An Inclusive Party
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries finds both challenge and promise in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Parties are very much double-edged. They can welcome and they can exclude. The rich man of our parable welcomes his five brothers to his party. He excludes Lazarus from his party. Lazarus lies day after day in the gateway, which is the outward sign of the sumptuous interior of the house. Lazarus doesn’t even get an occasional doggie-bag of goodies to alleviate his hunger. He longs for even the leftovers. Indeed he is so weak that he is unable to fend off the feral doggies, who lick his ulcerating sores.
After death, all gets reversed. The angels escort Lazarus to the bosom of Abraham, which is an image of heaven that implies the religious integrity of Lazarus, while the rich man finds himself suffering in Hades.
This reversal is not simply because Lazarus was poor and the rich man was rich. It is because the rich man neglected Lazarus day after day. The rich man has despised Lazarus, had excluded him from ever attending the party. He had not treated him as a human being of equal dignity. Even in Hades the rich man treats Lazarus as an errand-boy.
The message of the parable is therefore — in part — do good, use your wealth to feed the hungry and care for the sick. After death there can be no exchange between Lazarus and the rich man. Destinies in the afterlife are determined by people’s right actions, or otherwise, in this life.
Our first reading from Amos is another warning to the rich and powerful who party on regardless of the ruin of the nation. Theirs is a doomed, fin-de-siècle life. Amos criticizes their luxurious menus — finest veal and bowls full of wine every day. Amos criticizes their behaviour — sprawling around on beds of ivory. He criticizes their music. David the hero-king of old had been a skilled musician and composer of psalms. This elite, supposedly descendants of David who officially share the same faith as David, choose instead to mock him and his trust in God by accompanying their drinking songs with bizarre new instruments.
Underneath all this, Amos is criticizing their misplaced religious trust. They trust in the security of their capital city Zion (Jerusalem) and in the security of the un-named capital of the Northern kingdom. They believe that they are the chosen ones, living in God’s chosen cities. They abandon and despise outsiders, the poor and especially those who live with integrity.
Amos tells us that these people who trust in their wealth will be the first to be exiled, sent off penniless to a distant corner of a foreign land to work for others. Amos’s words and the words of other prophets like Hosea were remembered. Some scholars think that these prophecies may have influenced the formulation of parts of the Old Testament law, found in the Torah. Amos’s words will always be a reminder of the call from God for social justice and social inclusion.
The parable, though, carries on. The rich man asks that someone be sent from the dead. Surely his brothers will listen to such a person and repent, turn from their life of exclusive partying, and choose to care for the poor. Here there is a delicious double irony in the parable. First it may not be coincidental that the poor man is called Lazarus, a name which means “God helps”. We know from John’s Gospel the story of how Jesus restored life to his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. What happened? The authorities wanted to put Lazarus to death as well as Jesus. They did not want Lazarus around, let alone want to listen to him. Lazarus reminded them all too effectively of Jesus and his mission.
Second, of course, is that Jesus did return from the dead. He invites us to repent and avoid the fate of the rich man in the parable. Do we listen to Jesus? Do we care for the poor, those living near us and those living far away but tied to us by commercial bonds?
Do we try to live with integrity, listening to those asking difficult questions about our life-style or priorities? Do we party with an exclusive group of carefully selected like-minded friends, or do we gather at the Eucharist, the promise of an inclusive party in heaven?