RICH MAN and LAZARUS
BY: JONATHAN MITCHELL
OCTOBER 26, 2008
19. “Now there was a certain rich man, and he was in the habit of dressing himself with purple fabric and fine linen (a shiny white cloth made from bleached flax; used in Egypt for wrapping mummies; = costly garments) while daily enjoying himself and being in a good frame of mind – [being simply] radiant (or: [living] splendidly and magnificently).
20. “Now in contrast, there was a certain destitute man named Lazarus, who, having been sorely wounded (or: afflicted with sores and ulcers), had been flung [down] (or: cast [aside]) in the proximity of and [facing] toward the large portico (gateway and forecourt) of [the rich man’s house].
21. “And [he continued there] progressively experiencing strong desires to be fed and satisfied from the things [which were] from time to time falling from the rich man’s table. Not only that, even the dogs – periodically coming – were licking his wounds (or: sores and ulcers).
22. “Now at one point it came to be [for] the destitute man to die off and for him to be carried away by the agents (or: messengers) into Abraham’s place of safety and intimacy (bosom; breast; chest; folds of a garment; inlet or bay; [note: a figure of Paradise]). Now the rich man also died, and he was buried (or: – he also was entombed).
23. “Then, undergoing the distress of being examined, tested and tried (having the touchstone applied to check his composition) within the midst of the unseen [realm] (or: = the grave; the sphere or state of the dead; Greek: hades), upon lifting up his eyes he continues seeing Abraham, from afar, as well as Lazarus within his bosom (place of intimacy and safety).
24. “And so he, shouting a call, said, ‘Father Abraham, mercy me (do at once that which will be merciful to me) and at once send Lazarus (means: God’s helper; or: God is the Helper) so that he can (or: may) immerse (dip; baptize) the tip of his finger [in] water, and then can cool down my tongue – because I continue being pained within the midst of this flame.’
25. “But Abraham said, ‘Child (or: Born one; or: Descendant), be reminded that within your life (or: lifetime) you took away (or: received from; or: got in full) your good things (or: the good things that pertain to you; the good things that had their source in you), and Lazarus likewise the bad things (the [experiences] of poor quality; the worthless things; the harmful and injurious [treatments]; the [conditions] as they ought not to be). But at the present time, here he continues being called alongside and given aid, comfort and consolation, yet you yourself continue being given pain.
26. “‘Furthermore, in the midst of all these things [and conditions] a great, yawning chasm (or: gaping opening) has been set firmly in position and is now established between us and you people, so that folks presently wanting or intending to step through from here toward you people would continue being unable [to do so] – neither could folks pass over from there toward us.’
27. “So he said, ‘Then I am begging you, father (or: O father, in that case I now ask you), that you would send him into the house (or: household) of my father –
28. “‘you see, I continue having five brothers – so that he can progressively bring a thorough witness (testimony; or: show complete evidence) to them, to the end that they would not also come into this place of painful examination and testing (or: of the application of the touchstone, which tests our composition).’
[Note: the touchstone (lapis Lydius) was applied to metals to determine the amount of alloy which was mixed in, and thus e.g. with a gold object, is a test to indicate the amount of pure gold in the piece. The process became a figure of the pain and discomfort of a person sick with palsy (Matt.8:60); of the difficulties and pressures in maneuvering against a strong wind and high waves (Matt. 14:24); of the hard work of rowing in a storm (Mark 6:48); of how Lot was distressed by lawless acts (2 Pet. 2:7-8); and of the pain of childbirth (Rev. 12:2) – all of which can be construed as “tests” given by God. The flame in the context of this parable calls to mind the fire of the “refiner and purifier of silver” and the
purging of the gold by Yahweh (Mal. 3:3) in His dealing with the Levites.
It is also interesting to note that “purple fabric and fine linen” were used as part of the vestments of the
priests (Ex. 39), as well as by the rich.]
29. “But Abraham proceeds to say, ‘They continue having Moses and the Prophets – let them at once listen to and hear from them.’
30. “Yet he said, ‘O no (or: = That’s not enough; or: = They won’t), father Abraham. However, if someone from [the] dead people should go his way (or: travel) to them, they will change their minds (or: have a change in their way of thinking) [implied: and be returning to Yahweh]!’
31. “Still, he rejoined to him, ‘Since (or: If) they are not in the habit of listening to or hearing Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should arise and stand up out from among [the] dead folks.'”
This story, told by Jesus when addressing the Pharisees (vs. 14-15), is an illustration to make a point. Whether it refers to an actual event or a historical account – as some maintain – or whether it is another parable – as others maintain – is, in my opinion, of little consequence. Jesus’ point in this illustration is the message of the story.
Those who hold to the first view, of it being an actual event, site the fact that actual names are used – of Lazarus and of Abraham. If this is true, one would wonder why the name of the rich man was not used. Folks who were judged by the Lord in the OT usually had their names given as a part of the story.
On the other hand, Paul uses the names of historical figures in an allegory which he uses to make a point in Gal. 4:22-31. This would seem to weaken the former argument.
In this study, we will endeavor to understand the meaning of the story, and consider what the various elements of the illustration show forth. But first, let us note some characteristics of the story:
- Jesus did not say that Lazarus was a believer
- He did not say that the rich man was an unbeliever
- He did not say that Lazarus was a good man
- He did not say that the rich man was a bad man
Thus, I think that we can deduce that this is not an illustration about how someone is either “saved,” or, “lost.” But it does show differences in the situations of folks upon their death – that is, if in fact the story is speaking to the fates of different individual people
But what if this illustration is speaking about categories or groups of people, as did the “bondwoman” and the “freewoman” in Paul’s allegory? Then we would want to consider what Lazarus represented; what the rich man represented; what Abraham and his “bosom” represented; what the dogs represented; what the conditions of each man – both before, and after, death – represented. Many scholars take this latter approach to the story, and thus will I.
If Lazarus represents “how a person is saved and goes to heaven,” then indeed we have a different gospel – which is not really good news. It leaves the cross and Jesus out of the picture. Likewise, if the rich man represents folks who are tormented in “hell,” then woe to those who are materially blessed of God!
So if this were a recounting of an actual event about two real individuals, we have a problem aligning this story with the rest of the “good news” in the NT.
Thus, let us take the same approach to understanding this passage as we take in understanding what Jesus meant by His other stories.
What do we observe about the rich man – and note that he is the first character introduced, and I suggest holds the central point of the illustration – in both his actions and in a deduced character analysis?
- He feasted and lived in pleasure every day
- He showed no concern for the destitute (compare Matt. 25:42-43)
- He was like the priest and the Levite in the story of the good Samaritan
- Abraham told him that in his lifetime he received good things
- In the next life he experienced pain, testing and a lack of comforts
- He now desires mercy (vs. 24)
- He begins to think of others (his brothers, vs. 27-28)
- He lifts up his eyes (vs. 23) to the realm above
Lazarus is totally passive in this story. I suggest he is in the story only to show contrast, and to show how – just as the first will be last and the last will be first – conditions can be reversed in the course of God’s dealings with mankind. Lazarus had it bad, now he has it good. That’s the sum of his input into this story.
So who do these two characters represent? I think that the answer is clear: the rich man figures the scribes, the Pharisees, the rich and the rulers within the current Jewish society. They ignored the poor and the wretched, considering them outcasts and ceremonially unclean – and thus would have nothing to do with them. They acted like many Christians do today, and have so done since the days of Jesus. As Jesus said in another place, they heaped heavy burdens on folks, and would not lift a finger to help them. They were the “goats (literally: kids – immature ones)” of the Matt. 25 illustration.
I suggest that this was another prophecy about the fate of the Jewish leaders and authorities, and the downfall (in this illustration, “death”) of their privileged society, which came in AD 70. Jesus said that the outcasts (the poor, the sinners, etc.) would get into the realm (or: kingdom) of God – figured here by Abraham’s bosom – before the Pharisees and their lot would.
Jesus was addressing “the Pharisees who were fond of money” (vs. 14) – and here, we see them picture in the rich man – and, according to Bullinger’s notes in his Companion Bible, was using a context from the Talmud – which would have been familiar to the Pharisees. Bullinger cites Lightfoot’s Works for this information. The name Lazarus was “a common Talmudic contraction of the Heb. Eleazar” (Bullinger). “Abraham’s bosom” was a part of the teaching on the afterlife, in the cosmology of the Pharisees (Bullinger). So Jesus was turning some of their own teachings back upon them.
Although this story points out the indifference to suffering that was displayed by the Pharisees, its main point is in the closing verses: ‘Since (or: If) they are not in the habit of listening to or hearing Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should arise and stand up out from among [the] dead folks.’ Here, He alluded to Himself, and His upcoming resurrection. Whether this also had some connection to the resurrection of the Lazarus of John 11, we do not know. Of this latter, I think that it is significant that there is no report of his four days of being dead. If he was awake and alert to his surroundings, as are the characters in our present illustration, you would think that he would have had a lot to say about it. The secondary point was that their situation was about to experience a reversal – and the realm (kingdom) of God would pass to the poor and wretched (figured by Lazarus), as he said in Lu. 6:20. The “promise of Abraham” (his bosom) to the outcasts; the fires of AD 70 (presently “unseen” by the Pharisees) for the Jewish leadership.
Much speculation has been made re: the “gulf; yawning chasm” in this story. I submit that it simply refers to the impossibility of the change of situations or conditions, which would require the work of the Spirit of burning in the one, and the infilling of the Spirit in the other.
See also Preston Eby’s study on this same parable:
RICH MAN and LAZARUS [Jonathan Mitchell] 10-26-08 1