The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel recounts three enchanting parables. We read them at Mass two Sundays ago… Lost sheep. Lost coin. Prodigal son. Vivid images of Divine Mercy. Comforting, and not difficult to understand. Luke 15.
But Luke 16, on the other hand… First, the parable of the Dishonest Steward, which we heard at Mass last Sunday. Then the chapter continues with a few lines about entering the Kingdom of God by violence. Then the painful tale of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
Dogs licking the poor man’s sores. The rich man dying of thirst in the afterlife. A chasm that no one can cross. And father Abraham saying that no one else can go to warn the rich man’s brothers.
Now, most people know that life in this world isn’t fair. Bad luck can hit good people, and the wicked often prosper. The ancient pagans expressed this by inventing a special goddess, the goddess of Fortune. She spins the wheel of arbitrary and unfair fate.
Like what happened to the king of ancient Troy. The Greeks snuck into the city, hidden in a big wooden… horse. Then a young Greek warrior mercilessly slew the old Trojan king.
Any fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? One scene in Hamlet narrates the fall of Troy and the murder of the king. Old and feeble, the king couldn’t even lift his sword. The scene of his death is so sad, so wrong, so utterly unfair, that Shakespeare curses the goddess:
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!
The “Prosperity Gospel:” If God loves you, and you’re good, then you will have a comfortable house, a shiny car, a well-padded bank account, and good teeth. On the other hand, if you’re a loser, and can’t pay your bills, it’s your own fault, and God doesn’t love you.
That’s the Prosperity Gospel. A doctrine which lets comfortable, self-centered people like the rich man in the parable sit at their tables, while a poor man starves, and think: “Well, it’s his fault that he’s so poor and such a loser.”
But the arbitrary spinning of Fortune’s wheel does not deal out justice on earth. To live in the truth, we must utterly reject the Prosperity Gospel for the nonsense that it is. Material prosperity does not accurately measure interior virtue, and it doesn’t make you one of the Chosen.
Lord Jesus addressed last Sunday’s parable of the Dishonest Steward, the first part of Luke 16, to His own disciples. But the Pharisees overheard Him. So then the Lord told the story of Lazarus and the rich man for their benefit, the Pharisees’ benefit.
It’s no accident that, in the story, the bosom on which Lazarus comes to rest belongs to Abraham. One way for us to understand all of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees is to grasp the fundamental question in dispute, namely: What does it mean to be a child of Abraham? God Almighty chose the children of Abraham as His own, His people. But what precisely makes you a child of Abraham, one of the Chosen?
Jesus spent His earthly ministry trying to help people understand: Fulfilling the Law of Moses will not bring anyone to Abraham’s bosom. Not because the Law of Moses is wrong. But because no one in this fallen world has enough righteousness to keep the divine law. God does not choose us because we’re good. Rather: God chooses to save sinners.
Abraham himself lived before the written law came down on Mount Sinai; he never had the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone. But what he had was true humility, true faith in the Providence of God. The opposite of the Prosperity Gospel, the opposite of pharisaism.
God has given us sinners a means by which to purify our selfish hearts. Provided we are humble enough to see that when someone suffers in poverty, it’s not because it’s his fault. It’s because it’s our fault, the human race’s fault. We can enter the Kingdom of God, as Luke 16 says, by doing a particular kind of violence. Doing violence to the concept of “mine.”
“Mine, mine, mine!” we must utterly destroy. We destroy our selfishness by giving things away. In this fallen world, the children of Abraham, the children of God, learn to forget the word “mine” by giving alms.