The Parable of the Dead Rich Man

rich dead manJesus 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.

31 Comments on The Parable of the Dead Rich Man

  1. Very good! Insightful!

  2. You consistently preach the gospel. You are blessed, Paul.

  3. another good one Paul

  4. Paul, thank you for the insight.

    What are your thoughts on CS Lewis’ view of those who refuse to recognize their need for forgiveness, who turn away from the Lord and in vain rely on their self-absorbed selves to meet their deepest needs, that they continue in that same way after death?

    To be forever self-absorbed, always burning with unquenchable desire, and voluntarily separated from God is a torment accurately described as like burning fire.

    The rich man is unrepentant in that he still sees Lazarus as a servant to bring him water and though he bemoans the place he’s in he doesn’t actually ask to leave.

    Though I haven’t dug into the scripture on this like I probably should, Lewis’ interpretation seems to ring true.

    • I talk briefly about Lewis’s view in my post “Alternatives to Hell.” BTW, people read that post and conclude that I lead towards alternative #1. I don’t. I lean towards #3, but I could be wrong.

      • Paul, I note you lean toward Hell Alternative #3. So do I, as I am convinced it is the actual teaching in both Testaments. Very simple, very logical, very just.

        One stumbling block for so many is the common assumption that man is an eternal being in some way. Paul tells us otherwise, stating plainly that eternal life and immortality is what we seek, and that as a gift, neither something we possess by creation as human beings. See Romans 2:7.

        This idea we all live forever in one way or another, in one place or another, thus poses the inevitable result, which is unsaved people continuing for eternity as sinners. I suggest that is in direct contradiction to Genesis 3:22-24.

      • Thanks, Paul. I also read your “10 points to know” post, very helpful.

        FWIW, it looks like C.S. Lewis believed both alternatives #1 and #3 are possible as they don’t seem mutually exclusive – #1 until the second death of #3.

        From his book The Problem of Pain – “I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea, not of duration, but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say” (chap. 8, par. 10).

      • Thanks for that, Ben.

  5. Only God can help people to see their need of Him.
    His love to us and then through us to others confronts people with Jesus to stimulate their appetite for the bread of life.

  6. Paul i have really enjoyed your teachings on grace and faith but i am not convinced by your teaching on hell. I understand your position that a loving God cannot put his creatures in such an eternal torment as most scriptures clearly say. It is difficult to accept. I personally wish there was no hell. I hate to think that some people will spend eternity being tormented in a lake of fire. But there are so many scriptures littered all over in the bible that teach directly about a literal hell that i find it difficult to ignore or explain away. Eternal Judgement is included in the list of the elementary doctrines of Christ in Hebrews 6:12. I have read all your posts on the subject of hell and i feel you need to do more research on the subject.

    • Thanks James. I’m not sure what relevance your comment has to a story that takes place in Hades (not Hell), but I am open to the possibility that I am wrong about Hell. Indeed I would not have even written about the subject except that many people have been conditioned to think that the good news must be defined by the bad news. The implication that I have not studied the scriptures is a bit unfair as is your conclusion that the weight of scriptures is against me.

    • Jerry Nendel // July 18, 2015 at 11:11 pm // Reply

      James: The problem in understanding what Paul believes about hell is the underlying assumption of the soul’s eternal existence. It is like the devil is still saying today ‘You shall not truly die’. Jesus clearly stated that the Lake of Fire ( which even hell, that is hades, is eventually thrown into) was made for the devil and his angels. Angels don’t die, and the ones that turned evil will need to be imprisoned for eternity. But why should we assume that the effect that the fire has on them would be the same for humans. It was God’s mercy that he blocked the path to the tree of life after man’s sin or else there would of needed to be a similar ‘hell’ for man, but man dies instead.

      • Jerry thanks for this. I am still mixed up on this. You see I have believed in and taught eternal torment for decades. I find this new teaching quite strange, though it makes some sense. I have always held that human beings are spiritual beings and spiritual beings cannot be annihilated so the lost will suffer with angels forever. May be I need to do more research on the constitution of man. Is man a spirit having a soul and dwelling in a body or a soul having a spirit dwelling in a body? What is the essence of man? Let’s begin there and if you have other materials that can assist me in this study I will really appreciate.

      • James, you may be interested in the table in this post.

  7. I see the light! Thank you for rescuing this parable from the “Bad News for Believers” crew, Paul. Your explanations of its true meaning through scripture cross-references and establishing context make perfect, beautiful sense.
    It’s Good News for not-yet-believers too. The Blesser is seriously good!

  8. My life is a life of trusting Jesus. His Grace for me is all I need in this life. I know he loves me more than I can imagine, He blesses me much more than I deserve. I am resting assured in his care for me. I praise God for you, Paul. Thanxxx

  9. How can you possibly miss who Jesus is referring to when He said…”even if one should rise from the dead, still…they will not believe?” He was speaking prophetically of Himself. Jesus knows the end from the beginning and he knew most of the world will deny Him…even though He rises from the dead. And knowing He spoke these words, we also know that His suffering on the cross was much more than physical. But He knew the names of each and everyone on that cross who He was dying for that would STILL reject Him. Giving the true meaning behind His words. Forgive them Father; for they know NOT what they do. He was no only speaking about the men who crucified Him but all humanity before Christ that day for all time that would indeed…..go to a place of torment for their denial of Him. That was His true agony. Imagine the pain to see each face before Him that would REJECT Him while He hung on that cross. Now that is an agony that could make any man say…”Father….why have you forsaken me?” A pain that He knew would be so great he sweat blood.

  10. I believe that the crux of what is said here has been missed, and it may sit not to comfortably with some but be a awesome blessing for others, It is necessary to look to what was previously said to support these verses.the story of the steward relieving the debtors of their debt as not about money but sin God does not need our money, this steward done well he had stewardship over the law but broke the rules.Then the two mammons the one of the law one of grace, the true bread of life.We cannot serve both!! Then the covetous Pharisees, coveting righteousness. Then the law supported, Jesus was the fulfilment of the law. Then real adultery addressed, the man will be saved by the woman, her seed, in verse 18 put salvation in place of wife and you will start to see.Then the rich man clothed in purple, purple for a Jew symbolized a priest, a defender . To stay in 250 I will conclude with greatest words of the parable. So that they which would pass from hence to you CANNOT. This is the gospel and the gulf that divides is Jesus. At the cross a bridge was built for all to walk who choose to, there is no way back.

  11. trepur odiref // July 15, 2015 at 4:31 pm // Reply

    now your are talking paul……..this parable has bewitched a lot of preachers and in turn bewitched many church members….they teach the doctrine of hell using this parable without reading it through the lens of Christ Jesus, They keep on using the lens of ignorance & hypocrisy to understand this parable and preach it to their congregation, thus leading the whole congregation to the ditch, a blind man leading the blind…………even radical grace preachers don’t understand the message of this parable…..i believe this parable talks only about the nation of the jew (the rich man) on how they became self righteous (the fixed great chasm), on how they despised the gentiles (lazarus at the gates) because to a jew a gentile is unclean (full of sores), on how they hoard the blessings of God (fine purple linen),………. the rich man talking in luke 16:27 about his five brothers clearly points to the real identity of the rich man, who is the main character of the parable, he was judah speaking….why because judah has five blood brothers, from one mother leah,…Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, and Zebulun (Gen. 35:23)…….the jews are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son who became unjust steward…… Christ Jesus came to find the lost israel, who is supposed to be the beacon of the world, and brought them home again and thru His Finished Work at the cross gave the Righteousness they were looking in the law of moses and also reconciled the world to our Heavenly Father……today there are no more rich man (jews) and lazarus (gentiles) before our Heavenly Father, only one called the “church” or “the body of Christ Jesus”…….just sharing….peace.

  12. You’re right on Paul…this is an important parable to understand and teach, because it’s often used to justify the doctrine of eternal torment in hell, and it has nothing to do with that! It’s a PARABLE! It looks like you covered most of it and Trepur did too. I was shown some things about the parable that I have never seen anyone else write about (like the fact that Lazarus and the Rich man died AT THE SAME TIME, meaning the ending of the season of the law and prophets and the beginning of the season of the kingdom of God in reality arrived together…

  13. Eye opening! Thank you Brother Paul.

  14. Jerry Nendel // July 18, 2015 at 11:01 pm // Reply

    I have an addition. The rich man had 5 brothers. Judah, the predominant tribe that the nation originated from, had 5 full brothers ( as well as 6 half brothers)

  15. Dr. Paul Ellis, I am continually blessed by your piece. Thanks very much for clearing many of the misconception and excess baggage I have been carrying about. You are blessed

  16. Wow!!!! Good stuff. Insightful. God bless you sir.

  17. KONDA NAYAK MUDAVATHU // February 8, 2019 at 6:04 am // Reply

    Great Insight Sir(Brother Paul).

  18. Thank you for this passage, as I tend to worry that it means ‘rich people go to Hell’ and that we can either enjoy good things now or in Heaven but not both. As we can never be sure whether we are poor enough, perhaps everyone except those who are homeless and starving are too rich (in which case, why are Christian charities trying to help people out of poverty?).

    So I prefer your interpretation. However, the one thing that makes me uncomfortable (to some extent in your post, but more in some of the comments below) is the emphasis on ‘the rich man’ representing specifically Israel, or the Jews, rather than self-righteous and self-sufficient people in general. I don’t believe (most of the time) that God is racist and judges the members of an entire nation or ethnic group as if they were one person, or as if they were all alike. (When I do worry that God is racist, I worry that he cares only about Jews, and regards the rest of us as ‘pigs’ before whom the pearls of Jesus’s teaching should not be cast, or at best as ‘dogs’ who are allowed only whatever scraps of grace are left over, but that’s another story.)

  19. great stuff Paul, hadn’t thought to look at the story from this angle. And good point about Lazarus being raised from the dead as an example.

    The poor begger being a gentile in this story also reminds me of the gentile woman Jesus encountered (Matthew 15: 26 -27) “children’s (Israels) bread” “…even dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table.”

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