The well known story of the Lazarus and the Rich Man was read at Mass yesterday morning. At one level the story seems plain enough: to neglect the poor is a damnable sin. But there are other important teachings contained in this Gospel, teachings about death, judgment, heaven and hell. They are hidden in the details and are somewhat subtle. But that is the beauty of this story, its subtlety. Let’s take a look at some of the teachings beginning with the obvious one.
- Neglect of the Poor is a damnable sin – 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. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. The vision of Lazarus’ poverty is dramatic indeed. The unnamed rich man (dubbed Dives by some but this name simply means in Latin rich) does not so much act in an evil way toward Lazarus. His sin is a sin of neglect and omission. He seems undisturbed and remote from Lazarus’ suffering. This neglect, this omission, this insensitivity lands him in Hell as the text plainly says, The rich man died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes. Care for the poor will be a central theme of our judgment as is clear from Matt 25:31ff where Jesus separates sheep from goats, the just from the unrighteous, based on whether they cared for the least of his brethren. To those who fail in this regard the Lord Jesus says, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41). How best to care for the poor is a matter of some dispute, But that we MUST care for them in some explicit way is not in dispute. Hence we find the Rich Man who sinfully neglected Lazarus now in Hell. Here is a call to sobriety about the reality of judgment and for us to review if our care for the poor is what it should be.
- Though in torment the Rich Man has not changed – The Rich Man in torment, raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Notice that the Rich Man still fails to see Lazarus’ dignity. In effect he still sees Lazarus as an errand boy who should step and fetch him water. Though he has to look up to see him, he still looks down on him. He does not ask Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he may apologize for his sinful neglect and seek his forgiveness. Rather he merely wants Lazarus to serve him. The Rich Man, though in torment is unrepentant. He doesn’t like where he is but he remains unreconciled with Lazarus and seems to have no idea that he should even seek to be reconciled. He is hardened in his sin. While Lazarus lived he never saw his dignity. He is still blind to that dignity. Over time sin hardens our heart. The more we remain in sin the harder our hearts become and the less likely it is that we will ever change. Why is Hell eternal? Look at the the Rich Man. He will not change. He cannot change. His decision, his character and demeanor are forever fixed. There is an old litany that goes like this: sow a thought reap a deed; sow a deed reap a habit; sow a habit reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. The mystery of the world to come is that our character is forever fixed. The Fathers of the Church spoke of this mystery like clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and on the wheel, the potter can shape and reshape it. But there comes a time when the clay form is placed in the kiln and when it is fired and its shape is forever fixed. It is this way for us when we come before God who judges us by fire (cf 1 Cor 3:12-15). Fire will forever fix who we are in terms of character and this judgment through fire will either purify us or bring us condemnation. The fixed quality of the human person is illustrated in the Rich Man’s attitude.
- The Rich Man does not ask to come to heaven– It is a very strange fact that the Rich Man does not ask that he might come to heaven but asks that Lazarus be sent to Hell. One of the saddest facts about the souls in Hell must be that they would not be happy in heaven anyway. After all, heaven is about being with God, it is about justice, love of the poor, chastity, the heavenly liturgy, the celebration of the truth, the praise of God, and God (rather than me) being at the center. And the fact is, many show by the way they live that they do not want many of the things on this list. But heaven is about these things. It is surely unlikely that someone who has disliked, even hated these things will suddenly start liking such things at the moment of death. Someone who ignores or disdains God and considers his faithful to be hypocrites etc. would hardly be happy in heaven. The rich man demonstrates this by the fact that he does not ask to come to heaven. He surely does not like where he is, but shows no repentant desire for heaven either. The teaching, though subtle, seems clear enough, the souls in Hell have little real interest in heaven despite their dislike of Hell. Here too their desires and aversions are forever fixed. Abraham further affirms the fixed and insurmountable gulf between heaven and hell when he says Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ While it is not absolutely clear from the text, there seems implied that while someone might possibly wish to cross from heaven to hell (presumably to help the poor souls) yet the word wish is not repeated when the possibility is denied of someone crossing from Hell to Heaven. We are not unsafe in concluding that the text teaches there is no wish to do so on that side of the chasm.
- The Great Reversal – Abraham further indicates to the Rich Man and to us the “great reversal”: My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. We spend a lot of time trying to be on top in this world. We want comfort, wealth, position, power, and so forth. But the Lord warns here that we ought to beware of the great reversal that is coming. Lazarus who was poor is now rich. The Rich Man is now poor. Jesus teaches this elsewhere: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Mk 10:31). Mary too remarked, he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Lk 1:51-53) This is the great reversal. We so want to be rich and comfortable in this world and we run from any suffering or setback. But the Lord warns of riches: How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! (Mk 10:23). Yet still we want to be rich. He also says Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27) Yet still we run from the cross and suffering. The great reversal means that many who are first in this world will be last in the world to come. It is true we cannot assert a one-to-one correlation between success here and loss in the world to come. But neither should we simply ignore the teaching that striving to make it in the world and be somebody is a dangerous path. And IF we have amounted to something we’d better humble ourselves by generosity to the poor and associating with the humble. Worldly success as a goal to be principally pursued is a dangerous plan for the great reversal is coming. Better to be found among the humble and poor or at least well associated with them than to be mighty and high. Beware the great reversal!
- To refuse the truth of Revelation is a damnable sin – The Rich Man does not repent to God, neither does he seek to be reconciled with Lazarus. But he does have some concerns for his brothers, for his family. We need not assume that the souls in Hell have no affections whatsoever. It simply remains true that their affections are not for God and what God esteems. And so the Rich Man, still seeing Lazarus only as an errand boy for his own needs, asks Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to his family with warning. Perhaps a vision from the grave will convince them! But Abraham indicates quite clearly that they have the clear witness of God in the witness of the Moses and the Prophets. In other words they have the Scriptures, the very Word of God, to warn them. But the Rich Man insists: Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead. The last point is dripping with irony considering the fact that Jesus would rise from the dead. But the fact remains, and Abraham says it clearly, there are many sinners who are hardened in their sin and no matter what the Scriptures say or what the Church solemnly teaches, they will never be convinced. This is so very true today as many remain hardened in their sins. No amount of Scripture or Church teaching will convince them that they are wrong. This is what happens to us if we remain in unrepented sin. Our hearts are hardened, our minds are closed and our necks are stiffened. In the end, this story teaches that such hardness is damnable.
Five basic teachings from a well known parable. We do well to heed these lessons!
This song says, “Rock a My Soul in the Bosom is Abraham” and it amounts to a wish that we will find our way to glory. Heeding the lessons of this parable are surely one way to find our rest in God.