“They won’t believe even if one rises from the dead!” So says Abraham to a man in agony, pleading that his five brothers might be warned. It seems an unselfish request; why couldn’t it be granted? Or was it?
The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is, like most of Jesus’ parables, deep enough to drown in, and all the more since it was spoken into a society now so foreign to us that we have a hard time hearing as Jesus’ hearers would have heard. Many people take this parable at face value. They insist that, as this is the only parable in which Jesus gives a name to a character, it must be an actual true story. Moreover, the name given, Lazarus, is confusing — as Jesus had a real-life friend, Lazarus, who was apparently a reasonably wealthy man. The reasoning is that Jesus would have chosen another name if He wanted a fictitious name, as He would have known that calling the beggar Lazarus would provoke confusion.
But what if Jesus isn’t talking on the surface? He hardly ever does, after all. Is this parable really about the after-life as it seems to be? Is Jesus giving us a peek into the layout in hell? Well, let’s look at it:
‘And — a certain man was rich, and was clothed in purple and fine linen, making merry sumptuously every day, and there was a certain poor man, by name Lazarus, who was laid at his porch, full of sores, and desiring to be filled from the crumbs that are falling from the table of the rich man; yea, also the dogs, coming, were licking his sores.
‘And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and that he was carried away by the messengers to the bosom of Abraham — and the rich man also died, and was buried; and in the hades having lifted up his eyes, being in torments, he does see Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom, and having cried, he said, Father Abraham, deal kindly with me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and may cool my tongue, because I am distressed in this flame.
‘And Abraham said, Child, remember that you did receive — you — your good things in your life, and Lazarus in like manner the evil things, and now he is comforted, and you are distressed; and besides all these things, between us and you a great chasm is fixed, so that they who are willing to go over from hence unto you are not able, nor do they from thence to us pass through.
‘And he said, I pray you, then, father, that you may send him to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, so that he may thoroughly testify to them, that they also may not come to this place of torment.
‘Abraham said to him, They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them; and he said, No, father Abraham, but if any one from the dead may go unto them, they will reform. And he said to him, If Moses and the prophets they do not hear, neither if one may rise out of the dead will they be persuaded.’ (Luk 16:19-31 RYLT-NT)
Before we get down to business, it’s important to understand that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees; lovers of money and religious experts of the day. Their financial blessings proved that God was pleased with them. They were superior to the unwashed masses. Others were listening, but it was to the Pharisees this parable was directed.
Now let’s see if the situation of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the after life agrees with what we know from scripture. In order to “go to heaven,” you must be born again. So how do you do that? Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Had Lazarus been baptized? Did he believe on Jesus? If so, Jesus never mentions it. Funny He should leave out such an important point. What about the Rich Man? What has he done to deserve the torments section of the Greek after-life, Hades? All we’re told is that he lives sumptuously and ignores the poor man at his gate. Did he reject Jesus? We don’t know. Again, the story doesn’t say.
Not only that, but what is this man doing in a fiery hell at this point? The rest of scripture seems to teach that judgment isn’t rendered until Jesus raises the unsaved from their graves. As the Rich Man requests Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers, this clearly hasn’t happened as of yet.
From this parable are we to assume that all poor people will “go to heaven”? That all rich people who do not take care of the poor will “go to hell”? While taking care of the poor is important, I don’t think anyone who holds the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith will agree that doing this gets you a ticket to heaven or a “get out of hell free” card, nor that all who are poor will go straight to the Kingdom of Heaven.
To me, it doesn’t look like this parable is meant to teach us about the after-life. If it is, it contradicts many of the things Jesus Himself tells us about entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Theologians differ as to what this parable means. In my next post, I’ll share my opinion on some remarkable symbolism that I believe points to the story’s true purpose.