Learning the Lessons of Lazarus and the Rich Man

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.

  1. Neglect of the Poor is a damnable sinThere 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.

27 Replies to “Learning the Lessons of Lazarus and the Rich Man”

  1. Hi Msgr. Pope,
    Great post. I’ve only read Paradise Lost once, but C.S. Lewis quotes Milton in the Great Divorce (which I will just say I’ve read more than once…) as saying “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” as the attitude of all the impenitent. You presented so much good material here I’m just trying to adequately summarize a chunk of it in my own mind.

    I also wanted to ask in light of what you said about hardened sinners, do you think deathbed confessions of Christ are genuine? I’m not saying some aren’t, and I understand the scriptures teach that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved,” but it is so hard for me to believe that a person who has resisted grace for so long will at the end finally succumb to it, for lack of a better word. I don’t want to take the “amazing” out of grace. What are your thoughts?

    1. Thanks.
      I do think death bed conversions happen and most are probably genuine. However, my experience is that they are more rare than we would wish. In my 20 years a priest I have found that most people who have been away from the Church and the sacraments do not ask for them as they are dying. THen the family shows up to prepare the funeral and I ask, “Did he have the sacraments before he died.” The answer is usually no. This does not mean that there is no conversion but its not a good sign.

  2. Could it be that the Rich man is in purgatory? I didn’t think hell even allowed a glimpse of heaven. Perhaps it’s his last chance to make ammends??

    1. MG, Prof. Scott Hahn floated the purgatory idea some time ago, based on, as I recall, the idea that the rich man was attempting to help his brothers even though it wouldn’t do him any good.

      But perhaps we need to be cautious about thinking of purgatory as a ‘second chance’. It’s not. It’s a purification, a purging, of whatever un-Godliness we are still hanging on to… but its purpose is to prepare the severely imperfect (but but spiritually dead) for the beatific vision. I think it was Lewis (among others) who suggested that God doesn’t demand purgatory as much as we do. As we approach the heavenly court we become acutely, painfully, some would say horrifingly aware of the immense chasm between what we were and what we should have been. If we are destined, eventually, for salvation we would, of course, have a strong sense of and love for justice. And that desire for justice would lead us to BEG for an opportunity to ‘clean up’, so to speak… no matter what the cost to us.

      Side note – imagine an ill-informed but well-meaning and well-intentioned God-loving soul approaching the divine throne. He sees not only those spiritual imperfections he knew about but was too lazy or weak to address – but now he also sees how he offended God through ignorance.

      Now, if I love someone dearly and later find out that I had been hurting this person all along without realizing it, I’d be upset. The fact that “I didn’t know!” isn’t going to be a very great consolation, because I still hurt the one I love. So I imagine that a soul in that situation will feel pain despite the lack of personal culpability. But I can also imagine his saying “I never wanted to disobey the Lord. Why didn’t someone TELL ME???”.

      And then I imagine him turning around…. and looking straight at me.

      1. Typo! I MEANT to type:

        “but its purpose is to prepare the severely imperfect (but not spiritually dead)”

  3. So many also think that if they confess their sin in confession they have no need to apologize or make amends to the neighbor they have hurt and may continue to go on hurting.


  5. As a convert, this passage of scripture often reminds me of all the “prosperity” ministries that Protestant ministers endorse. It does not send a good message of what the Kingdom of God is really about.

    One of many reasons why I became Catholic. Many people want to be rich, but they don’t want the Kingdom. (forgiveness, love of the poor, mercy, etc.) You know the list Msgr Pope.

    I’m so glad you’re a priest, Thank you for your fine example.
    I could never go back to being a Protestant.

  6. As I spent time with this Gospel this past week, I reflected: The rich man represented the Jewish people, who had been given so much. In our day, the rich man represents us, the descendants of the Jewish people who for two millenia have been given much.

    I and my generation squandered the much we were given. We hoarded the liturgy, the doctrines, the beauty of Catholic truth; we thought ourselves better than the outsiders who were not as “enlightened” as we, and instead of sharing even the crumbs of beauty with them we scorned them. They were outside the Church; we, being inside, were superior. Then our wealth was taken away. We lost our liturgy, the fullness of catechetical teaching, the naive trust we could have in the priests who shepherded us, and so much more. Now we are the poverty-stricken. Who can cross the chasm to give us what we so often don’t even know we thirst for: the rich liturgy and music and architectural splendor and appropriate pride in the beauty of Catholic culture?

    1. Yes, the Rich Man is in us all. I guess we can only hope that in this case the Chasm can one day be crossed again since we are still in this world. It seems celar however that the Church is experiencing diminishment and poverty today at amny levels.

  7. If we have a PC to go on the net with, food, clothing and shelter, we are among the world’s “haves”. As this gospel passage suggests, and as Matt. 25:31-46 spells out, we had better have a continuing concern to share what we “have” with the “have nots”.
    Good teaching. Thank you, Msgr. Pope.

  8. I’m sorry that you are poverty stricken Andrea.

    I’m not. My Catholic faith and the Catholic Church are really what has sustained me through much of the dark night. It is without them that I would be where the rich guy is. With them, I am with Lazarus.

  9. St. Katherine Drexel and Blessed Frederick Ozanam are examples that being wealthy or from a family of means and privilege is, not in itself unholy, but how such gifts are shared with our neighbors.

    One morning while helping to serve breakfast to children with life threatening illnesses I noticed a man wearing a shirt with the message: “No one is too rich to receive or to poor to give!”. In talking with him, I learned that he was a Priest, a Chaplain at St. John’s University in Queens, N. Y. and a Vincentian.

    When my wife and I celebrated our golden wedding anniversary, we first did so in our present parish; the following week we did so in the Church in which we were.married. To my joy, that parish had news of the St, Vincent de Paul Society’s work in the parish. My joy was that it was still vibrant, more than 26 years after I had started it in that parish.

  10. Thank you very much for posting this. Lately, especially during this Lenten season, I’ve had a stirring in my heart to live in a manner more sensitive to the poverty of others. It’s definitely hard to deny myself dining out or even just an extra (unnecessary) helping at dinner, but I know I’m being more open to God breaking my heart for the poor. This entry is a great encouragement and reminder. Thanks again and God bless.

  11. thanks for the column but i think when he asked Abraham to sent Lazarus he wanted to be SAVED not SERVED by him. By this time he had realised that Lazarus was in a higher position that him, therefore Lazarus was the only one who could save him since he was in torment because of what he has done to Lazarus.

  12. Yes! I find it very impressive the new reflection of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. I never looked at it that way before! Food for thought! Well done!

  13. Yes, I agree with Gabriel. The rich man was forced to see what his actions got him, and was humbled……. asking for just a drop on his tongue.
    What about women who are married to these men hoarding crumbs for themselves? Wives maybe trying to eek a little out to the Lazarus of the world

  14. So why did the Archbishop end services for foster children? Because he couldn’t bear the sight of gay parents? I understand that you have two issues in conflict here, at least from the Church’s perspective, but certainly helping the poor is more important than discriminating against gays.

Comments are closed.