A homily for the Sunday in which the parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man” is read.
Today we read a famous teaching from St. Luke’s Gospel about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31). It’s a difficult passage for we see a rich man in the torments of hell, begging for relief, pleading that his family be warned of their impending doom. Neither request is granted. It seems harsh and cruel. Where is God’s mercy?
We find God’s mercy at the beginning of the story. It says Lazarus was “laid at the gate” of the rich man. God saw this extravagantly wealthy man and said, “I want to save him.” God devised a plan, “I’ll have poor Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, so that he sees the poor state of his neighbor daily. In this way, Lazarus can be comforted and the rich man can learn kindness.”
It was no accident that Lazarus was laid at this rich man’s gate. God knew that if the rich man could open his heart just a tiny bit, give alms just once – that little gap in his cold heart would create an opening for more of God’s love and grace to enter.
God is creative in his salvific ways. He doesn’t need much – just the tiniest speck of genuine kindness, just the littlest inclination to do something good, and He comes rushing in with His grace, beginning salvation in our hearts.
Every day the poor Lazarus laid near the rich man’s front door, wasting away, being harassed by animals, starving to death. And every day the rich man’s heart grew colder and further from God.
God said, “If he will just show mercy one time, then I will have something to work with.” But the rich man refused. He remained absorbed in himself, in his own cares, in his luxuries and parties, and disdained the poor Lazarus at his door.
The rich man dies. But even then, we see no change of heart. He does not regret his lack of mercy but begins demanding that Lazarus serve him, bringing him water while he burns in hell. When that doesn’t work, he again demands the service of Lazarus, that he be sent to warn the rich man’s family.
Even in hell, the rich man views himself as superior to Lazarus. His heart has not changed in torments, he simply longs for his old luxuries and comfort. And – I must add – when we view others as lower than ourselves, we are in an upside down, hellish state like the rich man.
I read about the rich man’s state and must ask myself sobering questions: who or what is the Lazarus that God has sent into my life? What people, situations, or circumstances have been sent my way to get me out of my own head, to get me to pay attention to the needs of others? Who rubs me the “wrong” way in order to get me to see that I am the one who is wrong, that I am living upside down with my head in hell?
God is creatively working out the salvation of each one of us, putting all the pieces in place, masterfully orchestrating the whole thing. We would do well to periodically ask, “Who is my Lazarus?”
The Medicinal Thorn
And for those of us who are a little more hardheaded, we hear from St. Paul this morning about another way that God provides for our salvation: “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7).
Every thorn is a difficulty that God allows in our lives to be used for our salvation – if we will let it be so. For St. Paul, he had some difficult thorn that kept him from being swelled with pride and egoism due to the great visions of the heavenly realms that he saw in prayer.
I’m nothing compared to St. Paul, but the thorns in my flesh are still necessary. They remind me to be humble, and sometimes they keep me out of trouble.
If only we saw our lives with an eternal vision and not this short-sighted materialist vision. We would see everything coming together in a beautiful orchestration of God’s mercy and salvific love: Lazaruses on the one hand bringing opportunities to do good. Thorns on the other hand, bringing the hardships necessary for our spiritual formation. In these ways, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).
That passage doesn’t mean we get whatever we want, that all our dreams come true, or that we live comfortable lives. It means salvation is worked out through our thorns and Lazaruses that God places in our lives. It means that if we pick up our cross and follow Christ daily (cf. Lk. 9:23), our struggles, sorrows, and difficulties will be salvific – they’ll develop spiritual character and depth through perseverance.
Therefore “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Fortunately, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Embracing the thorns, taking care of the Lazaruses, and glorifying God in all things at all times fills us with hope and makes us “precious vessels of the Holy Spirit” so that we experience the heavenly Kingdom in this age, and even more so in the age to come.
Through the prayers of our holy fathers, may our Lord grant us this eternal perspective to see His loving, guiding hand in all things, bringing us to our heavenly homeland.