Let the Scriptures Speak
Dives and Lazarus
Woe to the complacent in Zion (Amos 6:1)
If the story of Dives and Lazarus, especially the request that the deceased Lazarus be sent to haunt the rich man’s brothers, reminds you of Marley’s ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you are right on target. Dickens himself admitted that this parable inspired his famous story. And there is much more in Jesus’ parable to engage the imagination. While the main message of the story is clear enough, closer study reveals ironies that only serve to drive the message home more deeply.
First there is the matter of names. Ironically, the rich man goes nameless, whereas we are told at the outset that the beggar is called Lazarus. Tradition has tried to make up for this by calling the rich man Dives, which is simply the Latin word for “rich man.” The irony is that while it is a preoccupation of the “great ones” of this world to be remembered, it is one of the “nameless ones”—the beggar, who gets named in the story. A further irony around names: after death, when “Dives” calls upon Abraham for a drink of water, he refers to Lazarus by name, indicating that he was very much aware of this man starving at his gate. Further, although Dives had not bothered to send a servant to meet Lazarus’ needs, he has the arrogance to try to make an errand boy of Lazarus to quench his own thirst.
Then there is the matter of meals. The story really presents two meal scenes. The first scene is that of the rich man dining sumptuously, while Lazarus remains a conspicuous non-diner at his gate. The second scene, the afterlife of both individuals, shows Lazarus “in the bosom of” Abraham. The phrase “in the bosom of” refers to the position of honor at a banquet, the place where a favored guest reclines next to the host (see John 13:23); thus Lazarus is pictured enjoying first place at the heavenly banquet, while the rich man is now clearly the one on the outside looking in.
Jesus’ moral teaching reaffirms the covenant code outlined in the Torah and affirmed by the prophets.
This image illustrates elements in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes and “Woes”: “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied (Lk 6:21). “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry” (Lk 6:25). And Abraham’s taunt (“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”) plays on the wording of the first “woe”: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk 6:24).
Abraham’s words at the end supply the final irony: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Within the plot of the parable, the statement refers of course to Dives’ suggestion that Lazarus be sent to spook his brothers into repentance. Within the larger context of the Gospel, however, Abraham’s words refer to the resurrection of Jesus and the fact that the meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching are in continuity with the Law and the Prophets. And those who refused to respond to the Law and the Prophets will fail to respond to the person and teaching of the risen Lord.
All Dives needed to know was right there in the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, a key passage in Isaiah addresses precisely his neglect of Lazarus:
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: …
sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh? (Isa 58:5-6)
Lazarus was apparently homeless, surely hungry, and even naked (dogs licked his sores). Jesus’ moral teaching reaffirms the covenant code outlined in the Torah and affirmed by the prophets.
We need not look further than this Sunday’s First Reading to find another example of prophetic warning to the rich. Amos satirizes the self-indulgent wealthy who have become oblivious to the decline of their society (“the collapse of Joseph”). The letter to Timothy adds its own wake-up call:
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus, …
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ (Second Reading).
The final judgment that comes with the parousia [second coming] will test all by the light of the basic commands of the Torah—commands, that is, about acting according to the covenant relationships, respecting life, speaking the truth, helping the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the hungry, the naked.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University