“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” [Luke 8:14].
There is an interior connection between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man [Luke 16:19-31], for the “rich man” of the parable is the embodiment of a person who has been “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as described in the Parable of the Sower. Brushing aside the teaching of the Torah and the Jewish emphasis on charity as one of the great acts of true piety, the rich man remained coldly indifferent to poor Lazarus who was clearly visible at his very gate. Preoccupied with fine linen and sumptuous feasting [v. 19], the rich man was scarcely prepared in his heart to alleviate the sufferings of Lazarus—sufferings that were exemplified by the dogs that licked his sores [v. 20]. Such indifference is frightening when seen in the light of the many scriptural admonitions that either chastise the neglect of the poor—“He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard”—or encourage care for the poor: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” [Proverbs 21:13; 19:17]. And the severity of the consequences of such neglect of the poor is vividly described in the parable’s “reversal of fortune,” with the rich man languishing in hades, unable to be relieved of his torment there. The contrast of his fate and that of Lazarus being carried into the “bosom of Abraham” by a heavenly escort is striking [vv. 22-23].
The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was delivered with the Pharisees in mind, for right before Jesus proclaimed the parable, we hear this unflattering description of the Pharisees: “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at Him. But He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’” [Luke 16:14-15]. Whatever or whoever may have prompted the words of the Lord during his ministry, our concern now is with our own attitude and treatment of the poor. To think or believe otherwise is to fail to “hear” the parable as it is proclaimed today for our chastisement or encouragement. The words of the Lord – the “Gospel truth” – cannot be properly assessed within the narrow limits of any political allegiances—Democrat or Republican—nor even of a wider-scoped ideology – liberal or conservative. The Gospel transcends these categories as something far greater and infinitely more demanding of our allegiance. At a time when neither political parties nor even political ideologies existed or had any real impact on the prevailing cultural or social assumptions of the time, Saint John Chrysostom [+407] delivered a series of brilliant homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. (These seven homilies now exist in English translation under the title On Wealth and Poverty). With his impressive knowledge of the Scriptures and his unmatched rhetorical skills—but most importantly his profound zeal for the moral and ethical teaching of the Gospel—Saint John offered a radical critique of selfishness and a radical exhortation to overcome such selfishness for the sake of the poor. Challenging conventional notions of what theft is, he famously expanded its definition by meditating deeply on the parable at hand: “I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, ‘The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses’ [Mal. 3:8-10]. Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, ‘Deprive not the poor of his living’ [Sir. 4:1]. To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more; not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need…. If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you…. For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well” [On Wealth and Poverty, Homily Two].
This is a radical teaching, though again not based on any particular social or political philosophy. For Saint John Chrysostom, the “true philosophy” was adherence to the Gospel. Saint John is primarily concerned with uncovering the meaning and implications of what we discover in the Scriptures. If that is challenging to the point of seeming “impossible’” or of at least taking us far out of our “comfort zones,” then rather than “soft-pedaling” the Gospel message, Saint John would continue in the hope of inspiring us to strengthen our efforts and to put on “the mind of Christ.”