Too Late a Request

The readings for Sunday, September 25, 2016, Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; and Luke 16:19-31.

The major theme of last Sunday’s Gospel was Christians and wealth. Luke presented his teaching on this theme through a story about a crooked manager who got caught and fired. Following that story, Luke gathered sayings attributed to Jesus about the honest and dishonest use of wealth. The final saying was cast in the form of a warning, “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” a Semitic word meaning money. Not included in last Sunday’s Gospel were his next remarks about some religious leaders he describes as “lovers of money.” Next he inserts sayings which seem unconnected with the theme of wealth — perhaps notes on his writing table that had to be incorporated somewhere in his Gospel. The final saying in this collection of strangely placed sayings is about divorce and adultery. Perhaps quarrels in the divorce process over money or who gets what, as we would say today, leads Luke back to instruction on Christians and wealth.

This time the story describes a rich man and a poor man left at the rich man’s gate or door. The poor man’s name was Lazarus, a Hebrew name which has the significant meaning “God helps.” The rich man feasted sumptuously every day.
The usual translation goes like this, “And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores….” “Lying at his door” is not quite accurate. Luke’s Greek says the man was “thrown down” by the door, a kind of “granny dumping” not unknown in our time. He wanted to be filled with what fell from the table of the rich man, but only the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

The poor man died “and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” Thus the possible origin of the song title, “Rock, My Soul, in the bosom of Abraham.” For Jews, which Jesus was and Luke thought he was, Abraham’s Bosom was a metaphor for eternal life. The rich man also succumbed but with a different outcome, “buried in Hades,” a metaphor for eternal torment. The rich man looks up and at a great distance he sees Lazarus at the side of Abraham. He recognizes his membership in Abraham’s family, “Father Abraham, pity me. Send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool my tongue.” Popular belief held that a person is punished in that part of the body in which he had sinned most. In this case the rich man had feasted daily. The impression is given that he was guilty of overindulgence in food and drink — the pleasures of taste, thus the tongue. Ancient literature also suggested that the saved experienced the joy of watching the torments of the damned, and the damned suffered all the more at seeing the joys of the saved. How human!

Abraham accepts that the tormented rich man is a member of his family, when he says, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus evil things. Now the roles are reversed.” Nothing explicit is said about the obligation of the rich to aid the poor. That comes later in the closing reference to “Moses and the Prophets.” Reversal of roles is not the only consideration. “A great chasm has been put in place, so that there can be no traffic between the two dwellings, Abraham’s Bosom and Hades. The meaning seems to be that what was done or left undone on earth has eternal consequences. The reversal of fortunes is final. Plan B: The tormented rich man says, “Then I beg you. Father (Abraham), send him to the house of my father. I have five brothers. He can warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But Father Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the Prophets.” But the newly poor man persists, “If someone comes back from the dead and warns them, they will repent.”

Abraham repeats with an expansion of his earlier response, “If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.” What did Moses and the Prophets say? Let’s listen to Moses about caring for and feeding the poor, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in your land,” Deuteronomy 15:11. And the Prophets? One example which is particularly appropriate in the context of this story, “Isn’t this the fast that I prefer? To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house,” Isaiah 58:6-7. In the catechism lesson which is the above story Luke has answered the ancient question Cain asked of God in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:9. The Lord God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer is, “YES.”