Jesus never named any of the characters in His parables, save one. That one is Lazarus, a star player in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Why does Lazarus rate? How come he’s so special? It seems to me it’s something about that name.
Lazarus is a derivative of Eliezer. It’s like Rick and Ricardo. Lazarus was the Greek way to say Eliezer. And while there are a number of Eliezers in scripture, the first was Eliezer of Damascus, Abraham’s chief steward. Eliezer would have been Abraham’s heir, had Isaac not been born. Eliezer was, of course, a Gentile. That’s important.
Down the road a bit, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob/Israel, fathered twelve sons, one of whom was named Judah. Israel had two wives and two concubines, and Judah was the son of one of the wives, Leah. Leah also gave birth to five other sons; therefore, Judah had five full brothers. That’s important, too. When we read of “the Jews” in the New Testament, it typically refers to the ruling religious class although the origin of the term is from the tribe of Judah.
If you haven’t read the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in a while, check out my previous post, Raising Lazarus and read it there. You might also want to skim through the rest of the post as it may answer a few questions before you ask them.
The rich man fares sumptuously every day. I believe this rich man symbolizes “the Jews,” or specifically, those Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking, and their ilk. It was to these proud men that Jesus told this parable. He often did this sort of thing to them. Maybe He liked seeing their faces turn red, or maybe He thought it would be good for them. Probably the latter, but who knows? Earlier in the same chapter, Luke tells us the Pharisees were “lovers of money,” and that they were scoffing at Jesus as He spoke.
They had the law of Moses and the testimony of the prophets. They had the covenant and they had Abraham as their father.The Pharisees were rich, rich, rich in so many ways.
Now here is Lazarus, lying at the gate — cut off from the blessings of Abraham and wishing to be fed by the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, but the dogs (unclean) come and lick his sores and no one gives him anything. Remember Abraham’s Lazarus (Eliezer), though honored in his household, was an outsider; a Gentile slave.
God had charged the nation of Israel with being a light to the Gentiles, but instead they became insular and gave the Gentiles nothing of the riches God had shared with them. They regarded the Gentiles as afflicted and unclean, not even fit to eat with. Likewise the Pharisees and Priests regarded the common rabble of Israel as unfit and unclean. They complained that Jesus spent time with these worthless losers and even ate with them. So Lazarus can also stand in for these folk; the lost and abandoned of Israel.
Now Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels (messengers) to the bosom of Abraham. What’s this? Lazarus is unclean and unfit. Anyone can see he’s accursed of God; destitute, covered with sores, hungry, his only companions the unclean dogs that lick his broken crusted skin. Disgusting! And this man is in the bosom of Abraham? The Pharisees must have been shocked! Shocked, I tell you!
And to put the cherry on the top, the rich man finds himself in torments! The undesirable half of the Greek Hades. Not only doesn’t he make it to the bosom of Abraham, he doesn’t even end up on the right side of town in the Gentile hell. Lazarus cannot go to him to comfort him even with a drop of water.
(I’m not sure this is pertinent, but I find it interesting that in the sufferings of the Jews in the past centuries, the Gentiles who have desired to help have often been thwarted. Most of the world didn’t even know about the Nazi death camps until millions, mostly Jews, had been murdered in them. And few people were in a position to help the Jews who were persecuted in the rise of the USSR. Of course, historically, not all that many Gentiles have desired to help the Jews, to our shame.)
Abraham tells the rich man, “nor do they from thence to us pass through.” And while some Jews follow Jesus, it is a remarkably rare occurrence. Statistically, Jewish Christians are rare even today — though they are getting a little more common.
Thwarted in his desire for personal comfort, the rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers (remember — five brothers?). Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” The rich man protests that if one returns from the dead, his brothers will listen. Abraham counters that if they won’t hear Moses, they won’t listen even if one returns from the dead.
And not so long after that, Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisee’s response? They plotted to kill Lazarus. And then Jesus Himself rose from among the dead, and still the Jewish religious leaders refused to hear.
I believe that this parable is an example of a classic story type of the day; the role-reversal parable. Jesus surprises and offends His audience of Pharisees by placing them in fiery torments in Hades and situating the poor and unclean rabble (and worse! the Gentiles) in Abraham’s bosom. God’s riches, His covenant, His blessing would now pass from their hands to the poor and destitute and to the Gentile nations that had for so long lain at their gates, receiving nothing of the good things of God.
But we shouldn’t write off Judah and his brothers. Paul tells us that in the end all Israel will be saved. God can cross that great gulf that prevented Lazarus from comforting the rich man in his torments, and from what Paul says, it appears that He plans to do just that at the right time — perhaps when the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, Lazarus has risen. It’s his turn to carry the torch, to be the city set on a hill, and to be salt to the earth. May God help us, and may we, in Christ, fulfill all His will.