I almost always begin my articles with a question as an indication of the specific concern some have about the topic. In the case of Lazarus and the Rich Man, there are many which arise from the traditional interpretation and they cover a broad scope of topics. Though I won’t have space to dig into all of them, we can at least address some core issues.
The first and most glaring question about this story is whether it represents reality or whether it is to be read as a parable. Where this becomes problematic, is that those who insist it is not a parable but represents reality, change the definition of a parable; claiming a parable cannot contain a proper name like Lazarus. This article represents my counter-claim, but let it come from scripture.
Christ Used Parables – For a Reason
In this case, let’s start with Christ’s use of parables. Why and when did he use them as a method of teaching? To whom were they given? Let’s begin with the Gospel of Luke.
9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’
We know who the chosen are, those given to know the secrets of the kingdom. But who are the others, and why is it for them not to know? Let’s look at Mark’s account.
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Notice first how Yeshua ended the parable in verse nine – And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” This saying was repeatedly used in Christ’s revelation to John to indicate that God’s calling to hear and understand his words of life are only given to some. This is especially true for the descendants of Israel and Judah(1), since it was they whom Christ initially came to reveal himself to, yet they rejected him (Romans 10:16-21). This knowledge of God and the coming kingdom is what will be taken from those who claim they already have it (Mark 4:23-25; Fourth Gospel(2) 5:18,37-40,42-47; 9:35-41).
Again we see that the use of parables was intended for those not called to follow Christ at this time, and everything he spoke to them was in parables (Mark 4:1-2,33-34; 3:22-27).
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
Certainly some will recognize that the idea of Yeshua hiding meaning from some and giving it to those who’ve been called to receive it contradicts the traditional teaching that God is seeking to save all the world now, before Christ’s return – that this is the only day of salvation. To address that will require further reading.
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Let’s look further then into why the distinction between those given to hear and those not given to hear. Yeshua even recites a parable intended directly for the Chief Priests, scribes, elders of the people, and the Pharisees due to their rejection of the Son of Man (Matthew 21:23-46).
41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Matthew’s account also records why it is they hear and do not understand (Matthew 13:10-17).
13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
Though by their dullness of hearing and hardness of heart they stumble over the cornerstone which is Christ, God will in his own time lead them to repentance and give them a heart to hear (Romans 11; Jeremiah 30:1-11).
Since it was Christ’s stated purpose only to speak to those who were not his disciples in parables, let us look at the context of Luke 16. Just before the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, our Lord had recited another parable about the dishonest manager. Who was the audience?
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
So it’s clear that it is the Pharisees to whom he was speaking, and to them he spoke only in parables; because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Also his indictment of the Pharisees is that they love money more than God. The previous parable makes it clear that one cannot serve God and money (vs 10-13), yet the Pharisees are lovers of money (vs 14-15).
- They are exalted in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world
- But to God, what they serve is an abomination to him
What are the Contrasts?
Many of Christ’s parables involve contrasts. So it’s a good habit to ask what it is he is contrasting in the context of the parable. Answering this will reveal insight that may otherwise be overlooked. I like to use tables to record these contrasts. Sometimes they correspond individually to each other.
|Rich Man||Poor Man|
|Is unnamed||Is named Lazarus|
|Clothed richly & royally||Poor and in need|
|His property is fenced or walled and gated||Is humble and sits at the gate, with no comfort for his sores|
|Feasts sumptuously each day||All he desires are the crumbs from the rich man’s table|
|He ignores the needs of the poor man|
|What are their respective end states?|
|Rich Man||Poor Man|
|Is counted among the unrepentant and unbelievers||Is counted among the repentant|
|He is distressed||Sits as one of the faithful alongside the father of the faithful|
|No comfort in the grave||He is comforted|
|Did not listen to Moses or the prophets||He is among those named before God|
|Is unconvinced even if one is raised from the dead|
I’ll leave it to the reader to work out Christ’s teaching for each of these contrasts, but I’d like to address a couple of them.
The Poor Man is Named
The fact that this parable is unique in that one of the subjects is named doesn’t disqualify it from being a parable. Instead it’s intended to show the significance of the subject.
The poor man represents those whom the Chief Priests and Pharisees were charged by Christ with having robbed; the poor, the down-trodden, and the widow (Isaiah 10:1-2; Ezekiel 22:6-12; Malachi 3:5). The poor and the down-trodden are the very ones, being humble and faithful, who responded to God’s power and Yeshua’s message of the kingdom, while the religious authorities and leaders would not (Fourth Gospel 9).
There remains an unfulfilled promise in Christ for those who mourn in Zion. They shall be called priests of the Lord. They and their offspring will be known among the nations (Isaiah 61:1-4,6-7,8-10). Though they know God in part, they are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12), and it is in that knowledge that Christ will a) name each one of his own, and b) declare their name before the Father. (Revelation 2:17; 3:5-6)
The Rich Man is Unnamed
The purple and fine linen adorned by the rich man signifies the pride and pomp of the Chief Priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees.
- John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7-10)
- Christ stated that their form of righteousness was insufficient for the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20)
- Christ warned his disciples and the people to beware of their teaching (Matthew 16:6,11-12; Matthew 23)
So blind were they in their own righteousness that they couldn’t see the messianic sign when Christ healed the man born blind (Fourth Gospel 9). If they choose to remain in this state of blindness during the final judgment, they will remain unnamed forever, in that their names will not be included in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:14b-15).
A Chasm Between Two States
A fundamental purpose behind the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is not to illustrate the conditions of the dead, but to illustrate the chasm that separates the humble from the proud in the eyes of God.
The humble are counted among the faithful alongside the Father of the faithful. He, like all faithful, await the resurrection of the mortal dead into eternal life and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:49-55). Like the rich man, the proud are counted among the unbelievers and unrepentant. They too await a resurrection from death, but theirs is a resurrection to judgment (Fourth Gospel 5:27-29; Hebrews 6:1-3; 9:27-28; Revelation 20:11-12).
Yeshua further illustrates the chasm of the heart and mind that separates the proud form the humble; a chasm neither party is able to bridge (Luke 16:26).
- By the reversal of circumstances, the rich man is now the beggar to Lazarus
- Like the table scraps that Lazarus desired from the rich man’s table, similar is a mere dip of water to cool the tongue of the rich man amidst fire. Neither is sufficient to revive the soul.
- The lack of esteem shown by the rich man indicates he claims it all for himself. Like the Sadducees and Pharisees whom Christ confronted, they did not hear his words, they did not hear Moses, and they did not hear the pleas of the poor.
Clearly illustrated is the purpose for the entire discourse as Yeshua ends the parable with the same indictment – if they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead (vs 31). Certainly Yeshua could have been approaching this from several different perspectives:
- If in relation to his own resurrection, this was certainly true. For the greatest miracle will have no effect on those who are determined not to believe(3)
- If in relation to the upcoming resurrection of another named Lazarus, this miracle too was lost on them. So hard-hearted were they that they sought to kill not only the Lord, but the resurrected Lazarus as well (Fourth Gospel 11; 12:10)(4)
- There is yet a third inference to consider for belief as the result of resurrection, and that is in regard to their own pending resurrection to judgment. The implication in the parable is that the resurrection of anyone is insufficient to sway their hearts and minds. This would be a serious indictment, for there is no hope of resurrection from the second death. With the gift of free will and the hardheartedness of some, it seems likely there will be those who will not surrender to the obedience of faith in Christ our Lord, even after experiencing their own resurrection to mortal life and God’s righteous judgment.
As one looks more deeply at what’s being expressed in this parable which contrasts a humble and poor man, Lazarus, with a hard-hearted and self-focused rich man, we’re left observing the enormous chasm which separates them. A chasm that exists not only in the material world but, more importantly, in the immaterial world of the heart and mind. One can only wonder what, or who, can bridge this chasm between the repentant, those with ears to hear and eyes to see, and the unrepentant who seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.
We cannot forget that all humans are created in and endowed with the image of God. Regardless of how one defines the image of God, it’s clear from scripture that some characteristics humans possess, free will, self-consciousness, and self-determination, can serve to lead one closer to God or to drive one away from God. For we as Christians to understand the difference between the humble and the proud, we must understand the nature of our own reconciled relationship with God. It doesn’t come by our own hand., but by the will of God. Another parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, illustrates clearly it has more to do with the patience and grace of the Father than with the character flaws expressed in each of the sons. In the case of the younger son, it was only after suffering deprivation and destitution that he came to his senses and remembered his father. For the older son, his pride showed in his sense of self-righteousness which blinded him to the father’s love, compassion, and faithfulness expressed toward all his children. In either extreme, it was the Father who was able to fill the gap at the right time.
When we look at the creative work that Yeshua, the Christ, is fulfilling for the Father now and in the future (1 Corinthians 15:22-26; Hebrews 9:27-28), we can see the same pouring out of God’s character in Christ in order to return the hearts of the children to the Father and to humble the hard-hearted. For some it will require the oppression, deprivation and destitution of life to soften our hearts sufficiently to hear with our ears and see with our eyes. For others it will require the wrath of God and even death before their pride is broken. In both cases it is only when God extends a calling and his Holy Spirit to each one of us that we stand a chance at walking across that great chasm and finding rest in Abraham’s bosom. Praise be to God for those to whom – it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.
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At the close of each article, the relevant presuppositions that support it will be cited. This enables the reader to gain a clearer and deeper understanding of the context. To learn more about presuppositions, see the About page.
- God’s Righteous Judgment ends in mercy, not wrath. This is exemplified best in God’s plan to save Israel in faithfulness in spite of their disbelief and unfaithfulness. It’s expressed again in calling the Gentiles, who are not a people, to be his people in unity with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). The Apostle Paul illustrates God’s plan to save all Israel throughout Romans 9-11, culminating in an astonishing claim in Romans 11:32.
- The Son of God succeeded where Adam could not. Throughout Romans 5-7, Paul recounts the contrast, impact, and reality between death and eternal life. Most importantly in that contrast he shows that death, introduced through Adam, does not end there in condemnation, but is transformed through the gift in Yeshua, the Christ; a gift of grace through righteousness that leads to eternal life through Christ our Lord.
- This leaves Yeshua, the Christ as the only source of eternal life (Fourth Gospel 6:40).
- The Significance and Supremacy of Christ. The distinction between Adam and Christ couldn’t be greater. Adam came form the dust, a mortal living being. Yeshua the Christ, born of God’s Spirit, became a life-giving Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:44-49).
- Yeshua is the firstborn to glory (Colossians 1:15-19)
- Yeshua is God’s gift of grace, the One who dies for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-17)
- Yeshua is the source of our Eternal Inheritance (Ephesians 1:7-14,17-21)
- The Eternal Life in Christ, comes through the Resurrection to glory (Fourth Gospel 11:17-27; 1 Corinthians 15:50-55). Those who die in Christ shall live again; are raised imperishable – this mortal body must put on immortality. All that are glorified in Christ will never die the second death (Romans 6:8-11). The second death has no power over them (Revelation 20:6).
- Resurrection as a means to righteous judgment. Just as Christ calls his firstfruits to salvation out of disobedience and into the obedience of faith in God, so he will likewise call all the dead from their graves into a similar judgment. All will have the opportunity to receive God’s righteous judgment and be led into the truth of Yeshua, the Christ, but some will not surrender to truth. (1 Corinthians 15:22-26; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:11-13; Fourth Gospel 12:44-50; Romans 2:12-16; 11:32; Revelation 20:14-15)
- When I refer to Israel or Judah, like the authors of Scripture, I’m referring to the descendants of Jacob (renamed Israel). This does not fit the description of the modern nation of Israel which consists of people from many assorted nationalities. Also, the modern Jews (Judah) represent only one of the twelve original tribes of Israel. In the near future, God will call to himself, for a specific purpose, descendants from all twelve tribes as part of his kingdom-building process (Romans 9:4-5; 11; Revelation 7:4-8).
- Due to the dispute over the authorship of the Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, I will refer to this book as the Fourth Gospel. I have concluded on the side of such authors like J. Phillips (ISBN13: 978-0-9702687-3-0) who has shown conclusively John could not be the sole author and instead attribute primary authorship to Lazarus – the disciple whom Christ loved.
- Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary, Luke 16:31
- Ellicott’s Commentary, Luke 16:31