Learning the Lessons of Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and the Rich Man – Hendrick ter Brugghen

The well-known story of Lazarus and the rich man was read at Mass this morning (Thursday of the Second Week of Lent). On one level the message of the story seems plain enough: neglecting the poor is a damnable sin. However, there are other important teachings: about death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Those teachings are hidden in the details, but the subtlety is part of the story’s beauty. 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 because it means “rich” in Latin) does not so much act in an evil way toward Lazarus as he does commit a sin of neglect and omission. He seems undisturbed by and removed from Lazarus’ suffering. This neglect, this omission, this insensitivity, lands him in Hell. 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 made clear in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31 ff), in which Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the just from the unrighteous, based on whether they cared for the least of their brethren. To those who failed 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 is clear. Hence, the rich man who neglected Lazarus is now in Hell. This is a call to sobriety about the reality of judgment; we must consider whether our care for the poor is what it should be.

2. Although he is 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. Though he has to look up to see him, the rich man still looks down on Lazarus. He does not ask Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he can apologize for his sinful neglect and seek his forgiveness. Rather he merely wants Lazarus to serve him. Even though he is in torment, the rich man is unrepentant. Although doesn’t like where he is, he does not reconcile with Lazarus or even realize that he should do so. This rich man is hardened in his sin. While Lazarus was alive, the rich man never recognized his dignity, and he remains blind to it.

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 rich man: He cannot and will not change; his decision, 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 described this mystery as being 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 to be fired, fixing its shape forever. 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 our character; 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 unchanged attitude.

3. The rich man does not ask to come to Heaven – It is very strange that the rich man does not ask that he might come to Heaven; rather, he asks that Lazarus be sent to Hell.

One of the saddest facts about the souls in Hell is 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. God is at the center rather than us. The fact is, many show by the way that they live that they do not want many of these things. Why would someone who has disliked, even hated, these things will suddenly become enamored of them at the moment of death? Someone who ignores or disdains God and considers His faithful to be hypocrites 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 he shows no repentant desire for Heaven, either. The teaching, though subtle, seems clear enough: the souls in Hell have little interest in Heaven despite their dislike of Hell.

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, and power. The Lord warns here that we ought to beware the great reversal that is coming. Lazarus, who was poor, is now rich; and 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 remarked that He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones but 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, running 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. In the great reversal, many who are first in this world will be last in the world to come.

We cannot assert a direct correlation between success here and loss in the world to come, but neither should we ignore the teaching that striving to “make it” in the world and “be somebody” can be a dangerous path. And if we have amounted to something, we’d better humble ourselves through generosity to the poor and associating with the humble. The goal of worldly success is a dangerous one, for the great reversal is coming. Better to be found among the humble and the poor, or at least well-associated with them, than to be mighty and high. Yes, beware the great reversal!

5. Refusing the truth of Revelation is a damnable sin – The rich man does not repent to God, nor 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. However, their affections are not for God and what He esteems. And so the rich man, still viewing Lazarus only as an errand boy, asks Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to his family carrying a warning. Perhaps a vision from the grave will convince them!

But Abraham indicates quite clearly that they have the clear witness of God through Moses and the prophets. In other words, they have the Scriptures, the very Word of God, to warn them. 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. Abraham says clearly that there are many sinners who are so hardened in their sin that no matter what the Scriptures say or what the Church solemnly teaches, they will never be convinced. This is so very true today; 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.

These are five basic teachings from a well known parable. We do well to heed these lessons!

This song, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” amounts to a wish that we will find our way to glory. Heeding the lessons of this parable is surely one way to find our rest in God.

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

  1. I have a hard time understanding how to help the poor. I live in a fairly wealthy suburb of Milwaukee and I just don’t see poor people around. It’s been several years since I’ve seen any homeless people in our town. As I look at volunteer opportunities in the area, most deal either with helping seniors or those with disabilities. Neither of these two groups of people are poor. Does this still count, or should I be finding some other way to help the poor who I can’t even see? I also have a young family, which is rather expensive, and a bunch of student loan debt from myself and my wife. So it’s not like I have a ton of extra money to throw at various charities.

    1. Dave,You are like a lot of us. You are nervous about giving away the food, clothing, utility,loan money etc.However its been my experience that you can’t be more generous than God. If you give away some of your treasure you will be repaid.After all the money is actually not yours and mine;it is His. Yes he owns it all. Think of your hand with a round cheese puff right in the middle of your palm. Oh how you could crush it to nothingness. That is how he holds the earth with us on it! Put yourself above the human thinking of what is. Find a good Catholic charity to send a few dollars to monthly.But if you need to be convinced, just pretend your standing before the judgement seat of God and you try to read him your comment as an excuse. Boy does it sound different to the hearer.God bless you Dave! I know you will find a way to be charitable.

      1. Great lesson Msgr. Pope! You never disappoint. By the way what about the great Chasm? Love to hear your thoughts on this scary detail of the story.

    2. While I’ll defer to Msgr. on a more thoughtful response, I think you already have a good sense for the answer to your question. Especially in our modern society, the elderly are cast off and neglected. Lazarus was a victim of neglect; his poverty was the result. As St. Therese advised, you should “grow where God has planted you”.

  2. good reflections, thank you. Abraham’s words were also proved in the Gospel of John chapters 11 and 12. Lazarus was given life from the dead but the hardened sinners did not want to believe the fact. In fact, they wanted to kill him (John 12:10-11). These people were not other than the rich and the powerful, i.e. the high priests themselves. Abraham’s words were proved in the Scriptures and why not even today.

  3. Get rid of cable TV.

    Put the extra money you now have in the poor box.

    You have now helped the poor.

    Just a thought.

  4. A case of food for the food pantry? The woman who is short a few dollars at the checkout counter? The kid at the local school who never wears a coat? Helping an old person across the street. Teaching your kids to open doors for people & say thank you when a door is opened for them. I think we just have to look around, notice more.Give according to your means.

  5. Last Sunday at church I noticed a homeless looking man who has been attending mass at our church for several months now. Initially he showed up one Sunday and appeared to have probably just come from getting a shower and some clean clothes before coming to mass because his long unkept hair and beard were still rather wet and he carried some plastic shopping bags with what appeared to be donated items. The church is in an affluent parish in North Dallas and I doubt the man stays aorund there. Over time he started coming in a wheel chair and and his clothes became more ragged and his hygene became more unmannaged. The past few Sundays his jeans were literally falling apart with multiple ragged frayed horizontal slits that run up and down each pants seat and leg. Needles to say his situation appeares to be getting worse over time instead of maintaining or improving. I had seen members of the Knights of Columbus and ushers occasionally approach him so it wasn’t as though people were not expressing compassion. I told my wife I felt an urge to approch him and find out if there was some way we might be able to help him out but that maybe I should find out more about him from those who were more familiar with his satory. I said he was like the Lazarus of our parish and then afew days later this article appears on your blog. This Sunday the 19th he showed up as usuall at 9:30 AM mass in his wheelchair in the same ragged pants which he has to wear a pair of sweat pants under just to keep from being obscene and the gey hollowfill jacket he always wears. His shoes are held together with masking and duct tape and usually parks his wheelchair in the isle near the back of the church as not to block or disturb anyone. He wheels himself up to communion toward the end of the line and on rare occasions has even come without the wheel chair and walks better than my wife who uses a cane because of a bad knee. I waited as mass ended today while my wife and our two grandkids who are nine and eleven walked out of the chuch to the car. The homeless man sat parked in his wheelchair as people made their way by him out of the chuch I assumed as to not block or delay their exit. I noticed a couple of women approach him from different directions and greet him and hand him donations. Because people were slow clearing away from where he was I thought I had a better chance of talking to the prisst who was in the back greeting the people leaving. I walked up to Father, shook his hand and asked him what the situation was with the homeless man and if there was something I could do to help. He said the man’s name was Miguel which suprized me because he looks as white as Saint Patrick. Father said he comes to 9:30 AM mass every Sunday and once or twice during the week and rides the bus to get around. He said he is Catholic and he is an “operator”. Father said Miguel could walk but told Father that since he got that wheelchair donations have picked up and that he refuses to take clothing when offered but Father didn’t know where he stays. Father said he wasn’t mentally sound but he was harmless and that if anyone wants to help him in any way he had no objection. I will probably slip him a $10-20 the next Sunday I see him because he is sober when he is at church but I don’t know if I can really help his situation.

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