Lazarus and the Rich Man

I’ve decided to explore some commonly misused passages with the hope that can assist pastors and Christians alike in their interpretation of Scripture. I will not, however, be going through passages like Jeremiah 28 since other blogs have done a much better job than I ever could.

One of the first passages that I realized I was misinterpreting was Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Growing up in a very evangelistic heavy churches–all of whom emphasized Hell a bit too much–this parable was held up as the quintessential parable for evangelism.

My mind’s eye always saw a scene similar to this painting when I read this passage.

Look at the eternal torment the rich man suffers! Do I want to suffer the same fate?
See how Lazarus is comforted! How much more will I be comforted in Heaven–away from the stinging flames of Hell. Most importantly, away from the flames of Hell (and with water!)

While Hell is certainly an important topic, Jesus did NOT tell this parable as an explanation on the intricacies of afterlife.

Crazy right? I’ll explain below. First, our text.

LUKE 16:19-31

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.

In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So 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.’ “But 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. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ “The rich man answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ “He 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.’”

BACKGROUND

If we consider the surrounding context, we should expect Jesus to teach about money.

First, let’s get some context. Immediately before this parable, Jesus tells the parable of the unjust manager (16:1-13). The main thrust of this controversial parable is to be generous with your money in order to win people to the Kingdom of God–the Kingdom of God not being an afterlife “heaven” but a restoration of God’s intentions (e.g, give to the poor, sick, hungry). The Pharisee’s reaction to this parable is extremely important for our parable.

The Pharisees, who love money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (16:14-15).

Luke’s description of the Pharisees as lovers of money must inform our reading of this chapter.

It also should not surprise us that Luke mentions money in his description of the Pharisees. Chapters 15 and 16 contain nothing but parables involving or concerning money: the Lost Coin (15:8-10), the Prodigal Son (15:11-31), The Unjust Manager (16:1-15), Lazarus and the Rich Man (16:19-31).

If you didn’t buy that connection, Luke gives us another. Most of these stories are linked together by “hook” words to show us the stories are topically connected. For example, The Prodigal Son and the Unjust Manager both “squander” their possessions (Gk: διασκορπίζων; 16:1; 15:13). Food scraps and fine linen are mentioned in both the Prodigal Son and our parable. These hook words would help the listeners remember these stories and be better able to tell them later as well as connect them topically. Pretty cool, right?

Then, there’s the baffling inclusion of divorce in 16:18. Jesus’ words are certainly literal (as seen in Matt), but here they are rhetorical. Jesus uses his well-known teaching on marriage because the Pharisees are spiritual adulterers. They have divorced God for money!

Let me back up a bit here.

In those days, it was believed that the rich were blessed by God and the poor were in sin (sound familiar?). It wasn’t entirely their fault. They read verses like Deuteronomy 28:3-4 (“[If you keep my commands,] blessed you shall be in the city…in the field… and your offspring”) and “in all [the righteous one] does, he prospers,” but “the wicked are not so.” (Ps 1:3-4) You can see this theology in Job–thought to be the earliest recorded book in the Old Testament–and it is refuted over and over again within Job and within the rest of Scripture. If we had those verses alone, it may seem to promote the type of theology popular during Jesus’ lifetime (and our own in the guise of ‘prosperity theology.’) Yet we have the rest of Scripture–and so did the Pharisees. Jesus ‘ address must have something to do with money… but what? [1]

THE MISREADING

Misreading #1: Jesus is describing a literal account of Heaven and Hell from a historical event.

Point #1: The story was told as a parable in the surrounding cultures and does not describe a literal event. Such an interpretation does not fit the context of the narrative. Jesus did not invent this story.

This misreading is by far the most common interpretation I have experienced. A simple Google search shows that it is still very popular.

It is very likely that either the story itself or the afterlife details did not originate with Jesus. While scholars are divided on whether or not Jesus borrowed this story from an Egyptian parable, it seems very likely that the story was a common one in the region (at least seven versions of this story exist in Rabbinic tradition–see I. Howard Marshall’s commentary on Luke). Recent research may place the story within a Greco-Roman view of afterlife rather than an Egyptian/Jewish legend.

Though Jesus’ story has commonalities with the other stories, He adjusts the story to fit the His audience. In other words, He “Judaizes” it so that they can relate to the story and to make that much more of an impact on the listeners. For example, the Pharisees would not believe in the Egyptian god Si-Osiris–the god of the Egyptian tale, but they would know Father Abraham and believe he is with Yahweh.

The normal arguments for a historical event point out that this is the only parable in which a character is named since Jesus usually uses the phrase similar to “a certain man” to introduce a parable. I would point out that Jesus does in fact begin the parable with this phrase: “There was a certain man.” The association with Lazarus might link it to the story of Abraham (Eliezer, the Hebrew form, is mentioned in Gen 15:3) or John 11, but I think it is more likely Jesus used a very popular Jewish name for this character rather than finding similarities such as these. It is more important that Lazarus, the beggar, is named rather than the rich man, reversing the social status of the two within the language of the story. Early traditions name the rich man Amenophis, the name of several Pharaohs, and Ninevah, which is both a reference to the wealthy city and a version of the Jewish legend mentioned earlier (Bar Ma’jan). It seems even the earliest traditions attest to the popularity of this story!

Original hearers might be thrown off by the mention of angels carrying Lazarus to Abraham’s side (16:22). The earliest tradition of divine beings escorting the dead is from AD150. This would be another way that Jesus “judaizes” this parable, using angels rather than the Egyptian bearers of the dead.

Jesus does not mention faith, obedience, justification, or the kingdom of heaven in this parable. Jesus is obviously free to speak on salvation as He sees fit, but he typically identifies one of those key words/phrases when speaking on salvation. We are not told Lazarus has faith in Yahweh, if he is a part of the covenant community,

Gabriel Metsu (1629)

or if he is awaiting the Messiah like Simeon and Anna. We are simply told that he is poor and in need and the rich man is not. The only factors we can take into account if we take the story as Jesus spoke it would be that one is rich and one is not, and that, it comes in the midst of a dialogue concerning money. We should not expect a teaching on judgment, justification, or faith when none of those concepts seem to be present. Obviously, we can suppose that the poor man was justified by faith and Lazarus refused the Gospel, but that misses the point of the parable entirely.

Jesus simply uses a common story, adjusts it so that His audience at once can relate, and uses it to teach about money.

That’s right. This parable is about money.

Think about it: Unnamed rich man shows no lack of money, no need for food, no endangerment to his life. Lazarus has all of these needs. And yet the rich man sits and eats in full view of the hungry. Gabriel Metsu’s painting (1652) seen above captures the sentiment well.

But what of the end of the parable? The rich man begging for mercy for himself in the form of water and for his kin in the form of Lazarus’ resurrection? This leads me to my next point…

Misreading #2: This parable ends with an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish rejection of the gospel (vv. 30-31)

Point #2: When Abraham alludes to Moses and the Prophets, he is referring to the commands to care for the poor.

Often when we read biblical texts, we read into it what we’ve always heard. In this case, we have 2,000+ years of Christianity ringing in our ears. For some of us–myself included–the phrase “Moses and the Prophets” simply foreshadows Christ’s eventual incarnation, death, and resurrection. Many times it certainly does, but many times it does not. Here it does not. Well, mostly anyway. Check it out.

Jesus is referring to commands to care for the poor, found in the Torah and proclaimed by the Prophets. In the Torah, we find verses such as:

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” (Ex 23:6)

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.” (Lev 19:15)

Yahweh gave many other laws in the Torah to protect the poor (Ex 23:11; Lev 25:6; especially the establishment of Jubilee).

Yahweh aligns Himself with the poor. In the Torah, He is the “defender of the orphan and widowed” (Deut 10:18). Yahweh promises to curse the Israelites–or anyone under the Sinai covenant– who “withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow,” (Deut 27:19). (Note: The designation as foreigner, fatherless, and widow involves inheritance of land which, for an agricultural society, was essential to survive. e.g., the poor)

The Prophets, who elaborated on the Torah as preachers and poets, continued what the Torah began. Isaiah, one of the most oft quoted prophets in the New Testament is full of poetic language aligning Yahweh with the poor. All of this is a reminder of the covenant recorded in the Torah, sworn by their ancestors, that they were still under.

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none… But I the LORD will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” (41:17)

“Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Isn’t it to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own kin?” (58:6-7)

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Yahweh is on me, because Yahweh has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” (Isaiah 61; quoted in Luke 4)

On and on it goes. The poor are mentioned over 200 times in the Old Testament. The Torah makes it clear–you are to care for the poor among you.

Yet the rich man richly dined in the presence of one who was hungry.

If the rich man–here a practicing Jew–did not heed the Law and the Prophets’ call to care for the poor–the 248 explicit mentions plus dozens of implicit mentions, his family will not concern themselves with the message–especially if a poor person is the one delivering it. If they are hardened by Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded by another poor person–poor people are everywhere.

This verse does have some double entendre about it. I wanted to hit the money part hard because that is the main thrust. It does, I think, foreshadow some of Jesus’ death, but only through the lens of being and identifying with a poor person.

THE REVELANCE

With all this in mind, we have to consider Jesus’ overarching theme for this parable and the surrounding teachings on money: what we do with our money matters.

We may feel blessed. We may have wealth. Power. Clothes. Health. Medicine. Freedom.

But that is no guarantee that we are blessed.

Even worse. It may mean we are cursed.

Jesus’ shocking words for the Pharisees must be re-evaluated in our own lives. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, served money–meaning they valued money more than the Torah.

Luke continually accosts the Pharisees for such a reversal of priorities. In chapter 20, Jesus calls them those who “devour of widows’ houses.” Directly after we find the widow’s mite–putting her gift into the “temple treasury.” Immediately following the widow’s gift, the temple is described as beautifully adorned and stones and “gifts dedicated to God.” The widow’s mite isn’t a commendation towards the widow, it’s a biting, public shaming of the rich–the widow should never have had only two copper coins! And yet the temple stands beautifully adorned on the backs of the poor.

They divorced God for money and became spiritual adulterers.

Can this text teach us about the afterlife? It’s debatable, but I think the context tells us it should not. If you teach this parable and fail to mention the strong warning present against the misuse of money, you have missed the entire point.

Maybe it’s a bit easier in our circles to teach on Hell than it is on the misuse of money.

May we have the courage to remain faithful to our callings–faithful to our God rather than our money.

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