Which of the two men in today’s gospel would you have liked to be – the rich man or the poor man?
Would you like to have dressed in fine clothes, feasted magnificently every day, had a holiday home for the winter months in Queensland, good health, lots of friends, and a stately funeral? Or would you have liked to be poor, dirty, covered with sores, hungry and homeless?
We are not told much more about these two men other than that one was rich and one was poor; that ‘good things’ came the way of the first man and that ‘bad things’ came the way of the other. Consequently, the parable tells us, the poor man was now being ‘comforted’ in eternity while the rich man was ‘in agony’.
Moreover, what we are not explicitly told is that the rich man was bad and the poor man good! So what are we supposed to make of this parable – the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven? I don’t think so. I think that this parable, like all parables, needs to be meditated on and prayed through so that both its message and its power can break through into our lives.
Did you notice that the poor man has a name and the rich man doesn’t? That is rather odd, don’t you think? Don’t we all know the names of the rich and famous? Those on our TV screens, in our newspapers and magazines? But how many names of the starving, the outcast, the diseased do we know?
Why do you think the gospel gives the poor man a name but not the rich man?
And did you notice that when Lazarus dies he is carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man dies and is just buried? One goes up and the other goes down.
At the time Jesus told the parable the bosom of Abraham basically meant that place in which the good awaited the final judgment. Today, we use the phrase simply to mean heaven. I think that is entirely acceptable. However we interpret the phrase we have to admit that this gospel tells us there is a heaven and, like it or not, that there is a hell.
Heaven is an eternal place of comfort, of love, of belonging and fulfilment. Hell is an eternal place of agony, torment (flames), and alienation. Between heaven and hell there is a great gulf which separates and cuts off the two realms.
Did you notice that the rich man is ‘surprised’ to find himself in hell? He never dreamt he would end up there in such a sorry state.
His first experience is pain: I am in agony in these flames, he cries. For a man who lived so comfortably on earth this ‘agony’ gives him a totally new set of priorities.
And for the first time he sees Lazarus. The man he had ignored at his own gate, the man he could so readily have helped, the man who asked for so little, no more than a few scraps that fell from his table, he now sees a long way off in contented, unreachable bliss.
So comfortable with the sufferings of others this man now calls out for pity on his own. Father Abraham, pity me ... I am in agony... . And true to form he suggests: send Lazarus ... . I wonder if Abraham might have smiled then, quietly bemused at naïveté of this man who was having difficulty understanding that his days of being served were over.
Notice, and perhaps this is very close to the central point of this gospel, that Abraham enlightens the rich man about his present situation by asking him to remember his own life on earth. This is the key to understanding the gospel.
The gulf which separated Lazarus from the rich man now, in heaven, was the gulf the rich man had put between himself and the poor man on earth. The pity he was being denied now in hell, was the pity he had denied Lazarus in his need. The drops of water he was longing for in hell were the scraps with which Lazarus had longed to fill himself while on earth. Without a doubt, the rich man had created his own hell.
Everything he asked for was denied him. The answer to his every plea was NO!
Even when he asked Abraham a second time to send Lazarus (what a slow learner!) to his family, the request was refused. The man who was so used to being obeyed is now ignored. Not a single word he says is listened to, not a single argument he makes bears weight. He is now, truly and painfully, for all eternity, the nobody he thought Lazarus to be.
Let me ask again: Which of the two men in today’s gospel would you have liked to be – the rich man or the poor man?