Article of the Month

July 2008

The Rich Man in Hell Parable

(Luke 16:19-31)

 


Rich Man and Lazarus

 

 

THIS IS A PARABLE

 

Some who seem to love to anticipate torment for others argue that this is not a parable because it doesn’t say it is.  This is surely not a valid argument.  The parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Unjust Steward, which immediately precede the Rich Man in Hell, (Luke 15:11-32 and 16:1-13) also do not state that they are parables; but no one seems to deny that they are.  Besides, Luke 16:14 shows that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, not to the disciples.  To the disciples he said (Luke 8:10), “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God; but to others in parables that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.”  Thus, this parable for the Pharisees is not a clear and literal statement of fact.  (See also Luke 8:4; Mark 4:1, 2, 10-12; Mark 4:33, 34; Matthew 13:34-36.)

 

 

REASONS FOR PARABLES

 

Parables were given for many reasons.  As we have just seen, one reason was to HIDE truths from all who were not sincere disciples.  But parables were also given to disciples in order to give color and depth to concepts being taught by Jesus. 

 

Some parables are there to teach or to enhance moral precepts.  Some were given to teach behavior.  Some were given as prophecies.  Some were given to illustrate the reasons for events which were occurring.  The Rich Man in Hell was given for these last two reasons.

 

To those who are Biblical literalists, this parable poses enormous problems.  The first of these is the identity of the two characters:  the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Literal interpreters jump to conclusions about them.  Since the Rich Man goes to “hell,” he must be bad.  But notice:  According to the Jewish Law, riches were a sign that one was obedient to the Law and, therefore, in God’s FAVOR.  Poverty was a sign of disobedience to the Law and, therefore, being in God’s DISFAVOR.  So, right from the beginning something doesn’t fit.  Nowhere does the parable state the Rich man to be bad or Lazarus to be good!  The Rich Man’s only vice seems to be that he is rich; Lazarus’ only virtue seems to be his extreme poverty.  Are these the two things which literalists think send someone to bliss or blisters?  Also, nowhere in the parable does it say that Lazarus goes “to heaven.” Instead, he gets placed “in Abraham’s bosom.”  One might argue that being stuffed into Abraham is not a good fate—and an increasingly uncomfortable one as more than one individual is in the same location!

 

There are other problems for literalists.  It seems a little peculiar for one “tormented in this flame” to request only so much water as might be had from the tip of a finger!  And why should the Rich Man think that Lazarus would go to hell to give this meaningless amount of water?

 

The literal implications of verse 25 are philosophically untenable.  The rationale for good and bad after-lives seems to be simply that they are the opposite of the current life.  This should make all sincere believers now pray for a horrible time in this life and worry if they enjoy anything now!

 

Has it not bothered literalists that the Rich Man has five brothers?  Why?  And note this too:  The ultimate good for these five seems to rely on their adherence to Moses—which, as stated, the Rich Man must have done or he would not have been rich!

 

 

THE TRUE INTERPRETATION

 

Noticing the context of this parable is the first step in understanding it.  It was given at a time when Israel was being temporarily cast off from favor because of its history of unfaithfulness and its then-current rejection of Messiah.  (See Matthew 23:34-39.)  God was about to begin dealing with the Gentiles.  (Acts 10; 28:34, 35; Acts 15:13-19)

 

Just before the parable begins, we see a verse which looks conspicuously out of place.  Luke 16:18 talks (seemingly out of the blue) about divorce.  But this verse is not out of place.  Jesus is explaining that God is justified in DIVORCING ISRAEL according to His own law.  He had been “married” to it by the Law Covenant; but its unfaithfulness justified His ending the relationship.  (See Jeremiah 31:32.)  This seemingly misplaced verse in the middle of several parables INTERPRETS for us the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It is about God’s leaving Israel in favor of Gentiles becoming heirs of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant.  (Compare Galatians 3:14, 29.)  As the matter of fact, ALL of the surrounding context of parables relates to the problems and blessings of this change-over—the end of the Jewish Age and the beginning of the Christian or Gospel Age. 

 

The Great Supper parable (Luke 14:16-24), The Lost Sheep and Lost Coin parables (Luke 15:1-10), the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32), the Rich Steward parable (Luke 16:1-13)—all of these lessons which come before the Rich Man and Lazarus have at least some content relating to God’s casting off His Law Covenant relationship with the Jews and His seeking His Church among a remnant of Jews and among Gentiles.

 

Thus, to re-state it before examining details, the Rich Man and Lazarus parable is about the rejection of Israel and the acceptance of Gentiles.

 

THE PARABLE’S SYMBOLS

 

Verse 19:

The Rich Man represents the nation of Israel.  It had been of all nations “the royal nation”—clothed in purple.  Jews had been “justified” under the Law Covenant.  The whiteness of “fine linen” represents this justification.  The Jews possessed the Scriptures, the Word of God.  Hence they “fared sumptuously every day.”  (See Romans 3:1, 2.)

 

Verses 20, 21:

Lazarus (whose name means “Helped by God”) represents the Gentiles.  Indeed, since (during the Jewish Age) God had functionally ignored all nations except Israel (Amos 3:2), the Gentiles had been “beggars”—finding what they could about God by eating the “crumbs which fell from the Rich Man’s table.”  The Gentiles virtually had to “heal” their own ignorances and questionings by comforting one another—“licking their own wounds.”   Thus they are here said to benefit by dogs licking their sores.  The Jews called Gentiles “dogs.”  Jesus confirms this symbolism in his dealings with the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:25-30.  Now that the age was changing, God would help the Gentiles directly.  Thus they are appropriately in this parable named “Helped by God” (Lazarus).

 

Verse 22:

The word “DIED” occurs twice here.  It is an important word in the Biblical usage of symbology.  Literally, of course, “died” means that someone is no longer living.

 

And when used literally, it means JUST THAT—cessation of life.  It does not mean “going” anywhere—not to torment, nor to “Abraham’s bosom.”  (See Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10.)  But symbolically in the Bible it means DYING TO something.  In other words, it means ONE CONDITION has ended and ANOTHER CONDITION has begun.  THAT is the meaning here in this parable.  Lazarus DIED AS A BEGGAR.  That means that the Gentiles were no longer estranged from God.  They no longer need beg for spiritual truth.  The Rich Man, on the other hand, DIED TO HIS RICHES.  That means that Israel, being cast off from God’s favor, was no longer rich!  The OLD CONDITIONS of each of these “men” were now ended.  The NEW CONDITIONS are symbolized thusly:

 

(1) Lazarus was “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.”  Angels are messengers.  The Gentiles received the Gospel Message from the “angels” we know as Peter, Paul, etc.  And thus they were invited to be lifted into the condition of being the heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant and its promises.   (Galatians 3:14, 29)

 

(2) The Rich Man (Israel) died as a rich man “and was buried.”  The nation of Israel (after 70 A.D.) no longer was in existence.

 

Verses 23, 24:

Ever since Jesus’ first advent and the subsequent destruction of Israel’s temple and polity, the poor dispersed nation of Jews has been in oblivion.  Hell means oblivion.  The nation no longer existed.  The mental anguish, the tormenting questions of why God permitted this diaspora—this cutting off of former benefits—has plagued the Jewish mind.  And, worse yet, the Jew sees the Gentile (Lazarus) claiming to be a “spiritual Jew”—heir of the Abrahamic promise, which now seems to the Jew “afar off.”

 

Symbolically stated, the Jewish mind has ever since pleaded to understand or to regain this relationship to the Abrahamic promise and to reconcile the claims that Gentiles make.  The Jews would like to find answers—something their tongues could speak:  the cool, refreshing “water” of truth.  Is there no “finger” (even from a Gentile) that can point to such an answer?

 

Clearly Israel has been in the “flames’ of controversy and anguish during the entire Gospel Age.  It has been tormented.  There have been no reassurances or explanations.  (As an aside:  Such answers now are beginning to flow—not from the bulk of denominational Christianity, but from the few true “Lazarus” disciples at the end of this age.)

 

Verse 25:

Hidden in the promises to Abraham there are, indeed, responses to the Jewish questionings.  The Jews, though temporarily cast off, are yet “sons” of the Abrahamic promise.  In prophecies, in allegories (Galatians 4:21-28), in types and shadows, the Holy Scriptures have made it clear that Israel was to be favored during the Jewish Age (Amos 3:2), and the Gentiles were to find favor in the Christian Age (during which Israel would find the discomforts of disfavor.)

 

Verses 26:

But before Israel is fully restored to God’s favor, the time will have to come when truth will breach the great “gulf” that separates Israel from God—their age-long rejection of Messiah.  No communication that fully answers the question of God’s separation from them can happen while this primary blindness continues.

 

Verses 27-29:

These verses begin the summary of Jewish thought as set by the experiences at the end of the Jewish Age.

 

The Rich Man has five brothers.  The number is not the point.  It is the RATIO.  The “faith” tribes of Israel (Judah and Benjamin) were the primary “power tribes” of Israel during Jesus’ lifetime.  Israel was divided into Israel and Judah—the 10- and the 2-tribe kingdoms.  The “Rich Man’ primarily represents the two-tribe kingdom through whom Messiah was to come.  But his “father’s house” (all of Abraham’s Jewish descendants) was larger.  The five brothers represented the less-faith-oriented ten-tribe kingdom.  While separated in many ways, they retained a “family” consciousness so that the Rich Man can plead, “Does all of Israel have to experience this tormenting dispersion?”

 

The answer is intriguing.  Moses prophesied about Messiah and about the Jewish disfavor to come.  The unfaithfulness of the ten tribes to Moses’ prophecies is as condemning as is the unfaithfulness of the two tribes.

 

Verses 30. 31:

As Jesus stated, “The Jews seek after a sign.”  Thus, even here, Israel seeks a “sign” which IS GIVEN to them—only to prove their unfaithfulness:

 

Jesus DID go to them from the dead, but no “repentance” occurred from two- or ten-tribe Israel.  The lesson is clear and powerful to us all:  If we do not heed Holy Scripture, even the most monumental of signs will be missed or misinterpreted.

 

* * * * *

 

The Bible is reasonable.  It is accurate regarding the past and the future.  It is not full of sensational fear-mongering.  The true meaning of the Rich Man and Lazarus is so satisfying, so contextually meaningful—so like God!  The traditional foolishness about its portents of eternal torment is so Satanic!  We hope you can exult in the truth of the matter.