The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is quite possibly the darkest and most disturbing of the stories that Jesus told, what with the picture that he paints of hell. It isn’t a pleasant picture and on numerous other occasions Jesus has spoken of it describing it as “everlasting fire”, “eternal condemnation”, and “the fire that shall never be quenched”. In effect, it is a place of terrible suffering where the pain goes on and on forever.
Hell is not something that many people take seriously, believing as they do that a loving and compassionate God would never let his children suffer so terribly, and with preachers and writers evading their responsibility to present the gospel in its entirety because the picture they want to present of Christ is one of saccharine sweetness, most of us ignore its terrifying reality. That might be a big mistake because hell is very real and doubting in it—like doubting the reality of the devil—not only calls into question our faith, it casts aspersions on the integrity of Jesus. Because nobody—not in the Old Testament or the New—spoke about the subject of hell more than he did.
Here are some of the things that he said in various contexts.
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:18).
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
There are over forty other times that Jesus speaks about hell and he often speaks about its eternal state. So what is hell, anyway, and what does the Church say about it? The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs (CCC 1035).
The clue to understanding hell and its torment lie in the words “eternal separation from God.” Have you ever been seriously depressed? It’s a terrible feeling that sometimes goes on for days during which there is no joy, no peace, no happiness, no hope, no love; nothing, in fact except for a dark, horrible feeling that goes to the very depths of the soul. Now imagine that for eternity, and you will get a pretty good picture of what hell might be like because that is what separation from God is like. Fire cannot even begin to compare with it.
Now let’s talk about the parable. It’s a simple enough story, but with great contrasts: torment and comfort, death and life, hell and heaven.
The Parable Summarized
There was a certain rich man clothed in purple and fine linen (today he would be wearing designer clothes) who ate the best food (presumably along with the best wine) his money could buy. One can picture him, smelling like a rose thanks to the expensive body oils that he used while bathing and the perfume that he applied on himself thereafter, as he sauntered through life with not a care in the world.
In stark contrast, a beggar named Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, struggling to survive. (The name Lazarus is based on the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God is my helper.”) His situation was abysmally wretched. He “lay” at the gates presumably because he was physically handicapped, dependent on others for movement, and the fact that he was “covered with sores” made him a repulsive creature to behold. In ancient Palestine, people didn’t use cutlery to pick up food, but bread. It was often tossed to the floor and Lazarus would have been happy to eat this, so desperate was his hunger. Weak and sick, he didn’t have the strength to drive away the mangy dogs that came to lick his sores.
They both die and experience a huge role reversal. Lazarus is carried away by angels to Abraham’s bosom while the rich man ends up in “Hades” [For an explanation of Hades, see Box]. And he suffers there! He pleads with Abraham for relief. This is the only time that Jesus has introduced a real-life character into a parable, which reinforces the idea that he was warning us of things that were real and going to happen. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue, but Abraham tells him that there is a huge gulf that prevents one from going from one place to the other. The rich man pleads with Abraham to help save his five brothers by sending Lazarus to warn them of this place. Abraham tells him that they had Moses and the prophets to listen to, and if they didn’t heed their voices, they wouldn’t heed the voice of somebody, even if they returned from the dead.
How prophetic that message turned to be! Not only did they not pay heed when Jesus rose from the dead, but they also didn’t pay heed when another Lazarus was brought back from the dead. Who, after all, had the power over life and death but God? One cannot believe that Jesus naming the poor man Lazarus was a mere coincidence.
Lesson: Don't Be Oblivious
If we look around us, we will see the first half of this story being played out everywhere in the world. The rich man in this story is no first century Ebenezer Scrooge with no heart. He typifies many of us. We sometimes don’t notice the suffering and poverty all around us because we have become so acclimatized to it. In poorer countries such as ours, abject poverty rests side by side with ostentatious displays of wealth, but one scarcely perceives the stark contrast. When poverty tries to intrude, we have protection against it. Consider, for instance, the doorman who tips his cap to us when we enter a good restaurant. He’s not there to greet us; he’s there to keep the beggars out. After all, we wouldn’t want a starving child to stick his hand out at us while we are about to start our third course, would we? It is not the intention of this writer to stop you from enjoying good food any more than it was Jesus’ intention to stop us from good living but to open our eyes to certain obligations we have to the less fortunate among us.
A question often asked is why a good God would allow millions of people to starve to death each year. He doesn’t. We do. He has provided enough food to feed every man, woman, and child on this planet ten times over. Unfortunately, those of us who have don’t share with those who don’t have, which is what results in these millions of deaths.
The refrain of excuse is the same one offered by Cain: Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, we are, and if we abdicate our responsibility, we will be called to account for it one day. In another parable where Jesus speaks about Judgment Day, (which we will look at in a forthcoming issue of Cornerstone), he tells us what will happen to those who walk through life unmindful of the suffering of our brothers and sisters.
‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41‑46).
While this is one of the most important lessons to be learned from the parable, there are other significant ones that often escape a cursory study of it. One is not to take things for granted, especially eternal life.
Lesson: Don't Be Complacent
The rich man was not a wicked man. Nothing in the picture Jesus paints of the man shows him to be a vile, despicable man deserving of the worst punishment imaginable. He didn’t kick the beggar every time he walked past him. He didn’t have him thrown off his property. He didn’t show any propensity to cruelty. He just didn’t care. Like most of the Pharisees that he undoubtedly consorted with—the rich and the religious often were best buddies—he kept the Law and, like them thought he had his course charted for heaven. Besides he came from the lineage of Abraham, which was like a free ticket to heaven.
Imagine his horror when he didn’t land in heaven but found himself in hell instead. He must have wished he had paid heed to John the Baptist who warned: Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:9-10).
He doesn’t seem to be too surprised, however, realizing that he deserves to be there. He can see his faults all too clearly now, and he surely had a sense of them even when he was in the world. All he wants is a little relief from the torment he was suffering, but it was not forthcoming. And it never will be. There is no probation here, no time off for good behavior, no reduction of sentence. Just a torturous existence for all eternity. And he would soon discover how long eternity truly was. If only he had thought about it earlier.
Jesus wasn’t being cruel when he told his listeners this story, lacing it as he did with language designed to horrify them. He was being kind, hoping they would get their act together before it was too late. He had warned them on numerous occasions that all their outward appearance of piety and legalistic observance of the Law was not going to take them to heaven.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
We better get our act together too. Barring a few sects who believe that once we accept Christ as our Savior nothing we do can stop us from gaining entrance into heaven, every Christian denomination of any merit knows that although good works cannot get us in, we have to show the faith we profess by how we lead our lives. Let us not be complacent about this, but determinedly do the will of our Father in heaven.
Lesson: Don't Be Discriminitory
This parable, like many of the others that Jesus told, was directed at the Pharisees. And like most of his parables, the things he said in this one shocked them.
The rich man in this story was the sort of man they all knew. Wealth assures influence, and it is extremely likely that he wielded a lot of it in the synagogue. He was a Jew, and as he addresses Abraham as “Father,” one imagines he both knew and practiced his faith. His blessings would have been seen by everyone as coming from God, undoubtedly for being the good man that he seemed to be, and his place in heaven was consequently assured.
Lazarus, on the other hand, seemed to be cursed by God. Why else would he be in the terrible state that he was in? So sick he couldn’t sit up, so disfigured only dogs could bear to come near him, so penniless he would have settled for scraps off the floor. The Pharisees would have decided that the man was a sinner, being punished for his sins, and headed straight for hell when his sojourn on earth was over.
Imagine then, their surprise, when the climax of the story sees a total reversal of what they expect to happen. The rich man goes to hell, while the beggar man goes straight to the bosom of Abraham, getting not only a place in heaven, but a place of high honor!
The traits of being judgmental and discriminatory have been handed down with other bad habits. We, too, have formed opinions about who is going to be saved and who isn’t, and like the Pharisees, we are likely to be surprised to find the most unexpected people in heaven!
We also show much favoritism in how we treat the rich, often giving them extra attention for the favors we can obtain from them, while paying the poor and those without influence scant attention.
I’d like to conclude with the advice of Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12‑14).