“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. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he 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.’ Abraham replied, ‘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. 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.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘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.’”
This parable is all about reversals.
There is a reversal regarding the names of the people in the parable, a sort of reversal of prestige. We typically know the names of the rich and famous, e.g. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, etc., but we don’t typically know the names of those who are poor. When we see a homeless person, we describe them as a homeless guy or a homeless lady, we don’t usually know their names or care to know their names. But in this parable we know the name of the poor man, he is Lazarus. We don’t know the name of the rich man, he is simply known as the rich man.
There is a reversal in comfort.
In this life, the rich man is described as wearing fine clothes and eating well. While Lazarus on the other hand is suffering, uncomfortable, with sores all over his body. We can imagine Lazarus being subject to the natural elements, having no protection against the heat of the day or the cold of the night. But in the next life, it is the rich man who is suffering from the elements, the parable says that he is in torment in flames while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham.
There is a reversal in looking/gazing.
Lazarus is described as lying at the rich man’s door. We can imagine Lazarus lying on the ground, and throughout his life looking upwards every day at the rich man. But in the next life it is the rich man who from a place of torment “raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”
These are just a few of the reversals found in the parable, and we may find these reversals unsettling, especially the line: “Remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus received what was bad.”
As someone who has lived much of their life in comfort, wanting for nothing, growing up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood in one of the most affluent countries in the world, these words of the Gospel cut to the heart. They are more than words of encouragement to be generous to the poor and needy, they are a warning. And when we die and Passover from this life to the next, the end of the parable makes clear that we will have no excuses for not heeding the message of Moses, the prophets, or Jesus who has risen from the dead.
So what can we take away from this Gospel?
- We don’t have to travel far to find people who are in need. We don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to help the Lazaruses of this world. Those who are in need, the poor who have not, are practically “lying at the door” of those who have. The Lazaruses of this world are right under our noses, they are in our cities, in our neighborhoods, and in our families, we just need to take notice of them.
- We don’t have to give away everything that we have in order to help someone in need. What did Lazarus likely long for? Lazarus wasn’t asking for a dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse, the parable said that “he would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.” He wanted some bit of food. Lazarus is described as covered with sores. He wanted some bit of medical attention. The parable suggests that Lazarus was alone, accompanied only by dogs who would lick his sores. He likely wanted some company. We can imagine how Lazarus would have longed for somebody, anybody, to talk to.
- It is in giving that we receive.
There is an old saying that the rich help the poor in this life, but the poor help the rich in the life to come. Since the rich man did not give Lazarus even a crumb of food in this life, Lazarus could not provide the rich man with even a drop of water in the next life. One blessing that has always stood out to me as a priest is the blessing given toward the end of Catholic weddings. At the conclusion of the marriage celebration the priest prays over the newlywed couple saying, “May you be witnesses in the world to God’s charity, so that the afflicted and needy who have known your kindness may one day receive you thankfully into the eternal dwelling of God.” If we open our hands to the poor, they will open the gates of heaven to us.
- We are encouraged to be selfless, to actively seek to help others.
The rich man didn’t find himself in a place of torment because of what he did to Lazarus, he found himself in a place of torment because of what he failed to do. The rich man’s greatest sins were sins of omission, not sins of commission. The rich man was not described as a bad person. In the parable the rich man was not cruel towards Lazarus, he didn’t make fun of him, or mistreat him in any way, he never even tells him to scram or get away from his door. The rich man never took notice of Lazarus, he was quite content living alongside Lazarus without ever helping him. We are called not only to avoid doing what is bad, but to actively do what is good, to come to the aid of those in need. God provides us with endless opportunities to love others who are at our front door so to speak. This parable encourages us to take advantage of those opportunities.
Jesus informs us that there is in fact a heaven and a hell, or as the parable describes it, a place of comfort and a place of torment. The general population may not know the poor, but God does, He knows their names, he knows every hair on their head.
For those who are poor:
This parable should come as a great source of consolation, it is a reminder that poverty and suffering is only temporary.
And for those who are rich:
This parable is a stern reminder to be mindful of and generous towards those who are in any kind of need, for one day things will be reversed.