The story of the rich man and Lazarus which we hear in the Gospel of St. Luke today is peculiar to his Gospel. However, it is not peculiar to the literature of the time. Similar stories are found in the various collections of literature of its day.
The Egyptians tell the story of a young man who comes back reincarnated to lead his father through the realm of the dead where they see a rich man buried in a linen shroud exchange places with a poor man buried in a straw mat. Lucian of Samosota wrote a story entitled Gallus and Catalpus which tells of a poor cobbler who trades places with a rich man. Even Jewish literature tells a story of a poor Torah teacher who exchanges places in Sheol with a rich tax collector.
Indeed, St. Luke’s Gospel has raised this theme of the “reversal of fortune” many times in the preceding chapters of his Gospel. In the very beginning of the Gospel, we hear Mary sing of God who has “thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52) She adds: “the hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). Frequently, Jesus has told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. So this story that we hear today simply puts a face on the point that St. Luke has made over and over again. The framers of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass, have paired this Gospel story with a passage from the prophet Amos who reminds us that when the Assyrians looted Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, it was the rich who were carried away to be slaves in Babylon while the poor were not.
To emphasize the point, St. Luke puts these words in the mouth of Abraham: “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” (Luke 16:26). The rich man should not be surprised by this great chasm for it existed during his own lifetime. That chasm which prevents him from crossing over to the bosom of Abraham is the same chasm that existed between Lazarus and him in life – a chasm which, I might add, still exists today – the chasm between the rich and the poor.
St. Luke does not condemn the rich man because of his possessions. Let us remember that it was in this Gospel that we learned of the rich women who supported Jesus and his apostles in their preaching ministry. No, the rich man is condemned because he has failed to bridge the chasm that existed between him and the poor throughout his life.
St. Luke also adds something to the story that we will not find in the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, or Jewish stories. He adds the element of the Resurrection. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers. St. Luke has been careful to tell us that this story was addressed to the Pharisees, a group which believed in life after death. However, Abraham – unlike Charles Dickens who sends Jacob Marley back to warn Ebenezer Scrooge – reminds the rich man that they have already been warned by Moses and the prophets. They don’t need someone to come back from the dead to warn them. The supreme irony, of course, is that this Gospel, like all the Gospels, was written after the Resurrection of Jesus.
We have all been warned. Someone has come back from the dead to make sure we understand. Unless we do something about the chasm that exists between us and the poor in this life, we can expect that chasm to be present in the next life as well.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator