The Rich Man, Lazarus, And The Hell Of Isolation

by Gospels, Self-Knowledge

Lk 16:19-31

Jesus said to the Pharisees: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Scripture Reflection

For those who preach, sometimes it can be complicated to translate certain aspects of the faith that seem incomprehensible to modern-day sensibility.

Still, it is strange that contemporary man struggles so much to conceive hell when he complains about living in it daily.

Meditating on today’s Gospel, a quote from Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest came to mind. It is the story of a young priest who finds himself in a hostile parish, often having to deal with bickering between the local nobles. One day he is talking about hell with the countess. The hell that he describes, however, is nothing but his own experience. Alcoholism runs in the family, and he is no different. Hell for him is that deep isolation from the world, that impossibility of communicating what’s going on inside, that impossibility of confessing his need to be loved.

Luke’s Gospel text portrays hell as a chasm, a vast distance. It seems to suggest that it is we who dig this chasm with our choices. We construct our own hell of solitude.

The rich man is another example (together with the merciful father and the dishonest steward) of one that takes a wrong turn in his search for meaning. Once again, the Gospel warns us about the subtle temptation of only looking after ourselves. The rich man devours life and keeps everything for himself. We are all exposed to that voice that says: “Take care of yourself! Save yourself!” Even Christ heard this voice on the cross.

The rich man is nameless. He is already in hell. Without a name, no one can call him. He is already living in isolation. Not even God has a name for him.

In the Gospel language, wealth is contrary to generosity. If you are rich, it means that you haven’t given to others. It is a lifestyle: he dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. On the contrary, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will wear or eat. What we wear and what we eat are our two biggest worries. We worry about what we wear because we worry about the image we want others to see. We worry about how they will judge us. That’s why we strain to find the perfect mask so that we can please the world without ever revealing our true face. We are worried about what we are going to eat because we don’t trust the world. We think that we will always have to go hunting to conquer our own prey.

The rich man is the opposite of Christ. While the rich man dress, Christ strips himself of his equality with God (cfr. Phil 2:6). While he indulges himself in banquets, Christ gives his body as food. It is when we only worry about ourselves that, little by little, we dig the chasm that separates us from the others and from God.

Unlike the rich man, Lazarus, whose name means “God helps”, lives out the beatitudes of poverty. He is hungry and his desire is inflamed. He is open to life. He is searching. In fact, God has a name for him. Lazarus isn’t isolated precisely because he isn’t satisfied. He isn’t enough on his own; he needs others.

The ground that the rich man is so attached to becomes his very tomb: he was buried. Once his prized possession, the earth now falls on top of him. We build our own hell when we close ourselves off in ivory towers, when we grasp onto our securities, when we defend ourselves behind that image. An image that, by now, has become a cage.

Just like the dishonest steward that was suddenly called to account for his life, the rich man is called to do the same. Life always offers us an occasion to see where we are. “Seeing” is the verb of responsibility, because once we see, we have the chance to make new decisions about our life.

How are you trying to make sense of your life? Are you grabbing and keeping? Or do you have the courage to ask to be fed?

As it is for the rich man, so it is for us: only Moses and the prophets can awaken us from our comfortable slumber. Moses and the prophets indicate the Word of God. It is the Word that shakes some sense into us. It wrenches us away from those daily concerns about food and dress. It keeps us from closing ourselves off in our castles of security.

Questions for Personal Reflection

  • Are you feeling isolated from others and from God? What are you doing to improve?
  • In what ways do you seek to find meaning in your life?

More Catholic Resources

We also suggest Fr. Robert Barron’s homily on Lazarus and the Rich Man.

The RIch Man And Lazarus

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