The story of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) has two elements that we are rather dubious about in the West today: judgement and hell. Traditionally, of course, they were part of the four last things that were considered in Advent. Aware of how people have been damaged by religious fear, we are now very cautious about these things. Plus, our belief in God as a God of love trumps these elements. Still, here we have Jesus telling a parable in which judgement and hell play a key role.
Perhaps how we respond depends on where we read the story. If we read the story in a shanty town, or a refugee camp, or a slum, then we might feel differently about the story than if we read if in a situation of security and relative prosperity. Read from the eyes of the poor, the story has elements of justice. Abraham speaks for the poor in the parable when he tells the rich man: ‘In your life good things came your way and bad things came to Lazarus. Now the roles are reversed.’ Seen this way it is not so much a story about hell as a story about fairness. The man who was indifferent to suffering is now suffering in his turn. The man who lived in poverty is now with Abraham, who was the founding patriarch of the Jewish people. So he has moved from outside the gate, to the heart of his people.
There is, though a further element of pathos in the story. Perhaps the fundamental sin of the rich man is that he has lacked compassion. Now at last in his suffering he shows a concern for others, in this case for his brothers. He wants them warned not to behave as he has behaved. The parable is therefore also about the recovery of feeling, and the importance of this.
Details of the readings haunt us. In the gospel you have Lazarus longing to eat the kitchen garbage. We know that in the Third World there are thousands of people living off garbage dumps. We know, too, that we throw out and waste far too much and should live more simply. In the reading from Amos (6.1, 4-7) the resonances with our world are again striking: wine by the bowlful, uproarious partying, beds inlaid with ivory. The link with the gospel is more than just the social gulf: the point is that people who live in luxury have become unfeeling. It is this indifference that we must avoid. So if the readings leave us shifting uneasily in our seats, then they have worked. And there is still hope.