Opening the Word: Serving two masters

At the end of the Sept. 22 readings, Jesus declared, “No servant can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and mammon.” The next verse, part of a short section (Lk 16:14-18) not included in today’s Gospel, sets the stage for the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him” (Lk 16:14). Put in more expansive terms, those who love money will finally sneer in the face of God. “Being lovers of money, [the Pharisees] repeatedly did not judge matters before them according to what was agreeable to the laws of God,” wrote St. Cyril of Jerusalem about this passage. “On the contrary, they judged inequitably and in opposition to God’s will.”

The reading from the prophet Amos fits perfectly with the Gospel. Writing during the reign of King Jeroboam II, Amos witnessed a land filled with both extravagant excess and overt injustice: “They do not know how to do what is right. ... Storing up in their strongholds violence and destruction” (Am 3:10). Amos, a shepherd, was unexpectedly called by God to direct a message of judgment toward the complacent wealthy: “Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.”

The first half of Jesus’ parable (Lk 16:19-26) is directed toward the same sort of self-indulgence and gluttonous revelry. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen,” said Jesus, “and dined sumptuously each day.” The daily nature of the rich man’s excessive ways is a big part of the problem, for it indicates that his feasting was not focused on true celebration, gratitude and communal festivity — but on satisfying his disordered, self-centered passions. The rich man was so self-absorbed that he took no notice of the beggar, Lazarus, who desired to merely eat the crumbs that fell from his overflowing table.

This parable, like the message of Amos, is not a condemnation of wealth, but of a materialist lifestyle that can destroy the soul and harm those around us — not just materially, but in other ways as well. The irony is that when our lives are all about consuming possessions, we are eventually consumed and destroyed by the same. It’s not because things are bad in themselves, but because things turned into idols will always separate us from God. Idols are a mimicking and a mockery of the true God. The rich man’s greed resulted in his separation from God, while the working of God’s justice brought Lazarus into the bosom of Abraham. However, the parable moves to a surprising ending. The rich man, his eyes finally opened to his pitiful choices, begged the patriarch Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they might escape eternal torment.

Who were the five brothers? In the immediate context, they are the Pharisees, who possessed and knew the law and the prophets and yet failed to live in accord with either. But those brothers are also anyone who seeks to find ultimate fulfillment and comfort in this life, ignoring the will of God and needs of others.

The riches of this world cannot be compared to eternal communion with the Triune God. As St. Jerome wrote, “He is rich enough who is poor with Christ.” Again, wealth itself is not the central problem. As St. Jerome also observed, the rich man was not accused of theft or even greed, “or, in fact, of any wrongdoing. The evil alone of which he is guilty is pride.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.