Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

139. The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

The parables which Jesus told in this period of his ministry are remarkable for their intense emotional quality. Love, anger, pity, anxiety, rejoicing and wretchedness continually jostle each other for pride of place—and of course, lor they were spoken by a Jesus whose emotions were wrought to the highest pitch as rejection by his own nation became more inevitable and as the shadow of the cross grew longer across his path.

Derided by the Pharisees out of their misapprehension of his parable about a dishonest steward, he went on to tell another parable which concerned them and their Sadducee colleagues even more directly, if that were possible.

A powerful story

A certain rich man lived in almost unimaginable luxury. Fine clothes, the best of food, every wish and whim catered for, comfort and ease past describing, and plenty of merriment (Gk.). He had them all.

In extreme contrast with this self-indulgence was the condition of a miserable beggar called Iflzarus. This poor fellow was lame (v.20: "laid") and covered with foul open sores—yaws, probably, the result of undernourishment—or something a good deal worse (s.w. Lev.13 :18-26; Dt.28:27,35). Day after day he was dumped at (Gk. pros—facing) the impressive gateway of the rich man's sumptuous dwelling, there to beg for his livelihood. Surely there would be scraps thrown out which even the servants would scorn to eat. Jesus implied that he got little even of these, because of the dogs which roamed wild in the streets of the city. They got what food there was. So almost the only comfort left him (if indeed it was a comfort) was the way in which these smelly unclean animals licked his sores. It is noteworthy that the only morally good thing mentioned about Lazarus is perhaps the hint supplied by his name—Eleazar, God is my help.

Day after day the rich man had opportunity to aid and cheer the poor wretch whom he actually knew by name (v.24), yet he did nothing. Was such kindness beneath his dignity, or did he never give a thought to the suffering he could so easily have alleviated? The reader is left to speculate. Nothing specifically bad is said about him. Indeed, his concern for his five brothers appears to be definitely to his credit.

With the death of both characters, the beggar being given priority, the story develops dramatically, The soul of Lazarus was carried by the angels to the place of blessedness; there he was comforted in the bosom of Abraham, where (as with Moses; Ex.4 :7) leprosy was turned clean. The language suggests a scene comparable to the apostle John's reclining in Jesus' bosom at the meal table (Jn.13 :23,25).

When the rich man died, his body was buried with pomp and circumstance. That of Lazarus was probably thrown out into Gehenna, perhaps to be eaten by the dogs who had licked his sores. But the soul of the rich man was in a place of torment indescribable.

There, as he writhed in agony, he. was tortured all the more by seeing "afar off" his great progenitor Abraham giving consolation and comfort to the despised beggar. He forthwith shouted out an agonized appeal for aid. 'Father Abraham, mercy! (the very cry he had heard from the beggar many a time.) One tiny drop of water—please! Even if it is brought me by the finger of that lousy beggar I knew, I shall be glad of it. This torment is past bearing.' There is a striking contrast here with rich ;' Abraham's treatment of strangers; Gen.18:4 LXX has the same word as "cool" here ; (v.24).

No present help

But Abraham could offer no alleviation or succour. Speaking not unkindly, he reminded the sufferer of the days when the two roles were exactly the reverse: "Thou receivest thy good things, likewise Lazarus evil things" (cp. 6:22-25; Ps. 17:14). That personal pronoun is eloquent. The rich man had assumed that all his pleasures and luxuries were his by right (cp.12 -.17-19). The beggar had simply taken evil experience as it came, without complaint.

Help for the rich man was out of question: "In all these (regions) there is a great chasm fixed." Movement to or from was impossible. Again, in these words there was gentle reminder that things might have been different, if only, whilst there was abundant opportunity, the rich man had not during his mortal life regarded the gulf as unbridgeable.

The inevitability of the sufferer's fate was duly accepted. But was it too late to mount a salvage operation for the rest of his family? 'Send Lazarus to my five brothers to warn them to save themselves from this fate.' Behind this plea there was perhaps the complaint:' haven't had a fair chance. Nobody warned me!' The appearance of Lazarus would not only warn but convince (Gk.) his brothers.

Abraham's response was now curt and unsympathetic: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them."

'That's all very well', urged the man with a certain disparagement of the power of the Scriptures (Is.8 :19), 'but let Lazarus come to them from the dead, and they will show the repentance which they need as much as I did.'

'Not they,' replied Abraham, 'those who take ' 'no notice of Law and Prophets, will take no more notice even if a man comes to them from the grave.' This refusal has its counterpart in the witness borne by the resurrection of Jesus: "not to all the people, but to chosen witnesses..." (Acts 10:41).

Remarkably, through all this vivid Lazarus has nothing to say – no word of complaint against his hardships, no murmuring against God, no crowing over the rich man in hell, no grumble about the suggested errand to the five brothers. All that needs to be said comes from Abraham with far greater authority.

Life after Death

Before any positive attempt can be made at interpreting this remarkable parable, it is necessary first of all to establish very clearly that this is not an actual picture of life after death, The believer in the immortality of the soul who would read this story with any degree of literality is asking for trouble.

Admittedly Luke's gospel does not say explicitly that it is a parable. But then, neither is this the case with the unjust steward. Both stories begin in exactly the same way: "There was a certain rich man . . ." Yet where is the commentator who will insist on the unjust steward being an actual person known to Jesus! Indeed, verse 15 requires interpretation with reference to the Pharisees.

More than this, detail after detail in the story plumbs the depths of absurdity if an attempt is made to take it all literally. "In hell the rich man lifted up his eyes, and seeth . . . Lazarus in Abraham's bosom . . . Send Lazarus that lit may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue." Do disembodied souls have eyes, fingers, tongues, bosoms?

And what good, it may pertinently be asked, would one drop of water do in a place ol unquenchable fire? Surely Jesus designed details such as these so that they would impress hearers with their absurdity.

Again, is one seriously to believe that on integral part of the felicity of the blessed hereafter will be the constant opportunity to look out of the window and see the damned writhing in torment? What sort of everlasting happiness is this?

Lazarus is described as enjoying comfort in Abraham's bosom. Is that bosom the happy destiny of all good people? How is it possible to take such a detail literally? It is to be noticed also that the story says nothing about the rich mm being wicked and the beggar being good Indeed the former is pictured as showing a quite unselfish love for his brothers. Then is one to conclude that affluence in this life means hell in the next; and that misery now guarantee everlasting bliss hereafter? This is the theology of Alice in Wonderland. After all, in his lifetime Abraham himself received his good things-he was a man of very considerable wealth (Gen.13:2 etc).

Last of all, the parable concludes with a powerful double emphasis on the teaching of Moses and the prophets. What is their teaching about the death state of Abraham and the rest! "Abraham . . . was gathered to his people” (Gen.25 :8)—and they were idol-worshippers! (Josh.24:2). Concerning the supposed death of Joseph, Jacob lamented: "I shall go down to the grave (LXX: Hades, as in v.23) unto my son mourning" (Gen.37:35). Thus Moses!

And similarly the prophets: "Out of the belly of hell cried I," lamented Jonah when he was in "the fish's belly" (Jonah 2 -.1,2). A cold and clammy hell, truly, very different from the usual version! But of cause this "hell" was Jonah's grave. He thought himself buried alive!

Hezekiah, one of the greatest saints of the Old Testament, bewailed the imminent outcome of his sickness: "I shall go to the gates of the grave (hades) . . . The grave (hades) cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee ... The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day (the day of his recovery)" (ls.38 :10,18,19).

Thus, as a basis for belief in disembodied immortality the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about the most fragile sheet-anchor imaginable:

Then why, it may very fittingly be asked, did Jesus couch his parable in terms of an utterly false idea?

Christ derides false ideas

The simple, very adequate, answer is: In this parable it was the Lord's intention to parody and expose as ridiculous the false ideas of both Pharisees and Sadducees. In proof of this the witness of Josephus, a Pharisee of the next generation, is very detailed and valuable. In his "Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades" he gives the following description of the Pharisees' beliefs about life after death:

"Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterranean region, where the light of this world does not shine . . . This region is allotted as a place of custody of souls in which angels are appointed as guardians to them; these distribute to them temporary punishments, according to every one's behaviour and manners. In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire, wherein we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day afore determined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men:... there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe there stands an archangel with an host; which gate when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, they do not go the same way; but the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light . . . This region we call the Bosom of Abraham. But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand, by the angels allotted for punishment. ... a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire . . . and not only so, but where they see the place of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them, cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it" (Whiston, page 663; see also B.J.3.8.5. and Ant. 18.1.3.).

The marked resemblance between this and the Lord's parable is too detailed to be accidental.

Similarly, Rabbi Judah the holy, in a pronouncement concerning one of his colleagues, lately deceased, said: "This day he sits in the bosom of Abraham."

The only reasonable construction to be put on the words of Jesus is that he was deliberately representing the beliefs of the Pharisees in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous. He meant to expose their absurdity.

And not of the Pharisees only. There is good reason to believe that, just as Jesus modelled his parable of the pounds (Lk.19 :11-27) on the experience of both Archelaus and Antipas, the sons of Herod the Great, so here he built the present parable round Caiaphas the high priest whose five brothers-in-law, the sons of Annas, all held the high priestly office at one time or another. "Clothed in purple and fine linen" was a phrase apt enough to describe this family of place seekers. In the conclusion of the parable Jesus surely exposed also the absurdity of their Sadducee belief. In effect, he said: These men are so determined not to believe in life after death that even the resurrection of one known to them will make no impression on their prejudice. So there was no appearance of the risen Jesus to them.

They claimed to "hear Moses," but in practice they constantly disregarded his precepts. And they disallowed the authority of the prophets altogether, whether regarding the truth of the resurrection (ls.26 :19; Dan.12 :2; Ps.17 :15) or any other topic. The prophets had too many denunciations of rascally priests (e.g. Is.28 :7; 56 :10-12; Ez.34 :2-10; Mal.2 :l-9) to make comfortable reading.

Detailed interpretation

The interpretation of the parable must not stop at these negative aspects. Its meaning reaches much further. As in the parables of the prodigal son and great supper, the mind of Jesus was looking to a future day when the faithlessness of Israel would be put to shame by the eager acceptance of the gospel by godly Gentiles. From this point of view the story has some fascinatingly significant details.

The rich man is a fitting figure of Israel, clothed in high religious privilege. That phrase: "purple and fine linen" (see Pr.31 :22 LXX) is part of an elaborate parable of what Israel should have been like. "Thy good things" (using Gk.: agatha, where kala would have been expected) implies this kind of interpretation of the rich man's prosperity. The word which describes him faring "sumptuously" comes only rarely in the Old Testament—with reference to priestly garments ("the beauty of holiness"; Ps.110 :3), and as a description of the Shekinah Glory (Ps.90 :17; ls.60 :3).

By contrast, the beggar, sitting at the rich man's gate, represents the remnant amongst the Gentiles who recognized that spiritual truth of any sort was to be had only through Israel. Lazarus is a name capable of meaning either: "No help", or "God is my help." Both are appropriate—to the different parts of the story. Godly Gentiles seeking some degree of religious affiliation with Israel were actually known as "proselytes of the gate" (e.g. Jn.12:20). The beggar's sores may be taken as a representation of the pathetic moral standards of pagan life in those days, and the seeking for scraps of thrown-out food (Mt. 15:27) as a token of the spiritual destitution of these seekers after God.

"Dog of a Gentile" was a commonplace phrase amongst the Jews; then do the dogs licking the sores of Lazarus indicate the paltry help which came from pagan philosophers or the grievous discouragement which was all that pagan religion could give?

The deaths of both beggar and rich man point to a change of dispensation. Here, in Lazarus's changed experience (which came first), Jesus foreshadowed the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, so that it was actually possible for them to become Abraham's seed through sharing the faith of Abraham (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:7,29). "Comforted" (v.25) suggests the Holy Spirit. And in Genesis 16:5 Abraham's bosom suggests the Gentile concubine received, and the true wife barren.

On the other hand, the torments of the rich man in hell give a graphic picture of the dissolution of the Mosaic order and the dereliction of Israel, their scattering and ceaseless persecution (compare here Dt.32 :15,20,24). Their "torment" could have been borne instead by one whom God provided for this very purpose, for the familiar Scripture: "he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (Is.53 :4), uses the same word. But that would have involved believing in Jesus, and this they were not prepared to do. And "a great gulf” is the description of the deep pit into which the body of Absalom was cast (2 Sam.18 :17)-the rebel son for whom the Beloved lamented; "Would God I had died for thee!"

That torment has continued throughout the centuries, with a deep, apparently unbridgeable, gulf between Gentile Christian and Jewish outcast, and also between Father Abraham and his natural seed. But "send Lazarus" suggests that the rich man still thought of himself as of a higher caste. And to this day Jews have a similar pride of race.

I n the early days, Gentile believers would have been glad enough to supply material aid, during the time of the Jewish war, A.D.67-70, (the drop of water to cool the sufferer's tongue), but even this was not practicable. The day of Jewish opportunity was gone.

The five brethren for whom special appeal was made perhaps represent communities of the Jewish Dispersion (or, maybe, later generations) who had not had personal acquaintance with the Son of God making his great appeal in Galilee and Judaea. But the concluding words of "Father Abraham" summed up the practical impossibility of evangelizing the Jews by Gentile believers. Too Jew no witness could surpass that of Moses and the Prophets. If that was without effect, then even though one rose from the dead, all would be in vain.

And one did rise from the dead. It can have been a matter of days or weeks only after this that a man called Lazarus well known to the Jewish rulers (Jn. 11:19,31,44), was called forth from the tomb. Nevertheless that undeniable fact made them all the more determined to destroy both him and Jesus (Jn.12 :10,11).

Only another month or two and Jesus himself rose from the dead; and this truth also was rejected even more vehemently (Ads 4 :2,3), because they believed not Moses and the prophets. There is marked intensification of the language from verse 30 to verse 31: "go to them from (apo) the dead ... repent" becomes "rise from (ek) the dead ... be persuaded (convinced)."

In this gloomy picture there is one small ray of hope—the way in which Abraham addresses the wretched man as "son" (child). So all is not lost. This is the counterpart of Paul's tender words: "Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake: but. . . they are beloved for the fathers' sake" (Rom.11 :28). But even so, Abraham is "afar off" (v.23).

How long before Israel gives heed to Moses and the prophets, and their hell of torment ends in the bosom of Abraham's Seed?

This amazing parable has been anticipated entire in the song (dirge?) of Moses:

"I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell (LXX: hades), and shall consume the earth (Land?) with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat" (Dt.32 :20...24).

All this because “Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked . . . covered with fatness.” Nevertheless, there is a good ending: “He (the Lord) will be merciful unto his land, and to his people” (v43)

Notes: Lk.l 6:19-31.

Fared;s.w. 15:23,24.
Laid at his gate. This suggests that Acts 3 also (note v.2) is to be read as a parable of the gospel going to the Gentiles; see Acts of the Apostles, H.A.W. The Gk. word for "laid' implies impatience and lack of consideration on the part of those who regularly carried him there (in return for a share of his takings?).
Cool my tongue. Gk. katapsucho, thoroughly cool—with one drop of water?
Us and you. Why you (plural), and not thee? Here surely is a plain hint that the rich man is intended to be seen as representing a class of people.

So that they which would pass . . . cannot The Gk. conjunction suggests that the great gulf is there for that very purpose.
They will repent. Not so! After 1 Sam.28, Saul died, and David came into his own. And Mt.28 :12-14 tells what is true to this day. Note that the rich man agrees on the need for their repentance.

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