute and literally to become beggars? I believe this understanding, too, is a suggestion of the evil one; intending again to discourage us by making the command to love God appear impractical and harsh. Let’s attend carefully to the teaching we find in the scriptures and in the holy fathers. I think we’ll find it quite practical and even attractive.

Yesterday, in preparation for this morning’s scripture lessons, we read from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and there he writes: “On the first day of the week, let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper” [16:2]. Note that St Paul is not saying the Christian cannot prosper, nor is he saying that the Christian is supposed to give away everything he makes. Let’s look again at what St Maximus says: “It is not so much because of need that gold is an object of desire, but because of the power it gives to indulge in sensual pleasure.” This is saying between the lines that money is to be used to provide for our needs. Now, St Paul instructs the Thessalonians, “Work with your own hands as we commanded you, that you may lack nothing” [I Thes 4:11-12]. In another place, St Paul writes, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with [his] hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needs.” [Eph 4:28] Note that we are not commanded to make ourselves destitute. We are commanded to work honestly to provide for our needs; and we share whatever is left over with those in need. I am also inclined to think from the scriptures that we are not commanded to give handouts to those who are in need because of laziness and indolence. Such people require a different kind of assistance than giving money; they need help overcoming their laziness so that they can work honestly with their own hands and become themselves responsible stewards in the Lord, making enough with their own hands to provide for themselves and then giving out of their abundance to those in need.

The teaching is clear: it is not an evil use of money to provide for our needs. St Maximus writes, to prosper is not evil in itself. It depends on how we use our prosperity that determines whether it is good or evil. [Philo II, p. 78] Both the holy fathers and the Scriptures instruct us to work honestly with our own hands to provide for the needs of our body, allowing it food and clothing as needed. This is the right use of money. The wrong use, let’s call it the adulterous use of money, is when we spend it on things that are frivolous, that pander to the flesh or that serve our tendency to self-indulgence. In other words, we should not be spending our extra money on things we don’t need; we should be sharing it with those in honest need. I think we can say that the Christian realizes that everything he has is from God. And, the scriptures seem to say that God allows us what money we have for two purposes: to provide for our own needs and to help others who are in honest need.

I also want to share this with you from St Maximus. Saving money, he writes, is also a good thing if it is to ensure that one has the means to supply for the needs of those under one’s care. In other words, we are not expected to lead a hand to mouth existence, or to live from paycheck to paycheck. If, however, we are working honestly with our own hands, and yet are living from paycheck to paycheck, we may take this, too, as a gift of divine grace, for St Paul writes to us in this morning’s epistle lesson: “The Lord said to me: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will gladly boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. I take pleasure in infirmities, reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong [in Christ].” [2 Cor 12:9-10]

The lesson I take away with me from this morning’s scripture lesson is this: to be a disciple, a lover of God means to be poor in spirit, not poor in money. It means that we use even our money – or rather the money God gives us – as a way of showing love for the neighbor. We do not spend our abundance on frivolous things for ourselves that we don’t need; we share it with those in need. With the coming of Christmas, my family will want to talk about how we are going to keep the Spirit of Christmas, especially as it pertains to the giving and receiving of gifts. We don’t want to be frivolous or adulterous with our money; we’ll want to practice the giving of gifts in a way that is faithful to the right use of money, a way that is in service to the love of God as we are taught from scripture and the holy fathers. That will mean incorporating into our gift-giving the giving also to those who are in need.

Let us pray God to save us from the love of money, the root of all evil; that he may help us to make right use of the money he has given to us that we may use it out of love and gratitude to him who loved us and gave himself for us that we might have life and have it more abundantly.