Lazarus and the Rich Man
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
The principal sin of the unnamed rich man in this uniquely and quintessentially Lukan parable seems to be indifference, in some ways even more insidious than overt hatred. Though usually very vocal and visible, the cruelly hateful are far fewer in number than those of us who succumb to the all too easy temptation toward apathy. Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate day after day, longing for even just the crumbs of the table bound to be tossed away as waste. No one, surely not the rich man, seems to have even noticed him.
The parable’s focus is less on the earthly lives of the rich man and Lazarus and more on the longer horizon of the life to come. In typical Lukan fashion, there is a great reversal—Lazarus who once was poor was carried by the angels to the peace and comfort of the bosom of Abraham. The rich man was ‘sent empty away’ to the torment of the flames of Hades. Despite his pleas for mercy, he finds none there. Moses and the prophets had provided more than enough warning of the importance of repentance—of conversion of life, of changed behavior, of rejection of callous indifference. This parable confronts us with the truth that our actions and behaviors, particularly toward the poor and those in need, affect our very salvation. The parable of the last judgement in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) makes this point undeniably clear.
It is always our task, particularly in this holy time of Lent, to move beyond our own selfish impulses and our comfortable state of indifference to perceive and act in the face of suffering and pain. We alone cannot fix or correct such deep, entrenched problems as poverty and all the struggles that attend it. But we can do the one small thing—the one act of love, the one act of compassion and care. That is a sign of true repentance, acceptable and pleasing in God’s sight.
O Lord, strong and mighty, Lord of hosts and King of glory: Cleanse our hearts from sin, keep our hands pure, and turn our minds from what is passing away; so that at the last we may stand in your holy place and receive your blessing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2006, 41).