About exclusivity and snobbery
Once there was an old rich man who was afraid of dying and leaving all his wealth behind on earth. So, he took up the matter with God. He pleaded day and night to be able to take all his earthly possessions with him.
Finally, God conceded. He said the man could take as much as he could fit in one suitcase. The old man immediately went out, bought a huge suitcase, sold all he owned and filled the suitcase with gold bars.
Shortly after that, the old man died. Awkwardly dragging the big, heavy suitcase, he approached St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter stopped him, asked him to open his luggage, and then told him he couldn’t bring his gold bars into Heaven. The man was irate. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I got permission directly from God himself for this. He told me whatever I could fit into one suitcase, I could bring with me.”
St. Peter shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Fine with me. But we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”
This caricature of the rich man looks very much like the one we heard in today’s Gospel. I have learnt that in simple terms there is subtle, but important difference between satire and parody. While satire is the art of having a laugh of those who are more intelligent or powerful than you, parody would become the art of making fun of those who are richer than you. This is the core of the comedy.
This parable is actually very close to the theatrical genre of parody except that we did not laugh at the end of the parable. Why so? Well, we probably didn’t because we listened to the gospel as a drama and not as a parody. Besides, we struggle to picture in our minds Jesus telling a story that would make a fun of someone else. In our minds and ears he always sounds very serious. Another common mistake in our interpretation of this gospel is to take it from a moral perspective. Although we could go that way and see this parable as a moral tale, we have to be aware of the consequences of it, because going down the road of moral judgment could lead us to lose a deeper level of understanding and might put us at risk of watering down the message.
How do we do that? How do we get this fresh interpretation?
Let’s rewind the scene we just heard and put some context to what just happened. Jesus had just finished to tell the story of the dishonest manager -the one we heard last Sunday- when Luke tells us that “the Pharisees, who are lovers of money, (…) ridiculed him” (Luke 16: 14). Then Jesus tells them off, but they don’t seem to be willing to listen to him. Now, imagine for a moment this scene. Jesus is surrounded by the crowd -people who expect him to say something meaningful to their lives- and the Pharisees -who are there with a defiant and arrogant look in their faces- who stand defiantly in front of him and are ready to make fun of every single word that would come out of his mouth. At that very moment, Jesus perhaps realises that the prophetic and direct tone would not work with them, and suddenly seems to completely change the subject while telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus. At this point, I’m pretty sure you got the gist of the parable. Jesus is making fun of them by parodying them. While Lazarus has a name, the rich man is unnamed. Think of the Pharisees as category of well respected and well known people with authority, money and power. They are described as unknown in the parable. Jesus is actually pointing at them -the lovers of money- who are the ones who are behaving to the people Jesus is welcoming exactly like the rich man is behaving to Lazarus. Interestingly Jesus is not condemning them, but urging them to change the route of the ship to prevent a total disaster while there is still time. In other words, through the parable Jesus is asking them to not be foolish.
Then the parody genre becomes particularly effective when he essentially sends this message to them saying: “You state that you behave according to the Law and the Prophets. Well prove it, because that’s all I’m asking for: do what Moses and the prophets would have said”. Now we can understand the irony of the parable when the unnamed rich man says: “Send him to my father’s house. I’ve got five brothers. Let him tell them about it, so that they don’t come into this torture-chamber”.
“They’ve got Mose and the prophets”, replied Abraham.
If his kingdom-mission is the fulfillment of the whole story of Israel -as Luke makes it very clear- anyone who understand the law and the prophets must see that Jesus is bringing them to completion. If they don’t, then not even someone rising from the dead will bring them to their sense.
Now Jesus says all this I have just poorly explained in this masterpiece of art, that we call parable. In a few words Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God has already come because he welcomes the poor and the outcast. He does’t tell us how to find a solution to poverty or hunger because that is up to us, but he shows that welcoming the poor and the outcast is an unequivocal and unmistakable sign of his kingdom. Once again the gospel we read is about what we may call “inclusivity”. On the one hand, the Pharisees represent those who don’t want to understand that exclusivity is not part of God’s vision. They are the ones who delight in snobbery. On the other hand, Jesus proclaims a welcoming gospel and, at the same time, utterly criticises what William Makepeace Thackeray defined as snobbery in his Book of Snobs in 1850, a wonderful satire of those who look down on their social inferiors.
The question is: “Is snobbery still something that applies to our modern world and to us? Maybe. Thackeray’s work is a wonderful ramble through the vanities and hypocrisies of the snob classes. I will let him have the last word to see whether he helps us in our personal and community reflection to have a an honest look at ourselves, our behaviors, our daily lives. Is snobbery just an old fashion word or is still talking to our conscience, and shedding some light on that inner part of our soul that might be snob?
What is a snob?
I believe such words as Fashionable, Exclusive, Aristocratic, and the like, to be wicked, unchristian epithets, that ought to be banished from honest vocabularies. A Court that sends men and women of genius to the second table, I hold to be a Snobbish system. A society that sets up to be polite, and ignores Arts and Letters, I hold to be a Snobbish society. You, who despise your neighbour, are a Snob: you, who forget your own friends, meanly to follow after those of a higher degree, are a Snob; you, who are ashamed of your poverty, and blush for your calling, are a Snob; as are you who boast of your pedigree, or are proud of your wealth.