The story of the rich man and Lazarus tells of a most remarkable reversal of fortunes experienced by two men. Their earthly lives could not have been more different. Neither could their eternal destinies.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
A life of wealth and pleasure does not give rise to an interest in spiritual things as easily as a life filled with difficulty. When we are satisfied with what we have here on earth, what motivation is there to look forward to heaven? Suffering points our hearts heavenward. Few people get to experience both ends of this spectrum as deeply as the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
Wilde’s career made him the toast of London. His celebrity status would make him perfectly at home in the company of A-listers today at the most affluent and decadent of Hollywood parties. He would no doubt have millions of followers on social media. By his own admission, his life was devoted to pleasure and little else. He tells of it in De Profundis,
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on.
Like the rich man in the biblical story, Wilde had no interest in spiritual things. No interest, that is, until his whole life changed for the worse, or was it for the better? He goes onto say,
I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
Wilde’s reversal of fortunes transformed his thinking, which in turn transformed his character and then his life. The man who began as the rich man in the story ended as Lazarus. And he was deeply appreciative of the suffering he was forced to endure. He explains,
Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul.
It isn’t easy to be thankful for suffering, but if we allow it to make us discontent with this life, then it has accomplished in us a worthwhile goal. We may truly long for heaven, seek the face of God and come to stand in awe of the sufferings of Christ. Let’s allow our own sufferings to point us to him and allow his sufferings to give our their meaning.