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The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man 


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...Okay, well here we have another term for realm of the dead that’s a little obscure or at least probably veiling—it has different meanings. So originally, the word Hades was just a Greek translation for the Hebrew word sheol, which was the realm of the dead. So in the Old Testament, in the book of Ecclesiastes 9 or Psalm 89, sheol is just the name of the realm to which all the dead go. So if you’re dead and it’s the Old Testament, you go to sheol. Whether you were good, whether you were bad, or somewhere in between, everybody goes to sheol. But by the time of Jesus, in the Second Temple Period, the ideas about the afterlife had become much more definite, and in the book of Sirach, for example, chapter 21:9-10, by the second century BC, the term Hades gets used specifically to translate the realm of the damned. So it becomes a kind of more narrow term, referring to the place where the wicked go—not just all the dead, but either a part of sheol or the place within sheol where the wicked are. So you can think of it as two sides of the railroad tracks, right? There’s a good side and a bad side. So Hades becomes more aligned with describing the realm of the wicked, and you can actually see that’s how Jesus uses the word Hades in the Gospel of Luke itself. If you go back to Luke 10:15, you remember when Jesus was going to Caper′na-um and Tyre and Sidon and Beth-sa′ida and these different places, and they’re rejecting him. In Luke 10:15, Jesus says:

And you, Caper′na-um, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

So notice there, how does Jesus use Hades earlier in the Gospel? As the opposite of heaven. So a person’s either exalted to heaven or brought down to Hades. So if they accept Jesus, they’re going to be exalted to heaven. If they reject Jesus, they’re going to be brought down to Hades, which obviously in this case, implies the realm of the wicked or the realm of the damned. So that’s how Hades is being used in this parable.

So the rich man goes to Hades, he sees Abraham far off, and Abraham is in peace, Lazarus is at peace, but he is in torment and in a place of flames. So those are the two features of Hades: anguish (or torment) and flames. So it’s a place of fire and a place of suffering. Notice something also here: that the rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham, and that he says there is a chasm fixed between them. Now when I listened to this parable growing up, I always kind of imagined it as like the rich man is down in the underworld, and Abraham and Lazarus are up in heaven. And that’s possible, but it’s interesting that for other Jewish sources in the first century, we also have descriptions of the afterlife that depict it in a sense one realm with two sides, with a chasm in the middle. So rather than it being like heaven down there—ha, heaven down there—hell down here and heaven up here, they can also see it along a kind of horizontal axis with a chasm. So for example, in 4 Ezra 7, which is a first century Jewish writing, it says this:

Then the place of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed, and opposite it the Paradise of delight.

That’s 4 Ezra 7:36-37. So according to this view, it’s like one realm of the dead with two parts: gehenna, which is a place of torment and flames, and then paradise, which is a place of rest and peace. And either way, whether it’s up or down, or left and right, the idea here is that these two realms are divided. There’s a chasm between them, and you can’t cross the chasm. You can’t cross the great divide. So notice what the rich man says: “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Now I want you to think about this: even in death, the rich guy treats Lazarus like he’s a slave. Notice, he speaks to Abraham with respect, “Oh Father Abraham, well could you send your servant Lazarus to get me some water and dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m in anguish here and in these flames.” Unfortunately, Abraham says, “Sorry, there’s a chasm between us, and no one crosses from one side to the other.” So in response to that, the rich man says, “Well, then I beg you, send him back to my father’s house, to my five brothers to warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” And Abraham says, “Sorry, can’t do that either.” Listen to this: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” Pause here.

Notice what Abraham’s saying. They have the Scriptures; that’s all they need. The Scriptures—that’s what “Moses and the prophets” means—it means the first part of the Bible, the Torah (five books), and then the prophets, which is the second part of the Bible. The Jews had three parts: law, prophets, and writings. The Prophets contains both the prophetic writings but also all of the historical books like Kings and Samuel and all. They call all of that the prophets. They still do to this day. So what Jesus is doing there, or what Abraham is doing, is mentioning the first two parts of the Bible: the law and the prophets...and saying, “Look, they have the Scriptures. That’s all they need. Let them listen to them.” And then the rich man protests, he says, “No, no, no, no. If they see somebody come back from the dead”—in other words, they witness a miracle—“then they’ll repent.” And Abraham says, “If they won’t listen to the Scripture, it doesn’t matter. Even if they see someone raised from the dead, or rise from the dead, they will not repent.” It’s not going to convince them. End of parable, and it ends on that very hopeful note there.

Okay, so what’s going on here? Well, Jesus is once again talking about the dangers of wealth. This is something, a theme that we’ve seen over and over again in the Gospel of Luke in particular—it’s in all of the Gospels—but it’s in Luke in particular. Luke is very focused on highlighting the teachings of Jesus that have to do with the dangers of wealth and also the difference between earthly wealth and spiritual wealth. And in this case, we have a very profound parable—a very striking parable—about the fate of a wealthy person, this rich man who ignored the poor man Lazarus’s suffering and starvation. Now, for my money as I—no pun intended—as I (I really didn’t intend that one)...

For my money, what’s striking about this parable is what the rich man doesn’t do. I want you to notice something. If you think about Jewish morality in terms of the Ten Commandments, notice what the rich man doesn’t do. Does it say that he’s an idolater? No. Does it say he breaks the Sabbath? No. Does it say that he stole from anyone? No. Does it say that he was a liar or an adulterer or a murderer or any of those things? No. All it says is that he lived a life of luxury and a life of gluttony that led him to fail to love his neighbor, to fail to care for the poor man and the sick man who was right there at his gate. So what’s striking to me about this parable is that the rich man is condemned to Hades—often translated as Hell—for a sin of omission. There’s no evidence he broke any one of the Ten Commandments explicitly, but he did fail when it came to the second tablet of the Ten Commandments, which can be summed up by one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So this is a really powerful parable about how wealth can lead us to fail in charity toward other human beings and that failure—a grave failure—in charity toward other human beings can be the cause of the loss of eternal life. And I just think that that’s something that we don’t often think about nowadays. I mean, how many times have you heard people in the modern world say something like, “Well, I never killed anybody.” You know? “I’m a good person. I never killed anyone.” Okay, well, that’s setting the bar rather low in terms of ancient Jewish morality, in particular in terms of Scripture. Sins of commission are evil, but sins of omission can be equally grave depending on the gravity of the omission. And in this case, the factors involved in his failing to love Lazarus by caring for him, or at least feeding him, are two things: luxury and gluttony. He’s living a life of comfort and ease. He’s living a life focused entirely on himself, and both of those, of course, are rooted in the capital sin of pride, which is a disordered self-love that leads him to be blind to the sufferings of those around him and to do anything about it. And that is what Jesus is warning us about in this parable—the hardness of heart that can come with luxury and gluttony and wealth. So, I mean, we see it elsewhere in the Gospel: it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is like Exhibit A. This is a parabolic description of that maxim, of that teaching of Jesus, about the dangers of wealth and how it can lead to eternal damnation and the loss of everlasting life.

Okay, on that happy note, let’s turn to the Old Testament reading...

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