Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Parable of Lazarus
and the Capital Sin of Luxuria

On this twenty-sixth Sunday of the year of St Luke the Evangelist, the Roman Church proclaims the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) that Jesus told to the "Pharisees, who were lovers of money" (Lk 16:14).

In the Lesson of today's Mass, we also heard Amos 6:1a, 4-7, in which the prophet Amos chastises "those who lie upon beds of ivory...who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp...who drink wine in bowls...but are not grieved over the run of Joseph!"

Similarly, in the Gospel, Jesus narrated the story of the "rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day" while ignoring Lazarus, "a poor man" who day at his gate every day and "who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table."

I have found it helpful when, reflecting on the lectionary readings for a day's Mass, to check them against the fourteen articles of faith, the capital sins, and the virtues, in hopes of finding a practical application of Gospel in daily life.

We know of the "Seven Capital Sins" outlined by Pope St Gregory the Great in his Moralia in Iob 31:45, but what is often lost upon contemporary readers is that the so-called "fifth capital sin," namely "lust," has a broader meaning than what the English noun would suggest. In Latin, the word is luxuria. According to Lewis and Short, luxuria has the meaning of "riotous living, profusion, luxury, excess." In this context of hedonism, pleasure, and sensuality we derive the narrower vice of "lust." The connexion between luxury and lust is illustrated well by Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, which often sets the standard for luxurious leisure, sensuous pleasure, and extravagance. Luxury, then, is a capital sin.

The Church has long taught that wealth, money, and comfort are not sinful in se. What makes these gifts incline us to sin is the fact that they often cause us to be blind to our neighbour's needs. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, never once does the rich man take notice of Lazarus. He is indifferent. "It's none of my business." "I'm not going to get involved." How man times have we heard these quintessentially American isolationist ethos? The plight of the poor is our business.

Think of the story in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. When Meriadoc and Peregrin try to convince the ent Treebeard to assist the World of Men in fighting against Isengard and Mordor, Treebeard says effectively that it does not involve the ents. "But you're a part of this world!" was Meriadoc's rebuke.

So it is with us. The poor is as much a part of the human family as our middle-class next-door neighbours, the homeless Vietnam War veteran, or the abandoned patient at a psychiatric ward. The grave sin of the rich man was that he never took notice of Lazarus in his need. He does not offer him any leftovers from the dinner-table. He does not provide him with employment and a living wage. Nor does he even negotiate with any other employers who might take in Lazarus for work. Being "full of sores," Lazarus may very well have been physically debilitated from working. The one who "feasted sumptuously every day" refused any measure of self-sacrifice to hire a doctor to look after Lazarus.

So the rich man, who disregarded the plight of the poor, rejected the Gospel mandate of almsgiving (cf. Mt 25:31-46) which is necessary for salvation. It is one of the three works of piety required of all Christians during the Lenten season and is found among the Seven Corporeal Works of Mercy.

Finally, I was struck by the inversion of fortunes between the rich man and Lazarus: "But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish'" (Lk 16:25).

We imperil our eternal salvation by neglecting the poor.