29 Sep 2019

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

The Story of Dives and Lazarus from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (c.1035)

Jesus can be cryptic. He speaks in parables, the point of which is often unclear. Last week, for instance, his parable seemed to praise a manager’s craftiness, even dishonesty (Lk 16:1-13). Sometimes the apostles are so confounded by his stories that they take Jesus aside to ask what on earth He means.[i] At other times when people ask something, Jesus answers a different question altogether, or asks one Himself, or is just plain mysterious.[ii]

But the Scriptures are rarely so neat. For one thing, though Jesus does tell us to do unto others, to give so others will give to us, to forgive so we will be forgiven, He also tells us to do more than enough or to give expecting no return, to do unto others even if they’ll never do unto you. So the lesson drawn by Jesus at the end of today’s parable is not ‘do unto others’ or even ‘do all you can to avoid the fires of hell’. No, Jesus unexpectedly turns the parable into a prediction of His own death and resurrection and people’s reaction to it. “Then Abraham said to [Dives], ‘If they will not listen to Moses or the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” When we wonder why God doesn’t intervene more, doesn’t engage in more miraculous razzmatazz so people will mend their ways and believe in Him, Jesus answers us in Abraham’s voice today that: I’ve already given you more than enough reason to believe; whatever God does, some people remain stubborn in their unbelief.

Today’s parable, however, seems straightforward (Lk 16:19-31). Its clear message is along the lines of the Golden Rule: to ‘do unto others as you’d have them do to you.’ (Lk 6:31) It sits pretty well with us, because both the rich and poor guys get their just desserts. Like the prophet Amos in our first reading today (Am 6:1-7), Jesus often warns the rich that they’ve had their reward and promises the poor theirs is to come:[iii] the books are balanced in the end!

Romanesque capital of “The Bosom of Abraham” from the Priory of Alspach, Alsace

Another detail of today’s rich parable that we might reflect upon: why is the Lazarus carried away by angels at his death “to the bosom of Abraham”? Well, the reference to bosom or lap might evoke the Old Testament image of God dandling His beloved child Israel on His knees or holding her to His chest to feed or comfort her.[iv] It might also refer to the practice in Jesus’ time of reclining at meals, as the young John did at the Last Supper, lying against Jesus’ breast (Jn 13:23 NKJV). Heaven, on this account, has the intimacy and security between parent and child or two close friends.

But why the bosom of Abraham? Why not the bosom of God, which is surely more capacious? Or the lap of Moses or one of the prophets? I think Jesus chose Abraham very deliberately. He was regarded as Father of all the faithful,[v] in whom all the nations would be blessed,[vi] and so Jesus promised that “many will come from East and West to feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”(Mt 8:11; Lk 13:28). So the bosom of Abraham represents not just the safety but the delight of the heavenly feast.

But why is Abraham associated with the heavenly banquet? Well, we know that Jesus’ genealogy was traced back to Abraham (Mt 1:1-2), and yet to the Pharisees’ confoundment, Jesus claimed that He came before Abraham and brought Abraham joy (Jn ch 8). How, when, why? Well, as Jesus’ audience well knew, at Mamre Abraham had entertained three angels – whom we Christians know suggest the persons of the Trinity (Gen 18:1-15). And so Abraham represented divine hospitality. The afterlife, then, is no shady Sheol such as the ancients feared, but a place of intimacy with God and His saints, and of fulfilment of the promise of divine hospitality. Here, as St. John Chrysostom pointed out, there is an implicit rebuff to Dives, the rich man, who so dismally failed in hospitality to the poor.[vii] If Amos and Jesus criticize the rich for their lavish, madcap, merry-go-round life-style, it is also and more importantly for their failure to attend to the needy nearby. Jesus’ parable isn’t so much about the pains of hell – though they are there as a warning to us – but about the reasons for hell: selfishness.

I’m reminded of the old Spanish fairy-tale, El Cristo del convite or Christ the Guest. There were two widowed sisters, one rich, one poor. One day the poor sister found an old, weather-beaten and dust-laden crucifix in her rich sister’s house. The rich sister gave it to her because she had a much more magnificent one already. The poor sister took the crucifix home, cleaned and hung it on the wall by the dining-table, and before she and her four hungry kids sat down to eat that night, she invited Christ to join them for dinner. At that moment a knock was heard on the door, a man begging for food (cf. Rev 3:20). Though poor herself, with almost nothing to offer, the woman gave some of her food to the beggar.

Three nights in a row the woman invited Christ on the cross to dine with them, and three nights in a row a beggar knocked on the door and she gave him food. On the fourth night that she invited Christ to dinner, the crucifix spoke back to her, revealing that the beggars had been Him (cf. Mt 25:31-46). For her hospitality she would be rewarded: from now on she had only to shake the crucifix and gold coins would pop out. So the poor sister became rich! It’s a very Spanish story…

There’s more. When the other sister heard this, she resolved to do the same. But each time she invited Christ to dinner, heard a knock on the door and found only a beggar outside, her old habits kicked in and she sent him away packing. Three nights this happened, and on the fourth the crucifix spoke up, telling her that her refusal to feed the poor would bring punishment. That night her house burnt down with all its riches inside, and the rich sister became the poor one. It’s a very Christian story, too…

In our fairy-tale the second sister, like Dives in Christ’s parable, didn’t get the message of the prophets, of Christ, of her own sister’s experience. She just focused on the gold. The poor sister, on the other hand, had no thought for reward, and helped the beggars simply because they needed her help. She is a model of hospitality, like Abraham, welcoming the hungry and the stranger. “Abraham,” St. John Chrysostom wrote, “did not ask who the three travellers were or where they came from, but simply welcomed them all. Anyone wishing to show kindness should not inquire into other people’s lives, but only alleviate their poverty and supply their needs.”[viii] For such generosity we can hope for a reward much greater than that of a goose that lays golden eggs or a crucifix producing gold coins. We can hope that God will forever Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.[ix]


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass of the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Today I also have the pleasure of instituting more than fifty candidates from the parishes of Sydney to the Ministry of Acolyte, whom I welcome with their family members, friends and fellow parishioners. I also welcome your pastors concelebrating with me this morning. To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!

At our funeral the Church will pray for each of us: “May the angels lead you to Abraham’s side” – a reference to our Gospel today. That we might be prepared for that moment, whether it comes soon or many decades hence, let us repent on our sins…


St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

My sons, candidates for the ministry of acolyte: our epistle this morning is directed to you (1Tim 6:11-16). “As a man dedicated to God,” Paul says, “you must aim to live saintly and religious lives, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle… fighting the good fight… professing your faith.” Today you offer yourselves for such a life, declaring your willingness to assist in the Sacred Liturgy. You undertake also to exercise pastoral care, especially as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Make the Holy Eucharist, therefore, the source and summit of your life, the focus of your personal prayer, a font of inspiration and energy for your new apostolate. “And now before God [the Father] who is the Source of all Life, and before Christ who is the Witness to the Truth, I charge you with the task of doing all that you have been told [by the Word of God and your Christian formation], living without fault until the Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

[i] e.g. Mk 4:10-13,34; 7:17; Lk 8:9-11; 12:41.

[ii] e.g. Mt 8:29; 9:14-15; 12:38-42,46-50; 15:1-3; 16:1-4; 21:23-27; 22:15-28; 24:3-8; 26:62-63; 27:11-14; Mk 2:1-11; ch 4; 10:2-6; 12:13-24; Lk 2:48-49; 20:1-4; Jn 3:4-5; 4:7-38; 5:10-25; 6:25-34; 8:1-59; 18:22-23,33-34.

[iii] E.g. Mt 11:5; 13:22; 19:21-4; Mk 10:21-25; 12:42-3; 25:31-46; Lk 1:53; 4:18; 6:20,24; 7:22; 12:21; 16:13; 18:22-5; 19:8; 21:1f.

[iv] Num 11:12; Isa 40:11; cf. 2Kgs 4:20; Ps 22:9; 41:9; Job 3:12; Ruth 4:16; Isa 49:22; 66:11-12.

[v] cf. Mt 3:9; Lk 1:55,73; 3:8; 13:16; Jn ch 8.

[vi] Gen 22:18; 26:4; Acts 3:25.

[vii] St. John of Chrysostom, Homily 2 on Lazarus, 5.

[viii] St. John of Chrysostom, Homily 2 on Lazarus, 5.

[ix] African-American spiritual recorded by Louis Armstrong, Peter, Paul and Mary, Elvis Presley and others.