Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology”

  1. Too many of us compare ourselves to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet , saying, ” Yes, we are the poor whom God favors …”
    But rather, we should be comparing ourselves to those in Displaced Persons camps all around the world, 70+ millions crying out for help…
    While it is true that individuals can’t save them all, who knows how many could be saved if we just try for one at first???

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    1. In my reading of today’s piece I focussed on this phrase:

      “ God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth.”
      The disheartening truth is that I see no evidence of this ever having been the case in the literal sense. Metaphorically, yes, and in prophetic but unfulfilled texts, but I fail to see even one concrete example. The rich and the poor seem to be equal in that both will have to wait for some nebulous afterlife to receive their reward. Meanwhile, the rich, proverbially, get richer.

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      1. I agree Larry. It seems that the higher power, whatever name you assign to it, is not omnipotent and constantly intervening in human affairs. This misconception is the result of human desires and fantasies. Nevertheless, their is sufficient evidence to convince some of us that benign intelligence superior to that manifested now by humans does exist, and can be contacted with benefit to those who does so in the right manner. Without action to open a channel to receive such guidance, help, and wisdom you will never be convinced of it’s existence, and remain skeptical. Prayer and meditation are the long known means to make such contact possible, and the results from such practices can be totally convincing.

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      2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment, mike k.
        My own history is being immersed in the church (little c, not RC) from birth, falling away as a teenager, then coming back as a result of exposing my young children to church in my late 20’s. Rewarding for a while, to the extent that I considered the ministry in my early 30’s. That impulse led to a period of intense study (over several years) and that resulted in a complete falling away. I’m still quite interested in theology and spirituality (which is why I am here) but I describe myself to interested (and serious) folks as a “Christian Atheist”. That is, I believe in the social Gospel espoused in the 4 Gospels as a model for personal guidance and an ideal for ordering a just society. The divinity and any agency in human affairs, not so much (or at all, honestly).
        No disrespect at all, but what you prescribe seems like a form of self-deception. I’ve continued my study over the years (waded through most of J. D. Crossen’s work, and others) and the above is where I’ve landed.
        Thank you again for your response.
        Larry

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