A Man Just Like Me
In the Gospel Reading, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who goes to hell. In the parable, while the rich man is still alive, he is beautifully dressed and eats very well. But at his door there is always a poor man, Lazarus, who is clothed in sores and very hungry. Eventually, both the rich man and the poor man die. But the rich man goes to hell, and the poor man Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham.
The thought of going to hell is alarming, and so we ought to ask ourselves this question: what exactly is the sin of the rich man? Once we ask this question, puzzling features of the parable leap to mind.
If the point of the parable is to give us a warning about a sin that can send a person to hell, the parable ought to tell us what that sin is. But it doesn’t.
The poor man is a human person just like the rich man, but the rich man can’t see it.
We might think that the sin just is the rich man’s failure to feed the poor man. But the parable doesn’t actually say whether the poor man gets any food from the rich man. Notice too that if not feeding the hungry is the sin of the rich man, then the parable could stop near its beginning, when it tells us that the poor man hung around the house of the rich man and the rich man went to hell when he died.
But the parable doesn’t stop there. It continues for a good while. In hell, the rich man sees that the poor man is comforted in the bosom of Abraham, and he says to Abraham: send the poor man to bring me a little water.
Notice that the rich man is talking to Abraham, not to the poor man; and he is asking Abraham to command the poor man. He wants Abraham to make the poor man leave the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, find his way into the flames of hell, and bring a bit of water to himself, even though he will be thirsty again almost immediately. Clearly, the rich man thinks no trouble for the poor man is too much if it brings a little something for the rich man.
When Abraham won’t agree to this request, the rich man makes another request. He asks Abraham to send the poor man to his brothers, to warn them. In making this request on behalf of his brothers, the rich man still is talking only to Abraham. He spares a thought for the poor man only when he is figuring out how to make use of him. If not for bringing water to hell, then why not for bringing messages to earth?
And now we can see the sin of the rich man, can’t we? The poor man is a human person just like the rich man, but the rich man can’t see it. The rich man doesn’t talk directly to the poor man because he doesn’t see the poor man as a person in his own right. Insofar as he thinks of the poor man at all, it is only to calculate how the poor man could be used to benefit himself.
It wouldn’t matter if the rich man had in fact fed the poor man when they were both living if he had done so in this frame of mind, would it? The sin is the failure ever to think “He is a man just like me.”
**From Saint Louis University