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The Rich Man and Lazarus

Lazarus at rich man's house

by Dennis Pollock

The story of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus who sat daily outside his gate is a famous parable told by our Lord Jesus. It is a dramatic tale, and one that until recently, was well known among nearly all Christians. The reason I say “until recently” is that today the only people who know much about this story are those Christians who actually read their Bibles. Those who get their Biblical knowledge primarily through the sermons of their pastor or favorite TV preacher are unlikely to hear this story, ever. Preaching about the afterlife has become passé, and specifically, preaching about hell has become one of the classic no-no’s in our age of seeker-sensitivity and political and theological correctness.

As we consider this story the first thing that must be recognized is that it was Jesus, Himself who told it. This will come as a shock to some folks, but the One who blessed the children and healed the sick also had some rather shocking things to say about hell, torment, and divine judgment. In fact, Jesus had more to say about hell than any other person in the Bible. He spoke of a place of outer darkness, where there is agony and “gnashing of teeth.” Some might suppose that talking about hell is not a very loving thing, but that of course depends on whether or not there really is such a place. If hell does not really exist, and one is merely attempting to scare people into behaving themselves, then we might well consider this an unloving act. But if hell does indeed exist, and there will be torment and suffering awaiting those who live wickedly in this life, warning people about it and encouraging them to avoid landing there after death would seem both reasonable and loving. What parent would not warn their children to avoid actions that might lead to disaster and ruin?

A Certain Rich Man…

 In this parable, Jesus uses two very different men as his primary characters, one a very wealthy man and the other a poor beggar. He begins by saying:

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores (Luke 16:19-21).

As a writer and a preacher, I admire Jesus’ abilities as a communicator. One of the differences between good and poor communicators is their ability or lack of ability to use vivid imagery and include details. A poor communicator might have said, “Once there was a very rich man and a very poor man…” But Jesus throws in a lot of details to make the story more vivid. He tells us not merely that the rich man was rich, but that he was “clothed in purple” (a color reserved for royals and the very wealthy), and that he “fared sumptuously every day.” This man lived very well. And as for Lazarus, Jesus does not merely call him poor – as a Master storyteller Jesus describes Lazarus’ desire for even the crumbs from the rich man’s table, and lets us know that “the dogs came and licked his sores.” With just a few words Jesus beautifully paints a word picture, contrasting these two men.

Both Die

Having established the opposite lifestyles of these two, He then takes us into the afterlife, saying:

So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Nearly every time I read this story I am arrested by the words: “The rich man died also.” This simple statement says volumes about life and death and people. Lazarus died; the rich man died also. With all his money and his property and his beautiful clothes, he underwent the same experience of death as did the poor beggar. And this has never changed. Poor people still die today. Homeless people, people who live on welfare, people who barely eek out a living and those who live in homeless shelters will all eventually come to that point where their hearts beat their last beat, their lungs take in that final breath, and their eyes close in death. And the wealthy will go through exactly the same experience. Their caskets may be more lavish, their funerals may be larger,  and their health care may allow them to delay the inevitable for a few years, but they will sooner or later take their last breath and enter into that realm which has mystified humanity since the beginning of time.

As Jesus continues His parable He describes that realm, and relates a remarkable conversation between the suffering (former) rich man and the great patriarch and father of the Jewish people, Abraham:

Then he cried and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.”

We Go On…

There are many points that may be made from this conversation, but for me, the most striking is that, according to Jesus, there is an existence and there is consciousness for individuals after death. The rich man, although no longer rich, has not ceased to exist, nor has he lost either his personality or his memory. Abraham, likewise, is, to some degree, the same person he was while on earth, and is still called by the name he had so long ago.

Had this been anyone but Jesus we might be tempted to say, “How do you know all this? What makes you an expert on the afterlife? Have you ever been there?” But of course, Jesus is an expert on eternity, the afterlife, and that invisible place to which we will all eventually enter. He came from heaven and knows whereof He speaks. And one of the main points we learn as we study the teachings of the Savior is that death is not our final end. Solomon wrote: “​​​​​​It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). In this parable of the rich man and the beggar, Jesus affirms this, and gives us some additional information. There is a vast difference between the afterlife for the righteous and the afterlife for the wicked!

Perhaps the key words which describe the condition of the rich man are: “I am tormented…” His condition is not a pleasant one. Most of our lives we find ourselves in states of comfort or discomfort. Comfortable conditions are those we want to prolong. But uncomfortable situations we are eager to either avoid or escape at any cost. In Hades, the rich man is distinctly uncomfortable, so much so that he cries out to Abraham, living happily on the other side, to send Lazarus with a little water to cool his burning tongue.

“In Your Lifetime…”

Rich man and LazarusAbraham will not agree to this. First, he declares this is not even possible. And second, he reminds the man that “in your lifetime you received your good things…” He informs this unhappy man that all the good, all the fun, all the wealth, all the status, all the ease, all the happiness he was ever going to receive, he had already received during his short years on the earth. Now it was time for cosmic justice, and it would be torment from here on in. Clearly the rich man was not suffering simply for having been rich. He was suffering for being wicked, selfish, and uncaring. With the beggar, Lazarus, the reverse was the case. During his short tenure on earth he experienced many difficulties, much suffering, and great lack. But those miserable conditions were likewise temporary. Now he would have eternity to enjoy comfort, peace, happiness, and abundance. For both men, their situations had completely flipped.

The former rich man’s attention turns to his five brothers still living. He cries out to Abraham:

“I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But he said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

Once again, we see that the place/condition/situation of the former rich man is declared a place of torment. It is not a place to which any sane man or woman would ever wish to go. When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers on earth, that they might avoid this terrible place, he is told that they have the Scriptures to warn them.

There is no need for a spirit to mingle among the living and warn them of things to come. Abraham tells him that if they refuse the warnings of the inspired Scriptures, having someone come to them from the dead would not do the job either.

Here Jesus emphasizes that the primary answer to all men’s questions and the guide for human behavior and belief is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Since men and women have walked on the earth, they have always debated and wondered about many things. Why are we here? What is God like? What does He expect of us? Is there life after death? If so, what kind of life is it? What is the purpose of my life? How can I please God and ensure a place in heaven?

God’s Witness

There has been no shortage of philosophers, writers, and religious leaders ready to answer such questions. But the problem with them is that none of them really has the credentials to speak with perfect certainty on these things. How are we to know whether the views of Buddha are superior or inferior to the views of Muhammed? Should we follow the nihilism of Nietzsche or the optimism of William James? Will somebody please tell me what’s really, really going on in this life?

Somebody has told us, Somebody who is the ultimate authority on all things. Our Creator has inspired men by His Holy Spirit to write a series of books, which we have bound together and called “The Bible.” Jesus believed in the Scriptures and declared through this little parable that they are God’s witness to men and women. They teach us and warn us about all that God expects of us, who God is, and what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable in His eyes.

Anyone who has a Bible, or who has access to the Bible, has no excuse. They can never say to God, “Well, I sure never thought you expected that of me!” And since multiple versions of the Scriptures are all over the Internet, even poor peasants living in remote villages in the poorest of nations can usually find an “Internet café” through which they can discover what their Creator has to say about life, death, and His expectations for the humans He has created. When Jesus spoke these words, the Scriptures consisted only of the Old Testament. Today God has added the four gospels, the epistles of the apostles, and other writings to the collection, giving us a far greater knowledge of God, His ways, and His demands.

These God-breathed words can lead us to eternal life, as they point us to Jesus, His death on the cross for mankind, and His resurrection from the dead. But they can also become our accusers, if we reject God’s provision of salvation. Jesus announced, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him–the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). Let us therefore believe God’s testimony, receive Jesus by faith as our Lord and Savior, and inherit that blessed place prepared for us by our loving Father in heaven.


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