The rich man in the story is not named, because he is you, he is me. He is not moved by the man dying of hunger on his doorstep; nor is he aware that God is visiting him in the same beggar. Indeed, the living God is pleading for the rich man to get up from his table and feed the one who is starving, feed Jesus Christ in the form of the dying man. If the rich man were open to the presence of God in his own soul, he could not be closed to the real needs of the man-Christ on his doorstep. No one can love God and be deaf to the cries of his fellow human beings. A hard-hearted human being is less moved by the God of compassion than is a dog who licks the poor man’s sores, seeking to heal his wounds and comfort him. As the end of the story tells us, this man has cut himself off from God, now and into eternity. In his lifetime, he may hear Moses and the prophets, but his hearing is superficial, does not penetrate his stoney heart. As many times as he has heard the Scriptures read, he is not moved to action by the impassioned words of the prophets: “I was hungry, and you gave me no food; I was grieving, and you did not comfort me.” The rich man lives in luxury and at ease, but in fact he is already living in hell. And what is hell? A self-enclosed, self-contracted, self-absorbed life. Hell is a human being closed to the life-giving God.
I wonder if those who knew this rich man realized that he was living in hell on earth? Knowing people, most of them probably envied this fellow because he was rich. They wanted to be like him. They did not stop and think about the rich man’s soul—or inner life, or sheer lack of inner line. Nor did this fellow consider his inner wretchedness. No doubt he thought about his “stuff,” his loot, his belly, and “having fun,” to use our terms. His body may have been sleek and sound, his balding head well-oiled and shiny, but his soul was like a shrunken head, and rock hard. Although alive in body, he is dead in spirit. And that is what we call “hell.”
The story is not meant to provide fodder for speculating on the afterlife, but that is the way it has often been used or abused by Christian interpreters. Words about Lazarus being “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham,” about “a vast chasm that prevents anyone from crossing over,” about “suffering torment in these flames,” and so on, are all poetic images meant to communicate spiritual reality: being open to God and alive with God’s love; or being hard-heartedly closed to God and to his creatures, and living a hellish life even on earth, as sketched out above. And of course how we live now affects our eternal destiny, for living in eternity begins now. In telling this story, Jesus is not trying to feed speculation about what happens after death. Rather, he is warning his hearers to wake up, open one’s heart and mind to God coming to them in the needs of others, and to leave one’s self-contained “comfort zone” and take God’s compassion to those who suffer.
To be hard-hearted, indifferent to the sufferings of others, closed to the cries of God in his creatures, is the worst fate for a human being. To allow the real needs of others to penetrate one’s heart and mind is the price of being truly alive with and in God. That is the lesson I hear Jesus teaching in this powerful little story. What do you hear? Or are you listening?