Last week we heard the news that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife pledged a hefty sum of $3 billion to battle and to end all diseases by the end of this century. They joined the likes of Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda whose foundation has been involved across the world since the year 2000, providing healthcare and education to impoverished communities and individuals. There are people arguing that this kind of initiative is more a ‘public relations’ stunt than a genuinely compassionate enterprise, aimed at softening up the image of otherwise merciless businesses – and perhaps they are right. I don’t know. But ask those whose lives have been changed for the better as a direct or indirect result of those initiatives, and you’ll find out that they don’t see them as PR stunts.
It’s easy to have a go at bashing the wealthy and influential. Quite often their ostentatious lifestyles and their sometimes astonishing excesses don’t help us to see them in a better light. As a result, there are people who openly deride and despise the wealthy because of their wealth. They seem to be supported in this in today’s first reading, where the prophet Amos denounces the excesses of the rich, and goes on to predict their demise. This rant is followed by today’s gospel where Jesus tells a fictional story about two characters. One is a nameless rich man, described as wearing fine, very expensive clothes and feasting magnificently every day. The other is a poor man called Lazarus, hungry and sick, longing in vain for some scraps from the rich man’s table. In Jesus’ story the rich man is punished in the afterlife and the poor man seems to be rewarded. It’s easy to draw the simplistic conclusion that it was wealth that brought condemnation upon the former and poverty that brought reward to the latter.
You’ve heard correctly: I used the word ‘simplistic’. I did so because things are not that simple in the gospel. St Luke was undoubtedly a passionate critic of the wealthy and a champion of the poor. It’s quite likely that there were two reasons behind his having such a compassionate attitude: he was a doctor, and he was Christian. His compassion for the poor stemmed from purely human reasoning, combined with that of his religious understanding. I’d say that the former was the main driver, as he was a doctor before he became a Christian. Faith added a strong religious dimension to the beliefs he already held. However, his criticism of the wealthy wasn’t total and unconditional. In fact, it was the exploitation, the abuse of power and the utter contempt for the worse-off as demonstrated by the wealthy that attracted St Luke’s strong condemnation. We can see that in the parable told by Jesus. The rich man, even in the afterlife, condemned and suffering, treats Lazarus as an errand-boy; he doesn’t bother to talk directly to Lazarus but through Abraham, the most revered Patriarch.
Here is the key to interpreting today’s gospel: it is a lesson that each and every one of us can learn today. It’s a lack of compassion, combined with a sense of superiority, that brings condemnation. Certainly, financial and material wealth can lead people to develop such an attitude. But be aware that it’s not exclusive to the wealthy. It’s possible for such an attitude to evolve in any of us, regardless of the balance of our bank account. In the parable, Abraham gives some hope to the five brothers of the rich man; as long as they are alive they have the opportunity to change their attitudes and redeem their mistakes. It’s the same hope for you and me: as long as we live, we can change for the better.