Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 14. The Rich Man & Lazarus
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.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 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.’”
Comment: I confess I find this one of the most uncomfortable of Jesus’ parables because it has a variety of challenging facets to it, and also because the way Jesus tells is, with historical names being used, it feels almost like history (although it isn’t) and that somehow seems more challenging as well.
- there was a rich man who lived in luxury.
- there was also a beggar named Lazarus, who was physically a mess because of ill-health, no doubt from under nourishment.
- eventually he died and was taken to the underworld where Abraham now dwelt.
- the rich man also died and was carried to the fire of the underworld, yet he was able to look up and see both Abraham and Lazarus.
- he cried to Abraham to let Lazarus come and bring him ease from his agony.
- Abraham reminded him of how it had been on earth and is now reversed.
- He pointed out that there was a great divide so here was no crossing over.
- so the rich man pleaded that Lazarus be sent back to the rich man’s family to warn them so they would not end up here.
- Abraham simply points out they have the Law and the Prophets.
- The rich man says this is not enough; if someone from the dead goes to them, they will believe.
- Abraham challenges that; if they won’t listen to God’s provision already they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
Elements for consideration: Because of the strange nature of this story, we perhaps need to try and understand the various parts of it.
- i) Pre-death: a rich man who cares little for the beggar at his gate,
- ii) Death: Abraham, the father of faith is surely, we would say, in heaven with God. The alternative, where the rich man ends up, is what is called Hades or Hell. However, Jewish understanding was that there were divisions within Sheol (see below).
An Aside: Hell: It is worth pausing to consider definitions. Sheol, a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, is normally simply defined as ‘the state or resting place of the dead.’ When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, ‘Hades’ was substituted for ‘Sheol’. Hades is similarly ‘the state or resting place of the dead’. Gehenna, a Greek word used in the New Testament, is ‘the destination of the wicked’, and derives its name from a deep ravine south of Jerusalem, the “Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom” (Hebrew ge hinnom). Some point out that this was an ongoing rubbish dump where rubbish was burned but, please consider, it could only continue burning as long as material was thrown in. As such it was not eternal. It is more a picture of destruction. In the case of all three, origins and usage are NOT clear.
Sheol Divided: The New Bible Dictionary states, “In the later Jewish literature we meet with the idea of divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the image of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament.”
- The book of Enoch is described as an ancient religious work that predates Jesus and would be known by the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ use of the parable mentioned above may therefore simply be using Jewish understanding of the day to convey certain truths:
- We end up in a place determined by our present lives
- That ‘place’ is really somewhere to be avoided.
- Once we die there is no swapping over.
The Bigger Picture: In Revelation, references to the lake of fire (believed by many to represent Hell) are interesting. In Rev 19:20,21, “The two of them (the beast & false prophet) were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse. i.e. with the coming of the King of Kings, Jesus, the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake but their followers (humans), rebellious people, are killed by the word of God!
In Rev 20:9,10, “they marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
i.e. The human armies are killed by fire from heaven but Satan is cast into the fire where he joins the beast and the false prophet – for ever.
Now, in Rev 20:13-15 we read, “each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Note it does NOT say ‘where they suffer for eternity’.
Fire: Consider, fire is an element that utterly destroys what it engulfs. The fire in the Valley of Hinnom burnt up and completely destroyed the rubbish thrown there. Wherever fire comes down from heaven it destroys. The only exceptions that specifically go against that are ones we have already seen involving Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet – all demonic spirit (fallen angel) beings.
References to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is simply used to convey how abhorrent this destruction should be to us where those who are destroyed miss out on all the wonder of eternity with God that the New Testament conveys. Similarly The few references to “where the fire never goes out” e.g. Mk 9:43 simply says the risk of that judgment is always there waiting for the rebellious. The emphasis is on the fire (the means of destruction) not the punishment (effect on people).
Back to the Parable: So it is probable that Jesus is using Jewish understanding of these things. The previous parable, of the shrewd manager challenged ethics. This one likewise challenges behaviour – concern for the poor – and both suggest that the ongoing behaviour indicates a set heart that precludes a person from entering heaven. The parable brings a strong warning to ensure that whatever relationship we claim to have with God, is shown to be real in the way it is worked out expressing the love, care of compassion of Christ for those around us, and that we cannot do without his grace expressed in and through us. May it be so.