The parable about the rich man and Lazarus forms part of the lengthy discourse of Jesus which began at 16, 1; Jesus is talking about the dangers of wealth, or better, the danger wealth becomes when it is in the wrong hands.

First, the very first lines cannot be allowed to pass by quickly; every word of the description of the rich man is crucial to the point of the parable.  The rich man's clothing, purple and linen, is that of only the extremely wealthy or of royalty.  His daily dress and food are nothing less than sumptuous; saying that eating in this way is a daily experience suggests not only extraordinary meals, but also daily guests.  The contrast with Lazarus cannot be overplayed, if we understand the description of the rich man.  And Lazarus is placed daily (by unnamed others) about as close to the rich man as is possible, if he won't be invited to enter the dining hall.  That dogs lick Lazarus' open sores means either that the dogs are helping or hurting Lazarus; either way, the picture is gruesome and meant to be so.  Not even a scrap of food, which the dogs of the house get to eat, is given to this 'daily' Lazarus. 

Second, death brings an end to the picture of the rich man and Lazarus.  Whether the locations of Lazarus (in the bosom, ie close to the heart of Abraham) and the rich man (Hades) are meant to be final, eternal resting places or only provisional stations before final judgment - this matter is disputed.  But it is clear that Jesus wants to move to this new form of existence.  And his emphasis is on the rich man, for only the rich man has the dialogue with Abraham; Lazarus is, literarily, a foil to make the words of the rich man more poignant.

Third, there are two reasons why the suffering of Lazarus cannot be relieved.  Here, there is no question about the reason for the rich man to be in Hades and suffering.  The question here is whether there might be relief for him.  Jesus, through Abraham, first indicates that Lazarus is where he belongs (yes, belongs) and so the rich man will have no relief.  Then he indicates the impossibility for any person to cross the 'great divide' between the bosom of Abraham and Hades.  The rich man, then, will have no relief.

Fourth, finally the question of why the rich man is in Hades is considered.  In short, the answer lies not in some new teaching of Jesus about the misuse of wealth (and does not the senseless contradiction described in the beginning of the parable describe immense misuse of wealth?) - the answer lies in what has been the exalted teaching of God through Moses, that one must, above all else, love one's neighbor.  And this demanded love is well described in Luke's Acts: "no one was left in need".  It is this refusal to obey the perennial teaching of God that ends in Hades' suffering.  Refusal of Jesus is not the point here; the point is that, with knowledge of God's will and wisdom, the rich man refused to obey.

Fifth and finally, how hard is the selfish heart and how deep is its evil?  Not even if someone with experience of the joy and suffering of life after death should come to give ey-witness testimony about that life - not even then would the heart listen, so selfishg and hard it is.

A strong parable, to be sure, but, given the light it sheds on evil, it serves the purpose of Jesus very well.  He will be finally satisfied, however, only if those who need the parable heed it and repent.

John Kilgallen, SJ

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 9/27/2010 - 1:19pm
I find the third paragraph confusing also.  Is the idea that Lazarus "in life" existed in order to give the rich man a choice?  Isn't this too much like predestination?