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It is easy to see someone else, and not ourselves, in this Sunday’s Gospel (the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C). But every Gospel, and this one included, is about us.
Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and “Dives,” the traditional name for the rich man in the Gospel.
It is clear from the text that Dives ends up in a bad place: Probably hell, though some argue that he may be in purgatory. It isn’t clear from the text why he ended up there. Did he neglect Lazarus? The text doesn’t say so, though the implication is there.
But there is also evidence that it was his enjoyment of life’s pleasures that made him unfit for heaven. He had settled for pleasures much lower than what God offers.
The first reading, from Amos, spells out the problem.
“Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches. … They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils. … Their wanton revelry shall be done away with.”
We like to imagine that God is speaking to the people featured on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” We who struggle with bills, however, deserve a pat on the back.
But even the Psalm should prevent that view of things.
First, instead of just describing the “woe to them” people, it describes the “blessed” — and it doesn’t say “Blessed are they who are in a tight spot because they put too much on the credit card.” It says: “Blessed he who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry.”
Second, it lists who the Lord specially looks out for. It lists “the blind,” “those who are bowed down,” “the fatherless” and “the widow.”
Both raise the bar on who gets bragging rights in the kingdom. Truly, the middle-class in America are not among those whose dire straits have gained special sympathy from the Lord.
Enter Dives. God made him for the Kingdom. His vocation in life was, as the Second Reading puts it, to “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
Instead, he lays hold of a much lesser prize. The rich man in Jesus’ story isn’t just rich — he is preoccupied with what he wears (“dressed in purple garments and fine linen”) and eats “sumptuously” each day. Meanwhile, he apparently ignores the poverty right outside his gate in the person of Lazarus.
This story should hit home: Many Americans are also obsessed with what they wear and eat. Meanwhile, much of the world lives in poverty.
The tragedy of Dives’ life is that he habituated himself to appreciate most the things that last the briefest amount of time. Even in the afterlife, Dives is mostly concerned about his physical comfort. He wants a drop of water — as if that were the root problem faced by someone who is “an abyss” away from God.
When he speaks to his heavenly visitor about how he can warn his relatives to live differently than him, he again wants to appeal to them in a sensational, sensorial way: He wants someone to rise from the dead to warn them.
It’s an ironic exchange, because Christ did in fact rise from the dead, and many in fact did believe because of that (though many rejected him despite that). It shows that God is willing to work with us where we are. Even we who are in Middle-Class America.