CHESAPEAKE,VA (Catholic Online) – In our Gospel we encounter a rich man who embraces a disordered relationship with the goods of this earth. Instead of receiving those goods as a gift and offering them back to the Lord by using them to serve others – his disordered appetites entrap and blind him. His sin is that he failed to see the need of his brother.
“Jesus said to the Pharisees: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.”
“The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”
“Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Luke 16: 19-31)
Notice, the Lord said nothing about the rich man’s possessions. It was his wrongful use of them which he addressed. The Rich Man failed to recognize the need of others. He did not see Lazarus at the doorstep.
St Augustine proclaimed in a homily on this Gospel passage: “Lazarus was received into heaven because of his humility and not because of his poverty. Wealth itself was not what kept the rich man from eternal bliss. His punishment was for selfishness and disloyalty.”
Having goods is not sin. It is whether they have us which this parable is concerned with. In this parable, goods have the man. Do the goods of this earth have us? Do we recognize Lazarus at our own doors?
We live in an age of bumper stickers. I was driving to DC once and saw one, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” and another, “I am spending my retirement spending my children’s inheritance”, Christians are called to a different approach to the goods of the earth.
We are ALL invited to embrace simplicity of life.
Simplicity is not about the quantity of the goods of the earth we possess. It is about our relationship to them. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). How often have we have heard the saying, “Money is the root of all evil”? That is not what the Apostle Paul taught.
Money is not evil. Nor is it proof of God’s blessing and favor-a view that insults Christians who struggle daily to survive. Both errors are rooted in a mistaken foundation. They are self-centered rather than God and other centered.
The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, a young disciple who had been placed in leadership over the Christian community at Ephesus, a city known for its wealth and luxury. St. Paul traveled there to plant the nascent Christian Church. Knowing that those Christian believers would face certain dangers when dealing with wealth, he reminded Timothy:
“Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain; for we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For, the love of money is the root of all evils – and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6: 6-11)
The phrase “love of money” speaks to the heart. When we love the goods of the earth more than we love the One who created them, we commit a form of idolatry. A destitute person can be just as obsessed with money as a wealthy one who is given over to greed. Greed is a form of idolatry.
In another letter to the Christians in Philippi, St Paul explains his own approach to material things: “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need” (Philippians 4:12). Paul was free from the love of money.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark describe an encounter between Jesus and a wealthy young man. This man had followed the commandments since his youth, but Jesus told him it was not enough. He instructed the young man to give up his possessions and follow Him. We read that the man refused and went away sad because his possessions possessed him.
Consider the sobering words which follow this encounter: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19, Mark 10).
Only when we recognize our own poverty can we begin to live lives that are truly dependent upon Jesus. Only He can satisfy the true hunger of the human heart. When we have Him, we have everything; even though we may possess nothing. We discover the secret of heaven’s economy: those who live in simplicity are the richest people on the earth. Jesus called them the “poor in spirit.” He promised them blessedness. He proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt 5:3).
Some Christians are called to a voluntary embrace of economic poverty as part of a specific vocation. However, most of us live in the material world of bills, possessions, and financial challenges. We are to receive them with gratitude and use them with the freedom which comes from a relationship with the Lord. Our relationship to this world – and the goods of this world- should mirror that of God’s Son whom we follow. Jesus was born in a manger. As an adult he had no place to lay his head. He was raised in a simple home- by a woman whose heart recognized true wealth.
Remember the words that the angel spoke to Mary when she asked how it could be that she would bear the Messiah. “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) Mary understood that when you have the Lord, you have it all. She lived in the heavenly economy, and if we choose, we can live there too. There is an invitation to simplicity in Gods loving plan for each one of us. To those who voluntarily embrace it, simplicity becomes an invitation to love, and a school of sanctity. All relationships, with persons as well as with the goods of the earth, are changed by its embrace.
Evangelical simplicity strips away only what impedes love. In finding our proper relationship to the goods of the earth-not utterly rejecting them, craving them, or turning them into an idol-we find true freedom. Our eyes are opened. We not only learn to see Lazarus, we see Jesus in Lazarus.
Have you ever considered the significance of the fact that the same Jesus who promised to be with us always also told us that the poor would be with us always? That is because they are connected. Indeed, in a sense, they are one and the same – in a way that is revealed with the eyes of living faith. “The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me” (Jesus, Matthew 26:11) “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Jesus, Matthew 28:20)
The face of Jesus is found in the face of the poor, for those with eyes to see. The word of Jesus is spoken through the poor, for those who cultivate the ears to hear Him. The cry of Jesus is heard in the cry of the poor, at least for those who stop to listen. That is the deeper meaning behind this sobering scene recounting the last judgment recorded by the Evangelist Matthew in the 25th Chapter of his Gospel:
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'”
Those who truly and joyfully love the poor – like Jesus loved the poor- are given as a gift and instruction manual for the rest of us. They are a sign of the kingdom, making it present in their wake. We have a Pope named Francis who taught us in prophetic action in that visit to the Jail on Holy Thursday. As he washed the feet of those prisoners, he washed the feet of Jesus with an alabaster flask of ointment and tears.
Pope St Leo the Great once wrote of Jesus: “He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he, who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself.”
God became the least of these. He embraced evangelical poverty. Will we? Will we allow the truth revealed in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to become our pattern for daily living? Will we cooperate with the grace of conversion and be emptied of ourselves for others? When we empty ourselves, He comes and takes up His residence within us.
St Paul writes: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)
When we live simplicity of life, we can become His arms, embracing the world; His legs, still walking its dusty streets; and His Heart, still beating with the Divine Compassion.
Those who love the poor – like Jesus loved the poor- are given as a gift and instruction manual for the rest of us. They are a sign of the kingdom, making it present in their wake. They love in deed and truth. Dorothy Day, a heroic witness and prophetic voice of the 20th century, grasped this mystery so well. That is why she is moving forward in the cause for canonization, in spite of efforts to politicize her efforts and miss her message.
She lived in the aftermath of the industrial age where human persons were too often as products to be used. Though some get stuck in her circuitous and intriguing journey into the fullness of the truth as found in the Catholic Church, her heroic witness is being considered by a Church which is built upon men and women who were profoundly converted through their encounter with Jesus Christ.
She gave herself away, living with the poor, because she truly understood and embraced her own poverty with brutal honesty. She learned to love in deed and truth. So too did her brother in that work of authentic solidarity, Peter Maurin. He once wrote with utter simplicity and searing honesty: “We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can”.
Another great Christian woman of the same age, Chiara Lubich, the foundress of the ecclesial movement Focolare, expressed the heart of this call to love in deed and truth: “Yes, love makes us be. We exist because we love. If we don’t love, and every time we don’t love, we are not, we do not exist (“Even what he has will be taken away”). There’s nothing left to do but to love, without holding back. Only in this way will God give himself to us and with him will come the fullness of his gifts.
“Let us give concretely to those around us, knowing that by giving to them we are giving to God. Let’s give always; let’s give a smile, let’s offer understanding, and forgiveness. Let’s listen, let’s share our knowledge, our availability; let’s give our time, our talents, our ideas, our work; let’s give our experience, our skills; let’s share our goods with others so that we don’t accumulate things and everything circulates.”
“Our giving opens the hands of God and He, in his providence, fills us with such an abundance that we can give again, and give more, and then receive again, and in this way we can meet the immense needs of many.”
The beloved disciple John wrote as an old man in his letters to the early churches dispersed because of persecution: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.”
“The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (I John 3: 14-18)
I knew a woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia named Brenda McCormick. She touched my life and challenged me to the core concerning this truth. She was not an easy person to be around. Prophetic people rarely are. She went home to the Lord years ago. She once wrote these words to me in an E-Mail:
“In the end, there are two kinds of poor people: those who already know they are poor and those who don’t know yet. Here is the crisis: If the latter don’t discover this before they leave this planet, they are doomed to be poor forever. What can those of us who already know we are poor do for those who don’t know yet? Love them.”