A recent Sunday Gospel reading told the story of Lazarus and the rich man. We are all familiar with it. Lazarus was the poor man who was lying by the door of the rich man. The rich man ate well each day, while Lazarus would have been happy to get the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus dies and is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man dies, he is in torment. We then see an exchange between the rich man and Abraham where the rich man pleads for mercy and then asks for help for his brothers so they don’t end up where he is.
There is so much in this Gospel passage. What I want to focus on is perhaps one of the main and most obvious (but perhaps most overlooked) lessons in the story. That is simply that both men died. In fact, the line that struck me the most was “the rich man also died and was buried”. It is almost an afterthought, spoken in a very matter of fact way by Jesus after he had just told what happened to Lazarus when he died. The point that is made here is that no matter what, we all die, and then comes the judgment. It doesn’t matter if we eat sumptuously each day and dress in fine linens, or if we are poor and eat scraps, we all die. One of the formulas used on Ash Wednesday helps us to keep this fact in the front of our minds, “remember man that thou art dust, and to dust you shall return”.
To me, that this is the central message of this Gospel passage. No one gets out alive. We will all die and face judgment. Even if we are blessed with 100 years of life on this earth, it’s nothing. That is like a blink of an eye in the context of eternity. Jesus clearly teaches us in this parable that how we treat our fellow man, not how much or how little we have, has much to do with our eternal destination. This flies in the face of the message the world sends us in today’s culture. The message that says, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Jesus clearly shows us in this parable that that is simply not the case.
Shifting gears just a little, I always like to try to tie in Church teaching when I can. We can see in this passage some evidence in support of a doctrinal teaching of the Church concerning purgatory. We assume that Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is in hell. But is that necessarily the case? Can souls in hell communicate w/ those in heaven? No. Yet we see the rich man conversing with Abraham. Perhaps Lazarus and Abraham are not in heaven, experiencing the beatific vision, because Christ has not yet died, opening the gates of heaven. The righteous were sometimes referred to as being “in the bosom of Abraham”, just as Jesus refers Lazarus as being in this passage. But there is still no evidence that those in hell could talk to those in the bosom of Abraham. So is it possible the rich man is somewhere other than hell? There is no Church teaching on this, so I don’t want to give the impression that the Church uses this passage as support for its teaching on purgatory, but the rich man does something rather interesting that may be a clue that he is not in hell. He makes intercession for his brothers who are still alive. Can someone who is in hell intercede on behalf of others? No. So is it possible then, that the rich man is in purgatory? We can’t say for sure, but we can say that there must be a 3rd place. Communication can’t take place between heaven and hell, so therefore there must be a “place” or state of being in the afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell. That is clearly demonstrated in this parable from Jesus.
This is one of my favorite Gospel passages. It is so rich with lessons for us. I’d encourage you to go back and read it again to see what may be waiting there for you to discover. I love the last line, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” How many people today remain unconvinced, even though someone did rise from the dead? One day we too will rise from the dead and our resurrected bodies will join our souls in heaven or in hell. We have Moses and prophets. We have more than that as well. We have Jesus and His Apostles and all the saints throughout the ages. So we have even less excuse than the rich man. So pray then that we might persevere to the end and when our time comes we be carried by angels to join with Lazarus in the Kingdom of heaven.