It is a parable about Purgatory, I will quote one of my priests.
"Is The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus about Hell…or Purgatory?
The common preaching on this parable is that the rich man goes to hell. In a conference I do on Purgatory, though, I use this parable to teach about Purgatory by making the case that the rich man is not in hell, but Purgatory. Here are some points for our reflection…(you can discuss and reflect on this, but please no heavy hearted debates…again this is for reflection as a homily would be)
Notice how people are addressed in the parable. The rich man refers to Abraham as “Father” and Abraham refers to the rich man as “my son.” I believe that if the rich man were in hell, there would be no relationship depicted, much less a Father/Son relationship as found between our merciful Father and us, his wayward sons. However, souls in purgatory remain in relationship with our Father in heaven and the souls in purgatory are still children of the Father.
The rich man refers to Lazarus by his name, so he knew Lazarus and thus had some type of relationship with him. This relationship seems to have been a long term one…not just a one time neglect (not good!). The poor man, Lazarus, “would have gladly eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.” Notice that Jesus did not say that Lazarus received nothing from the rich man…he most likely received some scraps and possibly some each day, but not nearly enough to ever feel filled. Surely ongoing sinful neglect on the part of the rich man. Serious sins of omission. Notice, though, that later in the parable the rich man understands the extent of the injustice that happened. He asks Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” This is interesting. The rich man does not ask for his “fill” of water to “quench” his thirst. He asks only for a drop of water…the same minimal amount of charity that he gave Lazarus. This is a sense of justice which is realized in purgatory.
Abraham says, “remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad, but now he is being comforted, whereas you are being tormented.” This is a clear example of the oft used words of Jesus, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” These words of Jesus are commonly accepted by scholars as references by Jesus to a purgatory.
The rich man was in “Hades” which commonly has a broader reference in Scripture than hell. The word “Gehenna” is commonly used by Jesus for “hell.”
The great chasm that no one can cross in either direction does not preclude the chasm between purgatory and heaven. The souls in purgatory cannot cross into heaven when they feel they are ready and the Saints do not retrieve the souls from purgatory until it is time for their release. This verse actually is the only one that makes a case for hell as opposed to purgatory, but it does not preclude the rich man being in purgatory. Neither do the words “torment” or “flames” preclude the rich man from being in purgatory.
Finally, the rich man wants to save his brothers from the torment. This is a huge indication that he is not in hell because the souls in hell have no interest in charity or in the salvation of souls. If anything the opposite is true.
These are the major points which cause us to reflect on not just the reality of purgatory’s existence and the Church’s teaching on purgatory, but also the sins of omission that will surely cause us to suffer in purgatory. What is most dramatic for me and I think a great reflection for us is that if this is purgatory, Christ does not want to make purgatory as clearly distinct from hell as we know it is. Christ does not want us to spend even a minute in purgatory. In today’s world few people believe in hell and fewer believe in purgatory. Many, many Catholics have a mindset of “if I can just make it to purgatory” or that they will make it to purgatory no matter how they live here on earth and believe that after a short period of time, (almost immediately in our distorted reasoning), we will go to heaven. Jesus does not want us thinking in these flawed ways. He wants us to avoid purgatory by being perfected in the Beatitudes, thus avoiding sins of omission that underscore the rich man’s life and this parable." -Father Stehpen Imbarrato //Sacared Heart Parish Albuquerque, NM