Biblical reflections for the year of Mercy-9: Rejection of Mercy. The Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16,19-31)


In the Gospel according to Luke, there are two attitudes of wealthy people that endanger them to experience the divine blessings of God’s kingdom: a) godlessness and b) heartlessness. Firstly, the parable of the rich fool in Lk 12:13-21 is certainly the best example for rich man’s tendency to substitute God with wealth, and his failure to look beyond the material treasures.

He had his barns full, but had his heart empty. Secondly, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) is a fitting example of the lack of mercy and compassion towards one’s neighbor. Both the stories are found in the Lucan Travel Narrative (Lk 9:51-19:44) that describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with his disciples. We shall focus on the second parable.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in 16:19-31 is another provocative parable of Jesus (like that of Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son) in Lk’s gospel that has two narrative scenes: a) the rich man and the poor man Lazarus in this world; and b) the rich man, Lazarus and Abraham in the next world.
Firstly, both the scenes are disproportionate in terms of their ‘narration time’. The verses that describe the temporal reality on earth are very few (vv.19-22), compared to that of eternity (vv.23-31), which occupy more narration time. The first scene on earth is communicated by ‘silence’ as it is mostly a description or exposition of the characters, while the second scene progresses through ‘dialogues’ in eternity. Interestingly, Lazarus never utters a single word. In short, ‘silence’ in the first scene is reversed by ‘speech’ in the second.

Secondly, in this parable, we have two contrasting narrative scenes, marked by a plot of resolution, which is characterized by a change of situation: the rich man, who feasted sumptuously every day, clothed in purple and fine linen, enjoys the “good time” of his earthly life—a situation of total happiness; while, in the following scene, in a complete reversal, he is found in Hades, experiencing torment and affliction—a situation of total suffering and unhappiness. The second protagonist, Lazarus, the poor man, who lay at the rich man’s gate (literally “was laid”; most likely being incapacitated), full of sores, licked by the dogs and who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table, experienced a situation of poverty, hunger and discomfort. In contrast, he is carried by the angles to Abraham’s bosom—a situation of total comfort and freedom from all miseries, as he reclines at the great heavenly banquet with the patriarch. As the narrative progresses, fortunes change and the outsider becomes the insider! The good things, received and enjoyed by the rich man and that were denied to Lazarus on earth are now reversed in the second scene. While the rich man is tormented and afflicted, Lazarus is consoled in the embrace of Abraham. Thus, these two scenes are painted with a dramatic reversal of fortunes.

Thirdly, we find another reversal in terms of recognition (discovery or revelation) or in short, the change of knowledge. In the first scene on earth, there is no mention that the self-indulgent rich man ever acknowledged the poor man, lying outside his gate. However, in the second scene, the rich man acknowledges Lazarus only in the afterlife, that turns out to be useless. When the rich man sees him with Abraham, he recognizes him and calls him by his name ‘Lazarus’ (v.24). Perhaps, he knew Lazarus who lay at his gate daily, but chose to ignore him. However, in the second scene, this ignorance is reversed into knowledge as he recognizes the poor man and calls him by his name.

Fourthly, we find a contrast in the names of the characters. The poor man is called ‘Lazarus’, while the rich man, whose name is not recorded remains anonymous. Lazarus, which means, “God has helped”, is the only name mentioned for any character in all of Jesus’ parables. The earliest or the oldest Greek manuscript of Luke, namely P75 (the codex dated between A.D. 175-225) records the name of the rich man as “Nineveh,” which is most likely a scribal error as there is very little textual support in other manuscripts for this reading. A few other manuscripts suggest that his name was Phineas, Amenophis, etc. In some of the popular traditions, he is called either “Dives”, which in fact, is the Latin Vulgate’s translation for “rich man”; or epulone (glutton), which is neither a proper name nor mentioned in the present text.

Finally, the definitive reversal is shown through what separated the self-indulgent and complacent rich man and the poor Lazarus on earth and in heaven—a large gate at the house of the rich man and the abyss (chasm) that exists between both of them afterlife. He, who ignored and showed indifference to satisfy the needs of the poor man at the entrance of his gate, is now refused to be granted any of his requests by Abraham.
In short, this parable presents some remarkable contrasts—time and eternity, silence and speech, life and afterlife, heaven and hell, gate and abyss, riches and poverty, indifference and compassion, ignorance and recognition, inclusion and exclusion etc. which transpire disproportionately in both the scenes.

In Lk’s Gospel, we have several examples in the words and deeds of Jesus that present how the compassion is shown to the one who is in need or mercy is granted to the one who is in misery or the forgiveness of sins to the one who does not deserve it. In contrast, in this story, we have an example of the refusal of mercy, i.e., the supplication for mercy is turned down, because the situation afterlife has become irreversible. The underlying principle is: he, who rejects others, is rejected by God. In the parable, the rich man is refused the divine mercy not by God, who is never mentioned, but by Abraham, who perhaps represents God, speaks and acts on behalf of God. The text gives no reasons as to why Lazarus is taken to Abraham’s bosom, rather it only focuses on the fate of the rich man. To find an answer, we must turn to the first scene, in which we notice that the rich man was totally engrossed in a self-centered living. He possessed everything that a person requires—clothes, food, house etc, but had no ‘heart’ for his neighbor at his gate. He indulged in his wealth so much that he failed to notice the needs of the poor man and showed no mercy to him. He, who failed to reach out to his brother across the gate, consequently found himself condemned and unable to cross the chasm. Msgr. Antonio Pitta, commenting on this parable writes, “The situation is therefore irremediable because compassion is possible while the poor man lies covered in sores at the rich man’s gate; later, compassion makes no sense and is in fact impossible for the rich man. The mercy of God always decreases when mercy for one’s neighbor decreases. And when mercy for one’s neighbor is lacking, there is no room for God’s mercy.” (Parables of Mercy, p.57). Rejections lead to chasms that cannot be crossed. One finds no way to return!

If rejections create chasms, relationships build bridges. Therefore, one of the key elements to interpret this parable is ‘relationship’ – relationship with God and relationship with one’s neighbor. The parable does not tell us that Lazarus was with Abraham, because he was poor, and the rich man was condemned, because he was rich. In the whole story, what mattered the most was the treatment of Lazarus by the rich man that revealed his relationship with God, whether he saw the poor man as God sees. Mercy is all about seeing as God sees. The rich man saw Lazarus at his gate and ignored him, but God saw the poor man and welcomed him. Perhaps, the rich man deceived himself that his opulent lifestyle would continue into the eternity. But time is a great leveler. In the afterlife, the rich man’s heart was laid bare that showed no mercy and compassion towards his needy neighbor.
Mercy is never a one way! It embraces three dimensions—God, others and me. My relationship with God is manifested in my relationship with others. And my right relationship with others is born out of my right relationship with God. One who is devoid of this love relationship with God as well as with others finds himself or herself alienated, not able to love. Msgr. Antonio Pitta rightly notes, “If hell is the suffering of no longer being able to love, every instant of human life that is not lived for love is an anticipation of hell.” (p.63)

In the end, the rich man became a beggar!

Rejection of mercy can lead us also to that chasm!

Naveen Rebello, SVD