This story once again presents us with two contrasting figures: the rich man, who carouses in his life of luxury, and the poor man, who cannot even catch the crumbs that the rich bon vivants drop from the table — according to the custom of the time, pieces of bread which they used in order to wash their hands and then threw away. Some of the Church Fathers also classed this parable as an example of the two-brother pattern and applied it to the relationship between Israel (the rich man) and the Church (the poor, man, Lazarus), but in so doing they mistook the very different typology that is involved here. This is evident already in the very different ending. Whereas the two-brother texts remain open, ending as a question and an invitation, this story already describes the definitive end of both protagonists.
For some background that will enable us to understand this narrative, we need to look at the series of Psalms in which the cry of the poor rises before God — the poor who live out their faith in God in obedience to his commandments, but experience only unhappiness, whereas the cynics who despise God go from success to success and enjoy every worldly happiness. Lazarus belongs to the poor whose voice we hear, for example, in Psalm 44: "Thou hast made us the taunt of our neighbours, the derision and scorn of those about us... Nay, for thy sake we are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Ps 44:15-23; cf Rom 8:36). The early wisdom of Israel had operated on the premise that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinner, so that misfortune matches sin and happiness matches righteousness. This wisdom had been thrown into crisis at least since the time of the Exile. It was not just that the people of Israel as a whole suffered more than the surrounding peoples who led them into exile and oppression — in private life, too, it was becoming increasingly apparent that cynicism pays and that the righteous man is doomed to suffer in this world. In the Psalms and the later wisdom literature we witness the struggle to come to grips with this contradiction; we see a new effort to become "wise" — to understand life rightly, to find and understand anew the God who seems unjust or altogether absent.
One of the most penetrating texts concerning this struggle is Psalm 73, which we may regard as in some sense the intellectual backdrop of our parable. There we see the figure of the rich glutton before our very eyes and we hear the complaint of the praying Psalmist-Lazarus: "For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like other men. Therefore pride is their necklace... Their eyes swell out with fatness... They set their mouths against the heavens... Therefore the people turn and praise them; and fmd no fault in them. And they say, 'How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Ps 73:3-11).
The suffering just man who sees all this is in danger of doubting his faith, Does God really not see? Does he not hear? Does he not care about men's fate? "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken, and chastened every morning. My heart was embittered" (Ps 73:13f1). The turning point comes when the suffering just man in the Sanctuary looks toward God and, as he does so, his perspective becomes broader. Now he sees that the seeming cleverness of the successful cynics is stupidity when viewed against the light. To be wise in that way is to be "stupid and ignorant... like a beast" (Ps 73:22). They remain within the perspective of animals and have lost the human perspective that transcends the material realm — toward God and toward eternal life.
We may be reminded here of another Psalm in which a persecuted man says at the end: "May their belly be filled with good things; may their children have more than enough... As for me. I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form" (Ps 77:140. Two sorts of satisfaction are contrasted here: being satiated with material goods, and satisfaction with beholding "thy form" — the heart becoming sated by the encounter with infinite love. The words "when I awake" are at the deepest level a reference to the awakening into new and eternal life, but they also speak of a deeper "awakening" here in this world: Man wakes up to the truth in a way that gives him a new satisfaction here and now.
It is of this awakening in prayer that Psalm 73 speaks. For now the psalmist sees that the happiness of the cynics that he had envied so much is only "like a dream that fades when one awakes, on awaking one forgets their phantoms" (Ps 73:20).
And now he recognises real happiness: "Nevertheless I am continually with thee; thou dost hold my right hand... Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee... But for me it is good to be near God" (Ps 73:23, 25, 28). This is not an encouragement to place our hope in the afterlife, but rather an awakening to the true stature of man's being — which does, of course, include the call to eternal life.
This has been only an apparent digression from our parable. In reality, the Lord is using this story in order to initiate us into the very process of "awakening" that is reflected in the Psalms. This has nothing to do with a cheap condemnation of riches and of the rich begotten of envy. In the Psalms that we have briefly considered all envy is left behind. The psalmist has come to see just how foolish it is to envy this sort of wealth because he has recognised what is truly good. After Jesus's Crucifixion two wealthy men make their appearance, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who had discovered the Lord and were in the process of "awakening". The Lord waits to lead us from foolish cleverness toward true wisdom; he wants to teach us to discern the real good. And so we have good grounds, even though it is not there in the text, to say that, from the perspective of the Psalms, the rich glutton was already an empty-hearted man in this world, and that his carousing was only an attempt to smother this interior emptiness of his. The next life only brings to light the truth already present in this life. Of course, this parable, by awakening us, at the same time summons us to the love and responsibility that we owe now to our poor brothers and sisters — both on the large scale of world society and on the small scale of our everyday life.
In the description of the next life that now follows in the parable Jesus uses ideas that were current in the Judaism of his time. Hence we must not force our interpretation of this part of the text. Jesus adopts existing images, without formally incorporating them into his teaching about the next life. Nevertheless, he does unequivocally affirm the substance of the images. In this sense, it is important to note that Jesus invokes here the idea of the intermediate state between death and the resurrection, which by then had become part of the universal patrimony of Jewish faith. The rich man is in Hades, conceived here as a temporary place, and not in "Gehenna" (hell), which is the name of the final state. Jesus says nothing about a "resurrection in death" here. But as we saw earlier, this is not the principal message that the Lord wants to convey in this parable. Rather, as Jeremias has convincingly shown, the main point — which comes in the second part of the parable — is the rich man's request for a sign.
The rich man, looking up to Abraham from Hades, says what so many people, both then and now, say or would like to say to God: "If you really want us to believe in you and organise our lives in accord with the revealed word of the Bible, you'll have to make yourself clearer. Send us someone from the next world who can tell us that it is really so." The demand for signs, the demand for more evidence of Revelation, is an issue that runs through the entire Gospel. Abraham's answer — like Jesus's answer to his contemporaries' demand for signs in other contexts — is clear: If people do not believe the word of Scripture, then they will not believe someone coming from the next world either. The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.
Abraham cannot send Lazarus to the rich man's father's house. But at this point something strikes us. We are reminded of the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany, recounted to us in John's Gospel. What happens there? The Evangelist tells us: "Many of the Jews believed in him" (Jn 11:45). They go to the Pharisees and report on what has happened, whereupon the Sanhedrin gathers to take counsel. They see the affair in a political light: If this leads to a popular movement, it might force the Romans to intervene, leading to a dangerous situation. So they decide to kill Jesus. The miracle leads not to faith, but to hardening of hearts (Jn 11:45-53). But our thoughts go even further. Do we not recognise in the figure of Lazarus — lying at the rich man's door covered in sores — the mystery of Jesus, who "suffered outside the city walls" (Heb 13:12) and, stretched naked on the Cross, was delivered over to the mockery and contempt of the mob, his body "full of blood and wounds"? "But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and. despised by the people" (Ps 22:7).
He, the true Lazarus, has risen from the dead — and he has come to tell us so. If we see in the story of Lazarus Jesus's answer to his generation's demand for a sign, we find ourselves in harmony with the principal answer that Jesus gave to that ' demand. In Matthew, it reads thus: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall he given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt 12:390. In Luke we read: "'This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation" (Lk 11:291').
We do not need to analyse here the differences between these two versions. One thing is clear: God's sign for men is the Son of Man; it is Jesus himself. And at the deepest level, he is this sign in his Paschal Mystery, in the mystery of his death and Resurrection. He himself is "the sign of Jonah". He, crucified and risen, is the true Lazarus. The parable is inviting us to believe and follow him, God's great sign. But it is more than a parable. It speaks of reality,of the most decisive reality in all history.
C 2007 Libreria Editrtee Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano,C 2007 RCS Libri S.p A, Milano, English translation C by Doubleday, a division of Random House. Taken from Jesus of Nazareth by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, translated into English by Adrian J Walker and published by Bloomsbury at a price of 115.99. Available at 30 per cent off at www.bloomsbury.cond jesus or tel 020 7440 2475