The Rich Man and Lazarus

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A Commentary by Sean Finnegan

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is perhaps the most difficult section of Scripture for those of us who hold to the belief called conditional immortality (the understanding that immortality is contingent on the resurrection not on the existence of an immortal soul). Before we take a look at the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus I think it would be best to review the Scriptures that speak about the state of the dead.

The dead are unconscious.

Ecclesiastes 9.5-6, 10
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun… Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

The dead are not able to praise God or give him thanks.

Psalm 6.4-5
Return, O LORD, rescue my soul; Save me because of Your lovingkindness. For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?

Psalm 30.9
“What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?

Psalm 115.17
The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence;

Psalm 146.4
His spirit [or “breath”] departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

The primary metaphor used to describe death in the Scriptures is “sleep,” which connotes the ideas of inactivity and unconsciousness.

Psalm 13.3
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

Acts 7.60
Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 13.36
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay;”

1 Corinthians 15.17-20
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.

The solution to the problem of death is resurrection at the return of Christ.

Daniel 12.2
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”

John 5.28-29
“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”

1 Corinthians 15.20-23
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming,

1 Thessalonians 4.13-17
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Many more Scriptures could be given to substantiate the viewpoint that the dead are asleep until the resurrection. Putting this all together we get the following understanding:

The New Bible Dictionary,
(Wheaton, IL: Tyndale 1982), p. 346.
The Christian hope for life beyond death is not based on the belief that part of man survives death. All men through their descent from Adam are naturally mortal. Immortality is the gift of God which will be attained through resurrection of the whole person…The Bible therefore takes death seriously, it is not an illusion. It is the consequence of sin and evil…It is seen as sleep from which one will awaken.

We are not innately immortal because of some indestructible soul; rather we depend on resurrection to become immortal. We know that the resurrection will occur when Christ returns
(1 Corinthians 15.21-23). In the meantime, the dead are unconscious; they are asleep, until the return of our Lord to awaken them to the life of the coming age (John 5.28-29). Now, with this foundation in place, let’s take a look at the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus which is found in Luke chapter sixteen.

Luke 16.19-31
19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.

22 “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.

24 “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’

27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house– 28 for I have five brothers– in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Some argue that this is not a parable because (1) it starts with the phrase “a certain man.” But this assertion is groundless because the parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16.1 starts just this way. A second reason given that this is not a parable is (2) that it never calls itself a parable. But, 11 out of the 26 parables in Luke’s Gospel do not self identify as parables. A third reason given that this is not a parable is that (3) Lazarus is named. However, Lazarus means “God has helped,” which would certainly be an appropriate fictitious name considering the irony of the story.

Some observations about this parable.
(adapted from Wrested Scriptures by R. Abel, pages 107-110, also available online at www.wrestedscriptures.com/b03hell/luke16v19-31.html)

  1. No mention is made of either “heaven” or “hell”
  2. No mention is made of “souls”
  3. If taken literally of someone’s soul going off to Abraham’s bosom there is a problem because the passage speaks of bodies not disembodied souls
  4. Body parts mentioned include eyes, the tip of a finger, and the tongue
  5. If souls are immaterial then how can they be carried by the angels?
  6. If there is a great chasm or gulf fixed between Abraham’s bosom and hades, how is it that they can see across it and converse with each other effortlessly?
  7. Just imagine living forever within ear shot of the agonizing screams of the tortured. Would that not be torture itself?
  8. If taken literally then we have a contradiction with Hebrews 11.8,13, 39-40 because there it says that Abraham has not yet received his reward. (Note that Hebrews was written decades after Jesus told this parable).
  9. If one is being tormented in flames of fire, would he ask for just a drop of water?
  10. If the righteous dead go to Abraham’s bosom at death, then what about those who died before Abraham? Did Noah go to Abraham’s bosom at death?

If one takes into account the fact that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable not a literal account, then all of these problems go away. Edward Fudge is insightful when he says,

Two Views of Hell, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 41.

Few serious interpreters attempt to make the details of the story literal. To do so would require us to imagine the saved and lost conversing with each other after death in full view of each other and at close range. We also would have to think of literal tongues that burn with literal fire and literal water that does not cool them. Not to mention physical bodies that can be tortured by fire but which somehow do not burn up.

Another note about parables needs to be made.

Warren Prestidge, Life, Death and Destiny,
(Takanini, New Zealand: Resurrection Publishing, 1998), p. 39.

First of all, there is no doubt that this is a parable, not a report of actual events. It begins the same way many parables do: “There was a (rich) man (19; compare 16.1, 15.11; 14.16). As with any parable, then, it is essential to distinguish between what it says and what it teaches For example, the parable in the first half of Luke 16 speaks of a steward cheating his master and says: good on him! But Jesus is not teaching that we should cheat our bosses. What he is teaching is that we should give to the poor, in view of God’s coming judgment. That, also, is what the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is teaching: it is simply a vehicle for his teaching.

We are not supposed to imitate what happens in the parables. We are supposed to get the point of the parable—understand what Jesus is teaching through the parable.

Now, I will have to admit that upon first inspection, instantaneously our minds go to the typical modern picture of someone burning mercilessly in hell while others are up in heaven. But, the audience of Jesus had a different worldview and would have read this parable in a different way. In order to bring out what Jesus’ hearers would have understood we need to look at the parallels in their own literature.

For example, if I make a reference about the Trinity from The Matrix. What would come to mind? Probably one would think of a young attractive girl who wears a lot of black clothing and does incredible martial arts. Obviously no one would think about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is because we share the context of the word “Matrix.” We understand that The Matrix is a movie. However, if someone a thousand years from now looked back on a conversation two people had about The Matrix and Trinity they would be more likely to associate a matrix with a grouping of numbers and the Trinity as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (three yet one). They could totally miss what was being talked about because they would miss the cultural context. Unless we are familiar with the stories of a culture (movies are stories, by the way) then we might miss a reference to a well-known story and end up taking everything the wrong way. This is why it is so important to do the historical research into the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

It just so happens that there was a story going around during the time of Jesus in which fates were reversed after death.

The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale 1982), p. 347.

In Luke 16.23 it is the place of torment for the wicked after death in accordance with some contemporary Jewish thinking, but it is doubtful whether this parabolic use of current ideas can be treated as teaching about the state of the dead.

Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes,
(Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com, 2001) pp. 203-204.

The plot of the parable, the reversal of earthly fortunes after death, was familiar in popular Palestinian stories of Jesus’ times. Hugo Gressmann cites a Greek parallel from a first-century Egyptian papyrus, and he says there are at least seven versions of the story in Jewish literature. One of the most famous involved a poor student of the Law and a rich publican named Bar Ma’jan. There are differences between these stories and Jesus’, of course, and therein lies the Lord’s uniqueness. But the basic plot was well-known folklore.

Froom cites a discourse of Josephus concerning Hades which paints almost precisely the same picture found in Luke. He concludes that “Jesus was clearly using a then-common tradition of the Jews to press home a moral lesson in a related field.” Although the Whiston edition of Josephus offers a lengthy defense of the treatise’s authenticity on internal and external grounds, most scholars today regard it as spurious, as conditionalists Edward White and Henry Constable both note.

It was like the Jews had watched movies in which this idea of two people whose fates were reversed in the afterlife was common (that would be our modern equivalent). If this story was in fact common in the time of Jesus then what matters is not so much the idea of fates reversed in the afterlife but what Jesus does with the parable, how he sharpens it up to prick the Pharisees’ hearts.

Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: SCM Press Ltd.: 1966), p. 145.

To understand the parable in detail and as a whole, we have to recognize that the first part derives from well-known folk-material concerned with the reversal of fortune in the after-life. This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Si-Osiris and his father Setme Chamois to the underworld; it ends with the words: ‘He who has been good on earth will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead; and he who has been evil on earth will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.’ Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich tax-collector Bar Ma’jan.

So, the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable (not a literal story). Furthermore it is a story that is very similar (in its first half) to other stories that were already around in the culture at the time. Jesus starts the story in the familiar way but then adds a twist half-way through once he has his hearers’ interest.

Lazarus is a man in a wretched state who has sores all over his body. He is starving even for the leftover food that the Rich Man feasts on lavishly. He is so weakened that he cannot even drive away the dogs (who were scavengers not house pets) from licking his soars. The typical understanding people had at the time would dictate that this Lazarus is actually being punished by God for his sins. People who walked past him would be asking themselves, “What must this man have done for God to punish him like this?” So the first move of the parable is to reverse the fates of the two. This demonstrates that the Rich Man is really poor and Lazarus is really rich in the eyes of God. Lazarus is blessed to be at “Abraham’s bosom” which is the highest place of honor at a banquet (John 13.23). This honor is given to Lazarus who had the lowest position in society.

Before we go on, it is important to realize that one of the keys to understanding the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus is that it works together with the parable from the first half of the chapter called the parable of The Unjust Steward. Sandwiched in between these two parables that each start with the phrase “there was a rich man” (Luke 16.1, 19) the Scripture says:

Luke 16.14-15
14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.

So this entire chapter is addressing the issue of wealth. The first parable is speaking more to the disciples and the second parable is reproving the Pharisees.

The Rich Man and Lazarus, article by Dr. Ralph Wilson
(from the Jesus Walk website www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/16_19-31.htm)

Jesus has been teaching about materialism and money–the unjust steward, serving Mammon, and stewardship. His audience includes his disciples (16.1) as well as “the Pharisees who loved money” and ridiculed his stand on money (16.14)…The parable we are studying…condemns the Pharisees love of money and neglect of showing compassion for the poor (16.19-31)…

Many scholars believe that Jesus is drawing upon a popular Jewish folk tale that had roots in Egypt about a rich man and poor man whose lots after death are completely reversed. The story doesn’t have to be true in all its particulars, but the popular mind can relate to its stereotyped characters–rich man, poor man, and Father Abraham.

Jesus is telling a common story about the afterlife in order to make a different point. What does the parable teach? In order to answer this question, let’s go through it section by section. I have divided up this parable into four sections: [1] the setting [2] fates reversed [3] the first question [4] the second question. (All references are from Luke chapter sixteen).

[1] the setting

19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.”

We have already touched on the state of Lazarus to a certain extent. To summarize, he is poor, sick, and miserable. Lazarus “was laid” at the rich man’s gate. Perhaps Lazarus was also crippled and had to depend on others to put him in public areas where he could acquire food or money. The fact that Lazarus is at the gate tells us that the rich man passes by him every time he leaves his house or returns home. The rich man cannot claim to be ignorant of Lazarus nor can he claim that he is unable to help him, for he certainly has the means. Lazarus desired so little—the mere crumbs falling from the rich man’s table—yet there he laid, destitute.

[2] fates reversed

22 “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.”

Now their fates are reversed. This is to be expected from the hearers’ familiarity with other stories like this that were circulating at the time. Notice that the poor man is again carried but this time by angels to Abraham’s bosom—the place of highest honor. Meanwhile the rich man dies, is buried, and then in the realm of the dead (Hades) is being tormented yet he can see Abraham and Lazarus at a distance. [It is noteworthy to mention that we are not talking about hell (gehenna) which will not exist until the coming of Jesus when judgment is passed (see Revelation 20).]

[3] the first question

24 “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’”

This question, asked by the rich man is to gain comfort while he is “in agony in this flame.” He wants mercy even though he had shown none while he was living. Notice that he still thinks Lazarus is someone to be ordered around and requests that Abraham to send him. Abraham’s response explains that because of their respective lots in life they have been reversed now. The chasm between them cannot be crossed, for that is its purpose–to keep the two realms separate. The point of the chasm is that no one can change their fate once he dies. Still there would have been nothing shocking up to this point in the parable; though I’m sure the Pharisees were already beginning to become aware that Jesus was reproving their love of money.

[4] the second question

27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house– 28 for I have five brothers– in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to tell his five brothers about this place of torment. The answer that comes back is, “No,” because his brothers already have a witness that tells them how to live–Moses and the Prophets. The rich man argues back that his brothers would repent if someone went to them from the dead. Yet Abraham does not change his prior answer. He is utterly convinced that if someone does not listen to Moses and the Prophets then he will also not listen even if someone rises from the dead. The living should already know based on the Scriptures how to treat the poor. (There is perhaps a foreshadowing here of the disbelief that many would maintain even after eye-witnesses testify that Jesus was raised from the dead.) Two major points can be made from this parable:

The Rich Man and Lazarus, article by Dr. Ralph Wilson
(from the Jesus Walk website (http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/16_19-31.htm)

1. Wealth without active mercy for the poor is great wickedness.
2. If we close our eyes to the truth we are given, then we are doomed
…It isn’t their piety that he is condemning, but what they AREN’T doing–showing mercy to the poor, seeking justice for the downtrodden. It is ironic that the Pharisees who prided themselves on being such Bible scholars largely missed the spirit of the Old Testament–mercy and justice.

Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: SCM Press Ltd.: 1966), p. 147.

The parable is one of the four two-edged parables. The first point is concerned with the reversal of fortune in the life to come (vv. 19-23), the second (vv. 24-31) with the refusal of the rich man’s request that Abraham send Lazarus to him and to his five brothers. As the first part is drawn from well known folk-material, the emphasis lies on the fresh part that Jesus added—on the epilogue. Like all the two-edged parables, this one stresses the second point. That means that Jesus does not want to comment on a social problem, or intend to give a teaching about life after death—he tells the parable to warn people like the rich man and his brothers of the impending fate. Lazarus is therefore only a secondary figure, introduced by way of contrast; the parable is about the six brothers…

With parables it is always important to get the point without getting lost in the details. It may be fine to speculate on all of the different symbolisms in a parable, and sometimes they are meant to represent many different things (like The Sower and the Seed or The Tares and the Wheat in Matthew 13), but we have to be careful not to obfuscate the intent of the parable. This parable is about generosity towards the poor not the afterlife. William Barclay has aptly titled this parable, “The Punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed.” Dr. Wilson is again insightful when he says:

The Rich Man and Lazarus, article by Dr. Ralph Wilson
(from the Jesus Walk website (http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/16_19-31.htm)

We are Bible-toting Christians who have the benefit of the Old Testament AND the New. If we don’t notice and minister to the poor, what excuse will we have? In the final analysis, the rich man’s punishment is not for riches, but for neglect of the Scriptures and what they teach.

That doesn’t mean we should give out of guilt or give unwisely or give to whoever cries the loudest. Instead, we are to give out of the love of God within us. Not selfishly to assuage our guilt, but selflessly to care for someone else’s need.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is about money, all right. Money and wealth and self-centeredness. And mercy. It is especially a parable about mercy–mercy now!

The parable is about how we live now; because once we die we cannot come back and fix anything. We have the Law, we have the Prophets, and we have the poor man. The Scriptures teach that we should love justice and mercy. The poor man gives an opportunity to practice that teaching. The question is: are we going to do something about this or are we going to ignore the destitute, enjoy our lives, and in the end suffer as a result of it?

Warren Prestidge, Life, Death and Destiny,
(Takanini, New Zealand: Resurrection Publishing, 1998), p. 39.

No, Jesus is not endorsing the story’s paraphernalia. He is using it simply to meet his opponents, the Pharisees, on their own ground: using a story familiar to them, in order to convict them out of their own mouths, as it were, for their indifference to the poor, and perhaps to “sinners” and even Gentiles in general. All that he actually endorses here is “Moses and the prophets” (29). “…it was not the intention of Jesus…to give a topographical guide to the underworld.” “…he does not intend here to give a preview of life after death. On this almost all commentators agree.”

We should not allow ourselves to get distracted with theological discussions about life after death when it comes to this parable. We need to understand, not just what the parable isn’t saying but also what it is saying. David Smith summarizes the point of the parable well:

David Smith, Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible: Lazarus, ed. by James Hastings, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), p. 539.

The purpose of the parable is not to condemn riches and exalt poverty in the spirit of Ebionitic asceticism. [In other words, the parable is not saying that poverty is a virtue.] It is an enlargement of the Lord’s admonition in v9: ‘Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness, that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles’ (RV). The merit of Lazarus was not that he was poor, but that he had found his help in God; the offence of the Rich Man was not that he was rich, but that he lived a self-indulgent and luxurious life, regardless of the misery around him. Had he made friends to himself of Lazarus and others like him by means of his mammon of unrighteousness, he would have had a place and a welcome among them when he entered the unseen world.

Let us take Jesus’ parable to heart. If we have money, then let’s open our eyes to see our Lazarus at the gate. If we don’t have money, there are still many things we can do for the poor (somebody had to put Lazarus at the gate of the rich man). This issue will not go away (“the poor you will have with you always”) until Jesus comes and makes things right on earth as in heaven, but that should in no way discourage us from carrying out compassionate acts of love toward the afflicted in this age.

One thought on “The Rich Man and Lazarus

  • Very refreshing and enlightening to read this interpretation of the parable. Several years back I wrote a letter to a local church elder detailing my reasons for rejecting the teaching of an immortal soul residing within man. That letter later became an essay I put online in a blog and included a section on this parable. You have articulated it far better than I ever could, and I remember revisiting this parable for months to try to get my head around its main point. I was not aware of the relevant stories being told in Palestine at that time. My friend has recommended your podcast to me today so I look forward to having a listen.

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