The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is in keeping with many of our recent discussions and typical of Luke’s Gospels in which we encounter a number of assumptions and reversals. The first reversal is that the beggar is given a name and the rich man is not.
When we encounter the poor or homeless we are moved to pity and a desire to help. Yet, too often this desire or inclination stops with the intention. It’s not that we don’t care; we really do, but something happens to cause us to “look the other way,” just long enough for us to put the “urge” out of our minds and for us to forget it. Let’s face it, getting physically involved with those who are “different” from us can make us a little uncomfortable. Perhaps the operative word here is “different.”
So it is with the rich man in this parable. Both characters die and Lazarus is with Abraham in paradise and the rich man is in hell. While the story does not have a judgment scene, we assume that the rich man is not condemned because of his wealth but because he was “indifferent” to the plight of Lazarus. He did nothing to relieve his suffering in this life. Lazarus was not in the rich man’s line of sight because he was different …and the rich man was indifferent.
Yet doesn’t the rich man reveal a certain compassion and “piety” when he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to “warn” his brothers? Doesn’t this “better late than never piety” count for anything? No, it really doesn’t…the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. Jesus is telling us that piety and talk are cheap grace; it’s what we do with our wealth, i.e., our time, our abilities and our resources that count. While the rich man could have helped Lazarus before, he did not, and Lazarus cannot do anything to help the rich man now.
This Gospel stresses the urgency for us to act in this lifetime and suggests that the righteous and the “wicked” may see each other after death…but if they are attentive to the presence of the Kingdom of God, they may see both each other while on this earth.