Parable of Dives and Lazarus, by Father Basil William Maturin

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.

“The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

“Abraham replied, ‘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. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

“He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

“He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'” – Luke 16:19-31

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In this Parable our Lord lays vividly before us the true issues of life. He draws a picture full of startling contrasts, both here and hereafter, which forces us to consider the meaning of life in its essence, and apart from its mere accidents. We naturally are apt to lay undue stress upon the accidental part; here we are led to give its proper weight to each part. We are shown first two men in the setting of their lives here on earth; we see each in the framework of their circumstances, then we are allowed to see these same men with all the surroundings of life removed; they are taken out of their setting that we may see more clearly what they are, or, rather, it would be more true to say we see them amidst other surroundings, each in the spiritual setting which he has made for himself by his life on earth.

In all life there are two ways of estimating the probable value of men: one by the direct study of their characters, the other by the examination of all the circumstances and privileges with which they are surrounded. There are everywhere to be found great men living amidst surroundings so meagre and so poor that few can recognise their greatness, and there are small men whose lives are set amidst such sparkle and glitter that we cannot tell how small they are. One is the greatness of personal character, the other is the greatness of condition, circumstance, accidents. We know the difference, the greatness, of privilege and the inherent greatness of character. One man lives in a set of circumstances that sets him off to the best advantage; another may find his lot cast where everything is against him. The two things are really quite distinct, yet it is difficult to keep them distinct when we come to form our judgment of men. We are constantly tempted to allow the conditions of life to flow over and to get mingled with the life itself.

We Christians have, as Christians, a knowledge of God that the wisest and the best men before Christ never dreamed of Yet, in fact, many an individual Christian knows less of God than some of those great seekers after truth. The Christian is living in an atmosphere and amidst institutions that insure to him a knowledge which may have very little that is personal about it, while all that the other knew was his own, the outcome of his own personal effort and greatness. Every man living in civilized society and enjoying its privileges appears to be far superior to a savage; yet there are some in the heart of barbarism who, as men, in spite of everything in life tending to drag them down, are far superior to many who are the product of civilization. Place the one who merely reflects his surroundings and the atmosphere in which he lives, and has never assimilated any of its gifts; place such a one in some savage land, and he will soon show what he is; or take the other and put him in the midst of civilized society, and he will at once rise and reveal himself. The one has nothing of his own; whatever the other has is all his own. A diamond in the sunlight throbs with the brilliant colours that seem to flow out of its very heart, but place it in a dark room and the glimmer from a dying candle is brighter than it The one is dependent for all its marvel of brilliancy upon a source of light outside of itself, the other has the light within it.

And thus we may try to form an estimate of what a man is worth by studying him under the reflected light of his surroundings, or by the direct study of the man’s character in itself We may consider a man whose life has been spent in the sunshine of every genial and sympathetic influence, surrounded by friends that love him, and by the material comforts that smooth the hard edges of life; in such an atmosphere he reflects all the brightness and love with which he is surrounded. He does more than reflect it; like the diamond, he produces from this atmosphere new effects that apparently flow out directly from his own personality. Yes, he may even seem to be the centre and source of all that is most beautiful and most brilliant in his surroundings, and yet, take him out of all this – place him in the dark – put him where there is nothing to reflect, where he must himself be the source and fountain of light and joy and sympathy, or be lost in the darkness that surrounds him; and how often all that seemed his own is at once seen to be but the reflection from things external to himself! And, on the other hand, how often we see men who by their own inherent greatness or goodness shine out and transform the most meagre and squalid surroundings!

Now the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus brings out this in a very striking way.

Our Lord depicts for us two men who stand out in remarkable contrast in every way. With a few graphic touches He describes the circumstances and scenes amidst which the life of each was spent He dwells at first upon these external matters alone: they are the things that at once force themselves upon observation. He describes the one living surrounded by all the good things that life has to give. He was rich, and had all that riches bring with them – friends, comforts, enjoyment The setting of his life was all that could be desired. It would be a misapprehension of the whole Parable to suppose that there is anything to be condemned in all this. There are other rich men described for us in Holy Scripture who were amongst the best Job, ‘the greatest of all the men of the East,’ and at the same time ‘a perfect and an upright man, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.’ (John 1:8) Abraham, the Father of the Faithful, who was ‘very rich in cattle, in silver and in gold.’

So far our Lord says nothing about the man. He describes only his circumstances. And He describes the other living amidst surroundings the exact opposite of all this. Lazarus was a beggar living in abject poverty and want; every detail of the picture brings out squalor, misery, and wretchedness. Dives had everything, Lazarus had nothing. There was everything to draw out all the latent powers and gifts that were in the one. Such circumstances ought to develop a man. All the genial and beneficent forces of life play upon him, and keep at a distance those ruthless powers that hurt and maim so many lives. And around Lazarus is gathered just those forces that beat down and crush men; that make development, education, refinement, impossible; that draw out all that is worst and lowest and most animal. It would seem as impossible for life to develop and ripen in beggary and squalor and disease as for a flower to blossom in the nipping frost.

As we look at the setting of the two pictures, knowing as yet nothing of the men that are to be placed in them, we feel that all the chances are in favour of the rich man and against the beggar. The one must be developed, the other destroyed by the outward conditions of his life.

Then our Lord turns to the men. What effect is all this having upon them? So far as it is possible to see and to judge them as they live before us, how have their characters formed? There is a vast deal in character that it is impossible for us to know, but we shall fail of getting the full meaning of the Parable if we attribute good or evil to either of these men other than is told us.

What, then, do we know of the characters of the two men whose lives are lived under such different conditions? We are told only one characteristic of each. Dives was hardened by his wealth: he could see unmoved a starving beggar lying at his gate. And Lazarus – the whole picture is the embodiment of the grace of patience. That is all. That is all that we are explicitly told of either of them, and it is not much perhaps, but it is an index of a good deal. It helps us at once to perceive that the outward conditions of life were injurious to the one and beneficial to the other. For it will be noticed that these two characteristics are typical: they act as an index to the whole character; they help us to trace out what we cannot see. Hardness towards the beggar at his gate shows that his riches were not merely having a bad effect upon their possessor, but that they were having the very worst effect – that they were tending to produce just that very characteristic which they do produce upon a man who lets them develop, not what is noble, but what is basest in him. It shows that the man’s character was not rising up to draw out of its surroundings all their beneficent effects, but that he was basely yielding himself to be moulded and degraded by them. We do not see a will in conflict with powers that in themselves are capable of producing either good or evil, and struggling to get the good out of them, but the very opposite; there has been no conflict, or if there has it has ended in defeat His wealth has done to him the worst it could do. It has produced the effect which ill-used riches is wont to produce. If the Parable had depicted Dives as proud, or ill-tempered, or a sensualist, or all of these together, it would not have told us as much about him as is disclosed by the one fact of his hardness and selfishness in the presence of a starving beggar at his gate. For this shows us the whole relation of his character to his surroundings; the outward accidents of life were having it all their own way with him. Character was not strong enough to stand out against them.

And with Lazarus it was just the reverse. The natural effect of want and misery in the presence of affluence is to develop discontent, bitterness, impatience. The rich man could give all that he needed to satisfy his hunger without missing it, and he would not Poverty and starvation and disease in the very presence of abundance 1 We know what a passion of bitterness it often does excite. But here is a man who in the face of all this is the very picture of patience and gentleness. There must be something in this man more strong and masterful than his surroundings; he is forcing all those things, whose nature is to curse, to bless him. This special virtue shining out in brilliant contrast to all the outward conditions of life is a revelation of the man, more so, perhaps, than anything that could have been told us about him, for it shows us the energy of character at work, struggling with, triumphing over, outward things, crying out, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’

Nothing in itself is of any account, so the Parable warns us, except in so far as it affects character. A yielding and plastic will ends in moral failure though outward circumstances may be most auspicious. A will that struggles may end in greatness, though all the surroundings of life may be most degrading.

So far, then, we are allowed to see more deeply than we might at first have imagined into the characters of these two men through the one trait that is given us in each case. We see the way the currents of life are flowing: in the one case they are flowing with, in the other against the trend of circumstances; in the one case character is suffering, in the other it is triumphing over outward things.

This is what is shown us of these two men in the midst of life and while the power of choice is still with them. This is the way each of them is exercising his power of choice and using his opportunities. We get a hint, but nothing more.

Now let us look at them again when they are taken out of all the surroundings of life, and the will has done its work in relation to these things. These outward things are temporary, character is eternal; but every one of these things, passing and ephemeral though it be, leaves its impress upon character for eternity, for the choices exercised in relation to the things of time form character.

Let us study these two men, then, when all the drapery of their life is removed, and each is seen stripped of everything except those results which he bears within himself.

First, ‘The rich man died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said. Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.’

Out of all the riches that crowded upon his life on earth, Dives has taken nothing away with him. His nature is now consumed with thirst; it had been always resting and feeding upon things outside of himself; they belonged to him so much that they seemed a very part of himself These riches enabled him, while he owned them, to gather around him what supplied his needs; he did not perceive that they were but creating needs and stimulating wants which became more and more persistent as time went on. They were in truth impoverishing his nature, not enriching it, for they were making him more and more dependent upon his surroundings, less and less personally independent The abundance of his surroundings hid from him the fact of the impoverishment of his person. He himself was dwindling away into insignificance in proportion as the passing wants of his nature could be supplied and temporarily quieted by what his wealth provided. But out of all this he was in truth gaining nothing but new wants. The nature that might have turned to God, and become in Him more and more independent, and in a sense self-sufficient, was drifting into and losing itself in the things that were, in fact, enslaving it. The effect of his riches was exactly the opposite to what it seemed to be. They seemed to develop the man, to give him importance, to endow him with power, to make him great; but as a matter of fact they were sapping the springs of his personality and making him merely the needy centre of ten thousand wants which one day must show themselves in all their ugliness. How very difficult it is for us to perceive that all those external things that create new demands are not really riches, for they only make our nature more needy. How hard it is for those who can at once supply from without the newly developed cravings of their nature to perceive that all these things are in truth making them personally poorer, and that he alone is truly rich who carries within himself the exhaustless supply of all his wants!

And so we are allowed to see this rich man, whose riches on earth had mastered him and moulded him, when he is taken out of them all. There he is now stripped and solitary, burning in the flame of desires which have been awakened by his earthly surroundings. He is a living centre of want His nature is parching from the supreme needs which earth has awakened, but now in the naked solitude of his own personality he finds nothing wherewith to slake his thirst There is nothing in him to satisfy the cravings which have been created by outward things. He never perceived before how absolutely apart from himself those things were upon which he depended. Now he knows that of all the riches that crowded upon him, and enclosed him once, he has in truth appropriated nothing. They have had power over him; he has wielded no power over them; he left himself in their hands, and they have created within him a very hell of undying and unsatisfied cravings. The riches of life have left the man so poor that in his need he turns to the beggar whom he had despised for a drop of water, and even that he cannot get.

And then the beggar. What have the abject surroundings in which he lived done for him? We saw that they did not embitter him and make him impatient, but it would be better to be impatient than to be merely cowed and beaten by want till there is not enough spirit left to rebel. Was this the effect of his poverty upon Lazarus? No, he turns to another world for consolation; he finds it in God and the Communion of saints. The beggar is on familiar terms with Abraham and with the Angels. The energy of a character that refuses to be crushed turns away from a world which denies to him the very necessaries of life, and gathers around him the companionship of Heaven. This is the secret of his patience; he knows that there are deeper wants than those of the body, and he seeks to satisfy them. He does not waste his strength in repining for what he cannot get, but he turns the whole force of his nature to get what is within the reach of faith. As he lies at the rich man’s gate, outwardly the picture of abject misery, his inner being is all alive, astir, awake, stretching out beyond the visible world, and he gathers around his soul the riches of Heaven. Thus he meets and fights against the natural tendency of his surroundings. He refuses to be moulded by them; he rises above them and through them; he compels them by the force of his own character to bless him. Starvation, bodily suffering, a bare and inhospitable world, cannot cow the strength of this man’s will nor chill his heart He cannot work, he is too weak and ailing – everything here below is against him. Well, then, he will turn to Heaven. And he does, and Heaven opens to him, and comes down to comfort him.

There he is, awaiting the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Of this world’s goods he has nothing; all his riches are his own. He will be no poorer when he dies. He carries with him all his possessions, a character that suffering and want cannot bend – strong, resourceful, spiritual. When he has suffered and borne the last agony that this world can inflict, his eyes open upon the world to which he had turned for support, and he is carried by the Angels to Abraham’s bosom.

Thus each of these men taken out of the temporary setting of their earthly lives shows the lasting results which have been left upon their characters, and each goes to the place for which his earthly discipline was preparing him – Dives to Hell, Lazarus to Abraham’s Bosom.