The real tragedy in this story (Luke 16:19-31) is not simply that the rich man finds himself in misery. We all find ourselves in misery at some stage or at various stages in our lives.
I don’t believe hell is one particular place. I think it is many places, conditions, and experiences that we all have to live through in order to grow, to learn, to become more than what we are. We all have our “hells” to live through.
As the Apostles Creed says, Jesus “descended into hell.” We all descend into hell. What is more tragic is living through these “hells” and failing to learn and grow. Now that is tragic.
This story talks about a chasm that is fixed, where one can’t pass from one sphere to the other, but one can see across it. It’s important to see where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Taking a good honest look at our past, our present, and where we are headed into the future is very important to real transformation and moral development.
I believe the symbolism of the fixed chasm is that it’s fixed only as long as one is unaware, only as long as one remains blind and unrepentant, like in the case of the unpardonable sin that Jesus talks about. It’s only unpardonable as long as one persists in it.
God doesn’t withhold forgiveness from anyone. God never locks the door, but the door has to be opened from the inside. God doesn’t coerce or force or manipulate or overpower. Unless one is willing to see and admit one’s faults and sins, unless one is open, humble, and receptive to God’s forgiveness and guidance, there can be no real repentance and change.
Think of the irony in the story. The rich man, finding himself in misery, instead of admitting his love of money and the way he rationalized the disparity between his wealth and Lazarus’ poverty, instead of repenting, he asks for Lazarus to bring him some relief and then be sent to warn his brothers.
Who is he thinking about? He wants Lazarus to serve him and his family. He hasn’t learned anything. No wonder there is a chasm that he can’t cross over. He is still totally self-absorbed.
That’s the real tragedy. When we go through some hellish experience and we learn nothing and come out as self-absorbed as ever, that’s a tragedy.
Have you ever been around a religious person who is totally self-absorbed? Have you ever been that person? They show interest in you only as it benefits them. Because it’s all about their faith, their family, their church, their brand of Christianity or religious faith.
This story, in addition to so many teachings and sayings of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, shows us that God is on the side of the poor. The question is not simply: Am I my brother’s keeper? Of course I am. The larger question is: What am I doing about it?
To spend one’s life defending the disparity between the haves and have-nots and rationalizing a theology of wealth and success, or to descend into hell and learn nothing from the experience is truly tragic.