A quite superficial understanding of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus would make us think that the rich in this life would suffer in the next, while the suffering poor in this life would be well off. But if we look attentively to some details in the parable, we may discover that it has a deeper meaning.
Not only does Jesus contrasts vividly two characters – the rich man and the poor man – but also He gives us a profound understanding of what it means to be rich or poor. In the parable, the rich is not named. But the poor is: Lazarus. Can we not see in this an obvious parody of the cultural context in which the rich people were the ones having an identity while the poor did not?
When this parable was translated from Greek to Latin, the Latin word used to refer to the rich man is “Dives” (an adjective which literally means “rich”). Since then, the rich man is often named Dives. He is characterized as a person who is concerned so much with the externals of life. There are lots of people today whose concern in life are questions like: “What shall I eat?”, “What shall I wear in the party?”. The mostly asked question during the Oscar’s Red Carpet was: “What are you wearing?” One actress answered, “I’m wearing a Louis Vuitton!”
In this context of the parable, Jesus is saying that “rich” people are those who are concern only with the external, with the superficial, with vanity. Ultimately, this concern for what is superficial manifests a disordered self-love – a selfish trust in oneself. How easy it is, therefore, to become rich even if one does not have any fortune!
On the other hand, the poor man was named Lazarus, a Hebrew name which means “God is my helper”. The anawim, or the poor of Yahweh in the Scriptures were characterized by this total trust. They were poor but God is their helper. Jesus is telling us that to be poor means to trust in God. The rich are those who put their trust in themselves and in superficial things. The poor are those who put their trust in God.
In the First Reading, Jeremiah, the Prophet, says of the rich: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings and depends on a mortal for his life, while his heart is drawn away from Yahweh!” But of the poor who trust in God, the prophet says: “Blessed is the man who puts his trust in Yahweh and whose confidence is in him!”
In the parable, there seems to be no contact between Dives and Lazarus either while they were on earth (Dives was partying; Lazarus was at the gate begging) or in the afterlife (There was a chasm that separates the two). Between disordered trust in oneself and one’s confidence in God, there’s no middle ground.
St. Augustine puts it in a more dramatic way in his book The City of God. He said: “two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, "Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head”. Between these two loves, there is no middle term: either you love God more than yourself or you love yourself more than God.
The rich and the poor can also form a tension inside of each of us. In a heart that is torn by a superficial, selfish love and a sublime trust in God, we can feel even physically this tension. We can at times be as selfish as not even willing to concede that others’ opinion may also be better than ours. Yet, we can also be as trustful in God as to leave our homeland to do the apostolate or mission God is asking us to do. Dives and Lazarus can be two conflicting characters within us. But between the two, there can never be a compromise.