The Rich Man and Lazarus

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

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.

Their Destinations

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.

The Discussion

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

The Decision

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?

3 thoughts on “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

  1. The World loves a story. From very early in history man has been relating events, passing on information, and recording history through story. It is one of the most effective ways to communicate because it is engaging for the audience. People love to hear stories. In fact, one effective way to preach is through narrative preaching or preaching in story. It would seem our Lord knew this. The Bible says that Jesus would not address the multitudes following him “without using a parable” (Matt 13.34). Stories were effective in helping the people learn what Jesus was teaching and in continuing his teaching since the stories were simple and easily remembered to be recited later for others who may not have heard the teaching.
    There is, though, one account that troubles some people. In Luke 16.19, we have the account of Lazarus and the rich man. For years this passage has troubled some because they do not know if it is or is not a parable. If it is not a parable, then it is an actual event Jesus is relating. The purpose of this paper is to examine internal and external evidence that will indicate whether or not this account in Luke is a parable.
    The Nature of the Account
    When we find Jesus addressing a crowd with a parable in Scripture, there is usually a statement that denotes it is a parable. Either Jesus will remark that he is telling them a parable or the gospel writer will say that Jesus is telling the crowds a parable. We do not have this statement in Luke 16.19 when Jesus relates this account of the rich man and Lazarus. He simply dives into the narrative. However, there are stories that Bible scholars recognize as parables in which neither Jesus nor the gospel writers identify as such. The accounts are either in the context of other parables or there is some kind of textual clue that tells us that what Jesus is relating is a parable. For example, Jesus often used simile when speaking in parables and so a statement such as “the kingdom of heaven is like” will precede the parable. We do not have any of these textual clues in Luke 16.19. It should be noted, though, that in the immediate context before verse 19 Jesus is relating several parables. Luke 15 contains three parables and chapter 16 begins with a parable about a shrewd manager. In fact, this parable begins in a similar manner as the account of the rich man and Lazarus with the words “there was.”
    In addition to these contextual clues, there are some interesting facts presented by Jesus. For example, when Jesus relates this narrative, he gives a real name: Lazarus. In other parables, Jesus does not give names to people; he simply refers to them with a title. Be it “a farmer,” “a man,” “the master,” or “a father,” Jesus referred to the characters with ambiguity. This is not so in this narrative. Because of this, one commentator wrote that “over the years, some commentators have held that this is [not] a parable but a story about two men, possibly known by Jesus’ audience.” The reasons given for this interpretation are that 1) there is no introduction as most of Jesus’ parables have, and 2) the name of a character (Lazarus). However, “although Luke does not expressively state that this is a parable, and although the Savior has given the beggar a name, it is by no means necessary to assume that we have here the story of something that really happened and not a parable.”
    One main purpose of parables was to teach a spiritual truth through an earthly event or story. Here in Luke 16 with the rich man and Lazarus account, we find Jesus teaching. While we may want to jump to the conclusion Jesus is teaching on the afterlife, this is not the primary purpose of the narrative. These things may be implicit, but this was not the purpose of this story. It is of great importance that we search for the primary significance of the Lucan context. In this context, Jesus is engaged in a series of encounters with the Pharisees and thus the meaning will be derived from that context. One commentator addressed this matter when he wrote, “the Savior related this parable not in order to satisfy our curiosity about life after death but to emphasize vividly the tremendous seriousness of life on this side of the grave – on the choice made here by us demands our eternal weal or woe.” Indeed, “in this parable the Savior impressively illustrated the truth uttered by Him in verse 15b: ‘that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’” Thus, Jesus is teaching these Pharisees that the very things they see as being of high or great value is nothing more than an abomination. God desires mercy and to get his point across, he relates a narrative that illustrates that truth.
    Scholars’ Views
    It never ceases to amaze me the things we take for granted. Truly, scholarship does the same thing. For example, twice in one commentary the author assumes this a parable saying, “in this parable.” Leon Morris, a great student of the Bible, takes this fact for granted when he writes that “this parable is peculiar to Luke.” The assumption is that this narrative in Luke is a parable.
    Other scholars base their conclusions upon what they see in the text. One commentator says that since Luke does not refer to real and actual events and since the story is greatly didactic, it seems best to interpret the story as a parable. This same commentator made the observation that if one were to take this parable as a real story, then it would be necessary to resolve the conflict this poses between this story and the account found in Revelation 20. This same scholar writes that “one cannot build an eschatology on [this parable].” But he will concede that “it must be understood as a story containing some limited eschatological ideas familiar to Jesus’ audience.” An example of this is the concept of Hades or, to the Jewish mind, Sheol. The problem this scholar points out is that Hades and death are swallowed up in Revelation 20 and this rich man’s brothers are still living at the time the rich man pleads with Abraham. Therefore, the assessment is that this story is best interpreted as a parable.
    One other point from the scholars is that this story, be it parable or not, has interpolations from other sources. Morris comments that “many see [this parable] as an adaptation of a popular folk-tale, perhaps originating in Egypt, which contrasted the eternal fates of a bad rich man and a virtuous poor man.” If true, then what we have is nothing more than a fabrication by Jesus that he apparently reworked to suit his purposes. In fact, one man that Norval Geldenhuys references named Creed suggested that Luke “constructed” this parable out of a simpler and/or similar parable. This is dismissed by Geldenhuys as “altogether arbitrary and unnecessary.” It would seem that this parable is not only peculiar to Luke but is Lucan in origin as he records the words of Jesus.
    Another point scholarship makes is that there must be some truth to this account concerning the afterlife. Jack Cottrell writes that “even if Lazarus and the rich man were not real people, the circumstances pictured in the story must reflect the reality of the afterlife; otherwise Jesus has misled us.” Jesus, then, is using language people could understand concerning the afterlife. Abraham’s side was a place of comfort; there is torment in the abode for the wicked. These are symbols of a reality that Jesus knew his audience could understand and he uses to demonstrate a teaching. So be it a parable or made up story, “the very least Jesus is here confirming [is] the fact that the dead exist in a conscious interim state.”
    Based upon the research presented and upon what the Bible itself shows, there are some implications that can be seen. First, Jesus addressed the Pharisaical audience that in this context was seething with anger. Jesus, knowing these men’s thoughts, presents them with this account of a rich man and Lazarus to contrast what man sees and the things God looks for. He uses the name to illustrate further his point: Lazarus is a Greek form of the Hebrew word Eleazar which means “God has helped” or “he who only God can help.” Certainly man did not help Lazarus. Thus “the sick beggar was in the highest sense one who, being totally neglected by his privileged fellow-man, was yet helped by God ([with] the gift of eternal salvation).” Therefore, Jesus is using an earthly story to illustrate a spiritual truth.
    Second, when compared with other parables in the gospels, the similarities are striking. There is the didactic quality that is inherent in this story; this story was meant to teach the Pharisees who were angered with Jesus. There is the nomenclature of the parties involved (rich man and beggar). And there is the similar opening statement (“there was”) that is found in other parables. Jesus’ use of common ideas and language people could understand concerning the afterlife to teach a spiritual lesson also would point toward this being a parable.
    Third, the context this story is found in also indicates something. Just a few verses prior to this is the parable of the shrewd manager. And immediately preceding that is a triad of parables: the lost sheep, coin, and son. This indicates that this story could be included in this string of parables found in Luke 15 and 16.
    Finally, there is the evidence from the scholars. Men who have studied for decades come to the conclusion that this is a parable. Granted there are scholars who point out that this is not a parable and each with their reasons, based upon what has been presented and the evidence for this story’s being a parable outweighs the evidence against it, especially when combined with the internal evidence found in the account.
    From the research I have conducted, I conclude that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. This is an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. Jesus is trying to get a point across to his audience concerning the nature of righteousness and he does it through this parable about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus.

  2. great commentary.
    Another aspect not mentioned is the fact that Lazarus is the shared name of the other Lazarus, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead, which the Pharasees rejected just as Jesus had predicted that “even thouh one would rise from the dead, they still would not believe”

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