According to today’s Gospel reading, some of those listening to Jesus sneered at his remark that “no one can serve both God and mammon.” (Lk. 16:13) Evidently, these men believed that it was fully possible to divide one’s loyalty between temporal goods and eternal good. In response to their refusal to believe that it is impossible to serve both God and one’s self-interest, Jesus told the parable about the rich man and Lazarus.
In the parable, the rich man merited eternal punishment. It might be a mistake, however, to assume we grasp the nature of the sin that ended him in “the netherworld, where he was in torment.” (Lk. 16:23) There was an obvious disparity of wealth between Lazarus and the rich man, but the rich man’s sin was something that can’t be completely described in terms of wealth or poverty.
Lazarus lay at the rich man’s door; both Lazarus and his lamentable condition were plainly visible to the rich man. There is no indication, however, that the rich man was responsible for causing either Lazarus’ poverty or his physical sufferings. The rich man would have no culpability for these.
Quite obviously, the rich man could have done something to help Lazarus. Apparently, he did nothing; this can be counted as a sin. One wonders, however, is this sin sufficiently serious to merit eternal punishment? I’d like to suggest that the rich man’s sin amounted to much more than merely failing to offer help to someone in need.
A crucial detail in the story is the request the rich man made from his place of torment. From the netherworld, he begged, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.” (Lk. 16:24) The rich man treated Lazarus as being less important than himself. In the eyes of the rich man, Lazarus was not deserving of equal treatment. He ignored Lazarus’ plight in life. (Lk. 16:20-21) In death, he treated Lazarus as little more than a personal servant. (Lk. 16:24)
The rich man considered himself to be better than Lazarus, and for no other reason than the wealth disparity between the two men. This illustrates precisely the reason that Jesus said, “no one can serve both God and mammon.” (Lk. 16:13)
Serving “mammon” as one’s god, leads to reducing other people to being mere objects in one’s environment. The rich man treated Lazarus, not as a person, but as a thing. During Lazarus’ lifetime, he was a minor inconvenience to the rich man – sitting on the doorstep. After the rich man’s death, Lazarus was nothing more than another servant to him. He treated Lazarus as a thing that existed only for his personal benefit.
What kind of person treats another person as an object? The answer is: the sort who has an insufficient grasp of her or his own personhood.
Like the so-called parable of the prodigal son that we read a couple of weeks ago, this parable says that neither the rich man alone, nor Lazarus alone, is an adequate representation of our human nature. Rather, the two men, when taken together, reflect adequately what it means to be human.
Each person enjoys many blessings in life and each person suffers many deprivations. Each of us is, at once, both the rich man and Lazarus. Our failure to recognize this is the cause of our objectifying ourselves and others.
Treating others as persons requires first that we recognize and accept our personal limitations. Recognizing and accepting our personal limitations requires first that we place God above all else in our lives. When we confuse the value of created goods with the value of Uncreated Good, we render ourselves incapable of valuing anything accurately, beginning with ourselves.
A person is more than a possessor of wealth or a sufferer of deprivation. A person is created with the vocation to know and love God. Valuing objects over people is a rejection of God because it is first a rejection of the truth about the divinely-given vocation of being human.
A human life is a mixture of strength and weakness, good and bad, wealth and poverty. A human life well lived is the recognition that all are equal in God’s sight, that God is above us all, and that we are blessed to be given the opportunity to know and love God.