The Rich Man and Lazarus
19"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell,[c] where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'
25"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
27"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
30" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "
Over the years I have had many religious conversations with people that had different beliefs or opinions than I did. I have changed the mind of some of those folks and I have learned some things along the way as well. It can be quite pleasant to sit down and respectfully have a dialogue with someone who is genuinely open to the truth and ready to change their mind if it can be demonstrated that they have not been believing what is actually true. I have always tried to strike that balance between being firm in my convictions and beliefs while at the same time being open to being wrong from time to time and needing to adjust my understanding or beliefs. I have been amazed over the years, however, at how many people are just not open to the truth. They know what they know and will not be persuaded away from that regardless of how illogical or how based on experience or something other than facts their beliefs really are. It’s always amazing to me when someone can look at great biblical truths like the deity of Christ, the resurrection, or the truth of our need to be baptized into into Christ, and yet reject the clear facts in favor of what they just “know” or what someone they value has taught them, or something else along those lines. In fact, beliefs that are rooted in our emotions rather than those that are rooted in the facts can be dangerous because we are so much more unlikely to be open to the truth if it contradicts our emotionally based beliefs.
There has been much debate and speculation over the years as to what the primary meaning or purpose of this passage actually is. Is it about the great reversal of fortune that will be a reality in the kingdom of God? Is it about the dangers of the wealthy who refuse mercy and justice to the poor and downtrodden? Is it designed to teach us about the set-up of the afterlife? Is it’s primary point to teach that once we die, our destinations are sealed and cannot be changed? I suppose, from one angle or another, there are elements of all of those things within this passage, but none of those really seem to be the heart of the story. The core of this story is summed up, in fact, in the last verse of this chapter. This story, at it’s most fundamental level, is about being convinced. It was a warning from Jesus to take honest stock in your beliefs and who you were aligning yourself with and to consider whether you were open to being convinced by the truth of Jesus’ ministry or whether you were going to cling to your beliefs so tightly that nothing about the truth would ever convince you differently?
One question that often arises immediately with this account is whether it is a parable or not. It certainly appears that everything about this story point to it being a very specific type of parable like that of the “Good Samaritan” or even the parable of the “Lost Son.” It is remarkable among parables because it is the only one that uses a specific name, but we’ll examine why that might have been shortly. All signs point to this being a parable which means that it was a tool for Jesus to teach something about the kingdom of God as was being made manifest through his ministry. Some people tend to define parables as earthly stories that teach spiritual truths, but this definition is not satisfactory. Parables have specifically to due with Jesus’ ministry and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
There is one that is very clear about this parable. The contrast between the rich man and Lazarus could not be any more distinct. The rich man was covered in purple and fine linen, things often associated with royalty and the priesthood in ancient Israel. On the other hand, Lazarus was covered with sores, something that would have left him ceremonially unclean and a relative outcast. The rich man lived in a large house in the lap of luxury while Lazarus could only be carried by members of his community to beg at the gate of the rich man. This would have meant that those who laid him there could not help him with his needs beyond doing what they could, which was taking him to the gate of a rich man who could help but chose not to. The rich man ate the best of foods while Lazarus longed just to eat the scraps from his table. The rich man would have held large banquets with many important friends but Lazarus was left at the mercy of a mangy pack of stray dogs who came and licked up his sores, cementing his ongoing state of ceremonial uncleanness. When the rich died he was buried, no doubt in a lavish and pricey manner. But no mention is made of Lazarus being buried at all. Not being buried would have been the final insult to a man that had nothing to show for his life in the present age.
In death, everything has reversed. Once they enter into the realm of Hades and Abraham’s side, everything has dramatically reversed. The rich man, who had everything by the standards of the present age, finds himself in eternal torment. Lazarus, though, finds himself in paradise in the very presence of Abraham. (Many have debated the accuracy of the picture of the afterlife given here since it is a parable but Jesus always described accurate situations and then stylized them to make a point in his parable, so it seems quite likely that what he pictures was quite accurate. Before the resurrection of Christ the righteous did enter into paradise which was in proximity to the torment of Hades, separated by the bottomless Abyss. The Scriptures seem to point to the fact, however, that now those in Christ enter into heaven with the Lord and await resurrection). What is quite clear is that their positions are fixed once they enter into death.
The rich man demonstrates, despite the reversal of fortunes, that he still has not changed his perspective on Lazarus. He still views him as someone who can be sent off at his convenience. Could Lazarus come and comfort him? No, says Abraham. But perhaps he could be dispatched to go warn his five brothers to repent of a similar lifestyle that has landed him in eternal torment.
In the larger Lukan context, it would seem odd that Luke included this story to give some valuable information about the layout of the afterlife. Certainly there are some themes running through this story that deal with the ideas of the great upheaval that was being brought about by the coming of the kingdom of God. The rich man had everything in the present age but that is all that he cared about or pursued. He constantly and consistently did his own will and settled into a lifestyle that systematically ignored the will of God to care for the downtrodden. All the while, the rich man would have likely saw his good fortune and vast wealth as signs that God was blessing him. This, then, is a cautionary tale of the dangers of looking at “signs” for God’s approval rather than actually looking at God’s will and his word. Lazarus, on the other hand, had nothing in the present age but found himself part of the eternal inheritance that was due to God’s people.
If the point of this parable was simply about the dangers of wealth, though, then it would almost seem that Lazarus finds himself among the righteous for the sole reason that he was poor in the present age. But the true meaning of this parable goes beyond that as there is no inherent value to just being poor in the present age when it comes to one’s status in the family of God. At it’s heart, this is a story about Jesus’ ministry and the coming kingdom. In the previous chapter, Jesus told three parables that explained why he dined with and welcomed sinners into his ministry. In the early verses of chapter 16, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to the idea of sacrificing in the present with an eye on the eternal. Here, he clearly lays out why that is such an important decision.
In a very real sense, then, the rich man, dressed in the colors of royalty and the priesthood, was a representative of Israel, specifically the religious leaders of Israel. Lazarus was a representative of those sinners and outcasts that the Pharisees so badly wanted to do away with, but whom Jesus was so eager to bring under his wings. Israel was ignoring those who most needed the light of the kingdom of God and in doing so, were showing that they didn’t have the light of God themselves. They were sure that they were God’s people, but their treatment of the “sinners” were showing that they did not have God’s will in mind at all. They were in very real danger of finding themselves in the position of the rich man, permanently locked out of the kingdom of God, while those that they had so looked down upon were coming to Jesus’ kingdom in droves. But they had one advantage over the rich man’s brothers. They were receiving a warning before it was too late in the very form of this story.
But I would like to propose something else that adds a layer to this story. It seems curious that this would be the only parable that does have a proper name in it. It would seem to me that there was a purpose behind this. When Jesus told this story, it probably wouldn’t have registered much with his hearers. But the gospel of John tells us that a little while later Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the grave. This was a sign that was not part of the great and promised resurrection but certainly was a sample of and pointed to it in some ways. Many see verse 31 as a reference to Jesus’ coming resurrection but I don’t think that this was Jesus’ primary reference. Imagine the jaw-dropping power of putting together this story with the actual raising from the dead of Lazarus from John 11.
I would put forth the speculation that part of the point of this passage for Jesus was a subtle prophecy and a stern warning for those who would later read his words in Luke’s gospel. The Law and the prophets had long pointed to coming of the Messiah and to the one family of many nations and that was truly being fulfilled in Jesus. But most were so committed to their own vision that they refused to be convinced by anything Jesus did. Even if there was a Lazarus who really did come back from the dead, they wouldn’t be convinced because they weren’t really clinging to the Scriptures. They were clinging to what they wanted the Scriptures to say. So was Jesus correct? What was the response of the Jewish religious leadership when they saw that Jesus had quite publicly raised someone from the dead, someone named Lazarus no less? They demonstrated the truth that they were more afraid of Rome than God as they worried that if they “let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (Jn. 11:48). They decided to kill Jesus because “ it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (Jn. 11:50). Someone had risen from the dead to warn them and they would not listen because they had no interest in listening to God’s word.
This serves as a final reminder to how powerful Jesus believed the word of God to be. He saw the Law and the Prophets as even more able to change a heart and direct someone to the truth than even seeing someone raised from the dead. We can tend to think that there are so many important factors in brining someone to faith in Christ, but the reality is, nothing is more vital or more powerful than the word of God. We must always remember that and put the word of God first so that it might do it’s work.
Do you have as much reverence for the power of the word of God as Jesus did? Are there any areas of your life that you have had trouble in changing or someone that you would like to help become a disciple but have had trouble? Have you really put the word of God to use as your primary weapon?