Tree Beside Running Waters

Thursday in the Second Week of Lent: Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 16:19-31.

 Today, we hear the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from the gospel of St. Luke. On its surface, this parable seems to warn us of too much enjoyment in this world because we will pay for it later (in Hell). As we dig into the parable, however, we see a deeper problem with the rich man. The connection to the reading from Jeremiah becomes more apparent: the enchantments of this world distract us from God, who is busy giving us plenty of opportunities for redemption by our faith and actions.

The opening of Jesus’s parable almost sounds like a fairy tale: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” This opening may tempt us to read it as a simple morality play. But the Truth spoken by the Word of God is not just a self-improvement class. It draws our spirit to dwell with Him, even if it does so via a warning.

Our gospel passage opens: “Jesus said to the Pharisees…” and in Luke, Chapter 15, He is, in fact, in the middle of talking to them. Let’s back up a few verses to get the full context. “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this [his last parable that “You cannot serve God and wealth”], and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God'” (Lk 16:14-15). These parables are specifically for them. We shall see that His criticism of loving money holds true for loving other human desires.

The Userer, ca. 1766-1774, after George van der Mijn (1721-1763) | Creative Commons, courtesy the British Museum.

What does today’s parable tell us about the rich man other than his expensive tastes and gluttony? We can glean that he did not seem to give alms of any sort to Lazarus, who would have been glad to have “scraps that fell” from his table. Just two days ago, we heard Jesus saying of the Pharisees: “For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.” In the rich man we see the same lack of helping as we do in the Pharisees: he does “not lift a finger” to relieve Lazarus’s suffering.

He displays his true colors when he finds himself in Hell. Unbelievably, he retains an arrogant sense of self-worth greater than Lazarus when he says, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Here the rich man is “in torment,” asking for pity, and he’s still treating Lazarus as a servant or slave! 

Abraham explains that they are reaping their rewards based on their experiences and actions on earth, and that “a great chasm” separates them. And still the rich man asks, “send him to my father’s house” to warn his family to mend their ways, betraying his continued dismissal of Lazarus as a person with dignity. He sees Lazarus as a tool to be employed for his family’s benefit, arguing with Abraham, “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” His sense of superiority and belief that everyone (even Abraham!) should listen to him is astounding, and certainly a pointed example for the Pharisees who were listening.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (1677), Jan Steen | Wikimedia Commons. I particularly like the self-important, dismissive expression of the man holding the goblet in the foreground, which captures the failings of the rich man archetype. Note that the actual rich man from the parable, however, seems to be in the upper right corner, even more removed from humanity in his gluttony. Overall, I appreciate Jan Steen’s painting for focusing on the enchantments of the world, raising a glass to toast today’s enjoyments, oblivious to the judgment that is coming.

 

For his part, Abraham at first replies with a certain pity for the rich man, saying, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime …” This turns eerily neutral after the rich man displays his unrepentant attitude: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” And finally he utters some baleful words indeed at the end: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” This last proclamation can clearly be applied to Christ, who will rise from the dead, and those who refuse to listen are, of course, the Pharisees themselves.

If we return to the verse that set the context for the parable of the rich man, we can see how the parable illustrates Jesus’s point: “God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” Money, gluttony, and other things “of the flesh” take the brunt of the blame, but let’s not overlook that Christ is talking about God knowing our hearts. Love of wealth and being noticed are the “bad fruit” from a diseased tree — “every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt 7:15). The tree itself is what concerns God — He wants us to grow strong and beautiful and bear good fruit (i.e., love one another, good deeds), which require nourishment from Him and His precepts. 

The Rich Man in Hell, Seeing Lazarus Embraced by Abraham, from The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (1554), Heinrich Aldegrever | Creative Commons, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is where the first reading from Jeremiah is helpful. He employs this same imagery of a tree that is either healthy or diseased, depending on a person’s attachment to God or to the world. He says that he “who seeks his strength in flesh … is like a barren bush in the desert … [that] stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” Conversely, “the man who trusts in the LORD … is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream … In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” I love the image of a person strong in the Lord being a plant growing by running waters (also used in the first Psalm), probably because it simplifies life: all you need to make you thrive is the Word of God. What a refreshing thought when compared to all of the other “things” we think we need to do and accumulate in this life. Applying Jeremiah’s imagery to the gospel reading, the Pharisees are the “barren bush in the desert,” removed from the life-giving spring because they reflect everything back on themselves. While they seem rich (in this life), they will find that they are barren spiritually and destitute in the next life. 

But, look! God gives us endless chances to return to the stream of living water. What was Lazarus but a chance for the rich man to turn his heart to God and practice charity? And what was Lazarus’s suffering but his cross to bear for the salvation of another (even if that other person did not accept the salvation offered to him)? This is God’s prerogative as our Master and Creator. The Word tells us through Jeremiah at the end of today’s reading:

I, the LORD, alone probe the mind
and test the heart,
To reward everyone according to his ways,
according to the merit of his deeds. 

This is the work of God to bring us back to unity with Him: probing our minds, providing opportunities to exercise our spiritual muscle, and ultimately rewarding us according to our ways and deeds. As fruit shows us the type of tree, our deeds reveal the heart of the person. Charity comes from a good heart that finds its refreshment in the Lord. Selfishness comes from a heart focused on this world’s enchantments and the self alone. This is why we Catholics insist that our justification (i.e., place in heaven) comes from faith and works, not just faith alone. This teaching is found throughout scripture, no more clearly than today’s readings.

At the risk of slightly repeating myself, let’s tackle one of the common complaints humans have voiced throughout our history, “why is there suffering in the world?” The parable of the rich man is a great reply to this. For the rich man, God is probing his heart and giving him opportunities to return to the sheepfold. For Lazarus, he must remember that he will be comforted in heaven if he bears his suffering with dignity and a focus on God. What’s more, all of us must remember that God works in ways beyond our immediate knowledge to bring us closer to him. Lazarus is God’s way to reach out to the rich man’s heart. Which of us can truly bemoan the honor of being used by God for a holy purpose, even if it involves our suffering? Was this not the exact example Christ set for us? 

The Rich Man and Lazarus (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), 1864, Sir John Everett Millais | Creative Commons, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love this more tender artistic look at Lazarus, who is often sidelined in the story.

In this vein, let’s finish this reflection with the words of St. Therèse of Lisieux. One of only three female Doctors of the Church, St. Therèse led an incredibly short life, dying at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. She suffered much (even as a child she suffered from mysterious illnesses that left her bed-bound) but bore it with incredible kindness towards others. “As Jesus had made me realize that the Cross was the means by which He would give me souls,” she said, “the more often it came my way, the more suffering attracted me.” What a fantastic attitude towards suffering! Since suffering was “attractive” to her as a way of doing God’s will, she saw small sacrifices less as burdens and more like acts of love. She writes, “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” And, finally, almost as a nod to Lazarus in today’s reading, she writes, “Our Lord’s love shines out just as much through a little soul who yields completely to His Grace as it does through the greatest.” Talk about a tree growing next to life-giving waters! She is a true inspiration.

Thank you, St. Therèse for giving us such a positive way to understand turning our hearts to God and making suffering a joy to bear for the Lord.

 

(Note: this is a lightly edited version of the reflection I originally wrote in 2020 for the Second Thursday of Lent)

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