There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy—but always an important moral in both. The parable of the rich man who winds up in hell while the poor man he ignored to death ends up in God’s eternal presence is a tragedy, but also has ingredients of many of the old Road Runner and Bugs Bunny cartoons of our childhood. There was always a protagonist (Bugs or the bird) under attack by an antagonist (Yosemite Sam or Wile E. Coyote). No matter what offensive act the bad guy took against our hero, fate always turned that negative force back against him (coyote on cliff, Road Runner on ledge; coyote chops the ledge away from the cliff; the cliff falls into a chasm, coyote and all, while Road Runner floats in mid-air, ledge and all.
The rich man in today’s parable fell into the wrong side of the chasm separating him from paradise, and it was his own actions that dropped him there. As Abraham tells him, that chasm was established to keep bad actors from crossing over to the kingdom of God. To this guy’s credit, he asks God to send Lazarus to warn his family to repent and save them from his fate. But God knows his kin too well—that just as they rejected the words of the prophets he sent them, so would they turn their backs on a risen Lazarus.
The rich man was no different from the first reading’s self-centered people of Zion whom the prophet Amos chastised for “improvising to the music of the harp and devising their own accompaniment,” paying no mind to “the collapse of Joseph.”
All of the infamous villains of comedy and tragedy pursued their self-interest to the extent of self-destruction. Jesus peppered his parables with such characters. And years later, Paul would write a letter to his disciple Timothy, hoping to accomplish what the doomed rich man in today’s parable could no longer do: steer his loved one down the right path, advising him to “compete well for the faith.”
The selfish characters in parables and cartoons seeking to dominate the righteous ultimately end up competing against themselves—and losing.