Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.
So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.
But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)
In this parable, the sudden reversal of roles and expectations so characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is once again manifested. Two extreme situations are juxtaposed. A rich man dressed in purple, symbol of the upper classes and power, feasted not just well, but sumptuously — and not just on feast days, but every day. At the gate to his estate lay Lazarus the beggar. In the popular mindset of the time beggars were considered responsible for their miserable plight. Poverty was looked upon as a punishment for sin and for that reason, the hearers would be thinking, “It’s his own fault.”
The sin of the rich man could not have been his wealth as such, since Abraham too was a rich man and found favor with God, as the book of Genesis attests. The rich man’s fate suggests that his sin was his failure to pass through the gate of his estate and to respond to the desperate need of the beggar. The parable attacks the complacency of our divisions between rich and poor, the socially acceptable and the socially outcast. The gate symbolizes the grace that enables us to love our neighbor — everyone — as ourselves. The rich man stayed in his enclosure. His failure to go through the gate and to enter into solidarity with the one in need was the particular cause of his undoing.
Gates can be barriers or passageways into solidarity with others. In whatever way the rich man obtained his goods, whether through junk bonds or other means of getting rich quick, he failed to pass through the gate of his private interests and concerns to identify with someone whose situation was desperate and whom he could easily have helped. In the next life things will be reversed. If the rich man had gone through the gate to reach out to the beggar and had not simply used it as a barrier to protect himself and his property, his fate would have been quite different. God does not set up barriers. We do. Our relationship to our local community and to the human family as a whole determines whether we are in the kingdom or out of it, both now and in the next life.
To be in the kingdom is to participate in God’s solidarity with the poor by sharing with them the good things that have been given to us. In the New Testament the great sin is to be deaf to the cry of the poor whether that cry springs from emotional, material, or spiritual need. Although we cannot help but partake in some degree in social injustice because we live in this world, we must constantly reach out in concrete and practical ways to those in need. Divine love is not a feeling, but a choice. It is to show mercy. The rich man, although he saw the beggar starving at his doorstep and could easily have reached out to him, just went on eating, drinking, and reading his Wall Street Journal.
— Thomas Keating in Journey to the Center
Love in Christ,
The writings of Fr. Thomas Keating are taken from Spirituality and Practice. The reflections are my own.
M.Rev. Ed Jansen is the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Benedict and Rev. Dr. Trish Gaffney is its Vicar General
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