In the parable we hear in Sunday’s Gospel we have an occasion when our Lord draws aside the veil between this world and the next and allows us to see what is beyond, and to see the intimate relationship between the here and the hereafter.
This parable is in response to the reaction of the Pharisees to his story about the dishonest steward (last Sunday’s Gospel). Because of that teaching the Pharisees ridiculed him:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him. (v 14)
To this scoffing our Lord tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus draws a vivid contrast between the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man. You may have heard the rich man referred to by the name of Dives; dives is the Latin word for “rich.” When this passage was translated from Greek into Latin, dives is the word that was used. But our Lord does not name him and it is significant that he does not. All the distinctions about this man are external. We are told about the way he dressed and the way he ate. He was dressed in purple garments and fine linen, which was the ultimate of extravagance in clothing in those days, and he also ate a very “sumptuous” dinner, not once a week but every day!
Thus the only thing Jesus has to say about this rich man is that he was characterized by the externals of life. He lived a hollow life concerned with the love of display and the desire for self-indulgence.
In contrast to this, the Lord presents Lazarus. He is the only person in any of the parables who is given a name. The name is significant; it means, “God is my helper” and suggests that Lazarus was a godly man. Though poor and a beggar, God was his helper.
Moreover, while the rich man’s body is covered with purple and fine linen, Lazarus’ body is covered with sores. He lay at the door of this rich man, sick and hungry, his body covered with loathsome, running sores, waiting for any scrap of food to come from the rich man’s table.
In those days people did not use knives or forks or napkins; they would eat with their hands, wiping them on crusts of bread which were thrown out afterward. This was what the poor man, Lazarus, was waiting for — crusts of bread that had been thrown out after the meal. The only help that came to this man was from the dogs who would lick his sores. Lazarus was ignored by the rich man.
Both men die; Lazarus is carried away by angels and the rich man goes to the netherworld where he is tormented in flames.
There are two frequent reactions to this story. The first is that it rather pleases us to see this bloated rich man get his comeuppance in the next life. We feel it is rather fitting that he is in torment while his magnificent funeral is going on on earth. This is what is inferred in stating that the rich man “was buried”. He most likely had a magnificent funeral, but nothing is said of the burial of the poor man. His body was probably thrown out in the city dump, outside the city walls, as was customarily done with the bodies of beggars.
But in the next life Lazarus is comforted and finds relief; he is carried away to an honored place beside Abraham, God’s faithful servant and the father of Israel, while the rich man is in pain and anguish.
We must understand that the rich man was not in hell because he was rich any more than Lazarus was in heaven because he was poor. Wealth is not bad, after all, Abraham was wealthy. But wealth brings with it certain responsibilities, a certain stewardship.
The rich man’s sin was not his wealth but his hardness of heart. Lazarus’ presence at his door gave him opportunity to render an important service, but he felt no compassion and took no action.
The second reaction to this story is to recoil from the picture of the afterlife, especially from the thought of it as a place with flames and its torments. Some try to locate hell in the molten core of the earth but the point of this story is not location at all and we mustn’t get hung up on the geography of the hereafter.
Seeing Lazarus beside Abraham, the rich man cries out a request for Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and then touch and cool his suffering tongue; it is a request for some relief. It is notable that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. We are left to wonder whether he knew Lazarus’ name while Lazarus was lying at his doorstep.
But Abraham tells the rich man that between them a great chasm has been established. The chasm indicates the impossibility of change in either condition. No one can pass from the one to the other.
There is great irony here. Lazarus once hoped to receive the scraps from the rich man’s table and now the rich man hopes to receive a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger. In life, the rich man wanted to avoid all contact with Lazarus; in death he receives what he desired and is tormented by the gulf that separates them.
The final scene of this story records a further conversation between Abraham and this former rich man.
In the netherworld, perhaps for the first time, this rich man feels something akin to love: concern for his five brothers. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers “lest they too come to this place of torment.” He seems convinced that if someone from the dead warns them, they will repent.
His use of the word, repent, shows that he realizes that his present sufferings are a consequence of his own failure to repent.
But, as Abraham points out, if they do not listen to and heed Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced and converted if some one should return from the dead to warn them.
The rich man was in torment because he refused to heed Moses and the prophets, not because he was rich. His attitude and activities as a rich man grew out of his refusal to listen Moses and the prophets. His self-centered, self-indulgent life was a reflection of that refusal.
We are the five brothers in this parable. Let us learn, from Moses, the prophets, and all of Sacred Scripture, the realities of life: what it is about, what lies beyond, to whom, to what, this life is heading toward, and what its final expression will be. Everything must relate, somehow, to that to have any meaning at all; the then is determined by the now.