Monday, October 21, 2013

Just Who is the Real Rich Man?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


"If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."  (LK. 16:31)


The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is the only parable that has a named character; and the only parable in which Jesus describes the "afterlife."  In these two instances it remains unique among the Lord's parables.  It is a parable extremely rich in content, with a rather complex structure based upon a "reversal of fortune,"and filled with multiple themes.  Yet, certainly one of those many themes is quite apparent and revealed with a stark directness:  the consequence of ignoring the poor and needy, embodied in Lazarus, the poor man at the gate. (Is he given a name to emphasize this point in a personal and less-forgettable manner, so that his character takes us beyond an anonymous example of the poor?). The rich man in hades (the biblical realm of the dead) bears the consequence of his indifference to Lazarus and his unwillingness to share.  St. John Chrysostom explored this theme of wealth and poverty with unrivaled insight and depth in his famous series of homilies on this parable (a collection of homilies that now exists in English and which every member of the Church should read). St. John would always challenge the conventional wisdom of his own age, by interpreting the Scriptures in such a way that would turn our accepted values upside down so that we would be able to look at things in a new and startling light.  In a famous passage from his homilies, he challenges our conventional notions of what true wealth and true poverty actually are.  He does this by asking just who is the real rich  man and who is the real poor man:

"Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth.  So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone's money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing."

I rather doubt that this will change the minds of very many of us about the true nature of wealth and poverty.  Conventional wisdom - combined with observation and life experience - does tell us that wealth has to do with money, possessions, status and power; and that poverty has to do with lacking any and all of these things.  Many of us "deep down" crave to be wealthy, and we certainly fear the specter of poverty.  Yet, St. John was neither a simpleton nor a na├»ve dreamer.  He knows of the corrosive effect on the wealthy of a life primarily dedicated to more and more acquisition and how this becomes obsessive and compulsive; and he knew many Christians personally that sought a life of simplicity and through that pursuit discovered a different type of wealth that had the presence of God as its source.  St. John was also aware of the judgment of God which differs radically from our own limited understanding of the "bigger picture."

Many people are forced to struggle to makes ends meet - and perhaps dream of hitting the lottery - and can only watch with envy the lifestyles of "the rich and famous" that entice such dreams. Perhaps, then, St. John makes some sense about the obsessive "collection of many possessions," the fulfillment of "many desires" and the effect of being "greedy for many things;" and how a "successful" pursuit of this captivating dream can be more impoverishing than enriching.  And then St. John got the point of the parable: in some cases it can be too late to change.

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