What is Wealth for? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Luke 16:19-31, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:19-21).

Two Sundays ago, the long form of the Gospel gave us the parable of the prodigal son: A young man, after squandering his father’s money and finding himself penniless, hungry, and with nothing to eat, decides to return to his father and beg to be one of his hired workers. If the father had not opened the door of his home and just left his son to starve outside, many of us would say, “The son got what he deserved.” And we would have had a scene very similar to the parable in our Gospel today: A rich man dines while someone else starves at his gate.

But the father welcomed back his prodigal son with a feast. Why did that story not end like our Gospel today?

Last Sunday, we heard the Lord say, “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9). Dishonest wealth is not just the money that comes from criminal activities or unjust practices. Wealth can deceive us into thinking that we are secure and self-sufficient, that we have all we need and are happy. But our faith tells us true security and happiness come not from money or possessions. When wealth lulls us into a false sense of peace, we can say it is dishonest.

“Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.” The point of wealth, whether honest or dishonest, is to help us make friends, to build relationships. God created the things of this world not so that we can get enclosed in them but so that we can use them to get closer to him and to others. Real wealth is measured not by how much you own but by how much you relate with others. The father of the prodigal son could have demanded that his son return his money before taking him back, but while the father would have had his money back, would he still have had his son? Why lock the son out when the father could be celebrating with him inside? To teach the boy a lesson, some might say. But what is the more important lesson to learn – that we should take care of our money or that wealth is supposed to bring us together rather than tear us apart?

The elder brother of the prodigal son also needed to learn the latter lesson. He refused to enter his father’s home and join the feast. Why? Because he felt cheated. He had been working for his father all this time, but he felt he was not given his due. If we were to put a price on his hurt feelings, it would be equivalent to the goat he never received, the money the prodigal son wasted on prostitutes, and the fattened calf now slaughtered for his younger brother. Would all of these be worth separating himself from his family? Isn’t celebrating with his father and brother worth even more?

Wealth is supposed to build relationships, not destroy them. The saddest scenes I witnessed as a hospital chaplain always involved money – not when people did not have it, but when they had enough or more than enough and would still bicker about it: An older brother would make an accounting of what he had spent and charge that his younger brother was not giving as much. The younger brother would start avoiding the older brother. Pretty soon, no one would be visiting the father confined in the hospital, afforded the best possible care but alone.

“Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.” The point of wealth is to help us build relationships. But many times, our money and our possessions just urge us to build higher and higher walls (with barbed wire and broken bottles on top). They make us hide behind vault-like doors and complicated alarm systems. Wealth can isolate us and insulate us in our small comfortable worlds. It can cover our eyes and plug our ears, and we can become oblivious to the suffering outside our door – just like the rich man in our Gospel today. When wealth paints for us a far too limited view of the world, we can say it is dishonest.

Wealth can also mislead us into a false sense of entitlement: Because we are rich, we deserve such and such; things – and even people, especially those not as rich as we are – exist to serve us. Not even death and torment in the netherworld could correct the rich man of such a delusion. Burning in flames, the rich man finally notices Lazarus, the poor man who was starving right outside his home. Does the rich man apologize and finally realize how insensitive he was before? No. The rich man finally acknowledges Lazarus’ existence to Abraham because he wants Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool [the rich man’s] tongue.” When Abraham denies this request, the rich man tries another: “Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them.” This may seem like the rich man has finally done a kind act for others, but he is still trapped in the small world he shares only with his five (possibly equally rich) brothers. For the rich man, Lazarus has a place in that world only if Lazarus serves the rich man’s needs.

One important detail in our parable today gives us a final point. We are given the name of the poor man: Lazarus. Because the rich man is rich, you would think that he should be known, but we are never given his name. Maybe no one knows it outside of his small world because he never established real relationships. It is not what you own that gives you a name but how you use your possessions to reach out to others. Real wealth is in our relationships. The man who “dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day” was described as rich three times in our Gospel today. But he was not truly rich. Who is truly rich? Not the one who dines alone but the one who shares his table with friends. Not the one who commands others to serve him but the one who with his wealth serves others.

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