September 10, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: Rewards and punishments

John F. Fink(Last in a series of columns)

I will end this series of columns about Jesus’ parables with two of them about life after death and rewards and punishments. I realize that I have not covered all of Jesus’ parables in this series by any means, but I think I have written about the major ones.

St. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 16:19-31) gives us the parable of a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. The rich man’s name is sometimes given as Dives, which is the Latin translation of “rich man” in the Vulgate Bible. Dives dined sumptuously while Lazarus would have been glad to eat the scraps from Dives’ table. Dogs even licked Lazarus’s sores as he lay at the rich man’s door, ignored.

After both men died, though, things were reversed. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven “to the bosom of Abraham” (Lk 16:22) while Dives was condemned to the netherworld, tormented by flames. The Jewish patriarch Abraham explained that Dives lived high on the hog while alive while Lazarus suffered so now Lazarus was comforted while Dives was suffering.

The parable doesn’t explicitly say so, but it seems obvious that Dives, despite his riches, did nothing to help the poor man at his door. He treated the beggar at least with indifference if not actual contempt, and that is why he was being punished in the netherworld.

As for Lazarus, the dogs that licked his sores probably also ate some of whatever bread he was able to get. They probably added to his suffering.

Our final parable is at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching about the final judgment in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:31-46). The parable part is when Jesus says that the Son of Man (Jesus himself) will separate humans “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:32). He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

His listeners would be familiar with this process. Sheep and goats often grazed together during the day, but they were separated at night because goats needed shelter and were less docile than sheep. Sheep were considered better than goats.

After separating the sheep and goats, though, Jesus stopped speaking in parables and said very clearly that, at the Last Judgment, people will be judged by what they have done for “these least brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40). We will be judged by the good works we have performed, by whether or not we fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the ill and visited those in prison.

Those who have done those things will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34), but those who have not done those things will be accursed “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).

Both of these two parables, in two different Gospels, emphasize that we will be rewarded for what we have done for other people, but will be punished for our indifference to others. †

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