An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Year C, Luke 16:19-31, September 29, 2013
A FEW YEARS ago, the problems of praying in the classroom or at graduations and of placing Christmas trees in government offices were brought to some US Courts. Protesters against such religious practices complained that these violated the principle of separation between Church and State. Hearing the oral arguments in courts, one could not help making a mental note that such questions would not have been raised had the protesters viewed religion as embracing social attitude and behavior. But if the issues tell us anything, it is that they tend to imply that for those against the exercise of religious practices in schools and offices, religion is merely an private affair, something that transpires only between God and the private individual. And we will not be surprised if, out of consistency in their outlook and position, the same protesters go to court to ask for the removal of the words “In God We Trust” in the American dollar.
But to confine religion to the privacy of the individual is to make a caricature out of it. As this Sunday’s readings indicate, our faith in God is intimately linked with matters affecting the society. And one of these matters concerns the question of wealth and poverty. In an unprecedented statement about the situation in the world, the l97l Synod of Bishops questioned “the serious injustices that are building around the world of men a network of domination, oppression and abuses which stifle freedom and which keep the greater part of humanity from sharing the building up and enjoyment of a more just and more fraternal world.” That millions, for example, starve in Somalia and other eastern African countries while those in the West have more than enough of almost everything is simply not morally right. It is unjust. So is the situation in the Philippines in which, in the words of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II), “the poverty and destitution of the great mass of our people are only too evident, contrasting sharply with the wealth and luxury of the relatively few families, the elite top of our social pyramid.”
It is against this background that today’s Gospel on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) must be viewed. The story, probably based on an Egyptian tale, adapted in Judaism, and retold by Jesus, concerns two characters: a rich man (erroneously named Dives in some translations) who indulged in a very luxurious life fit for kings and princes, and a poor man called Lazarus was so poor that he could only hope that he could eat his fill of the scraps from the rich man’s table, and so weak that he could not even defend himself from the dogs that licked his sores. But the reversal of fate after the two died is utterly shocking: the rich man went to Hades, while Lazarus rested on Abraham’s bosom—a fortune which would be difficult to accept in a culture that sees God’s blessing in wealth, and his curse in poverty.
But why the reversal of fortunes in the next world? Though it is tempting to assume that the rich man must have lived a sinful life, whereas Lazarus was virtuous, the parable does not make even the slight suggestion about it. Most likely, it is simply that the rich man wallowed in wealth, whereas Lazarus was in misery, and that the stark inequality in their living conditions was utterly wrong. This could only mean that to enjoy the luxuries of life while millions starve in scandalous poverty is not morally right. Which is why it is not difficult to understand when we hear in the 1st Reading Amos the prophet upbraiding the rich, viewing their extravagance as morally intolerable: “Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall, improvising music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” (Amos 6:4-6).
The Bishops of the Philippines, in their Pastoral Exhortation on the Philippine Economy, bring home the point raised by Jesus’ parable and Amos’ woes. After enunciating the principles of the universal purpose of the created goods and private property, equitable distribution, the use of productive property for the common good, the duty to preserve the environment and responsibly use the natural resources (nn 47-48), they declared: “In our Philippine situation such principles would certainly reject situations like the continuing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few; particularly oligopolies; the pervading presence of absolute poverty; the flight of financial capital especially in times of national crisis; and legislation that sacrifices the good of the many in order to preserve the vested interests of the few. The same principles would mandate the ethical directions that businesses and investments should take: Create jobs in the local market, open to the public ownership of corporations, especially those related to our natural resources; and invest in the rural and poor areas for the sake of the poor, even when profits are less.”
It is difficult to see how a sharp contrast between wealth and poverty can be reconciled with a community that calls itself Christian. Of course, from a human point of view, it does not befit humanity. As Helder Camara noted, “poverty makes a person subhuman, excess of wealth makes a person inhuman.” But from a Christian point of view, two reasons may be advanced why such stark inequality is morally wrong. First, according to Paul, we form one body (1 Cor 10:17; 12:12), and it is scandalous to celebrate one Eucharist, one bread and one cup, while the contrast between superfluous wealth and grinding poverty remains unchanged in our situation (1 Cor 11:18-22). It is contempt for the Church of God. As Edward Schillebeeckx puts it, “the great scandal is the intercommunion of rich Christians who remain rich and poor Christians who remain poor while celebrating the same Eucharist, taking no notice of the Christian model of sharing possession.” Second, we cannot continue to speak of love if we, as a community, remain divided into the rich who are few and the many who are poor (1 John 3:17). In fact, our faith is without life if we close ourselves and be blind to that division (Jas 2:15-27). We must share because, according to the Second Vatican Council, God destined the earth and all it contains for all humanity and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all humankind under the guidance of justice, and tempered by charity (Gaudium et spes, 69).