The story of The Rich Man and Lazarus has been interpreted in many ways over the centuries. It is often considered to be a parable, though it has some characteristics that set it apart from the other parables of Jesus. Some interpret the story as a literal event, while some see it partially metaphorically and partially literally (having their cake and eating it, too). People will always see things differently. In fact, one of the main applications of The Rich Man and Lazarus is that we should be wary of vested interests that obscure sound judgment.
I wish I could say that the following interpretation is flawless and complete, but experience tells me there’s more ore to be mined and corrections to be made. My understanding of this story has been revised many times. I hope I’m getting warm. I predict you will be both surprised and challenged by what you read here. May your meditations on this article bring you closer to the mind of Christ.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, “for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.”
“No, Father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
There are various literary forms in the Bible. Some passages are fundamentally historic, some are didactic, some are poetic, while some are prophetic and/or symbolic. The Bible is not particularly tricky or difficult to understand, but it is filled with literary devices just like other writings. Inspired by God? Yes, but written for humans. Understanding the Bible requires, mostly, integrity, and then usually a bit of effort. Reading with integrity means sincerely searching out the intent of the writer.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is usually thought of as a parable. The word, “parable” comes from the Greek parabole, which means, “lay beside” or “compare”. A parable is a comparison, an analogy, or an illustration. It is an extended metaphor. When it’s clear we’re reading a parable, we look to discover the central idea being taught. But why do we think this story is a parable in the first place? Based on the story’s location in Luke, it is clearly told by Jesus. We know that Jesus often spoke in parables. We can see other parables are clustered in this and surrounding chapters. These facts give us good reason to suspect this story is a parable.
The setting of the story is initially on earth, but then it changes to a panoramic scene in which the Rich Man is in a place of torment (Hades); Lazarus, at a distance, is at Abraham’s side; while a great chasm separates the two parties. This complexity is different from most parables. Perhaps it is not a parable but a vision. Visions and dreams are found in the Bible. The weakness of this proposal is that visions and dreams are always identified as such in the Bible. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Peter had a vision in which he was ordered to eat unclean food. John’s entire Revelation account is presented as a vision. This story is not identified as a dream or a vision. Jesus simply launches into the story: “There was a rich man…” This is the exact phrase Jesus used to launch the parable at the beginning of Luke 16. The repeated phrase is another reason to believe The Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable.
But before we concede that the story is a parable, let’s also examine it to see whether it can be understood as a literal, historical, account. If it is a literal account, it is clearly not an observation of an ordinary person. Of course, Jesus tells the story. Could he, as part of the Godhead, have observed these things himself? This raises the question of Jesus’ omniscience and/or memories of heaven while he lived on the earth. But rather than exploring that mystery, it would be more productive to ask this question: even if Jesus was the observer, could this story work on a literal level? Consider these details from the story:
- The demeanor of the Rich Man. He is respectful of Abraham; his arguments are polite; he has no complaints against God, nor does he blame anyone else for his miserable condition. He does not come across as bitter or angry or self-pitying or full of excuses. When Abraham denies his request for water, he conscientiously turns his thoughts to his brothers, interceding for them, hoping to help them avoid his punishment. He accepts his own sentence without debate but he argues with Abraham for his brothers’ sakes. The Rich Man is portrayed as a likable guy. This type of character is not what we would expect to find among the damned.
- The character of Lazarus is also surprising. He, apparently, is no longer a cripple, given that the Rich Man selects him as a messenger. Otherwise there is no evidence of transformation in Lazarus. Instead of being a glorified, heavenly being, he seems to be the meek mannered milquetoast he was on earth. As the “good guy” in the story, we look for him to take the role of hero and star. Instead, he doesn’t even qualify as a “supporting actor”; he plays the part of an “extra”. Abraham and the Rich Man both have a great deal to say. Lazarus never utters a word.
- The main setting of the story includes a place identified as hell (hades),and a place of comfort that seems to represent heaven. Will those in heaven spend their Tuesday afternoons spectating over the misery of the damned (or entering into polite debates)? This does not match up with other scriptural teaching. Revelations 21.4 says: There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Is it not impossible that resurrected, heavenly humans, healed of all hardness of heart, could tolerate observing others in torment? Their sensitized empathy would cause them to be nearly as miserable as the damned (which would make heaven most unheavenly).
(Many interpreters of the story have suggested that the setting is not about heaven and hell but, rather, “Sheol,” or a place where all the dead await the final judgment. Three details make this view untenable. The Rich Man is in torment; Lazarus is “comforted”; and there is a “great chasm” between them. The panorama described, while not literally accurate, is still clearly intended to represent heaven and hell.)
- The great chasm is peculiar in itself. How far away are the two parties? They must be close enough for the Rich Man to recognize both Lazarus and Abraham. He is able to see that Lazarus is healed, so maybe Lazarus is bouncing around, restless to try out his new body. (Won’t you be?) They are able to call to each other and be understood. For these things to be possible, they can hardly be more than 50 yards apart. It’s puzzling, then, that the Rich Man must be informed about the chasm. It’s great, it can’t be far from him, but he doesn’t notice it. Besides this, building a bridge is not even considered. If people on earth can build bridges across chasms, why couldn’t those with heavenly intelligence and unlimited resources?
- The conversation. While initially the Rich Man calls out to Abraham, the ensuing interaction is conversational. The phrasing is complex and casual, as if Abraham and the Rich Man are sharing tea in a sitting room. Imagine the Rich Man and Abraham hollering the specific conversation of the story. It just doesn’t work.
- The Rich Man recognizes Abraham. How does he do that? Abraham walked the earth around 2000 B.C. By pointing out that the Rich Man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets” Abraham reveals that this story must have taken place at least 1500 years after his own death. So, was there a statue of Abraham in the center of town? Was there a painting of him in the synagogue? Was he wearing a really big name tag?
- The Rich Man does not understand his status hell—he still thinks he has status. He appeals to Abraham as his descendant (which Abraham acknowledges). He thinks help is possible. This is a much different image of hell than the one given by Jesus in Matthew 25.41, where explanation precedes punishment: Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
- TheRich Man seems to have brain lock. Of all the things he might have asked of Abraham, what could have possessed him to ask for a few drops of water? Why not ask for a flask? Or a swimming pool? Why didn’t he scream, “Get me out of here!”?
Perhaps the Rich Man’s request was a kind of idiom. Perhaps it was Middle Eastern understatement, a matter of propriety wherein the request is obviously insufficient for the need, thus allowing the benefactor opportunity to respond with generosity. Maybe “a dip of the finger” really did mean, “get me out of here!” But still, the Rich Man gave up his quest for relief awfully easily. Was he in a hurry? Was he late for his bowling league? Was he worried about being punished for being rude? No, if someone had nothing to lose, it would be the Rich Man. When you’re in the fire you say whatever you want to say.
- How was the Rich Man able to keep talking, anyway? He explains to Abraham that he is in agony, as if Abraham, seeing him in a fire, wouldn’t have noticed. But in the fire, he keeps jabbering away, again, as if the two are in a sitting room. Everyone agrees that the Rich Man is in agony, but the Rich Man gives no evidence of it.
A literal interpretation of this story is untenable. Our portrait is surreal, not historical. Still, there are many who don’t think the story is a parable. Why? There are a couple of differences that separate this story from the other parables. One difference is the complexity. There are two scenes—one on earth and one in the afterlife. The second scene is a grand panorama of heaven and hell. The other difference is the inclusion of named individuals. Lazarus and Abraham are named. Moses, while not part of the story, is referenced. None of Jesus’ other parables have named characters. So, is this or is this not a parable? Maybe it would be better to divide and conquer. Instead of trying to decide the story’s literary type, perhaps it would be more helpful to do more internal analysis. Let’s start by asking how our key characters went through status reversal.
The Rich Man was buried and then found himself in hell. What was his crime? The overt, initial answer comes from Abraham. The answer is a disappointment, theologically speaking. He tells the Rich Man that he suffers because he was rich and had “received good things.” on earth. (Quick, get rid of your good things or you will find yourself in hell one day!) Abraham’s explanation sounds like asceticism, not Christianity, which, while it cautions against the love of money and things, it also recognizes them as blessings. There are numerous wealthy, righteous characters in the Bible. As it happens, Abraham is one of them. Was Abraham telling a joke? There’s no indication he’s joking. Set this puzzle aside for a moment; we’ll come back to it.
Let’s turn to the second, less obvious, but more helpful answer to the question. The second answer is inferred from Abraham’s response to the request for the brothers. Abraham refused to send Lazarus to the Rich Man’s brothers, pronouncing that anyone familiar with the writings of Moses and the prophets, but who suppressed them, was too calloused to listen to even a resurrected witness. The brothers were in danger for the same reason the Rich Man was punished. Though the Rich Man knew the texts (the Old Testament), there were critical portions of it he chose to ignore.
Do we have clues about any specific transgressions by the Rich Man? Yes, the Rich Man dressed in finery, and he feasted every day. This suggests he was a pompous glutton. More damning, though, was his relationship with Lazarus. Clearly, the Rich Man knew Lazarus, because he recognized him from his place in hell. He, therefore, knew that Lazarus was poor (because he begged), and crippled (because he was laid at the Rich Man’s gate), and diseased (because he was covered with sores). But the Rich Man couldn’t be troubled to help Lazarus. He had the means to greatly relieve Lazarus’ misery. Instead, he lavished his wealth on himself. He ignored Old Testament commands (this from the writings of Moses): Give generously to [the poor] and do so without a grudging heart, then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. — Deuteronomy 15:10-11
Lazarus longed to eat the scraps from the Rich Man’s table. This suggests that Lazarus either never or only rarely received the scraps. The scraps, by the way, would have been pieces of bread used as napkins and then tossed to the floor, as was the custom. Yum. Pre-slobbered, dusty bread scraps. In a final bitter swipe, Jesus described how even the dogs came to lick Lazarus’ sores. Dogs were considered “unclean” animals in Israel but in this story they are identified as being more merciful than the Rich Man.
Lazarus, on the other hand, had been carried to Abraham’s side where he was comforted. What was the basis for his reward? Abraham provides a similar overt answer: in life Lazarus “received bad things”. Again, rather than interpreting this as a call to asceticism, we will draw on the Moses and prophets theme for the more fundamental answer. The Rich Man and his brothers ignored Moses and the prophets. Lazarus must have heeded Moses and the prophets.
No speech or action is given to support the idea that Lazarus was a man of honorable character. In fact, Lazarus was not capable of doing much good. He was dependent on others—not one with the ability to bless. Right? Well, that must be wrong. Lazarus, in some fashion or another, was living faithfully. Perhaps he was a man of prayer. Perhaps he encouraged passers-by, blessing them with kind words. Perhaps the fact the Rich Man was quick to recommend Lazarus to run errands suggests something of Lazarus’ character. Perhaps the Rich Man had observed a pleasant, accommodating, servant attitude in Lazarus. Perhaps his requests that Lazarus run errands was not indicative of the Rich Man’s arrogance, as many have suggested, but, rather, the Rich Man saw in Lazarus some reason to hope. The Rich Man knew he had been merciless towards Lazarus and, yet, he dared hope that Lazarus would be merciful towards him. From this perspective the Rich Man’s request suggests that Lazarus was known to be full of grace.
So, we now have a better understanding of the characters, Lazarus and the Rich Man, and why they are respectively rewarded and punished. But there is much more to the identities of these two, as well as that of Abraham, that contributes to the meaning of the story. The identities of the characters is the most unique element of The Rich Man and Lazarus. If the story is a parable, it is a parable of specific allusions.
Let’s look first at Abraham. Abraham is recognized as the father of the nation of Israel. Abraham was called by God to come out of the land of Ur and to be the father of a great nation. His son was Isaac. His grandson was Jacob, later named Israel, and also the source of the name for the nation. Locating Lazarus at Abraham’s side indicates that Lazarus is in a good place. Abraham reinforces this idea by pointing out that Lazarus “is comforted here”.
Some translations, rather than saying Lazarus was “at Abraham’s side”, read, “in Abraham’s bosom.” This phrase, a little off-putting to the 21st century ear, is a more literal translation and, in this case, a good rendering. (Feel free to make the change in your Bible if it reads, “at Abraham’s side”). In Jesus’s (earthly) day there were three terms commonly used in Jewish society to express the future state of blessedness— “Paradise”; “the Throne of Glory”; and “the bosom of Abraham”. “The bosom of Abraham” was the most commonly used of the three. The phrase would evoke a grand feast hosted by Abraham. This is the first important allusion of the story.
Guests would recline on couches, leaning on their left arms, while eating and passing items with their right. (The first irony of this allusion is that Abraham scolded the Rich Man for feasting every day on earth. His obsession with mundane feasting disqualified him from the everlasting, heavenly feast.) Two or more would lie on the same couch, with the head of one man near the chest of the man to his left. A man located with his head near the chest of the man on his left was termed “lying in the bosom”. To be “in Abraham’s bosom” is to be identified as the most favored guest.
Thus, Jesus borrowed a common image and revised it in a shocking way. In a second irony, which I will explain shortly, Jesus described the pathetic Lazarus as the most exalted person at the heavenly banquet. This would have snapped the hearers to attention. Some would have been puzzled by the implication; others would have been angry, grumbling about the contrarian Galilean, who, according to pattern, was contradicting the prevailing theology of the day.
Jesus alludes to this same feast in Matthew 8.11. On this other occasion there are also unexpected guests at the feast: I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Who were those coming from the east and west? Jesus, himself amazed, made the remark in response to the faith of a Roman centurion. Those coming from east and west were the gentiles.
It’s interesting that Jesus is comfortable using a culturally popular understanding of Paradise, even though the allusion is not theologically accurate. The book of Revelation (19.6-8) describes a great feast—an extended mixed metaphor in its own right—in which the key figure is not Abraham, but the Lamb (Jesus Christ), and the second most important figure is the bride (the Church, in which both Abraham and Lazarus are presumably included). When Jesus told the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, his audience would have been completely befuddled if he had employed the imagery in Revelation. So Jesus used ideas and images his hearers could process. This is how good communication works.
Allow me to add that revelations about heaven are sketchy. Most Christians believe there really will be a great feast, made up of all the saints, all the creatures of heaven, and God, himself. Maybe the great feast will be repeated quarterly. Maybe it will serve to celebrate each day’s labor. But heaven will not be an everlasting feast, other than in a symbolic sense. That is, heaven will buzz with the energy of a celebration; it will be a place of rejoicing, peace, and communion. Heaven, the New Earth, will be a lot like our present earth, but without all the “thorns and thistles”. No, we won’t be sitting on clouds, strumming harps. (Well, maybe some of the time.)
Let’s turn now to the Rich Man. What is his name? Well, he doesn’t have a name. There are two reasons for this. The first is that to lack a name is to lack identity, which implies a lack of value. Abraham is identified by name. Lazarus is identified by name. The Rich Man has no name. In the creation account God assigned Adam the task of naming the animals. God himself named Adam. To call someone by name is to recognize their individuality, to confirm that the person is deemed important enough to be remembered. When someone calls you “good buddy”, it may be a pleasantry, but it is often a smokescreen for the fact that the person can’t remember your name. You matter a little but not a lot. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. – John 10.3,4. The Rich man lacks a name. What he is given is a label. Here is another irony. His label proclaims that he is simultaneously of great superficial worth (rich), but essentially of no worth (nameless).
There is a second reason he is called the Rich Man. A few verses earlier in Luke 16 we read, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”
The Pharisees are identified in these verses as lovers of money, and are denounced for making money their master when they should have been serving God. Those religious leaders were still on hand for Jesus’ presentation of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is no coincidence that, after having just berated the Pharisees for their love of money, Jesus launches into a story whose main character is a rich man.
First century Palestinian Jews considered wealth to be a sign of God’s favor. This is true for us today—we still recognize good health, peace, and prosperity as blessings. But the Jewish religious leaders added their own twist. In their interpretation, God’s blessings were confirmations of a person’s holiness. Therefore, the rich were the righteous, while those who were poor and/or sickly were evidently wicked sinners (or they were suffering for their parents’ sins). It was a convenient dogma for those who held the reins of power and who possessed insider access to wealth. They even employed this “theology” to justify dubious means of acquiring wealth. Matthew 15.1-9 provides an example of how the religious leaders exploited the general populace. The Sanhedrin legalized a tradition in which money could be “dedicated to God,” enabling the one who dedicated it to ignore his familial obligations, keeping his wealth for himself until his own death. At that point the “dedicated” funds would be handed over to the religious establishment. Jesus scolded the scribes and Pharisees and called this practice hypocrisy.
This should help us understand Abraham’s statement that the Rich Man was in hell because he lived a lavish life. Abraham’s statement was hyperbole, aimed at undermining the false doctrine that equated wealth with holiness. In light of the context, Abraham’s meaning can be understood along these lines: “You proclaim your wealth proves your holiness, but by attaining it unrighteously, your wealth condemns you.”
To understand the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we must recognize that the Rich Man represents the religious leaders. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a tweak of their collective nose.
For a moment, I would like to switch onto a side track. The torment of the Rich Man is one of only two Biblical references that speak of God’s judgment in terms of torment. The other passage, found in Revelation 20.10, reserves the torment for the “devil, the beast, and the false prophet”. Consequently, the torment of the Rich Man is often used as a prooftext to support the belief in the everlasting torment of the damned. This is problematic, given that both Abrahams’ bosom and the picture of the Rich Man in hades are drawn from the folk lore of first century Palestine.
Remember the numerous elements of the story that preclude a literalist interpretation—the Rich Man is pleasant and conscientious; he is in torment but seems comfortable; there is interaction between heaven and hell; and the Rich Man is not aware of why he has been sentenced to hell. Using the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a proof text for everlasting torment is just carelessness. If it is God’s intention to utilize everlasting torment, we will have to search for evidence elsewhere.
Back on the main track, first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, is considered the most reliable extra-biblical source for information about Caiaphas, High Priest of Israel during most of Jesus’ earthly life. According to Josephus, Caiaphas was appointed in AD 18 by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus. Caiaphas was son-in-law to another High Priest, Annas. Annas had five sons, all of whom also served as High Priest. Their names and terms are listed here:
- Annas, father (6–15)
- Eleazar, son (16–17)
- Caiaphas, son-in-law (18–36)
- Jonathan, son (36–37 and 44)
- Theophilus, son (37–41)
- Matthias, son (43)
- Ananus, son (63)
One compelling interpretation, then, is that the label “Rich Man” is actually a reference to Caiaphas. We see that Caiaphas had five brothers (technically, brothers-in-law). Caiaphas was rich, and as High Priest, would have dressed in purple and fine linen. His brothers would have all been well versed in Moses and the Prophets. Note that the story treats the Rich Man in vague terms. All we are told is that he owned a gate (so probably a nice house), was rich, and lived lavishly. Then the Rich Man reveals one detail about himself—he has “five brothers”. Why didn’t he express concern for his wife or his children or, more broadly, his family? His concern only for his brothers is odd. The specific reference to five brothers is likely to have raised a question in the listeners’ minds: what family can this mean? The thin-skinned Pharisees listening to the narrative would not have missed the coincidence.
So there’s good reason to believe that the “Rich Man” is a reference to either the religious leaders as a whole, or more specifically, to Caiaphas who, as High Priest, would still represent all the religious leaders. This is the second allusion of the parable.
Let’s now turn to our third character, Lazarus. Bible names are often significant. Jesus, for example, means, “God rescues”. Lazarus means “God is my help”. This is certainly an appropriate name for the helpless one who had to be laid at the Rich Man’s gate in order to beg. He was always in need of help. Significantly, he is carried by angels to the place of honor at Abraham’s feast. The helpless one is the recipient of God’s everlasting help.
It is also important that we consider all the incidents of the name Lazarus in the Bible. There are only two. One Lazarus is the impoverished and crippled man of our story; the other Lazarus is the historical brother of Mary and Martha, famous for being raised from the dead by Jesus. Some have wondered whether the two Lazaruses are the same person. This cannot be the case. The Lazarus of the story is destitute. His only support seems to be the person who places him at the Rich Man’s gate. The resurrected Lazarus, in contrast, has two conscientious sisters. We also know that his family owned a house, they were wealthy enough to afford a tomb for Lazarus, and they were wealthy enough that Mary was able to pour perfume on Jesus’ feet (that Judas Iscariot identified as being worth 300 days’ labor.)
Still, the coincidence of the name is difficult to ignore. Besides the fact the name appears nowhere else in the Bible, it is also apparent that the story was delivered around the time of Lazarus’ resurrection. And speaking of resurrection, while the parable has no resurrection, it was not for lack of the Rich Man advocating for it. The Rich Man tries to talk Abraham into sending Lazarus back to his brothers. Abraham denies the request, but the Rich Man persists. The essence of his argument is: “If someone from the dead goes to my brothers, they will be amazed, recognize that the messenger is from God, and then they will repent.” Abraham gives no credence to what seems a very reasonable argument. But he doesn’t say, “No, I don’t have authorization to send people on earthly missions.” What he says is, “No. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, even someone coming back from the dead would not convince them.” (Abraham’s response seems like a weak argument to me. People sleep through sacred readings all the time but resurrected beings have historically been very successful at attracting attention. Even if you don’t believe in resurrected beings, you could still imagine what I’m saying.)
Shifting attention back to the historical Lazarus, what was the reaction of the religious leaders when Jesus raised him from the dead? It so happens that this was the event that sealed the “question” of Jesus for them. It was the last straw. Rather than falling down to worship Jesus, rather than being amazed and finally repenting, the resurrection of Lazarus served to convince them that Jesus had to be killed.
John 11.45-47: Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do…?”
(49,50): But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
(53): So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews…
(12.9,10): When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death, as well…
It is not certain when Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus but, based on its placement in Luke, it is likely that Jesus delivered it when he was east of the Jordan, prior to returning to Bethany. His disciples did not want him to travel to Bethany, as it was only about 2 miles from Jerusalem. It was obvious that animosity between Jesus and the religious leaders was reaching a boiling point. Being so near Jerusalem was too dangerous. But Martha sent a messenger to Jesus, begging him to come, because Lazarus was very sick. Strangely, Jesus delayed, rather than hurrying to Bethany: “When therefore he heard he was sick, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” – John 11.6. Jesus wanted to make Lazarus’ death absolutely certain to the witnesses. When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany and commanded that the stone be removed from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha remarked, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11.39
Perhaps the telling of the story takes place during the period of delay. Lazarus and his impending resurrection were clearly in Jesus’ mind before he departed for Bethany. He used the occasion to prophesy to his disciples: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”- John 11.14,15. It may well be that he also used the occasion to prophesy to the religious leaders. His prophesy to them came through the voice of Abraham, who insisted the five brothers would not heed a resurrected Lazarus because they were not heeding Moses and the prophets. They knew the writings but their hearts were calloused. Many came to believe in Jesus because of the resurrection of Lazarus but the religious leaders would not believe. Lazarus, then, serves as the third allusion of the story.
Recognizing that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is made up of multiple allusions, we should find it more helpful to think of it as an allegory rather than a parable. Webster defines allegory as “a literary or pictorial device in which each character, object, and event symbolically illustrates an idea or moral and religious principle.” Perhaps an allegory can be a type of parable. But the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is far more complex than Jesus’ other parables. It is a story of multiple allusions, making the interpretation of it different than a search for a central idea.
What was the warning of the resurrected Lazarus? Fundamentally, his message was Jesus is God. This was a message the Pharisees did not want to hear. It was a message they fought with convoluted arguments for the duration of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, they continued to resist even after Jesus’ ascension. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, was brought before the Sanhedrin, over which Caiaphas still sat as high priest. Stephen bravely faced the large assembly, presenting a lengthy sermon. But they were not pleased. “When they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.” – Acts 7.54,57. This plugging of ears and yelling to block out Stephen’s words is particularly striking. They are like spoiled children. They are like American political discourse. It would be comic if they didn’t immediately thereafter stone Stephen to death.
The message of Lazarus undermined the religious leaders’ notions about their own holiness, it threatened their system of exploitation, it undermined their authority, and it threatened their power. They had a great deal invested in the status quo, and they could not bear to give it up. But this reveals how they were simple-minded, lacking in perspective. We read in Matthew 16.26: What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? The Pharisees did have a lot to give up. Their reticence is understandable. But if they had paused to consider their mortality, and to consider the power and wisdom of God, they would have recognized that their “lot” was nothing but trinkets.
Of course, Jesus’ warning goes out to more than the Pharisees. It goes out to all of us. The allegory is a call to self-reflection. The human capacity for self-deception is astonishing. Were the Pharisees physically blind? No, they were spiritually blind. They had a vested interest in disbelieving what they were seeing. Are we blind to the truth because it threatens our way of life? Are we blind to the truth because it disturbs our comfort? Are we blind to the truth because it contradicts ideas we hold dear? The allegory illustrates that God, in his patience, allows deluded behavior to persist, but only for a time.
Scientific materialists like to mock faith because it is not fact. They claim there are facts, and then there are delusions. But this perspective is delusional. Every fact abides in one system of faith or another. We live according to presuppositions. People will not see facts that exist outside their presuppositional boundaries. The hardest thing to do in the world is face facts. The plugging of ears and enraged howling is everyday human behavior.
If the allegory is a warning, it is also a gift. The Pharisees were the enemies of Jesus. Eventually they were successful in having him crucified, but even this did not put them beyond the reach of grace. There would have been some who heard the allegory, saw the resurrected Lazarus, and observed the decisions of the religious leaders, who would have put together the pieces. Their eyes would have been opened. They would have repented, then, and turned away from their wickedness. Jesus continues to open eyes in the 21st century.
We also should be both warned and comforted in knowing that our circumstances are not indicative of God’s love for us. If our lives are stable, if we live in peace in our families and in our churches and in our communities, give thanks to God. But we should not look at our comfortable circumstances and imagine it as proof of God’s approval. Beware of such smugness. Or, it may be that we are beset by poverty or sickness or depression or relational tragedy. Look at Lazarus. He pleased God. His terrible circumstances were not an indication that God had abandoned him. We must not assume we are pleasing, or doubt that we are pleasing—we should do what is pleasing…and then rest, knowing that his angels, not our efforts, will carry us to our heavenly home. The Lord Almighty is the God of Grace.
It would be negligence to fail to mention the resurrection that took place shortly after Lazarus’. There is nothing in the allegory that hints at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but the theme of willful blindness in the face a resurrection persists. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; who raised Jesus? Jesus’ resurrection is even more astonishing than that of Lazarus. This is underscored in the Gospels by the behavior of the disciples. The resurrection of Lazarus did not fundamentally change them, but the resurrection of Jesus did. The resurrection of Jesus convinced them that Jesus was Lord of life itself. It meant that the Kingdom of God was not merely about a prosperous and joyous 70 years; it was about a prosperous and joyous eternity. And it convinced them that Jesus also was God. The Big Picture changed. Who they were and what they were to do came into focus. They, too, had been blind but clarity finally came to them. The one who had raised Lazarus from the grave could not be contained by the grave. They looked to him with a new wonder and a new expectation.
The allegory of The Rich Man and Lazarus is an astonishing piece of story-telling. It gives us insight into the cleverness of Jesus, who was able to pull together a variety of allusions, poke fun at the religious leaders, and still reach out to them with grace.
Consider again the allusions: the presence of Abraham alludes to a popular image of heavenly bliss. The description of hell was similarly a popular image. The Rich Man evokes Caiaphas and the religious leaders. The name Lazarus alludes to God’s grace, and it works as a prophecy about the subsequent historical resurrection.
These three allusions are key to understanding the allegory, but I believe there is also a fourth allusion: the “great chasm”. Notice that the great chasm had been “fixed.” This does not mean it had been repaired; it means it had been affixed, or secured, or established. Who had established it? God himself. At the Final Judgment there is a separation of the sheep and the goats—a separation of those that Jesus “knows” from those he “does not know”. The presence of the great chasm makes it clear that the separate settings of the Rich Man and Lazarus, however literally inaccurate, do represent punishment on one hand and the gift of life on the other. The chasm implies that those destinies remain distinct forever.
The story describes this separation a second way. In verse 22 we read that the Rich Man died and was buried. In contrast, Lazarus died but was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Think again of the meaning of “Lazarus”, i.e., “God is my help,” through which we are reminded of the means of salvation. Those God does not help end up in the grave. Those God helps are carried by angels across the great chasm. The self-righteousness of the Pharisees was useless. The grace and power of Jesus Christ is capable. Anyone who would be in Abraham’s bosom—anyone who would be honored at the wedding feast of the lamb—must be a Lazarus, must be willing to be a person God can help. There are only two options…either the grave or Abraham’s bosom.
The allegory of the Rich Man and Lazarus bears multiple implications. Broadly speaking, it warns us that we must be fully mindful, not selective, in our obedience to God’s teachings. The Rich Man ignored Moses and the prophets, to his peril. The same applies to us, even as we include Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, in our list of guides.
More specifically we are reminded that we should not be self-indulgent, nor lovers of money. We should be wary of money and possessions, because they can easily become idols, blinding us to truth, and binding us to foolishness.
We are reminded that we should be concerned for the welfare of others, addressing needs with empathy and generosity when it is within our power to do so.
We are reminded that there will be a final judgment. Those who are condemned will be removed permanently from the presence of God, while those who are saved will be delivered to everlasting peace.
We are reminded that our comfortable circumstances are God’s gifts but they are not evidence of his favor. We are reminded that the difficulties, sufferings, and sorrows of life are not indications that God is angry with us. God disciplines the ones he loves. He has a special place in his heart for the needy and downtrodden.
We are reminded that salvation is a gift of God, independent of our performance. In fact, it is clear that we are incapable of overcoming the great chasm. We must be borne to heaven. Another way of putting this is that God must enable us to see. We must call upon God to enable us to live according to reality.
Finally, we should recognize that the testimony of Moses and the prophets, and the resurrection of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Jesus all point to the same Savior. In Luke, chapter 24.44, just prior to his ascension, Jesus, addressing his disciples, said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then we read that he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. Perhaps the primary message of The Rich Man and Lazarus is: Know the Word, for it is there you will find the heart of God.