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The Rich Man and Lazarus - A Parable

By Richard Gunther


  Luke 16:19-31

   In approaching this subject I do not want to belittle or criticize any of those very true and correct teachings which have sprung from the parable. For example, our need to take the words of Jesus seriously, or our destiny being decided by our response to Jesus. There are always good things to be found in any and all Scriptures, and I would never want to give the impression that I have found the last and final word. God speaks and teaches every Bible student through the same Bible, and there are always more layers of understanding further in, for those who seek.


   Having said this, I would like to question the ‘traditional’ Church teaching on this parable, which suggests that the rich man went to hell partly because he was rich, and the poor man went to heaven mainly because he was poor. Perhaps this is not so much stated openly from the pulpit, because to do so one would have to contradict certain other Scriptures which say how crucial faith is, rather than material circumstances, to gaining an entrance to heaven. However, there is an implication in this parable which is unavoidable.


   The rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen, he lived in luxury, and he ended up “in torments in Hades”, it seems because he failed to feed the poor man who sat at his gates. We know already from the Old testament, in many places, that God is a “father to the fatherless” and a helper of the poor, so it may not seem surprising to see the oppressor of the poor, the rich man, in a place of torment. He did not help when he could have helped – a great sin.


   But if this was the case, we come, by simple logic, to certain inescapable conclusions:

1.                      If you are poor, you stand a much better chance of gaining heaven. Or, because you are poor, and not rich, you are most likely to end up in heaven rather than hell. Poverty is therefore a great blessing, and people ought to pursue poverty as part of their Christian desires.

2.                      Rich people go to hell either because they are rich, or because the richer one is the more likely it is that they will also be cruel and hard. Wealth is therefore inherently evil, or at least is a strong contributing factor.

3.                      People in hell can see people in heaven. Even more – they can speak to each other across the gap. This implies that mother will be able to speak to their lost sons, or missionaries will be able to converse freely with the children who failed to receive Jesus. The implications for this one are breathtaking.

4.                      God compensates the poor by sending them to heaven. In other words, the more miserable our lives here and now, the more likely we will be compensated with blessings in the hereafter.

5.                      When we die we go to a place where the dead can communicate with the living? Or perhaps the dead are not dead, and the living are not fully alive? Perhaps this place of conversation between the two states is a new teaching – a sort of social limbo? A never-never land where earth’s normal interactions continue, only across a great divide?


   To accept any of the above one would force us to set aside many contradicting Scriptures, so we are forced into a very difficult situation. Perhaps God’s Word is so inconsistent we must simply interpret it as we go along, and not allow too much precision? Or perhaps there is a deeper meaning to the parable, which we have completely missed? Or perhaps, after all, it is not a doctrinal teaching, but an illustration spoken in prophetic language, which must be interpreted through comparison with other Scriptures?


   The context of the parable is the open discussion which Jesus was having with the Pharisees. 16:14 “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money . . . derided him” Jesus aimed the parable straight at them, and began by saying “There was a certain rich man . . .” This shows that the parable was a national one, rather than a spiritual.  The Pharisees, who knew their Bibles (i.e. the Old testament) very well, were quickly aware of the meaning of the parable – but today, the modern church is not so accustomed to comparing the words of the New Testament with the Old. In fact I have come across dozens of long-standing Christians who have never even read the whole Old Testament, and this, I think, is a common problem. The Church, stranded so to speak on the sand bar of the New Testament, is often left to its own resources when it comes to interpreting the words of Jesus, not realising that everything which Jesus said was no different in language or meaning from any utterance by the Old Testament prophets.


   I think this point ought to be emphasised. If we read the words of Jesus without the background of the Old Testament,  we cannot be at all sure what he is talking about. His use of proverbs, metaphors, allusions to other Scriptures and so on seems, at times, totally obscure. He seems to stand alone and apart, like an iceberg which has drifted thousands of miles from its parent ice shelf. But this is exactly what we should expect, if we pull him away from his true and proper context. Of course he seems to be enigmatic. It is like dragging Shakespeare into the present and then trying to understand his quaint and curious use of the English language. But seen in the context of his own century, and in the light of his Plays, Shakespeare makes a lot more sense.


   The fact is, Jesus supplied the voice which spoke through all the Old Testament prophets. It was His hand which guided the pens of Moses, and David, Ezra and Daniel. It was His Spirit which  inspired and perfected the words which came to be written and preserved in the volume we now call the Old Testament. There is absolutely no difference between the words of Isaiah and Jesus, or Zechariah and Jesus. The only important thing is Jesus is the last of the Great Prophets (Heb.1).


   So when we come to this parable, and in fact any other parable which Jesus told, we should expect to find that every word of the parable relates directly to the Old Testament. The plant must have roots – it cannot grow in the air.


   We shall begin then, with an assumption, that when Jesus told the parable to the Pharisees, he housed it in typical Old Testament prophetic language, and he meant it to be interpreted by the same rules which all Old Testament prophecies are to be interpreted. The national aspect of the parable is the most important, although there are some good spiritual lessons to be drawn from it. (But what use would a spiritual lesson be to men who were so hardened and spiritually blind anyway?)


   The rich man, therefore, represents the rich, proud Pharisees, the Jewish leaders of the day. Archaeology (and other disciplines) have confirmed their wealth. They had their own buildings close to the Temple, with sumptuous furnishings. They also had sometimes one or two inbuilt ‘cleansing’ pools in which to bath. They had their own stone causeway built into the side of the Temple so they could enter and leave without having to come near the poor of the streets, and they dressed in the best garments of course. To be a Pharisee was to be wealthy.


   The “rich man’s” purple garments speak of wealth, but also of royalty. Judah was the royal tribe, and it was from Judah that the Jewish nation was descended. (See article on ‘Jews’) It was a sad indictment on these wealthy priests that they while were supposed to be the conveyors of God’s love and compassion to the poor and sick, they were the very ones who avoided these people, and in fact they even posted bodyguards at the Temple entrance, forbidding any sick to enter. Instead of visiting the lepers, they shut them out of the city and abandoned them. Instead of trying to help widows and orphans, they shunned them.


   The “fine linen” represents the Levites, who comprised the priestly class in Jerusalem. There were two groups, Pharisees and Levitical priests, and their wealth consisted of such things as the Temple, the ministry of sacrifices and other offerings, the keeping and preservation of the Old Testament (Torah), the upkeep and maintenance of the synagogues. They were wealthy in many ways other than mere gold and silver. They had the priceless treasure of being God’s voice and representatives to the people, and they had the potential of bringing the Jewish people into the Kingdom of God! If these leaders had been faithful to the Word, and acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and proclaimed him as they should have, the subsequent history of the Jews would have been radically different.


   The poor man Lazarus represents the bulk of Israel, now scattered far and wide into northern Asia. This is another aspect of Scripture which the Church by and large seems to have completely forgotten. The original kingdom of Israel was united, but during the time of Jeroboam and Rehoboam the kingdom was divided into a northern part, and a smaller southern part. The northern part was taken into captivity to Assyria, by a succession of invasions, then over a hundred years later the southern part, called Judah, and consisting of about two and a half tribes, went east to Babylon. A remnant returned, with Ezra and Nehemiah, to rebuild the city walls and Temple. 400 years later Jesus was born – these people were called the Jews. They were a small but privileged nation. They enjoyed, for a brief space, a great blessing of God’s Grace, as they were given the opportunity to receive the Messiah. They could have become the nucleus of God’s kingdom – but they refused to accept their King and the gospel was sent out to all the world instead. The world benefited immensely from the Jew’s mistake.


   So Lazarus represents these scattered Israelites, who, compared to the Jews, were but “beggars”, and “full of sores”, and they were “laid at the gates” of Jerusalem, “desiring to be fed from the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table”.


   The Israelites, scattered and oppressed, gradually freed themselves from under the heel of Assyria. The “dogs” (Gentiles) “licked their wounds”, so to speak, as they moved away from their captives. But then Jesus brings a prediction into the parable. He suggests that the rich man and Lazarus both die, (Ez.37) but instead of the rich man going to heaven, the poor man goes there, and instead of the poor man going to Hell, the rich man goes there. What is Jesus saying?


   He is predicting that the Jewish leaders will miss out on the kingdom of God, but the Israelites, despised and scattered, will not. This interpretation works within the national context of the parable, and it also works in history, because as we look at history, we see that as soon as the Jewish nation made it clear they were not going to accept Christ, the gospel was sent into all the world. James addresses his letter to “the ten tribes which are scattered abroad”, the words of Mary as she rejoiced over her soon-to-be born Son are a prediction of restored Israel, the whole book of Revelation is replete with references to restored Israel, and so on. “Has God cast away His people?” says Paul in Romans 11, “Certainly not!”. The covenants with Israel were everlasting and unconditional (Jer.31:31 and context, Psalm 89:34-37) and non-transferable.


   The “bosom of Abraham” represents the Abrahamic covenant which was made between God and Abraham thousands of years before. In this covenant God promised to bless Abraham’s seed, and He made sure the covenant did not depend on any man keeping their part, by preventing Abraham from sharing in it (Gen. 15:12,13). Over the centuries God tended and cared for His chosen flock. He nurtured them in Egypt, delivered them from the wilderness, rescued them in Palestine, He raised up judges and prophets, kings and servants, to help His people. He protected them in their captivity, and he sent His Son to save them. Now that Jesus had finally come, the plan for the covenant could proceed, but the Jews rejected the Messiah and so lost their great opportunity. The covenant blessings were therefore taken to the scattered Israelites, and at the same time offered to all the world, which gave all the Gentile nations an opportunity to be ‘grafted in’ to the Israel vine.


   The “rich man died” represents the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Jewish nation was lost and scattered, just as Israel had been, centuries earlier. And after the fall of Jerusalem the general persecution and down-treading of the Jewish people began. It was to continue for nearly 2000 years. The “torments in Hades” represents the terrible treatment which the Jews were to receive both from the world and from the Roman church. They were labelled ‘Christ-killers’ and other similar names, because, (so some church leaders said), they cried “His blood be on us and on our children!” at the time of the crucifixion. Persecution of Jews has often justified because they continue to reject the Messiah, even after nearly 2000 years, and still today there are Jews who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as being anything more than a wise Jewish rabbi.


   In the parable, when the rich man (the Jewish nation) saw Lazarus (the scattered house of Israel) coming into great blessing, he cried “Send Lazarus to my father’s house!” Unfortunately for the Jews, after the Jewish nation rejected their Messiah, it was too late for them to reverse God’s plan. They could not regain the blessings they had thrown away, and even though many Jews did become Christians, it was not enough, and it was too late.


   The Jewish people did not realize that:

1.                      Because they had rejected their Messiah, they could not receive the “good things” they desired. God wanted to bless them, but His blessings had strings attached. In a similar way today, many people want the blessings of Christianity but not the Christ of those blessings.

2.                      It would have done no good at all to send the Messiah a second time. The Jewish leaders would have been no different.


   The “great gulf” represents the enormous distance between either accepting or rejecting the Messiah. By way of illustration, when a rugby ball is kicked towards the posts, it either goes through or it doesn’t. One is either saved or one is not. It is impossible to be half-born again. In the same sort of way, the whole issue of Jew and Christian hinges on whether Jesus is or isn’t the Messiah. Every Jewish community is and always has been separate from the Christian community, spiritually and literally. Although Christians and Jews mix in the areas of politics, trade, hobbies, humour, art, crafts, economics, sport, and so on, the “great gulf” always exists.


   Abraham said “They have Moses and the prophets” this represents the Lord informing the Jewish people that they have sufficient grounds on which to identify and acknowledge the Messiah. The Jews did indeed have “Moses” and “the prophets”. They had the entire Old Testament, complete and intact. They had all the predictions of a coming Messiah, they had the warning in Malachi that the Lord’s servant would suddenly come to His Temple. They had a picture portrait of the Messiah, his words and works and his miracles all testifying his identity.


   “I have five brothers” represents Judah, who had five brothers. This detail in the parable clearly identifies the nation to whom Jesus is addressing the parable.


   Jesus told these Jewish leaders that if they refused to “hear” Moses and the prophets, they would not be persuaded, even if there was a resurrection. Once again Jesus was correct. The Pharisees refused to acknowledge the raising to life of the servant, the young girl, the widow’s son and Lazarus. These were but a few of the raising from the dead miracles performed by Jesus, and later by his apostles. There were also several more risings from the dead after Jesus was resurrected. (Mat.27:52,53)


    Interpreted as a national parable, in the context and language of the Old Testament prophets, the words of Jesus are consistent with all that has come before. Neither does he contradict any basic Christian doctrines, or challenge either history or Old Testament truth. The Scriptures regarding heaven and hell, sin, poverty and wealth are not damaged either. The only time problems occur is when the parable is taken literally, or as a platform for building doctrine – both, unfortunately, mistakes which many Christians today make.

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