Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 18): Pope Gregory the Great (part 2)

Pope Gregory the Great

So, now to discuss Pope Gregory's interpretation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:


Gregory's first move might surprise modern readers, since he allegorizes the parable: The rich man represents the Jewish people, “who made a cult of exterior things” (i.e., the Law). Lazarus—covered with sores—denotes the Gentiles, who are not afraid to confess the “open sores” of their sins. Lazarus longed to eat from the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, but the rich man/Jewish people would not share the knowledge of the law (i.e., the food in the parable) with Lazarus/the Gentiles. The dogs that come to lick Lazarus’s wounds symbolize preachers of the Gospel—since Scripture sometimes uses dog to denote a preacher (Gregory cites Psalm 67:24). The dogs help cure the sores by licking them, just as “when the holy doctors instruct us in the confession of our sins . . . they touch the ulcer of our mind with their tongue” (146). Lazarus, symbolizing Gentile believers, receives his reward in heaven. The rich man, however, is punished in hell, which depicts the punishment of the Jewish people who do not believe Moses, his words about Jesus (John 5:46), and, therefore, in Jesus (149).

After this discussion of the “hidden significance of the allegory,” Gregory devotes a significant amount of the homily to the moral of the parable. The rich man is condemned not for overt evil deeds but for failing to help Lazarus and for “being attached” to his possessions (149). He used his possessions only for his own pleasure “in the service of his pride,” and “he did not attempt to redeem his sins” through a just use of his abundant riches. He has no excuse: Lazarus lay at his gate, and the rich man “passed before him daily”; he thus knew about Lazarus’s dire situation yet did nothing to help.

Gregory also observes that it is striking, since the names of the rich are usually more widely known than those of the poor, that the parable only gives Lazarus’s name. This detail tells us that God “knows and approves of the humble.” Just as the rich man denied Lazarus even a morsel of food, now God denies the rich man even a drop of water to cool his tongue. Gregory also argues that the tongue of the rich man is highlighted because, even though Jesus never mentions it, the man must have sinned through “loquacity” or “verbosity” (i.e., those who feast frequently also usually talk too much) and thus “justly suffered a special torment in his tongue” (153-4).

In addition, the rich man suffering in hell after receiving good things during his life “is sufficient in itself to inspire terror”: Christians should beware of being perverted by riches and also should be forgiving of the poor, even when they sin, since they, like Lazarus, may be “purified by poverty” (155). Gregory then exhorts his congregation:

My dear brethren, now that you know the glory of Lazarus and the punishment of the rich man, act with extreme caution; seek out the poor, that in the day of judgment they may be your intercessors and advocates. You have many brothers of Lazarus lying at your doors, in want of those crumbs which fall daily from your table when you have well satisfied your appetite. The words we have been reading should teach us to fulfill the law of mercy. Every minute we find a Lazarus if we seek him, and every day without seeking we find one at our door. Now beggars besiege us, imploring alms; later they will be our advocates. Rather it is we who should beg, and yet we are besought. Ask yourselves whether we should refuse what we are asked, when those who ask us are our patrons.
Therefore do not lose the opportunity of doing works of mercy; do not store unused the good things you possess (158).


Gregory concludes by urging his congregation to despise the transient honors of earth and to seek eternal glory. A key element is respecting the poor and sharing your riches with them. Like Jesus said in Matthew 25, everything you give to someone in need on earth, you are giving to Jesus in heaven (see Wailes 1986: 197-8).

Next up: the depiction of the parable in The Golden Gospels of Echternach (ca. 1045-46).

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