Parables are more than nice stories
After listening to last week’s gospel (the story of the dishonest steward - September 18), and being totally confused as to why Jesus would have someone corrupt and fraudulent as the hero of the story, we now listen to today’s gospel (Sunday, September 25) about the rich man and poor Lazarus and feel like we are finally back on familiar ground. In the end, the good guy (poor Lazarus) gets his reward and the bad guy (the rich man) is punished in the fiery flames of hell. We are comfortable with the parable because we clearly understand the point of the story: the stingy are punished and the poor are rewarded.
To say that we are more comfortable with certain parables than others, however, misses the whole point as to why Jesus preached in parables in the first place. The parables are not just some simple “once-upon-a-time” story to help catechize the unlearned crowds, nor are they simple fables with a moral point. No, parables were meant to disturb the soul and change the way we think about reality. In other words, it’s not so much about understanding the moral lesson (and feeling good because I can get the point) as it is about challenging our attitudes and behaviors (and feeling uneasy because I am not living up to the demands of the gospel).
So, how does today’s gospel make us feel uneasy? Here I can only point to my own heart. The rich man feasts without even noticing that there is a poor man at his table. He ignores Lazarus because obviously there is nothing that Lazarus can do for him. However, in the end, when the rich man is in torment enduring the flames of his punishment, he finally notices Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham. Lazarus now has importance to the rich man because Lazarus can do something for him. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Or, “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers about this place of torment.”
This parable stings me as I look into my own heart and wonder about the times I have ignored people because they were of little or no use to me. Then, that same person receives my attention because I become aware that there is something that they can do for me. How ugly it is to think that I would use someone for my own benefit. How ugly it is to think that I may be ignoring people because there is nothing they can do that will make my life better, easier or more comfortable.
Many times, at the end of a parable, Jesus would say, “The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Sometimes I don’t want to hear the parable especially if it is going to sting me. But listen, I must.