Jesus told stories to nudge people toward receptive insight. So why did he tell the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? According to some, it was so that we might learn about the fiery torments of the dead. However, as we saw in the last post, this parable should not be read as the Wikipedia entry for hell. It doesn’t even mention hell.
So what’s going on here? What is the message Jesus is trying to convey? Short version: The blessings of God, which Israel had exclusively enjoyed, are for everyone.
Who do the characters represent?
In this story there are three characters. The first is the dead, rich man. We know he is Jewish for he calls Abraham father. The rich man represents the nation of Israel which had long dined at the table of the Lord’s abundance. Israel was rich in favor, blessed on account of God’s gracious promises to Abraham.
The other two characters in the story are, Abraham and Lazarus. Abraham means “Father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). This is a prophetic name. Abraham is not merely the Jews’ father, but the father of all who believe (Rom 4:16).
Finally, there’s Lazarus who sat outside the rich man’s gate. If the rich man represents the Jews who were favored, then Lazarus represents the Gentiles who longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Matt 15:27). Lazarus is the reject who is received and the lost who is found.
What’s the parable about?
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is NOT saying that the rich are going to hell and the poor are going to heaven. Nor is he saying if you neglect the poor you’ll burn forever.
The rich man’s problem was not that he was rich, for Abraham was exceedingly rich, but he wasn’t hungry. Only the hungry eat the Bread of Life and only the thirsty drink the Living Water. The man was like those who boast, “I am rich and do not need a thing,” and to whom Jesus responds “you do not realize that you are wretched, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17).
In the parable Jesus is talking about Israel. The Israelites thought they were special on account of their father Abraham. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did” (John 8:39). And what did Abraham do? He trusted God. He rejoiced in Jesus (John 8:56).
In the parable Abraham tells the rich man that he had received “good things” (v.25). Like the rich man the nation of Israel had also received good things such as God’s favor, the law, and the prophets. But they did not receive Jesus. They enjoyed the blessings, but scorned the Blesser. They received the gifts, but not the Giver.
In the story the rich man doesn’t have a name, or Jesus doesn’t know it. He’s one of those of whom Jesus will say, “Depart from me I never knew you” (Matt 7:23). The rich man is not lost because he was rich or stingy. He’s lost because Jesus doesn’t know him.
What about Lazarus? Why does he end up in a good place? Jesus provides few clues. In the story Lazarus says no words that we might memorize and he does no deeds we might emulate. The beggar is wordless and deedless. The only significant detail Jesus tells us is his name, which means “God has helped.”
Two kinds of people
In this world there are two kinds of people; those who help themselves and those who say, “God, help me!” The rich man was the former; Lazarus was the latter. The rich man trusted in himself; Lazarus trusted in the Lord.
Lazarus wasn’t blessed because he was poor, but because he was hungry and thirsty. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” He wanted what the Lord offered, and this made all the difference. God loves to give good gifts to all, but not all receive:
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:53)
It’s not that Jesus hates rich people, but rich people often don’t want what Jesus offers. The righteous don’t need a savior and the healthy don’t need a doctor.
Eventually the rich man repents, but he’s too late. In death he cries out to Abraham, “Save my brothers. Send Lazarus to warn them.” But Abraham says if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. (Perhaps Jesus was referring to the real Lazarus who rose from the dead and speaking to the unbelief of some of his listeners. “See? You didn’t listen to him.” Perhaps he was speaking prophetically of himself. “And you won’t listen to me.”)
What’s the takeaway?
The Jews had the law and the prophets to prepare them for Jesus. These good things were a shadow of the Good Thing to come (Heb 10:1). Yet the Jews preferred the shadow to the Reality. They ate the menu, but not the meal.
In this life we can enjoy many good things: the beauty of creation, the splendor of a sunset, the miracle of new birth, the love of a companion. Every good gift points to a good Father who loves to give good gifts (Jas 1:17). Every good thing points to the Good Thing that is Jesus.
Don’t settle for the gifts and miss the Giver. Don’t live in the shadows and miss the Reality.
See beyond the blessings to the Blesser.