One day Pierre went to Boudreaux’s house and Boudreaux was working on a jigsaw puzzle.
A year later, Pierre again visits Boudreaux and Boudreaux is still working on the puzzle.
Another year after that, Pierre went to Boudreaux’s to go fishing with him.
Boudreaux comes out of the house and says “Mais Pierre, I’m so proud of myself, I finally finished dat puzzle and it only took me two years!”
Pierre says “Mais, Boudreaux, I don’t tink dat it should take you dat long!”
Boudreaux says “Mais, Pierre, I tink I did perty good when it says rite dere on the box — ‘Jigsaw Puzzle – 500 pieces – 6 to 12 years’!”
I remember putting together puzzles as a kid, especially in the winter. My brother and I would setup a card table in our bedroom and work on one for hours.
It would seem that the method of puzzle solving is universal: find the corners, build the sides (except for that one piece that doesn’t look like a side and takes half the puzzle before you find it!), sort the colors, and then start building sections. There’s a flower, here’s the bird, back there you have the waterfall, and finally here’s a piece that joins the bird to the flower and so on.
I mention this, because over the past serval weeks, our Gospel readings have been building various parts of a puzzle that we need in order to see the true meaning behind today’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, who is sometimes referred to as Dives, which is Latin for “the rich man.”
On the surface, we have a good moral story. Dives is rich and Lazarus poor. Dives cares only for himself and does nothing to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, so when they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven and Dives is delivered to Hades, where he is tormented. Dives asks the patriarch Abraham, to allow Lazarus to bring him a drop of water, but as Abraham explained, that is not possible. Finally thinking of someone other than himself, Dives asked that a messenger be sent to his brothers in hopes that they will have a change of heart and begin acting kindly towards others, but again, Abraham explains that they have Moses, the Law, which has already given them instruction on this matter. If they will only follow it, they will be rewarded. However, Dives says that if someone goes to them from the dead – meaning Lazarus – then they would surely believe. Yet Abraham responds, if they won’t believe Moses, then they will still not believe, even if someone rises from the dead.
Again, a good moral story: show compassion and mercy to one another and you will be rewarded, but as we’ve said before, Jesus is not only about good moral teachings. So, what is the message that Jesus is attempting to convey? In order to answer that, we need the context and the context is what we’ve been discussing for these past weeks. These various sections of the puzzle, much of which revolves around this complaint against Jesus that the Pharisees have been making, we even heard it last week with regard to Matthew, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And again, from a few weeks ago, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Other pieces of the puzzle include how the Pharisees used all the technicalities of the Law to oppress the people; and how a person’s condition (poor vs well-off, sick vs healthy, etc.) was a used as a criteria to indicate whether a person was righteous or unrighteous. In addition, we discussed humility in recognizing the truth about ourselves.
This context then, these pieces of a single puzzle, help us to see the overall picture of today’s parable. Dives represents the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They are prideful, believing they are righteous, after all, they are rich, well thought of, and healthy; and they look down on the poor and the sick, who Lazarus represents, for they are getting what they deserve for their wickedness. However, what makes Dives so wretched is the fact that he has the means to relieve Lazarus’ suffering. Dives, the Pharisees have the Law, and through a right interpretation of the Law, they can demonstrate the love and mercy of God, but instead, they choose to wield the Law as a sword. It is a bit of a tough image, but by saying that the dogs lick Lazarus’ sores, Jesus is saying that a dog is showing the poor and suffering, those who do not know the love of God, more compassion than the Pharisees. And so Jesus condemns this behavior by pointing out to the Pharisees their possible final end – separated from God, with an uncrossable chasm between them.
There are many things that the Pharisees and others could have learned from the parable, but it also seems to be forcing them to a decision. A decision that has to be made in this life, because afterwards, it is too late. Afterwards, you are on one side of the uncrossable chasm or the other.
I’ve told you before that I’m not much use when it comes to analyzing poetry. It means to me what it means to me, regardless of what the experts say. So, with that addendum, I read a poem by William Yeats, “Under Ben Bulben.” The second stanza begins:
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul.
Yeats believed in a variation of reincarnation, but even without it, I think we all figuratively live and die many times during our lives, between the time we were and born and the time we die – those two eternities. I think we live when we witness beauty, experience love (both giving and receiving), when we participate in humanity and the created world. And I think we die a little every time the ugliness wells up inside of us, when we hate, when we only look to ourselves with complete disregard for others. The list can go on an on in both directions. And in both cases, I believe for the most part, that it is our choice as to whether we will choose to live or choose to die. Like the Pharisees, we have the choice of extending our hands in love, mercy, hope, faith… or we can extend our hands while gripping a sword.
A story that has been around for awhile and you may have heard it in one form or another. A US Navy vessel at running speed sees a blip on the radar. Believing they had the right of way, the captain hails the other party on the radio and states, “Please divert your course 0.5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”
Reply: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
US Ship: This is the Captain of a US Navy Ship. I say again, divert your course.
Reply: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course!
US Ship: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS CORAL SEA, WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE US NAVY. DIVERT YOUR COURSE NOW!!
Reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
We have the choice of extending our hands in love, mercy, hope, faith… or we can extend our hands while gripping a sword. It is our call and the consequences will be ours to bear.
Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. Put another way, there will always be a Lazarus sitting on the doorstep. He may be poor financially or poor in spirit. As the disciples of Jesus, if we have the means, then we are called to relieve that suffering.
St. Teresa of Calcutta wrote, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”
The choice to serve those physical and spiritual needs – the choice to live or die – is ours.
The following is a prayer by St. Benedict of Nursia. Let us pray:
Gracious and Holy Father,
Please give me:
intellect to understand you,
reason to discern you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
a spirit to know you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
ears to hear you,
eyes to to see you,
a tongue to proclaim you,
a way of life pleasing to you,
patience to wait for you
and perseverance to look for you.
Grant me a perfect end,
your holy presence,
a blessed resurrection
and life everlasting.