19 “Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. 20 At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. 21 He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.
23 “In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ 25 However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. 26 Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a great gulf has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, 28 where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ 29 But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ 31 But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”
This is a killer, this story. I think it comes from Jesus and that Luke has marvellously translated into Greek the subtle details of the original. The nature of the obscene co-existence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty is tellingly worded. ‘Magnificent luxury’ is contrasted with ‘covered in sores’; on one hand the man whose human body is irrelevant because all its needs are met, on the other, the man whose body is shamefully exposed by his poverty. The most deadly sentence is the one which contrasts the beggar’s desire to eat the scraps from he rich man’s table with the fact that his sores are ‘eaten’ by dogs. The story comes from someone who has looked at these contrasts.
Of course the black comedy of what follows is not meant to provide a geography of the afterlife anymore than our jokes about the pearly gates. Indeed, like our jokes, the story is meant to put worldly life in a different context.
The rich man is no sooner dead than he is ordering people about. “Send Elazar!” Even father Avraham is treated like one of his slaves. Certainly the place he finds himself in is not pleasant. Jesus just hints at the the way the guy is being fried. The stroke of genius in the story is the fact of the “great gulf”. The Greek word is ‘chasm.’. This is afterlife constructed as a mirror image of the economy that has supported the rich man and his class, in which they have constructed a ‘great gulf’ between themselves and the real lives of the destitute, by which the least contact between luxury and destitution has been denied. Now the gulf is maintained but the rich man is on the wrong side of it. His favoured economy has become the economy of heaven and hell, but to his disadvantage!
This is Jesus’ word to the rich, accusing them of creating and maintaining this great gulf. Even in a more egalitarian society like Scotland, this gulf exists: between those who have never gone hungry and those who often do so; between those who always get credit and those who can only borrow from loan sharks; those who have no knowledge of state benefits and those who have intimate knowledge of their inadequacy; those who give their bodies for sexual fun and those who sell them to put bread on the table; those who view themselves as civilised and righteous and those who are forced to see themselves as unworthy failures; those who worry about how much to leave their children and those whose children will not be able to afford their parents’ funerals. Yes, the great gulf is alive and well and living in Scotland.
The implication of the story is that any recognition of the gulf might have saved the rich man. If he had acknowledged his good fortune and been compassionate to his unfortunate brother, he might have been forgiven. But persistent denial of the gulf while benefitting from it has made him toast. God does not automatically punish those who ended up on the lucky side of the gulf, provided they recognise it and try to reach across it, or better, to destroy it. But those who deny its existence while abusing the poor better search online for flame- resistant underwear.
Jesus’ critique is based on Jewish Torah and Prophetic books; he is speaking as the successor of Moses and the prophets, in terms that they would have recognised. People who have rejected the clear commandments and warnings of the Jewish tradition will not respond if Elazar or even Jesus came back from the dead to tell them.
But am I, who have always been on the lucky side of the gulf, to take this story seriously as a description of God’s justice? No, but I am meant take it comically as a description of God’s justice. The details may be invented to raise a smile, but it would be very dangerous for me to neglect the warning they convey.