Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time C
The parable Jesus tells us this Sunday is chock full of foundational truths of our Catholic faith. First, it teaches us the truth of the immortality of the soul: God made us to live forever; we have a definite beginning, but will not have an end. It teaches us of the existence of heaven and hell: what we’ve done (or what we’ve failed to do) in time will have real and lasting consequences in eternity. The parable teaches us about the dignity of the human person: every human life has immense value—not because of what it can accomplish, but simply because it has been created by God—and that dignity must be honored. Finally, it even hints at the very core of Christian faith: the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But even with so many central beliefs contained within this one parable, there’s yet another that I believe is still more basic.
What is the essential difference between Lazarus and the rich man? No, I’m not talking about money. I’m not even talking about the wide gap between their eternal destinies. The main difference is that only one of them realizes that he’s a beggar.
You see, the rich man thinks of himself as self-made. He flaunts his accomplishments with daily banquets and flashy clothes. He considers himself as the source of his own notable success. And if he can succeed so well, then why can’t anybody? Ought not everyone—including the poor man lying at his gate—do something to get ahead?
In being so full of himself, the rich man has left no room for God.
Meanwhile, having so precious little, Lazarus clearly recognizes his total dependence on God—even for the small comfort he gets from the neighborhood dogs. Whatever he gets, no matter how small the scrap, is a gift to be received with gratitude.
And what Lazarus recognizes, we all must recognize. Consider even just the bare necessities for life. When it comes to food—sure, I can plant seeds…but I can’t make them grow. I can construct a simple shelter…but can’t create the stones or trees from which to build it. We require air and water…and while we can protect or pollute them, no one of us can make them from scratch. And what’s true of the needs of the body is equally true when it comes to the soul. How complete is our reliance on God!
Do you see now the essential split between the rich man and Lazarus? And realizing this makes all the difference in how we understand the parable! Without this distinction, Jesus can seem to be teaching that, as long as we’re good to the less fortunate, then heaven is guaranteed: you do this, and God will certainly do that. But such thinking makes God into a taskmaster, not the Lord of love and mercy we meet in the Gospel! The parable’s message is actually quite the opposite. God owes us nothing, and yet gives us everything. And when we recognize that everything’s a gift, everything’s a grace—not what’s due to us, but the fruit of divine love—then we’re moved to share what we’ve been given with others.
Next year will be the five-hundredth anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-nine grievances on the cathedral door, sparking the Protestant Reformation. As you might easily imagine, I’m not in full agreement with everything Luther said or did. But there’s something that he most definitely got entirely right. On his deathbed, Martin Luther took a small scrap of paper and scribbled six simple words in German, which translate: “We’re all beggars. This is true.”
We are all beggars. And we’re never more beggars then when we kneel here before the Lord’s Table and ask of him our daily bread.
Freely we receive; freely we must give.