It should be noted that there are some scholars who do not think that this account in Luke 16.19-31 of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. In fact, I have written a paper over this very subject and have concluded this is in fact a parable of Jesus. I will post this is in the comments section of this post if you are interested. Perhaps for you, there is no debate: this is a parable or is not a parable, period. Whatever the case, there are several learning points and interesting facts we glean from this account.
Now we must keep this in its proper context: Remember that Jesus has just spoken three parables in ch.15 and one at the beginning of this chapter (pointing to the fact that this may be a parable in a context of parables). At the end of ch.15, Jesus spoke of an older brother who refuses to go and we are left with a cliffhanger, so to speak – did the brother go in? Some have said Jesus is here pointing the “older brothers” who may be listening (i.e. Pharisees) toward their fate should they continue to ignore the call of God. Others point to this being a teaching over money; after all, Jesus just spoke another parable on money and had some words for the Pharisees about money. Here is yet another parable over the wise use of money. You, constant reader, can be the judge of this.
Their Daily Lives
The story opens up with a bit of a character sketch of two men. There is the rich man. Some think that perhaps Jesus has Herod Antipas in mind here. It could be his short quip on divorce may have triggered his mind to go to Herod, since Herod was an adulterer. Whatever the case, this rich man was dressed in purple, the color of royalty and very expensive. Along with this, he was robed in fine linen, which scholars say was worth double its weight in gold and was also strikingly beautiful material. He has the finest foods, the choicest wines at his disposal. This is the picture of luxuary Jesus paints for us.
Contrast this with the beggar. He had to be carried to the place outside the rich man’s house to beg. He was Eleazar (in the Hebrew), “him whom only God can help.” He is afflicted with a sickness that covers his body in sores. It is a miserable life. He is desiring just crumbs from the table of the rich man, probably getting nothing. And the sad state is even worse: dogs, unclean vagrants, come and lick his open sores. No bandages for Lazarus; his festering sores are open game for the dogs.
Their deaths are reported in striking contrast as well. The beggar, Lazarus, dies and is taken by angelic escort to the bosom of Abraham. What a picture! Taken, at death, to a place of comfort. What about the rich man? Simply, he dies and is buried. Perhaps his friends show up to pay respect. But for him there is no angelic escort to the unseen world of disembodied spirits.
The rich man, upon waking in the realm of the dead, finds himself in torment. Elsewhere Jesus points out hard it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. Here this rich man illustrates the truth of that teaching. He is in torment. The idea of torment is that of precious metal being tested on a black stone. It is a scraping, grating, scratching type of torture. In addition, this also was a word used for the torture of a slave on a rack in order to obtain information from them. Here is the pain the rich man is in. Acute pain to get answers to questions no one is asking. The only question is the one asked of self: why did I live my life to end up here? There is no doubt the rich man should be there, no question of the justice of God. He has only himself to blame for his final destination.
The beggar, though, is in a place of comfort (v.25). This is the same word Jesus used to describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Apostles when he was gone (John 14.26; 15.26). Lazarus is comforted, encouraged, consoled in this place. A life of pain and agony is eclipsed by a new life of peace and ease.
Abraham is with Lazarus in the abode of the righteous of God. Apparently the rich man can see them and he cries out for water (v.24). Just the tip of Lazarus’ finger in cool water would help the rich man. Again, the agony and pain he is in is evident. But then we see the true man behind this request: he had no mercy on Lazarus while on earth, but now he begs for mercy in the next life. It is interesting that the rich man says it is the flame of hades that is hurting him. Several other places Jesus mentions that hell is a place of fire. Some say this is Jesus using a human pain to try to get across the severe “burning” of the real hell. However, the pain of hell is more intense than pen or tongue could ever tell.
“Son,” is how Abraham replies, having been addressed as Father by the rich man, not because this man is indeed a son of Abraham and therefore heir of salvation. Abraham gives a reasoned response for why the request cannot be met: first, the rich man chose in his life to enjoy the good things – purple, fine linen, choice foods. But Lazarus had to suffer through life, not choosing the “bad things,” but rather they came upon him. Now the opposite is in effect: Lazarus, a true child of Abraham, is comforted while the rich man gets exactly what is deserved of a life lived caught up in the things of men and not the things of God. Second, Abraham explains that there is a great chasm between the two places and no one can go from one side to the other.
The rich man makes a final plea: he has five brothers who are apparently living the same kind of life as he did. Perhaps they each have their Lazarus laying at their gate whom they could show mercy. This rich man does not want his fate to be their fate. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them. Surely they will believe a ghost! But Abraham once more gives him a reasoned explanation: they have all they need to stay out of that place. Moses and the Prophets is sufficient to lead them far away from the place of torment. “Let them hear them.”
The rich man believes this will not be enough to keep his brothers away from this place. He had Moses and the Prophets, but that wasn’t enough. If only a person who is dead could go and visit them, then that would make a difference. They will believe that. They will repent and turn to God
Abraham once more must explain the situation. God has made the decision for all man. They have what they need to avoid the same fate as this rich man. In fact, every person has more than Moses and the Prophets now. One has been raised from the dead. Notice the parallel here. The Pharisees have Moses and the Prophets, but they loved money and therefore were not true sons of Abraham. They had no place at the table of God; they had only their tables at home. One day they will have someone come back from the dead, but they will not believe. Instead, they will continue to wallow in disbelief. Every person on planet earth has all they need for salvation from the place of torment: Jesus Christ the resurrected Lord. Otherwise, all we have to look forward to is a place of eternal conscious punishment, remembering the “good things” we had and how we missed the best things. Once more Jesus leaves the door ajar and Luke leaves us with a cliffhanger. Did they walk through the door into belief of Jesus as the Christ? Did the elder brother finally go into the Father’s house? Would they finally listen to Moses and the Prophets which testify to Jesus?