The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is one that can be really uncomfortable, and it is easy to want to forget it as quickly as possible or else ignore it completely, but there are important things to learn from it.
19 ¶There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)
Lazarus is in such abject poverty that he is acting like a dog, waiting for leftovers. That image of dogs licking his sores is really disturbing and makes it clear just how wrong it is for humans to be in that kind of condition. He is considered a second-class person. This is like the story of the Good Samaritan, but unfortunately it doesn’t end happily while in mortality.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. (Luke 16:22-24)
The positions of Lazarus and the rich man have been precisely reversed. The want the rich man ignored in Lazarus, he begins to suffer. Unlike Lazarus, who merely desired to feed from the leftovers—Lazarus’s sense of his own worthiness had been beat down under the ground you see—in contrast, the rich man kicks up a serious rumpus and takes his complaint as high as he can. “Have mercy! Can’t you see I am tormented!?” he cries to Abraham, who is often considered father of the faithful. (By the way, it is interesting that the rich man recognizes Abraham, even from afar off, though having never met him in mortality. What does this teach us about what we will know after death?)
It is also curious that when the rich man finds himself in hell, he discovers he is thirsty. He has no body, yet he is thirsty. This suggests to me that his thirst is actually spiritual rather than physical. I think that his thirst may represent the desire to do good that he squelched all his life. In the eternities he finds the thirst still there, but with no way of satisfying it; all his wealth has been left behind in mortality. This reminds me of Isaiah’s words that everyone who fought against Zion would be as those who dreamt they drank and then awake thirsty.
Another thing I noticed recently in this parable is even after death, the rich man still thinks of Lazarus as a second-class person and only meant to be a servant. We can tell because the rich man only talks to Father Abraham to ask for things, not Lazarus, implying he assumes Lazarus is only there on Abraham’s sufferance, rather than as an equal in Abraham’s estimation. Also, the rich man wants Lazarus to be sent to serve and comfort him.
This gives us an important warning—that riches have a tendency to cause people to forget the inherent equality of each soul’s worth, and that mistake continues beyond death.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Luke 16:25)
The positions of Lazarus and the rich man have been reversed because there is a huge amount of inequitable treatment that happened on earth that has to be made right. Heaven is fair after all, and unfairness on earth, if never remedied on earth, must be remedied in heaven.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. (Luke 16:26)
In mortality there was no obstacle standing in the way of the rich man helping Lazarus. There was no gulf between them, but the rich man made one by completely ignoring Lazarus’s existence. Might it be too much to say that by doing so, rich man made the very gulf that in the afterlife prevented any comfort coming to him?
27 Then he [the rich man] said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. (Luke 16:27-28)
We see that when the rich man begins to suffer, his sympathy and feeling for others begins to grow and he begins to wish to save others from suffering what he is currently in. For him that’s a start, even though his anxiety for others only extends at this point to his five brothers who still live in as rich abundance as he did. (This shows that concern for our siblings is the beginning of charity.)
But at the same time, the rich man still doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong; he still wants to send Lazarus hither and yon, if not to serve him, then to serve his rich brothers, not realizing how fully things have changed.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16: 9-31)
Abraham shares the principle that unless people already listen to the witnesses they have in this life in the form of the writings of prophets and the words of living oracles of God about helping the poor, no heavenly messenger can do any good in sharing what conditions are like on the other side and what needs to be done to prepare. If the rich man still didn’t recognize Lazarus’s equality of worth in heaven, no way would his brothers on earth heed any message from Lazarus, if their perception of Lazarus was anything like the rich man’s.
I think this is a warning for me too; if I don’t pay attention to this account or the other scriptures about building Zion and helping others, no angelic visitation that warns will move me either. I'm not rich, but come on, how rich do we have to be before we feel obligated to help?
Now, we might not have starving sore-ridden people laying at our driveways, but we will know people in need when we see them.
One of my friends told me she learned that one of her classmates didn’t have enough money to buy the book for the class because she barely even had money to buy food. This friend of mine was shocked, and rather than ignore it, decided to take action. Although my friend couldn’t spare much money herself, she decided she wanted to anonymously send some money to her classmate. She asked the major’s administrator for her classmate’s address, and when the administrator found out what for, she made an exception to the privacy rules, on condition that the teacher also be notified. My friend’s teacher was surprised to learn about such want among one of his students and gave a textbook to the classmate. My friend heard later that a scholarship was spontaneously bestowed upon her classmate not long afterward, and she gave it as her opinion that the teacher had been behind that.
I’ve tried to help when I have seen needs, but I still feel I have done less than I should have.
Here are some thoughts from other Christian writers about the meaning of this parable:
"This parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor. The trouble is that even such abstractions [of “rich” and “poor”] become easy to live with. We need some first hand experience of encountering the real people whom we will then not be able to dismiss as relative statistics. And if that cannot be first hand, we need to help people engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms…" ("First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Pentecost 18, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia. [http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost18.htm])
One way we engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor and hungry is when we fast. Our experience with hunger can guide our giving.
"If our hearts are closed to hearing the cry for justice, mercy and bread, the words of the resurrected One will not be convincing, but convicting." ("No Way Out," Mark Harris, The Christian Century, 2001. Religion Online. [http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2129])
“The greatest deception is that people start to believe they are owed a privileged status. They actually think they are exceptional and believe that they have become more valuable because they have more valuables.” ("The Man Who Wore Purple and Linen," Jerry Goebel, One Family Outreach. [http://onefamilyoutreach.com/bible/Luke/lk_16_19-31.html])
“Some chasms cannot be crossed. Some things harden…. Even Abraham cuts no ice with a God determined to be just.” ("Send Lazarus," J. Mary Luti, The Christian Century, 1998. [http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=624])
"We would do well, I believe, to explore those things which our culture highly esteems, and then to consider whether or not these things are well pleasing in the sight of God." ("The Rich Man and Lazarus," Hampton Keathley IV, a study from the Biblical Studies Foundation. [http://bible.org/seriespage/rich-man-and-lazarus])
What inner obstacles do you struggle with when you are confronted with people in desperate need? How have you overcome them?