The Rich Man and Lazarus
JESUS has been talking to his disciples about the proper use of material riches, explaining that we cannot be slaves to these and at the same time be slaves to God. The Pharisees are also listening, and they begin to sneer at Jesus because they are money lovers. So he says to them: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”
The time has come for the tables to be turned on people who are rich in worldly goods, political power, and religious control and influence. They are to be put down. However, the people who recognize their spiritual need are to be lifted up. Jesus points to such a change when he goes on to say to the Pharisees:
“The Law and the Prophets were until John [the Baptizer]. From then on the kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every sort of person is pressing forward toward it. Indeed, it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one particle of a letter of the Law to go unfulfilled.”
The scribes and the Pharisees are proud of their professed adherence to the Law of Moses. Recall that when Jesus miraculously gave sight to a certain man in Jerusalem, they boasted: “We are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses.” But now the Law of Moses has fulfilled its intended purpose of leading humble ones to God’s designated King, Jesus Christ. So with the beginning of John’s ministry, all kinds of persons, especially the humble and the poor, are exerting themselves to become subjects of God’s Kingdom.
Since the Mosaic Law is now being fulfilled, the obligation to keep it is to be removed. The Law permits divorce on various grounds, but Jesus now says: “Everyone that divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he that marries a woman divorced from a husband commits adultery.” How such pronouncements must irritate the Pharisees, especially since they permit divorce on many grounds!
Continuing his remarks to the Pharisees, Jesus relates an illustration that features two men whose status, or situation, is eventually changed dramatically. Can you determine who are represented by the men and what the reversal of their situations means?
“But a certain man was rich,” Jesus explains, “and he used to deck himself with purple and linen, enjoying himself from day to day with magnificence. But a certain beggar named Lazarus used to be put at his gate, full of ulcers and desiring to be filled with the things dropping from the table of the rich man. Yes, too, the dogs would come and lick his ulcers.”
Jesus here uses the rich man to represent the Jewish religious leaders, including not only the Pharisees and the scribes but the Sadducees and the chief priests as well. They are rich in spiritual privileges and opportunities, and they conduct themselves as the rich man did. Their clothing of royal purple represents their favored position, and the white linen pictures their self-righteousness.
This proud rich-man class views the poor, common people with utter contempt, calling them ‛am ha·’aʹrets, or people of the earth. The beggar Lazarus thus represents these people to whom the religious leaders deny proper spiritual nourishment and privileges. Hence, like Lazarus covered with ulcers, the common people are looked down upon as spiritually diseased and fit only to associate with dogs. Yet, those of the Lazarus class hunger and thirst for spiritual nourishment and so are at the gate, seeking to receive whatever meager morsels of spiritual food may drop from the rich man’s table.
Jesus now goes on to describe changes in the condition of the rich man and Lazarus. What are these changes, and what do they represent?
Rich Man and Lazarus Experience a Change
The rich man represents the religious leaders who are favored with spiritual privileges and opportunities, and Lazarus pictures the common people who hunger for spiritual nourishment. Jesus continues his story, describing a dramatic change in the men’s circumstances.
“Now in course of time,” Jesus says, “the beggar died and he was carried off by the angels to the bosom position of Abraham. Also, the rich man died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments, and he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in the bosom position with him.”
Since the rich man and Lazarus are not literal persons but symbolize classes of people, logically their deaths are also symbolic. What do their deaths symbolize, or represent?
Jesus has just finished pointing to a change in circumstances by saying that ‘the Law and the Prophets were until John the Baptizer, but from then on the kingdom of God is being declared.’ Hence, it is with the preaching of John and Jesus Christ that both the rich man and Lazarus die to their former circumstances, or condition.
Those of the humble, repentant Lazarus class die to their former spiritually deprived condition and come into a position of divine favor. Whereas they had earlier looked to the religious leaders for what little dropped from the spiritual table, now the Scriptural truths imparted by Jesus are filling their needs. They are thus brought into the bosom, or favored position, of the Greater Abraham, Jehovah God.
On the other hand, those who make up the rich-man class come under divine disfavor because of persistently refusing to accept the Kingdom message taught by Jesus. They thereby die to their former position of seeming favor. In fact, they are spoken of as being in figurative torment. Listen now, as the rich man speaks:
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this blazing fire.” God’s fiery judgment messages proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples are what torment individuals of the rich-man class. They want the disciples to let up on declaring these messages, thus providing them some measure of relief from their torments.
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you received in full your good things in your lifetime, but Lazarus correspondingly the injurious things. Now, however, he is having comfort here but you are in anguish. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you people, so that those wanting to go over from here to you people cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.’”
How just and appropriate that such a dramatic reversal take place between the Lazarus class and the rich-man class! The change in conditions is accomplished a few months later at Pentecost 33 C.E., when the old Law covenant is replaced by the new covenant. It then becomes unmistakably clear that the disciples, not the Pharisees and other religious leaders, are favored by God. The “great chasm” that separates the symbolic rich man from Jesus’ disciples therefore represents God’s unchangeable, righteous judgment.
The rich man next requests “father Abraham”: “Send [Lazarus] to the house of my father, for I have five brothers.” The rich man thus confesses he has a closer relationship to another father, who is actually Satan the Devil. The rich man requests that Lazarus water down God’s judgment messages so as not to put his “five brothers,” his religious allies, in “this place of torment.”
“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to these.’” Yes, if the “five brothers” would escape torment, all they have to do is heed the writings of Moses and the Prophets that identify Jesus as the Messiah and then become his disciples. But the rich man objects: “No, indeed, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent.”
However, he is told: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” God will not provide special signs or miracles to convince people. They must read and apply the Scriptures if they would obtain his favor. Luke 16:14-31; John 9:28, 29; Matthew 19:3-9; Galatians 3:24; Colossians 2:14; John 8:44.
▪ Why must the deaths of the rich man and Lazarus be symbolic, and what is pictured by their deaths?
▪ With the beginning of John’s ministry, what change does Jesus indicate takes place?
▪ What is to be removed after Jesus’ death, and how will this affect the matter of divorce?
▪ In Jesus’ illustration, who are represented by the rich man and by Lazarus?
▪ What are the torments suffered by the rich man, and by what means does he request that they be relieved?
▪ What does the “great chasm” represent?
▪ Who is the rich man’s real father, and who are his five brothers?