19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Every commentator on this story I’ve read or heard seemed determined to avoid the point Jesus is trying to make. Many are troubled by that fact that Dives in hell pleads for his family. He’s not all bad. It just seems wrong that he’s in hell. Often I’ll hear priests tell us to ignore that last part. Dives didn’t really care about keeping his brothers out of hell; we all know there can’t be charity among the damned. In reading the parable, we should just stick to the main point Jesus is making and ignore (for theological purposes) those little details He adds that make the characters seem to come alive. Perhaps this is true, but the question is whether in ignoring these details we really are preserving the main point. The main point is supposed to be that Dives is condemned to Hell because he was rich, Lazarus was poor, and Dives failed to help Lazarus when he could. In fact, even this is a softening of what Jesus said: the most straightforward reading of the parable is that Dives is in hell simply for being rich when Lazarus was poor; a philanthropic sin of omission is not explicitly mentioned. Now, if Dives were indeed a totally heartless man with no concern for anyone but himself, he would have much worse sins on his conscience than failing to help Lazarus. His damnation would have nothing to do with Lazarus at all, but rather be a consequence of being a complete moral monster.
I once heard a priest say that, according to Thomas Aquinas, Dives is actually in purgatory, because he displays charity, which cannot exist in hell. This is an interesting argument. Charity is a supernatural virtue, and the damned are by definition not in a state of grace. However, could Dives’ plea not be one of natural love and benevolence? I suppose one could say that even natural virtues are blotted out of the souls in hell. To me this sounds plausible, but hardly obvious.
The really important point, though, is that we must not alter the parable by making Dives completely wicked during life. This destroys the point. Let me therefore add my own embellishments, consistent with the story Jesus tells.
There was once a rich man who lived his whole life in luxury. He was a pious and patriotic Jew, a loving brother and uncle, a fair and hard-working employer, a generous master, an active and public-minded citizen. Reverence for God and love of his family guided his life. He loved children, and many thought it sad that he never knew the joys of fatherhood himself, for his beloved wife having died years ago in a plague, and he could never bring himself to consider remarriage. There were at his gate poor beggars, faceless shadow beings always on the periphery of his consciousness. Always there were more important things to attend to. “Should I toss them a coin? Perhaps, but not now; let me now attend to my own household. Perhaps, but not now; let me rest a little.” And he never got around to them. When death came, his brothers travelled far to be at his side. The rich man blessed them all, saying “Do not mourn for me, dear brothers. I go to the God of Abraham.” With that, he drifted from consciousness. He awoke to eternal torment.
Do you like my story?
“Good God, no! You’ve totally warped the story by making Dives a good man who just does one bad thing. It wouldn’t be fair for him to go to hell, when so much of his life was good. You’re making God out to be a monster!”
Ah, but where did you get the idea that “mostly good” people go to heaven, that wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to eternal life? Not from the Gospel, I assure you! We many be damned just for sins of omission to the poor, no matter how good we otherwise are.
“But this is terrifying!”
Indeed. If you’re scared, you’re starting to get Jesus’ point.