The Gospels: Lazarus and the Rich Man, by Paul Kroll
Jesus told the story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man to illustrate a point about having an authentic relationship with God. Some believe Jesus meant the parable as a satire of the Pharisees’ belief that they were in a privileged position with God. In that context, the parable would be a statement about their love of privilege and wealth.
Luke’s account implies the Pharisees loved the rich and riches, even though Pharisees were more likely to be of the tradesman class. When Jesus told his listeners that they could not serve both God and Mammon (Luke 16:13-14), the Pharisees scoffed. Luke says: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (verse 14).
Luke’s Gospel often portrays the rich in an uncomplimentary way and the poor as failing to find justice. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is, in one sense, a commentary on justice rather than the nature of the afterlife. The story clearly implies that God’s people do not necessarily have it easy in this life nor do they always get justice in this life.
The symbolism used in the story, such as the great gulf between the rich man and “Abraham’s bosom,” deals with the question of who are the true people of God and who aren’t. The issue being that the unrepentant wicked will be lost and separated from God (by a “great chasm”) while the righteous will enjoy a close relationship with God. It’s not that there is a physical chasm, but in the parable, the physical separation corresponds to the emotional breach in relationship that the rich man was choosing to be in.
“Abraham’s bosom” was a metaphor used by Jews who lived in the time of Jesus to stand for the kingdom of God, the home of the people of God. The wicked and spiritually ignorant would be consigned to the place of torment and separation from God. Naturally, the Pharisees thought that Pharisees would be in “Abraham’s bosom” and other people would be among the lost. We can surmise that Jesus told the story to shock the Pharisees into rethinking their view about their relationship with God (see verse 15).
The details of the story include metaphors, and these are not to be taken literally. Lazarus would not be literally sitting in “Abraham’s bosom,” as the King James translates the phrase. The rich man would not be talking if he was in the throes of an excruciating agony while burning in a fire and suffocating in the smoke. So we shouldn’t take the details of the parable, such as bosom, chasm and fire, in a literal sense.
Let’s now see what the story says. The rich man, after being raised from the dead, realizes the predicament he is in. (He is in hell and in torment.) Basically, as he did in his life, he considers only himself and his family, and not the poor. He wants his brothers saved from a similar fate to his own, but he seems unconcerned about anyone else.
The rich man also retains the same attitude toward Lazarus that he did in life. He wants Lazarus to be sent as a slave to bring the message to his brothers. The story also implies that the rich man thinks he has been unfairly treated. If only someone had given him the right information, he would not have found himself in this terrible predicament. Someone like the dead Lazarus springing to life in the presence of his brothers, he feels, would be dramatic enough to make the case to save his siblings.
But Abraham points to the Holy Scriptures of the Jewish people – to Moses and the prophets. If the rich man had listened to the admonitions in Scripture about loving his fellow human beings, he would not be in a situation of torment and alienated from God. The story concludes with Abraham pointing out that a miraculous event, such as a dead person being made alive, will not bring the necessary conviction. What is important is our internal conviction, desire and action to love God, which always translates into love for other human beings.
Originally, the story was leveled at the rich of Jesus’ day (or those who thought riches and righteousness always went together), at those who were more concerned with money rather than showing mercy toward the poor. Good stewardship includes helping people who are less fortunate. This is an important issue to Luke, and one he comes back to on a regular basis. (See, for example, the following verses: Luke 12:13-34; 14:1-14; 16:1-15; 18:18-30.)
The story of Lazarus and the rich man was also a dramatic warning to the Jewish religious establishment. They would see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets and people from all over the world in the kingdom of God, but they would be thrown out (Luke 13:28-30). Even this implies that people are not “thrown out” unless they are “in” to begin with. No doubt, Luke’s Christian readers would have recognized in the Lazarus character a reference to Jesus as the one who had been rejected even though he had risen from the dead. As we know, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day did not heed their Scriptures and refused to see Jesus as the one to whom the Scriptures pointed (John 5:39-47).
What can the parable tell us as Christians? For one thing, it shows us that God’s people are not necessarily vindicated in this life nor do they always receive justice in the here and now. Lazarus continued to suffer till his dying day. The rich man was rich until his death. Jesus’ gospel of liberty is about spiritual liberty and a relationship of love and faith with God now and immortality in the kingdom.
In the story, the situations of the beggar and the rich man are not reversed until the resurrection. Of course, the story does not tell us that Lazarus was righteous in human life or that the rich man was evil. The basis of Lazarus being in the kingdom is his relationship with God. Lazarus is pictured as a true child of Abraham, who is the “father of the faithful” in Scripture. This implies that the rich man had kept himself out because of of his own faithlessness, which caused him to have a loveless relationship with his fellow human beings. The lesson from the parable is that in the end Christians win the victory through Christ. In the resurrection they enjoy immortality and an eternal relationship of love with God.
Author: Paul Kroll