The juxtaposition of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar is a wonderfully instructive parable regarding the obligations each of us have to our fellow man. The stark contrast between the two characters reveals certain pitfalls we should avoid in order not to meet the rich man’s unenviable position after death.
The rich man is a caricature for the self-indulgent person. He dines sumptuously each day, in violation of the Fourth Commandment. In Exodus 20:9 we read that not only must one keep the Sabbath as a day of rest; one must labor for six days of the week. The rich man spent his days feeding upon costly and exotic foods, rather than work, as the commandment requires.
Lazarus would wait at the foot of the rich man’s table, hoping for scraps to fall from it. In the homes of the rich, food was eaten by hand and the hands were cleansed by wiping them on chunks of bread, which were then thrown out. It is likely that these were the scraps that Lazarus ate. He is a pitiable character. Interestingly, his name is the Latinized version of the name “Eleazar” which means “God is my help.” Moreover, his name is explicitly mentioned, while the name of the rich man is not. This is a sign that the rich man’s luxury was merely earthly and temporal. By contrast, Lazarus’ heavenly riches are for eternity and it is his name that lives in posterity.
What was the rich man’s sin that merited him damnation? Certainly, he did no harm to Lazarus. He did not mistreat him or mock him. He never had Lazarus removed from his property. However, the rich man did nothing for Lazarus — he practically ignored him. It’s not what the rich man did — it was what he failed to do, that condemned him to hell. This is what is called a sin of omission — failing to do good we ought to do. The rich man accepted Lazarus’ plight as a part of his landscape, as if it was perfectly natural and inevitable.
Thus, the rich man’s wealth was not his sin. Rather it was his self-indulgence which blinded him to the basic human needs of his fellow man that warranted his condemnation. For the rich man, it was as if Lazarus didn’t even exist. Christian discipleship does not permit this attitude toward the poor and the weak. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the poor are Christ in distressing disguise. In each of them, we must seek to alleviate Christ’s pain in the world.
The denial of the rich man’s request to have his brothers warned of their impending doom seems harsh. However, it is a warning that we have been given every benefit of knowing what God expects of us and that obligation to act virtuously, especially toward the neediest among us is real. May we never become comfortable with the suffering of others. Rather, may we do all we can to alleviate their pain.