Christs’ account of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus should raise questions in each one of us regarding our attitude to our current way of life, and what we must do to acquire eternal life after death. A basic teaching in this parable is the fact that life after death is an “echo” of the current one, which should be a time of self correction, preparation, and proper orientation in order to enter into eternal life.
The parable portrays two very different types of people: To the first person, unbounding riches and material goods with a long and healthy life are provided. To the second person: poverty, pain and misery, were his portion. These were two very different ways of life from which God assessed each person’s management and accountability.
The rich man was given everything, but so that he could also give, to share in a kingly way the gifts and mercy that God had granted him with those less fortunate than himself. To lighten the pain and bring some joy to the misery of those that suffered near him.
God placed him responsible over many riches, to see how he would manage these blessings. God waited to see in the person of the rich man, an almsgiver, a guardian and helper, a man with love and compassion for the poor. And so as to help the rich man do these goods works of philanthropy, he sent a poor man called Lazarus to live at the steps of the rich man. Lazarus’ life was a drama, truly tragic. Lazarus moved his sick and wounded body near the gates of the rich man’s mansion, searching for crusts to eat from the rubbish that had been thrown out by the rich man’s servants.
The rich man however was not moved by the plight of the poor man Lazarus, neither was his conscience troubled even though he saw the sad condition of this person on a daily basis as he sat at the steps of his house surrounded by dogs that would lick his sores.
The rich man with his grand style, his lavish meals, his many servants and material goods, was simply indifferent to those who suffered around him. Laying all his faith on his riches and his health which had been granted to him by God, the Rich man believed in the permanence of this life. Distracted by his materialism he forgot that this present life is fleeting, that it is a preparation for the real life, which is eternal. The rich man in this parable, with his way of life and his choice to be indifferent to everyone apart from himself, did little to benefit and guide his immortal soul to eternal life. Christ did not condemn him for the wealth he possessed, but because he simply paid no attention to the other person, to Lazarus; thus he did not fulfill the great commandment: to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In this parable the poor man Lazarus is seen as the timely victor. Even though he suffered, he never once raised his voice to criticize or curse anyone, rather he hoped with faith in the mercy of God.
Christ then tells us that: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried”. The one was carried by the angels; the other was buried.
No doubt the rich man was buried with all the worldly and material extravagance offered to someone of such wealth. But with all that, the word ‘buried’ which expresses his fate, implies the concept of finality and is in contrast to being transported by angelic hands. “Carried by angels” or “buried”: these two outcomes, taken in a spiritual sense, are not reserved for the dead. Already in this life a person can be carried towards God by the angels (by those who serve and worship God), or one can be buried and covered over by the dust of sin (by being attached to the transient nature of the created world and its temporary pleasures).
We also notice in the pericope that the rich man died after the poor man Lazarus. God, in His great mercy, took Lazarus early so that he would not continue to suffer through the hardheartedness of those around him. However, in His mercy God also allowed the rich man more time to repent, more time to change the path of his way of life. Unfortunately, like what happens with many people today, this time which God grants us to return to Him, is wasted on our own selfish pleasures. Rather than one’s life being directed towards God the giver of life and infinite entity, it is directed towards oneself, a finite entity! Many of us, just like the rich man have as our motto: “Drink, eat and dance, for tomorrow we die”. Too many people, like the rich man spend huge amounts of money and time to satisfy their own selfish desire, at the expense of great numbers of people like Lazarus.
However, once both the poor man Lazarus and the rich man died, we see the scene of the afterlife. There the conditions are changed. The rich man, according to his selfish way of life on earth, his hardheartedness and lack of compassion for his fellow human being, placed himself in Hades, since this was the direction of his life on earth, self-centered. There he suffered by his isolation.
And we see Lazarus rejoicing with the Patriarch Abraham in everlasting life in paradise, since his life on earth although deprived, was directed to God.
But why have the terms changed?
Of course, neither the riches of the rich man placed him in Hades, nor the poverty of Lazarus placed in him paradise. What influences anyone to reach paradise or hell is the way and attitude in which one lives their wealth or poverty. In this gospel Christ presents to us an ill-natured rich man and a good poor man. Abraham was extremely rich too, but he was also a great almsgiver. Job lost everything, his family and his wealth, but never grumbled against God or his fellow human being.
What is important is how one uses wealth. If you use wealth to improve life on this earth, it will lead you to paradise. If however you use it to spread hatred and injustice without constructing works of love, then it leads you to hell.
The rich man of this parable is condemned because he made bad use of his wealth. Rather than being a good administrator of the material possessions which God entrusted to him, he became an embezzler, using them only for himself. Seeing the poverty stricken Lazarus outside his door hungry and wounded, he did not show any interest in helping him. He could have become a contributor of joy, putting his wealth in the service of love towards his fellow human. He did not realize that the more one gives, the more one acquires. Hence, although the wealthy man of the parable is presented to us as being wealthy in material possessions, he proved to be poor in spiritual matters. The lack of love which he expressed in not helping his neighbor is what led him to condemnation. Therefore, what condemned the wealthy man was the way in which he managed his wealth.
On the other hand, the poverty-stricken Lazarus is presented as being wealthy in spiritual virtues. What led him to paradise were not his poverty, but his patience and endurance in his tribulation. The poverty stricken Lazarus did not complain about his situation. He did not hate the rich man who treated him with contempt. He did not become a thief by breaking into someone else’s home in order to satisfy his hunger. He was not carried away by the propaganda of the changing social trends, which instead of leading to justice as they promises to do; they lead humans far away from God.
Instead, Lazarus endured. He accepted the crumbs and company of dogs. He was satisfied with little and did not live with the longing to become wealthy by treading on the souls of others if the opportunity was given to him. And it was perhaps that in his state of being satisfied with little that had, he was richer than the wealthier man, because poverty is not measured by what one has, but by what one desires. Since the more you desire, the poorer you are even if you have a lot.
The last verse of today’s parable requires particular attention: “But Abraham said to the rich man, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead”. God wishes all people to be “persuaded” to repentance. The repentance He desires is neither the result of submitting to outside authority, nor the result of the shock that a miraculous sign such as the raising of a person from the dead might cause (indeed, when Jesus did raise another Lazarus from the dead on the day before Palm Sunday, the Pharisees did not repent). But the repentance which God desires must be the result of an inner persuasion, the fruit of a long and inevitable working of the Holy Spirit on our soul – because, in spiritual life, everything must come from the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that St Paul writes that: “…the goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom 2:4).
Depending on the way in which we use them, wealth as much as poverty can lead us to the appropriate place accordingly: to either hell or to paradise. We would be able to say by means of a metaphor, that poverty and wealth are two keys which open the door to life. Everyone holds both the one and the other. You can open the door with a key as well as lock it. It depends on the way in which you use it. In this gospel pericope, the wealthy man used his key to close the door of paradise, whereas the poor man used it to open the door.
Similarly, we too have the opportunity to freely decide how we are going to use our key of wealth or poverty; will we open or close the door which leads to eternal life in paradise? the choice is ours.