Who is the more pitiable in this parable, Dives (the rich man) or Lazarus? Naturally, our heart goes out to Lazarus, the poor man at the gate, longing for scraps of food and whose sores the dogs would come and lick (an endearing detail to today’s dog lovers; but not to the ancient Jews, who didn’t have that same affection). In fact, Dives is the more to be pitied, not only because it’s far worse to do evil than to suffer it, but also because of what he became by way of his sin. So, we must appreciate the wretched state of Dives and the sin that brought him to it.
The description of Dives is brief but telling: he “dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” Notice, we hear about luxurious clothes and fine food, but not about guests or friends. There’s no mention of anyone else. He’s not having feasts or dinner parties. He’s not even squandering his wealth on a life of dissipation, like someone else we know. No, it’s just him. There’s a loneliness and isolation about his wealth.
The rich man’s pitiable state is revealed in the afterlife. Indeed, that fate is more revelatory than punitive. He’s isolated and alone in the netherworld because he had made himself so in this world. Lazarus, on the other hand, is “in the bosom of Abraham” (a better rendering than the pedestrian “at his side”). He is in communion with another. The rich man is deprived of that communion because of his greed (and not just as a punishment for it). He lived and died isolated from others and so entered into eternal isolation.
The isolation of the rich man is not unfamiliar to us. When Old Ebeneezer Scrooge is asked for alms to help the poor he responds, “I wish to be left alone.” His attachment to money makes him resent not only generosity but also company. Likewise, poor Gollum, so attached to the ring, flees the company of others, and spends his years deep in a cavern, alone with his precious.
The miser is miserable because he is isolated by his possessions. He wants them all to himself and that requires being all by himself. His attachment to wealth means he cannot attach to others. The very things he loves deprive him of love.
Greed places possessions over people. By its very nature, it isolates us from one another. We become accustomed to possessing and using, two things incompatible with authentic human relationships. The greedy man might have people who help him with his wealth or to gain more, but that just proves the point further. Such people are used, not loved.
No sin is entirely personal. There’s always a social dimension to sin because it always involves a turning inward and thus away from others. As Saint John Paul II put it, “The mystery of sin is composed of this twofold wound which the sinner opens in himself and in his relationship with his neighbor. Therefore one can speak of personal and social sin: From one point of view, every sin is personal; from another point of view, every sin is social insofar as and because it also has social repercussions.” (Reconciliatio et Penitenza)
In the rich man’s case, the social repercussion is his blindness to Lazarus. Notice that there’s no indication in the parable that Dives stole from Lazarus or was the cause of his poverty in any way whatsoever. He didn’t kick him on his way to and from his home. But that’s just the point. It’s not that he doesn’t care about Lazarus. He doesn’t even know about Lazarus. It’s not that he abhors Lazarus, but that he doesn’t even notice him.
Thus, does greed produce an indifference about the suffering of others. “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” the prophet Amos says, (cf. Am 6:1, 4-7) He connects such complacency with wealth. It afflicts those who lie “upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches. . .eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall. . .drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.”
The vice of greed isolates the greedy. But by so doing it also deprives the poor of the attention they need for assistance.
Wealth and isolation. These two characteristics of our culture are not unrelated. The more we have, the more isolated we become, and the less we notice or care about others. The COVID lockdowns were devised and imposed by the wealthy, the so-called “laptop class,” who could afford to blithely sequester themselves and go on with life. There was a cruel indifference to how such isolation would further impoverish the poor. Those signs proclaiming “We’re all in this together” were absolute nonsense.
“You cannot serve both God and mammon,” our Lord proclaimed last Sunday. And three Sundays ago, he gave a similar warning: “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” That attachment to wealth – be it ever so slight – eats into our capacity for others and isolates us. We become prisoners of greed.
We give to the poor because they need our assistance. Their lives depend on it. But we also give because our lives depend on it. When we give, we divest ourselves from what impoverishes us and free ourselves from what isolates. We thus render ourselves capable of seeing, knowing, and loving others.
*Image: The Parable of the Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus by Bonifacio Veronese (born Bonifacio de’ Pitati) [Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice]