As we hear the various parables from the Gospel of Luke it is good to keep two things in mind. First is the context of these teachings, which were given by Jesus as he made his way up to Jerusalem to “be handed over to men” (Lk. 9:44) and enter into his passion.
Second, his parables and discourses given during the journey were not haphazard or random, but form a cohesive whole. They are like different paths leading to the same place and shedding light on the same event: Jesus’ death on the cross for the salvation of mankind. Some of them were meant specifically for the disciples; others for the crowds following Jesus; still others for the Pharisees and other religious leaders.
Between last week’s reading of the parable of the dishonest steward (see Lk 16:1-15) and today’s parable is a bridge of five verses (16:14-18). That passage states that the Pharisees — “who loved money” — had heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (16:13), and had sneered at him. Jesus then said to them, “You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.”
This sets up the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, a story sometimes interpreted solely as a renunciation of greed and a call to treat the poor with justice. Today’s reading from the prophet Amos takes up the same issue, directing a curse toward the complacent wealthy who stuff themselves with rich meat while starving themselves spiritually. And the first half of the parable is directed toward the same sort of self-indulgence and gluttonous revelry.
But there is more to it, for Jesus took what was quite possibly a well-known motif — a rich man descending into Hades — and suddenly brought it home with an unexpected epilogue.
The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they might escape eternal torment. Who are the five brothers? In the immediate context, they are the Pharisees, the ones who have and know the law of Moses and the prophets and yet fail to pursue the will of God and die to pride.
St. Jerome said the rich man is not accused of greed, theft, adultery “or, in fact, of any wrongdoing. The evil alone of which he is guilty is pride.”
Pride, said St. Thomas Aquinas, signifies an intentional contempt of God. Every sin, in fact, is infected to some degree by pride. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “hatred of God comes from pride. It is contrary to love of God, whose goodness it denies” (No. 2094).
Pride destroys love for God and love for others; it seeks only itself and its desires, without thought for the afterlife. The Pharisees, as Abraham tells the rich man, have Moses and the prophets. They, more than anyone else, had no excuse for being prideful and refusing to repent. But they failed to heed John the Baptist’s warning about believing that because Abraham was their father they had no need for repentance (see Lk 3:8).
St. Jerome, providing a spiritual interpretation, likens the five brothers to our five physical senses. Pride often comes through physical pleasures; material things meant for our good can become our masters. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “but woe to you who are rich.” Regardless of income and social status, all Christians must pursue a spirit of poverty, for without it we cannot take up the cross, die to sin, and enter eternal beatitude.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.