With the hope of broadening your perspective even more, I feel led to share this particular article with you now. Some thanks to Ken Eckerty and Stephen Jones on this one ….
I’ve done some meditative study into the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus lately (Luke 16:19-31), and feel the urge to share a few things which might help to dispel some incorrect notions that many people have about this parable (yes, it is a parable).
It seems that this particular story told by Jesus is what most Christian teachers use today to teach their theories about “heaven and hell,” but in order to hold to those theories they have to literalize this parable instead of seeing it in the context of Jesus’ other Kingdom parables. Jesus told many parables to illustrate how the Kingdom of God would be taken from the Jews and given to others (Matt. 21:43), and the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is certainly another one of those.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is actually the fifth of five parables which find their beginning in Luke chapter fifteen. There, Jesus begins a sequence of five parables in response to the murmuring of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus was hanging out with sinners, and so with a multitude of people nearby (including the Scribes and Pharisees of Judah), Jesus expounds on the truth of how God views those who are despised by the Pharisees. Jesus tells them parables of lost sheep, lost coins, and the lost (prodigal) son, and through those stories He makes it very clear that the Father’s heart is compassionate toward those who are lost, which was the exact opposite attitude of the Pharisees.
In the parable of the lost son, Jesus brought the haughty Pharisees into the picture with the identity of the “other” son who was upset that the father had killed the fatted calf in celebration of his brother’s salvation. Then by the time we get to the fourth parable, that of the unjust steward, Jesus clearly addresses the self-righteousness of the Pharisees by condemning their misuse of the blessings that God had given to them. God blessed Abraham to be a blessing (Gen. 12:3), but the Pharisees had become exclusive and horded the things that God intended to be given to others. Jesus tells the Pharisees in Lk. 16:1-2,
“There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him and said unto him, ‘How is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.’”
If there is any doubt as to whom Jesus was addressing here, verse 14 says; “And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.”
The Pharisees knew full well whom Jesus was talking about. They could clearly see that He was condemning their improper stewardship of the blessings of God. However, Jesus didn’t stop there. Through the parables, Jesus escalated His indictment of the leaders of Judah by telling them that judgment was about to fall on them.
In the first four parables, Jesus used fictitious characters to speak a truth. No one supposed that He was referring to a real man who had a hundred sheep, or to a real woman who had ten coins, or to two real sons who lived in Israel, or to a real servant who was shrewd and cunning. No, it was clear that those were not actual people that Jesus was speaking of, but fictitious characters that He was using to teach spiritual truth. And so it is also with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
There will be those who will readily point out that there was a real man named Lazarus who actually died during the ministry of Jesus, and this they say, proves the story should be taken literally… but that’s a bit of a stretch if you ask me. First, the name Lazarus (“Eleazer” in the Hebrew) was a common name used during the time of Jesus. Second, Jesus begins this story in the same manner of His other parables, “There was a certain rich man …” Lastly, Jesus knew that the carnal man would interpret this parable literally just as He knew that there would be many who would believe that you must literally eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn. 6:53). Jesus didn’t tell parables to reveal truth, beloved ones. He told them to hide it (Mt. 13:13-15). I suspect that Jesus used the name of Lazarus in this parable for that very reason.
Another thing that should be touched on, is that in the parable itself there is no specific sin mentioned against the Rich Man. The only thing that is said of him is that he was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. Now if orthodox Christianity is correct in teaching that the Rich Man represents the sinner going to hell, then they just might be indicting themselves to hell also, for if wearing fine clothes and owning nice things is damnable, then most American Christians are damned. Certainly if Jesus were meaning to apply this passage to sinners in general, He would have made it crystal clear as to exactly what sin would send a man to hell.
In contrast to the Rich Man, nothing is said about any good done by the poor beggar (Lazarus) either. All that the text says is that he was covered with sores and longed to eat the scraps from the Rich Man’s table. Again, if Jesus was using Lazarus as an example of what a person must do in order to get to heaven, then we had better sell all that we have and live in poverty lest we suffer the same fiery fate as the Rich Man.
Of course, that is nonsense…
The truth is that Jesus was not teaching about heaven or hell in that parable. We must be sensitive to the context. The Pharisees were murmuring because of Jesus’ relationship with sinners. After explaining to the crowd the Father’s love for the lost, Jesus turns His attention to the Pharisees and condemns them for their lack of compassion toward the very ones whom the Father is so concerned about. The Rich Man, decked out in all his fine clothes, is none other than the leaders of the nation of Judah (represented by the Pharisees). The royal (purple) linen represents the garments of the Jewish priesthood (Ex. 19:5, 6; Ex. 39:1), and the abundant bounty on the Rich Man’s table represents the blessings of truth and the oracles of God that were entrusted to Judah’s care. Another identifying mark for the Rich Man was that he had five brothers (Luke 16:28). Friends, the patriarch Judah had FIVE BROTHERS born in Gen. 29 and 30; they are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, and Zebulon.
Lazarus, on the other hand, represents the gentile nations (or even Jewish sinners) who were cast down in the minds of the religious Jews. The gentiles were viewed as “a beggar at the gate” by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and were those who could only receive “a few crumbs” from Judah’s table (for the gentiles were largely cut off from the Word of God at that time).
But God had another plan for them! Anyone faithful to Christ was to become the recipient of the promises of God under the New Covenant. Those promises are represented to us as “Abraham’s bosom” in this parable. Abraham’s bosom is symbolic of the blessings of God under the New Covenant (given by faith in Christ – and not through genealogy).
The torment in “Hades” then represents the judgment and punishment that was to come upon Judah. Because Judah failed in its commission to be a blessing to the nations, Jesus said that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to another (Mt. 21:43). This judgment started with the rejection of Christ in the flesh, continued through the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and continues even to this very day.
Dear ones, the entire story of the Rich man and Lazarus is A PARABLE; one that cannot be understood outside of its context as the fifth of five parables – which all basically deal with the hard hearted-ness of the religious Jews, and which prophecy of a kingdom to be taken away from them and given to another (even “father Abraham” couldn’t help them with this one). This parable was never intended to be used as a tool for teaching about “heaven or hell,” but is a prophecy of the rejection of Judah (Israel having already been dispersed from the land by the Assyrians in 721 BC) and the coming church age.
Many carnal minds have tripped over parables like this one (that’s what parables are for, ya know?). But we have the mind of Christ. May He bless this word … to His mind … in your heart.