The Lord told this parable: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
Jesus starts the parable by describing a chasm that exists between the worlds of the two main characters of the story. The nameless rich man lives in the world of luxury, gourmet cooking, wealth, excess, and being waited on for his every wish. Lazarus, the poor man, lives in an entirely different world, one of poverty, wasting illness, filth, malnutrition, homeless neglect. There is a chasm between these two worlds, but that chasm is human made, and could be bridged if someone chose to do it. Nothing except human choice separates these two worlds. But the rich man chooses to keep that chasm between himself and his fellow human. The rich man has the resources to cross the chasm and aid Lazarus, who is not asking for the man’s riches, but just for crumbs from the rich man’s table!
Then both the main characters of the parable die, and after death their roles are reversed. Now Lazarus lives with the angels in Abraham’s bosom and is comforted. The rich man finds himself in torment in hell.
The parable does not tell us why or how the rich man got to his most favored status in life on earth, nor why or how Lazarus was in such miserable poverty. The luck of the draw apparently. Jesus does not praise either of the characters for being virtuous, nor does He portray either as vile, vice-filled men. Today, because we’ve heard the parable so often that we make assumptions about what happens and why. We read into the parable virtues and vices but the parable never explains why the rich man ends up in hell after death or why Lazarus is in heaven. Perhaps some sort of Karmic justice?
But none of that is really the point of the parable.
Only in hell, when he is now the victim of suffering, does the rich man care about crossing the chasm between himself and Lazarus. Only in hell does he suddenly become concerned about those who suffer. Only in hell does he recognize that one human can alleviate the suffering of another. But now only in hell does he learn that the chasm in the next life between people – the haves and the have nots – can’t be bridged. It’s too late to benefit from a fellow human being. The unrighteous rich man learns that he cannot in this afterlife benefit from the good fortune of another, nor does all the wealth he accumulated in the world benefit him in the afterlife. [Nor for that matter does all his accumulated worldly wealth benefit Lazarus or anyone else in the afterlife!]
There was a time when the chasm could have been bridged and crossed over – when the blessings one has could be used to meet the needs of another. There was a time on earth when it was in the rich man’s power to cross over the chasm and use his blessings to meet the need of another. He could have reached out to Lazarus who wallowed in poverty. He wouldn’t have had to bankrupt himself to do this. He obviously had such an overabundance that he could have given away a great deal without suffering even the slightest inconvenience. Had the rich man done so, the chasm between them would have been eliminated and they would have been together as fellow human beings, brothers. Lazarus is not the protagonist of the parable. Only the rich man had the resources to be the hero of the story. Lazarus really has nothing to offer anyone, except that had the rich man cared for the impoverished Lazarus, the rich man would have found his path to heaven.
There is a lesson here about the chasms we create in our lives between ourselves and others who we recognize might need or benefit from something we have. We protect ourselves and make self-preservation into a virtue. Sometimes we invest a great deal in making sure these self-created chasms are maintained and are impassible and impregnable. It is possible that we will make those chasms permanent and impenetrable and unbridgeable … all the way into the life of the world to come. Then, belatedly, we will know that we made for ourselves an eternal hell.
The antithesis of the rich man in the parable is not the poor Lazarus. As even some church fathers noted, Lazarus is nowhere commended for any virtues.
The rich man of the parable is being contrasted with the righteous believer, which is made obvious in the Epistle reading which is linked by the Orthodox Church to the Gospel lesson of Lazarus and the rich man. In that epistle, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul writes:
This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God
The foil to the rich man is the righteous person who generously gives to the poor. That person is described in the Psalm 111 from the Septuagint from which the 2 Corinthians 9 quotes (in both the Scripture above and below the emphasis is not in the original text, but is mine).
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord; He will delight exceedingly in His commandments; 2 His seed shall be mighty on earth; The generation of the upright shall be blessed; Glory and riches shall be in his house, And his righteousness continues unto ages of ages. For the upright, light springs up in darkness, For he is merciful, compassionate, and righteous. A good man is compassionate and lends; He will manage his words with judgment, For he shall be unshaken forever; A righteous man shall be in everlasting remembrance. He shall not be afraid because of an evil report; His heart is prepared to hope in the Lord. His heart is established; he is not afraid As he surveys his enemies. He dispersed; he gave to the poor; His righteousness continues unto ages of ages; His horn shall be exalted with glory. The sinner shall see this, and be angry; He shall gnash his teeth, and be consumed; The desire of sinners shall perish.
The rich man of the parable perishes not because he is rich but because he fails to be righteous. Specifically he fails to be merciful, compassionate, generous and righteous. All of these are activities within our power on earth, and all build a bridge that spans the entire chasm not only between earth and heaven, but even that chasm which separates hell from heaven.