Beggar
By Chandrashekhar Leo Vuppuluri (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It comes in a context that began in Luke 15:1-2. Tax collectors and sinners are flocking to Jesus. In the language of our previous passage, they are forcefully entering the kingdom of God. But the Pharisees do not approve. Jesus has gone back and forth from that occasioning incident, first telling the Pharisees three parables of lost things, then encouraging his disciples to shrewd employment of worldly resources for kingdom purposes, and then turning once again to the Pharisees and pointing them to the difference between those tax collectors and sinners who hear the condemnation of the law on their sin, and their own response. That response (or lack of it) is the subject of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. And it can be characterized as a sated oblivion.

Not only is the turnabout a fact, it is an irreversible fact.

Sated Oblivion

The Rich Man and His Celebration

Jesus introduces us to a certain wealthy man. And the characterization of his wealth is extreme. His clothing is very expensive. Produced from the shells of snails, the color purple is the color of royalty because it is rare and expensive. In the middle ages, an analogy might be that he was wearing ermine. But today, we ought to be thinking of $4,000 Armani slacks and $1,500 shoes. The guy is dressed to the nines. But not only is he wearing expensive outerwear, even his underwear, the “fine linen” is cushy and nice.

So you’ve got this guy wearing Armani and Under Armour, and his house has a gate like a city gate! He lives in a veritable mansion. But his lifestyle is the thing Jesus wants you to pick up on. He says the man ‘celebrated gloriously’ every day. The ESV’s “feasted sumptuously” is fine as a translation of the words, but they cause you to miss a connection in the Greek that Luke (and Jesus) wants you to see. We find the connection for Luke in chapter 12. The guy who had a bumper harvest and built bigger barns to accommodate his windfall, said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ (Luke 12:19 ESV) He was encouraging himself to celebrate his success, his comfort, his ease – his wealth. This same word, though, also appears in our immediate context. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus told us the father, on the return of his son, demanded and received a great celebration (Luke 15:23-24). And in verse 29, the older brother says, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” (Luke 15:29 ESV) So that’s what the rich guy is doing. He’s celebrating every day. While the father in Jesus’ parable was celebrating the repentance of a sinner, mirroring the celebration in heaven, this man, like the man in chapter 12, was celebrating his own wealth and comfort. But right outside his gate lay a man tormented.

Lazarus and His Longing

In all the parables of Jesus, the only character to be given a name is Lazarus. His name means “God helps”. And in the story, we find that God is the only one who helps him. We are told several things about this suffering man.

Death is not snobbish, it embraces everyone indiscriminately.
First, he is poor. But that does not capture the depth of his poverty, so that is expanded upon. He has been dumped at the gate of the rich man to beg alms. That’s the language: He “had been thrown” there. So, we can surmise that he is a lame man. To make matters worse, he is covered with sores. So, every day, this rich man had to pass this miserable man, lying immobile at his gate. But the only attention the man received was unwanted attention, as he was unable to ward off the wild dogs licking at his wounds, making him not only disgusting, but ritually unclean. And Jesus continues to connect our story to the parable of the prodigal son. Just as the younger brother found himself working for a pig farmer, where “he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16 ESV), so Lazarus “desired to be fed with what fell from the table of the rich man.” (Luke 15:21) Jesus has masterfully painted the greatest of contrasts: extreme wealth and extreme poverty; extreme comfort and extreme misery; extreme abundance and extreme want.

But death is not snobbish, it embraces everyone indiscriminately.

The Consequences

the Great Reversal

In terms of the phenomenology of the intermediate state, we probably shouldn’t push this parable too hard. But it is clear that, in the grave, there is a blessed dead and a tormented dead. Hades can sometimes refer to the realm inhabited by both, here a distinction is made between Hades and Abraham’s Bosom. The latter is a paradise, but the former is a place of great suffering. The rich man even refers to the torture and anguish he experiences as “this flame.” But Lazarus is leaning on Abraham, and the image is an appropriate one. He occupies the place of honor at a great feast (cf. Matt 8:11; Luke 13:22-30; 14:15-24). The tables are turned.

The rich man spent a lifetime celebrating, but now he finds that a lifetime is not very long after all. And the earthly pleasures are not only fleeting, but they seem trivial now, in light of the torment he is experiencing … and will experience forever.

The rich man, who obviously represents the Pharisees in the story, tries to appeal to his heritage, calling Abraham his father (cf. Luke 3:8). But in his request, he reveals something dreadfully telling. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him, worthy only to be a servant at best. But even more telling is that he knows Lazarus’ name! All those times when he stepped over the suffering man, or crossed the street like the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan –, all the while, he knew his name. He wasn’t quite so oblivious after all.

Abraham, though, will not send Lazarus to aid the suffering man. And he points to the great reversal: “you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Luke 16:25 ESV) The rich man spent a lifetime celebrating, but now he finds that a lifetime is not very long after all. And the earthly pleasures are not only fleeting, but they seem trivial now, in light of the torment he is experiencing … and will experience forever.

The Permanence of the Reversal

And that is Abraham’s next point. Not only is the turnabout a fact, it is an irreversible fact. A great chasm has been fixed. And the purpose of that chasm is to prevent a further change of fortune. This is good news for Lazarus. He has spent his lifetime of suffering (which I am certain seems brief to him now, 2 Cor. 4:17). He will not even be permitted to suffer any more. He is now comforted. And that comfort is permanent. But this is terrible news for the rich man. There is no hope of salvation once you’ve breathed your last in this age. There is, in our fleeting lifetime, a brief window of opportunity for repentance. But death closes that window forever.

The Law and the Prophets

When the rich man realizes the permanence of his fate, his heart turns to his brothers. But his plea for Lazarus to warn them also goes unanswered. Lazarus will not be reduced to a servant. He is a son, an heir. And he will not be sent back to a world of weakness and suffering. He will enjoy strength and comfort and plenty forever. But sending him would do no good anyway, as Abraham goes on to explain.

There is no hope of salvation once you’ve breathed your last in this age. There is, in our fleeting lifetime, a brief window of opportunity for repentance. But death closes that window forever.
The Law and the Prophets provide plenty of testimony. The rich man does not think them enough only because he refused to heed their message. The Law and the Prophets provide plenty of cause for repentance. In the Law, God has revealed his character and the requirements of those who bear his image, and the prophets prosecute us using the standard of that law. But the law and the Prophets provide testimony of the gospel, too, because the Law and the Prophets speak of three things: 1) the death of Christ, 2) the resurrection of Christ and 3) the church – the preaching of repentance and forgiveness to all nations:

44   Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 (Luke 24:44–48 ESV)

If anyone cannot accept the revelation of God, it is owing to his unwillingness to look at himself. As Calvin pointed out, “it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” (Institutes 1.2) And how prescient Abraham’s remark in our parable. Two thousand years later, we not only have the Law and the Prophets, we have the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. The reversal is real. Yet how many continue to walk in sated oblivion?

Mercy does not gain you entry to Abraham’s bosom. That would be a dreadful misunderstanding of this text. There are plenty of philanthropists who will suffer the torment of “this flame”. But the one who has truly seen himself in the mirror, and has truly contemplated the holiness of God, has taken stock of that disparity and bowed in humble repentance, surrendering unconditionally to the King and his kingdom, pleading for mercy with empty hands, and receiving the righteousness of Christ as a free gift … that person cannot help but be compassionate and merciful to others. It is a certain and necessary result of our receiving grace. To walk in sated oblivion is evidence that you are not striving to enter the narrow door, that you are not forcefully entering the kingdom, and that you have a dreadful fate awaiting you unless you repent.