There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Jesus liked to teach by parables no doubt because they are like a passkey that lets you into any room. We read them and make sense of them to the degree that we can let them read us and make sense of our own experience.
This of course varies greatly from one person to another. Not many of us like to be read, even by a parable.
This one is gritty – note the stark contrast between material conditions. Looking at the expanding differential between banker’s bonuses and those on housing welfare today, we might conclude that 2000 years of gospel values have done little to change the basic structures of inequality that characterize human society. For economists this is a matter of graphs. For those who work or are looking for work it is about fine linen and great food or sores and social exclusion. Death, not politics, is the only great equalizer.
There’s another way of reading and being read by this parable – at the level of our spiritual wealth or poverty. To be spiritually rich is to be centred in our human need and detachment from what we have. To be spiritually poor is to define ourselves by what we have and to shelter from the fear of death behind false security.
It’s hard to find one way or standard by which to understand the whole spectrum of life. No single ideology can do it. The Cross can; because it illustrates the intersection of the horizontal, material, and vertical, spiritual, dimensions of all experience.
The point is that the spiritual and material are not two separate realms. Every experience we undergo embodies both. And the Cross – the great symbol of love shining through, and therefore transforming, suffering – reveals that what the mind sees as parallel lines that never meet actually converge and intersect.
The heart is this point of convergence. If we don’t know what ‘heart’ means - as the poor rich man didn’t in the parable until it was too late -then our experience, however varied, successful or attractive, barely deserves to be called human. Only the knowledge rising in the heart from the unbounded stillness of being makes us fully human, fully alive.
Laurence Freeman OSB