THE LORD TOLD THIS PARABLE, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen, who feasted in luxury every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.
“In hell, where he was being tormented, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. The rich man called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things. But now, he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
“Then the rich man said, ‘I beg you, therefore, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
One of the morals of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is sometimes overemphasized and at other times avoided theme of reward and punishment. This is explicitly mentioned in Abraham's response to the rich man (remember, this parable is told by Christ; therefore, these are not Abraham's words, but Christ's), "Son, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things. But now, he is comforted here, and you are in anguish."
We are told that the rich man has received his good things, while Lazarus his evil things. In other words, each received his own reward and punishment. But why? What has each done to deserve what he received, both in this earthly life and in the life to come? The answers to these questions are fully unpacked by Father Stephen De Young in his blog post "The Rich Man, Lazarus, the Afterlife, and Asceticism."
Here I will summarize the main point. As Father Stephen says, "Reward and punishment language simply indicates the consequences of actions that are mediated through a third party, in this case, Christ who judges." Reward has always been seen as a blessing, while punishment is alway associated with suffering. The rich man not only received his earthly blessings, but he did all he could to maximize them. While Lazarus received poverty and sickness as punishment for his sins.
No matter how I look at myself, to deny that I am a sinner is delusional. It is not healthy or helpful to say that I am "not bad, not worse than others, haven't killed anyone or cheated on my spouse," etc. All these things may be true, but they do not indicate the truth - that I am still a sinner. And it's not that sin will be necessarily punished. In a way, sin is itself already a punishment for my poor decisions. Lazarus, therefore, received his suffering as punishment for his sin. This sin is not specified, but it is implied (do read the article by Father Stephen for more on this). And since he had already accepted the consequences for his actions in this life, all that he has left are the comfort and reward in Abraham's bosom, that is Paradise.
The rich man, on the other hand, did all he could to avoid suffering; or in other words, he refused to face up to the fact that he is sinful, and that these sinful actions have very real consequences. He had received more than enough of his blessings, the rest was left for the future life. And since there is no punishment in Paradise, the rich man ended up in hell.
This connection between reward and punishment in this earthly, temporary life as compared to the next, eternal life is found throughout the New Testament. If we have enjoyed the pleasures and wealth of this world, then, as Jesus says, "[we] have already received [our] reward" (Matthew 6:2). In contrast, we are commanded to "store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:20). Because, if we refuse to repent in this life (and we can repent only now; in a way, this life is given to us to choose our God, repent of our sins, and follow Him), then, as Saint Paul says, we "are storing up wrath for [ourselves] on the day of wrath" (Romans 2:5).
For last year's reflection, click here.
Yours in the Lord,