THe Gospel according to Saint Luke: 16: 19-31 (NKJV)
19 “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell[a] from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 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. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 “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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’
27 “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’”
After death, the rich man and Lazarus were no longer distinguished by their possessions. During this life, you could tell the rich man and Lazarus apart on the basis of the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the houses they lived in (or didn’t live in), and the possessions they had. But after death, they were the same. After death, all the distinctions of this life were obliterated, and they were equal before the eyes of God. So we are reminded of the reality of our own death.
We are urged by Jesus to meditate on death, to have death always before us, to remind ourselves each day that this might be the day on which we die. The Fathers say that each night as we go to bed we should see our beds as a coffin, and remind ourselves as we descend into that coffin that we might never rise from it, because each one of us will die. And as Jesus reminds us of the reality of our death – the fact that we cannot buy more time, that when death comes, there is nothing we can do to stop it: we are also reminded that how we live in this life will determine how we experience the life after death.
That is the major lesson of this parable. The rich man lived very well in this world. He would have been envied by most. He had a beautiful house, beautifully adorned and furnished. He had sumptuous meals, drove in a fine chariot, and had many servants. He had many well-wishers and many who spoke well of him. He was a fine, outstanding man in the community, with a position of power and prestige.
The poor man had none of that. He sat at the gates; he didn’t even have a roof over his head. He had no one to attend to him, and he was so weakened by his physical disease that he could not even keep the dogs away, as we see in that very pathetic picture, “the dogs came and licked his wounds.” And yet, after death, it is the poor man who is residing in Abraham’s bosom, and it is the rich man who is enduring the torments of Hades.
As we examine this parable, we ask, “Why? Why is it that the one who lived so poorly in this world enjoys for eternity the blessings of heaven, and the other who lived so sumptuously in this world endures the torments of hell for eternity?” As we look at the parable, we see that there is a correlation between the way these men lived in this world and the way they will spend eternity. The correlation is to be found in the way they viewed themselves and the way they viewed others.
The rich man thought only of himself. Every day he drove by this poor man, this beggar, at his gate. The beggar sat there with rags on his body and no food to eat. And every day, the rich man rode by him and did not stop his carriage. The rich man did not send his servants out with food. He did not send his personal physician out to tend the beggar’s wounds. It wasn’t that the rich man was mean to him or made his suffering worse. It was rather that the rich man did not see the suffering of Lazarus.
I imagine if you had asked this man, “Is there a beggar who sits by your gates?” he would have thought for a moment, and said to you, “I think…yeah, I think there probably is from time to time a beggar who’s there.” If you had asked him about the beggar’s way of life, he would have said, “How do you know how he lives? How do I know if he has any food or what clothes he wears? I don’t have time to be taking care of everyone. I’m a busy man. I have many responsibilities. If you’re interested in the poor man, go find out yourself. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
It wasn’t that he was rude. It wasn’t that he was mean. It was that he was self-absorbed. He was so busy taking care of himself, dealing with his own problems, that he had no time, interest, or energy to give to the poor man who was sitting by his gates. He lived a self-absorbed life and he died a self-absorbed death. And he spends eternity by himself.
Jesus says when the Son of Man comes and gathers the entire world to Himself that He will separate the sheep from the goats (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). In that separation, the question will be raised, “How do you tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” Out Lord will say to the sheep, “When I was sick, you visited Me; when I was hungry, you fed Me; when I was naked, you clothed Me; when I was in prison, you attended to Me. You, who lived your live caring for Me, come, and I will spend eternity caring for you.”
The sheep will say to our Lord, “When did we see You naked and imprisoned? When did we see You hungry? When did we see You sick?” And our Lord will say, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brethren. Every time you saw a sick person and took care of him, every time you saw someone who had nothing, and gave to him of what you had, then you took care of Me. And inasmuch as you have lived your life taking care of others, inasmuch as you have lived your life with love for your fellow man, then you are able to receive My love. You are able to be with Me because I am filled with love for all mankind. I spent My life taking care of the needy, the poor, the beggars, the lame, the deaf, and the dumb. And inasmuch as you have lived like Me, then we will spend eternity together.”
The goats will say, “Lord, we don’t understand. If we had seen You, we would have taken care of You, but we didn’t see You. When did we see You naked, and didn’t clothe You? When did we see You Hungry, and didn’t feed You? When did we see You poor, and a beggar, and at our gates, and we didn’t stop our carriage to take care of You?” And our Lord will say to them, “That’s exactly the point that I’m making: you didn’t see Me, because you didn’t look for Me. Because you spent your life taking care of yourself and you had no concern for others. Because you are self-absorbed. And because you are full of yourself, there is no room in you for Me. And as much as I would love to gather you and take you to be with Me, you cannot receive My love, because you do not love those who are in need. Because you are so self-absorbed, you can only know your own love. And you must live for eternity with the pain and agony of loving only yourself.”
The poor man, Lazarus-who had an awful life, a life that no one would want-lived his life not concerned about himself. He lived his life open in concern for others. It’s an amazing thing: this poor man every day saw this rich man go by, but he did not become angry. Most of us, if we were sitting at the gates of a rich man’s house, living with no food and with rags on our bodies and open sores, would become bitter and angry and resentful of this rich man. We would become bitter and angry at God. We would say to God, “How come You set life up like this? Why is it that some have too much and some have too little? And how come I’m the one who has too little? Hey, life isn’t fair.”
The poor man sitting at the gates never once questioned God, never once was bitter, or angry, or resentful against the rich man, because he wasn’t self-absorbed. This poor man had joy in the rich man’s prosperity. He gave thanks to God that the rich man had health while he had sickness. He gave thanks to God that the rich man had food while he had nothing to eat. He gave thanks to God that the rich man lived in prosperity while he himself had nothing. It is because he lived life without concern for himself that, when he died, the angels came and took his soul. That is a beautiful and a fearful picture, because we are told that the rich man died and there were no angels to take his soul. There were only demons to drag him down to the pit of hell.
How we live will determine how we spend eternity. If we live for ourselves, if we are so absorbed in ourselves that we cannot cry for anyone else, that we don’t even see the beggars, the poor, the needy, that if they ask us for help we take it as an insult, that we see ourselves as being better than others and deserving more than others, that we can feast sumptuously while there are people who have nothing to eat-then we will not be able to receive the love of God. God will look at us and see nothing in us that reminds Him of Himself, because God could not stand to see us living in poverty while He was living in riches. He made Himself poor and became one of us, the poor ones, so that He might exalt us. And it is only those who are like God who will enjoy being with God for eternity.
At the end of the parable, the rich man says, “Send Lazarus back to my brothers, so that they will repent.” And Abraham says, “If I sent Lazarus back, it would do no good. Even if they saw one risen from the dead, they would not repent because they are so self absorbed that they cannot be taught. They cannot see the truth that is in front of them. If they will not listen to the Law and the Prophets, then they will not listen even if one is raised from the dead.”
This is a fearsome parable, one that should cause us to look deeply into our own souls. It should motivate us to look for the beggars at our gates. It should speak to us that we fare sumptuously every day while others are starving, and we do not care. All our religious talk and activity means nothing if our hearts do not break for the poor, and the lonely, and the oppressed. It means absolutely, nothing if we care only for ourselves.
It is far better to live as a Lazarus than to live as a rich man. It is far better to live with nothing than it is to live with everything because things have a way of deadening our hearts. Full meals have a way of making us insensitive. It is those who are hungry who care about those who are hungry, whereas those who are full care only for themselves.
So we must voluntarily choose poverty. We must voluntarily choose emptiness. We must voluntarily choose a meagre meal, so that our hearts remain soft, so that we can see a picture of a boy whose belly is distended because he has no food, and we will weep. Even if we see a thousand pictures, we will shed thousands of tears because our hearts have been made soft.
The Fathers say that there is a third truth to be found in this parable: only those who suffer know how to love. Those who avoid all suffering, those who live with plenty, may speak words of love but they do not know the reality of love. “True love is planted and grows in the heart of one who suffers.”
How different the eyes of eternity are. Everyone in that town looked at Lazarus and said, “What a poor and disgusting man. What an awful way to live.” And everyone looked at the rich man and said, “Oh, I want to be like him.” As they raised their children and walked by the house, they said, “Now, look at Lazarus; don’t you grow up to be like him. Don’t you grow up to sit in a rich man’s gate. You grow up to be like the man who owns that house. You work hard at school. You go on to college, and you get a good degree, and you work hard, and you can be like that rich man someday. We believe in you. You can do it.”
From the eyes of eternity, the angels walked by and said, “You see that man, Lazarus. Be like him. You be like that man in the gate, with the sores, because his heart is open.” And those same angels whispered in the ears of all those who were attendant to the whispering of the angels, “You see that rich man. Whatever you do, don’t be like him, because his heart is closed. God has given him enough that he could build a mansion in paradise. He could share with thousands of beggars. He could open wide the gates of heaven through his almsgiving, but he only cares about himself. The gates that he builds are for himself, and the barns that he builds are for himself, and he has built nothing for himself in paradise.”
We need to write this parable in our hearts. If you let this parable sink deep into your soul, then you’ll be a very different person than you are today. And we have just a few years left. Then all of us will be dead. It’ll be too late then to share with those who need, because we’ll be locked in the prison of our own self-love.
Some of the Fathers were asked to describe hell, and one Father said this (and I think it is the best description of hell I’ve ever heard): “Hell is to be locked, naked, in a room full of mirrors for eternity.” Some of us are building that room for ourselves, because some of us only look at ourselves, and only ask, “What do I need?” and “What do I want?” and “How do I look?” and “What is going to happen to my future?” Each week we live that way, we construct a new mirror, and we shorten the opening through which we might escape.
Let us begin to ask, instead, “What do they need?” Let us ask of our spouse, “What does he or she want?” of our children, “What is best for them?” and of those who live in this world, “What can I give?” With the words and the actions of charity, we can destroy the mirrors that imprison us, so that when we die the angels may gather our souls, and we will dwell in the bosom of Abraham.