Once upon a time, there was a man whose fate on earth was unthinkably bad. He was homeless, jobless, and unable to work. He had a terrible disease. Because he was not a woman or a child, no one’s gallantry was awakened by his plight. He got no health care. He got no help. He had nothing to eat. And this is a man who had harmed no one in his life – or if once he had, his wrongdoing was swallowed up in the horror of his fate.
This man, Lazarus by name, had a cousin whose fate could hardly be more different to his own. Dives was wealthy – a fat, indulged man with no worries in life. His wealth was perhaps not gotten in the worst of ways, and so the angel of judgment sent him a test to see what sort of man he was. Lazarus crawled to his gate one night in a storm and begged to be let in.
Dives was notified by a serving man, who interrupted him from his sleep. Consequently, he threw the serving man out of the room with orders not to awaken him till the sun was directly overhead.
When he woke up he went down and looked at Lazarus. He did not speak it him. It was the last attention he ever payed to him.
Lazarus lay with Dive’s dogs. By the grace of God, the dogs had befriended the friendless man. They warmed him from the storm. They licked his wounds as they would lick the wounds of one of their own. Dives laughed.
“He’s become a dog. So let him eat with the dogs,” he said. So after that, when food was thrown to the dogs – the leftovers from Dives’ table – Lazarus ate whatever he could get away from the beasts. And so his kin humiliated him and treated him as worse than a cur.
Now Dives was a Jew. So he went to synagogue that Saturday and he heard the prophets read. He heard the preaching of Moses, that one ought to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And he came home, and walked past Lazarus without a glance.
And life went on. And death came.
And now let me ask – do you think that Lazarus is the hero of this story? Do you think he is the one you ought to pity? You may change your mind before the end.
Now this was in the days before Emmanuel had opened the road from the world of the dead to the world of the ever-living. And so in these days, the great hope of the righteous dead was Abraham – the Friend of God – whose flesh were bound to follow his faith and hoped to find they had pleased God thereby.
Dives, who was born of the flesh of Abraham – whose mother doted on him when he was an innocent baby – whose personality God had designed to express some otherwise inexpressible word within the Divine Logos – Dives closed his eyelids in a gorgeously appointed bedroom, surrounded by weeping relatives, and lifted them up again in a place where everyone was so consumed by his own grief that they would have no thought to spare for him. Beside him laughed his enemy – a devil who had taken great pains all his life to deceive Dives and deprive him of his Abrahamic birthright. And why should this devil care to take such pains? Why, because so he planned to deprive God of his own creative rights. He planned to deprive God of this man he loved. He planned, and thought he succeeded, to deprive God of his son, Dives.
And Dives was in torment.
How odd a form that torment took! Having left his material body behind, Dives found that his soul kept the shape of his body – he had a tongue, a head, hands, eyes, everything. But this soul – this life which had given consciousness to his body on earth – was, horrifyingly, being kept alive by a soul of its own – his spirit. And his spirit, as it turned out, was a flame. It was a anchored by a spark that he could not look at – something from outside himself, something pure and unwavering and stern and beautiful. But his own spirit – how it smoked and writhed and consumed him. It was flame blackened by impure fuel. And it could never be taken back, for its Giver was good.
But the shock of this situation came with something that was not surprise – for Dives recognized this torment. It was an old though unacknowledged companion. It had been present with him, increasingly, all his life. But he had let his mind dwell in material comforts and had suppressed his knowledge of it. Now that supression was impossible – the tormented soul was his whole existence.
Dives looked around for any help, anything which could lessen his misery. And a miracle was granted him. The darkness of his soul lifted for a moment and he saw his kin, Lazarus, in a faraway place of comfort and gentle, sober delight. Lazarus was being comforted from the evils of his earthly life by none other than the father of their entire nation – Abraham himself, the Friend of God. Lazarus lay in his immense and honored bosom like a child, and was comforted.
And now Dives, who himself never heeded the prophets, became a prophet himself. For that is what a human soul becomes who has been granted the sight of divinity.
He called out to Father Abraham. “Have mercy! Send Lazarus, my kin, to cool my tongue with a drop of water, for I am tormented in this flame.”
Did Abraham rebuke him? Not he.
“My son,” he said, “I cannot. There is a great chasm fixed between you and us. No one can pass.”
And the demon laughed.
Dives remembered the legends of ghosts, which he had always disbelieved – for materialism had once suited him.
“Send Lazarus as a ghost, to convince my five brothers not to follow me here!” he begged. His healing, if he had only known it, began then. He had expressed his first selfless thought in years.
Abraham again did not rebuke him for his thought. It was a good thought. But it would not work. “They have the prophets,” he said. “If they won’t listen to them, they won’t hear someone who rises from the dead.”
And we must assume that Abraham told the truth in this regard.
And now the story goes on. That spark in the center of Dives’ being was the eye of God; and God stood at that moment on earth, in human flesh. And he, Jesus, the greatest prophet ever to live, caught Dives’ thought, saw his story, and turned to his listeners.
He told them of the plight of Dives.
He told them of the comfort of Lazarus.
He told them of the helplessness of Abraham – who would have loved to go to the aid of those souls whose suffering he witnessed, but could not.
And his Jewish listeners responded, in their hearts, in several ways.
Some blessed few understood that however much Lazarus was to be pitied, Dives was to be pitied more. They understood that God would not leave evil unredressed; the innocent would be comforted. And the wicked dead were capable of repentance, even as Dives had begun to repent – but in the present state of affairs it would do them little good.
And they perhaps understood that Jesus had not simply declared a reality, but had actually posed a problem. That great chasm, fixed between the wicked and the righteous – to some it would seem fitting, but not to these. What if the wicked dead were no longer wicked? What if that chasm was not God’s doing, but the devil’s? What if the great evil of the chasm were the reason for Jesus’ presence among men?
But the ordinary masses only saw the story as the usual preaching about how God’s wrath was terrible and implacable.
And a few, who were really wicked themselves, conceived an unquenchable rage against the speaker. Abraham was of their party. Moses guaranteed their position, for they sat in his seat. How dare Jesus imply that there was some needful thing which the religion of Abraham and Moses could not do?
And so in due time, they killed Jesus. And he closed his eyes in suffering and darkness, and raised them in a place of comfort and sober, gentle delight, even as Lazarus had done. But here comes Abraham, his Friend, and here comes Adam and Eve; here comes David, and comes Lazarus and all the rest, thronging him in joy and wonder and worship. Jesus stretched out his hands to them all, and some divine alchemy occurred.
“This is my body,” he said. “You are my body. Where I go, you shall go.” And they knew he would not remain forever in the world of the dead.
Was it not a moment of triumph? Ah, for Jesus it was not enough. He was the Good Shepherd, and sheep were still lost.
He turned to the great chasm and in a single step he bridged it. As he did so, the gulf closed beneath his feet. Behind him the hosts of the righteous ran, a following army of fierce and righteous joy. They inundated the sea of flame created by the tortured spirits of wicked souls. They routed the demons, howling and astonished, and threw them at the Lord’s feet in chains. They poured water on every tongue. They bathed every limb. They raised every weeping penitent to his feet. And the Lord of all heard their confessions.
Lazarus stooped over Dives and became as God to him. Even so did Jesus lean over Judas.
And now they must journey back – first to earth, to show themselves to believers there, and from thence to God’s house, a place outside the linear unwinding of the material universe, a place where wheels within wheels spin out the free and undetermined reality of the eternity of spirits.