18. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
The Parables of Jesus
Have you ever heard a statement that reverberated in your mind and stayed with you for some reason? I once heard plates crashing in a restaurant, and someone cried out, “What in hell is happening?” The statement struck me as I thought about the literal significance of the words. Have you ever wondered what in hell is happening? That is the question we wish to answer today. How would it affect us if we could view what was happening, this instant, in hell? It would be a very sobering experience that would shake us to the core of our being.
After teaching about a young man who squandered his father's money (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus went on to tell a parable about a shrewd manager who wasted his master's resources over a large estate (Luke 16:1-13). The Lord was teaching His disciples about the proper use of earthly resources, i.e., that we are to use finances for eternal good instead of hoarding riches for this world. He finished the Parable of the Shrewd Manager by stating, “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). The Pharisees who were listening knew that the Lord was speaking about their love of money. Their response to Christ’s message was to scoff (NIV) or deride Him (KJV).
14Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. 15And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God (Luke 16:14-15).
I love that the Lord does not want that any should perish; His desire is for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), so out of His love and grace, He gave the Pharisees and us another parable, warning us all that in eternity many things that man holds dear in this world will be changed entirely.
First, we must consider if this is a parable or a real-life story. Some commentators believe that the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; indeed, we have called it a parable in the title. But actually, Jesus never tells us that it is a parable; what’s more, none of the thirty-nine parables in the four Gospels has people's actual names mentioned; whereas, in this Scripture passage, the name of Lazarus, which means God is my help, and Abraham are mentioned, and in some manuscripts (The Vulgate), the name Dives (The Latin word for rich) is given to the rich man. We also notice that the Lord starts by saying, “There was.”
I leave it up to you to make up your mind if it is a true history of two men or a made-up story by Jesus, the lessons taught in it are the same, and we should lay them to heart for eternity is a long time. Lazarus does not speak in the passage, and the reason is that it is not about the experiences of Lazarus in eternity, but Jesus focuses on the rich man. It is about the destinies of two very different men and where they went upon death. Let's break the Scripture passage into three parts: The Condition of the Two Men on Earth, the Condition of the Two Men in Eternity, and the Lessons We Should Learn about Eternity.
The Condition of the Two Men on Earth
19There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores (Luke 16:19-21).
Question 1) How are the two men described in their lives on earth? How do you think the lives of the two men were celebrated upon their deaths?
As Jesus unraveled the story, each of the Pharisees and religious elite likely put themselves into the picture as the rich man. The rich man was incredibly blessed, just as they were in their flowing robes. The color purple in the days of Christ was not an accessible commodity to obtain. This rich man was clothed in purple, i.e., the Prada, Armani, or top fashion designers of his day. The fashion designers of the day extracted the color from the mucus of a rare sea snail. Aristotle assigned a value to it of ten to twenty times its weight in gold. The rich man also wore fine linen. The word used in Greek for fine linen is bussos, i.e., a rare strong thread secreted by mussels. Kings such as the Egyptian king Tutankhamen wore this costly cloth. This rich man lived sumptuously every day. He ate the best foods, drank the best wine, and his house was the best mansion in town. We are not overdoing it by presuming that this man was well known as someone to be envied in the country. He was a celebrity of his day, but he didn't even have a name when it came to eternity. There are no relationships in hell where he needs a name.
When it came to Lazarus, he was laid at the rich man's gate or porch. The Greek word translated as “laid” is ballō. It means to throw or to be dumped. He was likely taken to the rich man’s gate because he had no resources for any medical help. Perhaps those who left him there hoped that the rich man would help him, as he was so blessed with this world’s goods. The beggar was dumped there and left. The gate where Lazarus was thrown was more than likely the rear servant’s entrance where the servants deposited the rubbish and the dogs congregated. It was evident to anyone that Lazarus was very ill, for he was covered with sores. (We get the English word ulcers from the Latin word ulcer (ulcus) and related to the Greek word helkos translated as sores). Lazarus was so sick that he had no energy to reach the scraps of bread thrown out from the rich man’s table for the dogs. William Barclay tells us:
At that time, there were no knives, forks, or napkins. Food was eaten with the hands, and in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleaned by wiping them on hunks of bread (probably thin pita bread) which were then thrown away. That was what Lazarus was waiting for.
Dogs kept licking at his ulcerated sores, and he was too weak through sickness and hunger to fend them off. We don’t know if the Rich man had him thrown out because he was asking him for help or if others in the town had thrown him there because he was a health threat to the local populace. Lazarus was in no position to help himself. Jesus used the same phrase in the Parable about the Prodigal Son. When things got tough for him, the young son longed to eat the scraps of food, but in this case, Lazarus wasn't competing with the pigs but instead scraps of bread with the dogs. Keep in mind that most dogs in the Middle East were not pets but pests.
The Condition of the Two Men in Eternity
22The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So 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.” 25But 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. 26And 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” (Luke 16:22-26).
We don’t like to think about it, but have you ever considered the fact that you will die? If you have never stopped to ponder about what will happen to you when that time comes, I fear that you are in the grip of the enemy, Satan. I say that because it is one of the hallmarks of those going the broad way to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) is that they forget about death. Whenever the Lord lays thoughts in their mind about eternity, they choose not to lay them to heart and cast the thoughts aside. “This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). It is sheer madness to refuse to listen to put the Word of God behind you and choose to continue in sin. Those walking the narrow way of life towards God have taken the time to consider what will happen to them the day they die.
At his death, nothing happened for Lazarus; no funeral, not even a burial, was held in his honor. It is likely that if no one cared for him while he was alive, his death was no different. Scripture speaks loudly in its silence on the subject. It is likely that, when he died, they took his body to the fires in the valley of Hinnom, southwest of the city of Jerusalem, the place from where we get the word Gehenna, i.e., the site of eternal burning (Jeremiah 7:31; Mark 9:43).
Contrast that with the rich man. The Scripture says that he was buried; more than likely, his funeral service was a lavish ceremony with public mourning. The procession to such a favorable burial place would require a horde of professional mourners hired for such an occasion as was customary at the time. Of course, the rich man couldn’t care less as soon as he died. He was pretty surprised to find himself in hell, the same as many are surprised to find out that there is life beyond death. While living at the rich man’s gate, more than likely, few knew the name of Lazarus, but everybody knew the name of the rich man. At the other side of death’s door, things were turned around; everybody knew the name of Lazarus. As for the rich man, they did not know who he was; his name was unknown. How sad it is that many who believe that death is annihilation will be surprised to find themselves in eternity, heaven or hell, and very conscious at their last heartbeat.
Question 2) Some people believe that when a person dies, his spirit goes into a soul sleep where he is not conscious. What things do you see in this passage that teach differently?
When Jesus described Lazarus, the Pharisees and teachers of the law thought him cursed and that he had gotten into that condition because of sin. They were shocked when the Lord said the angels carried his departed soul to Abraham's side. That was the opposite of what they were expecting. In the next breath, Jesus talked about the rich man opening his spiritual eyes and being surprised to find himself in Hades (Sheol in the Old Testament), translated into English with the word Hell. There was no intermediate purgatory or place of waiting. As soon as death took place, the rich man was in hell, while Lazarus was taken immediately to the place of blessing, the same place where Abraham, the father of the faithful, was enjoying all the riches of fellowship with the saints.
Some translations call this place Abraham's Bosom, another word for being in close fellowship with Abraham, just as the Apostle John was reclining against the chest of Jesus in the Upper Room at the Last Supper (John 13:23). Hell, and Abraham’s side are words to describe the two different states in which these men found themselves. Hades is found ten times in the New Testament. One of the first things the rich man experiences is utter torment. The Greek word translated as "torment" is basanos, meaning "going to the bottom, the lowest torture or torment." The word is also in the plural, meaning that he was experiencing waves of different pain levels.
It could also mean that there are different levels of suffering in hell and that the deepest level of torment was what this man was experiencing. In case we missed it, Jesus told us three times about his pain. In verse 23, he was in torment. In verse 24 and again in verse 25, the ex-rich man was in agony, described as fire with his tongue burning and needing water to cool his tongue. Even though he does not have a body, he is experiencing the sense of touch and is in terrible pain. He also has a sense of sight and recognition; he saw Lazarus across a great chasm and Abraham by his side. How painful to see Paradise and yet know it is too late and he will never experience one moment there. Later, at the Great White Throne Judgement, found in Revelation 20:11-15, we read that death and Hades will be thrown into the Lake of Fire, where there will be eternal darkness. From that point onward, the ex-rich man will no longer be able to see anything.
The rich man has a sense of speech; he calls to Abraham and communicates his pain. There is no change in his attitude toward Lazarus, for he still thinks that he can command beggars like Lazarus to get water for him and visit his brothers. His pain is so great that he pleads for Lazarus to bring not a bucket or a hose but just a drop of water to relieve the pain of his tongue; whereas, in his lifetime, he wouldn’t even try to relieve the pain of Lazarus. His appeal to Abraham is somewhat manipulative, for he calls him Father Abraham, appealing to his birth into the Jewish nation. How deceived he was! How like many born into a Christian country today that call themselves Christian yet are not in a relationship with God through faith in Christ.
The sense of hearing is also with him; he can hear Abraham refusing his plea for help. Notice that there is no repentance in the rich man, no sorrow about his previous life. Abraham answers that there is a great gulf fixed so that Lazarus cannot cross to him and that he (Dives) can never pass to the place of blessing alongside Abraham. Hell is not remedial; it does not fix a person and make him better. It is only a place of punishment. As long as the saints are in eternity will be the same amount of time those in hell will experience punishment, sad to say.
Abraham then shares the most painful thing he will endure for the rest of eternity: he will remember his life on earth and all the opportunities he missed to repent and do good to those around him (v. 25). It will be painful for those who will forever remember all that happened in their lives. The mind will be very clear, and our faculties will still be with us, perhaps more so in eternity. There will be considerable regret over lost opportunities and deeds committed with an inability to set them right, for it is too late. The ex-rich man does not have anyone to pray him out; it is a lie from Satan to believe your position will change after death. Where death finds you, eternity binds you. The time to change your eternal destiny is before you die, for it is too late after death.
What Was the Sin of the Rich Man?
Question 3) Does a person’s wealth or lack of it affect their eternal destiny? If not, then what was the sin that sent the rich man to hell?
It is not a sin to be rich. Many handle wealth in this world and use it to great benefit to the eternal welfare of humanity. Being poor will not send a person to heaven, either. Many in hell have known extreme poverty in life. There are many sins that the rich man may have committed, but his primary sin was that he was pretty content without God. His life was one in which he had no need. He never noticed or cared about Lazarus, which certainly would have increased his condemnation. He seems to have thought that it was perfectly normal and natural that Lazarus should wallow in pain while he basked in a life of luxury. He looked at a fellow man, hungry and in pain, and did nothing about it.
When on earth, Lazarus was discontent without God and had sought Him out in his need and found Him to be merciful and gracious, but the Rich man had not felt any need. You may say to me that the Scriptures do not say that Lazarus gave his life to Christ, but there is only one way to get to God's place of blessing, and that is by placing your trust in the Lord Jesus and His substitutionary death in place of us. Both the rich man and Lazarus were born into the world in the same situation as you and I. In Paul the apostle's letter to the Ephesian Church, he described every person's situation as DOA (Dead On Arrival) in this way:
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12).
Each of us is born into the world without God. We are given so many years to find Him, some more, some less. During our lifetime on Earth, God sends opportunities our way to search out a path to His home. This is the universal need of every person on earth, i.e., to find God and be put into a right relationship with Him by the substitutionary death of Christ in our place. If we refuse Him on earth, then after death, God will honor our choices in life. If we choose to live without God on Earth, God will grant our wishes for eternity. If you live your life without a second thought of God or eternity, call out to Him now while you can still experience His grace. Why wait for another second? Undoubtedly, your spiritual enemy, the devil, will seek for you to put off this message till another day. The Lord waits for you with open arms. Do not think it is a coincidence that you are reading this now. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
A Plea for Those Still Alive
27He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” 30“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” 31He 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" (Luke 16:19-31).
Question 4) Why was the ex-rich man now concerned about his brothers still on Earth? Why was his request not granted?
It is unfashionable to talk about repentance, but in His story, Jesus talks about the need for repentance, a change of mind as well as a change of direction toward the Lord. This rich man had prayed twice while in hell. The first prayer was for water; the second was for his five brothers on earth. Both prayers were refused. Like the unjust steward in the passage before (Luke 16:1-13), he had been unfaithful to his responsibility. His responsibility was toward those around him, but especially to his brothers. Now that he was in hell, he remembered that his brothers were living the same kind of life he had modeled to them, i.e., a contented life without God. The one thing that can add agony to a person in hell is to be shut up forever with those you have helped to bring there. Every one of us influences others for good or for worse. Let us commit ourselves to be faithful to those who model their lives after us, our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and close relatives. We must live wholeheartedly for Christ. Other people’s lives and eternities depend on it.
Abraham told the ex-rich man that his brothers have Moses and the Prophets, i.e., another name for the Word of God. That is all the witness we need. This is another sin of the rich man: he didn't listen to the Scriptures speaking about the need for faith in a substitutionary lamb to take his place for his sin. If one does not listen to and believe God’s Word, he will not believe even if one should return from the dead. Isn't it interesting that God sent a number of people back from the dead? One of them also happened to be named Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrected after being four days dead:
9The large crowd of the Jews then learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. 10But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; 11because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus (John 12:9-11).
We don't know his testimony, but whatever Lazarus experienced on the other side of death's veil, the religious elite sure wanted to stamp out his testimony. The other person that came back from the dead was Jesus, and many of the Pharisees and religious elite would not listen to His words, either. God's written Word is the most critical evidence that one can examine to prepare us for life in eternity. It is ignored at great danger to one's eternal life beyond the grave.
Question 5) What are the chief take-home lessons this passage teaches us?
- The time to seek the Lord is now, and not put it off.
- There are consequences to our actions that are not always felt on earth but follow us into eternity.
- We influence others more than we realize on earth.
- God's Word is the most crucial evidence to prepare us for life eternal.
- No matter our economic position in this world, if we don’t have Christ, we don’t have life (1 John 5:12).
The listening Pharisees and teachers of the law were very aware they were holding onto human-made rules instead of applying their hearts to the Scriptures and repenting at the message, first of John the Baptist, but also the Messiah standing in front of them. Verse 30 tells us that the brothers' need was to repent, i.e., change their minds and lives and turn to God's answer for sin—the sacrificial death of a substitute lamb in full payment for their sin—the Lord Jesus. For those of us who know the Lord Jesus and entered into the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31) in His blood, we must understand that, since the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, a believer in the Lord Jesus and His substitutionary death for sin ascends to heaven to be always with the Lord. Paul wrote:
22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body (Philippians 1:22-24). Also read 2 Corinthians 5:8.
The instant we die, we shall be with the Lord: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). At death, great joy will fill the hearts of those of you who know the Lord, i.e., those born again of God's Spirit (John 3:3) and called saints. We shall look upon His face and forever be with our Lord.
Prayer: Father, thank You for telling us plainly in Your word what we need to do to prepare for eternity. I ask that you help all who are not sure of their eternal destiny to repent (change their minds and the direction of their lives) and follow Your Son wholeheartedly. May none of us be content to live our lives without You. We desire a life full of purpose with You. Amen.