In these tough economic times panhandling is a common scene. Visit any sizable city and it seems there is someone on every corner asking for money. No doubt, a few desperately need help; nevertheless the majority of panhandlers are taking advantage of the generosity of others. It is enough to make you numb to the problem of poverty and thus help no one. Worse yet, we could begin to think of ourselves as superior people because we are not like the poor person holding the sign. Our Lord told a parable of a rich man who whose heart was numb to the plight of a panhandler. In this passage Jesus challenged the conventional thinking of His day regarding riches and poverty and in the process taught His disciples the importance of using money to aid the poor.
Our parable[i] is set within the context of our Lords’ teaching on the use of riches and the Pharisees’ ridiculing of His instructions. Following the Lost Parables (Luke 15:1-32), Luke recorded the parable of the Unjust Steward and its accompanying principles governing the way disciples viewed and used material possessions (16:1-13). In summary, Jesus taught that we love and serve God, and use money in this life to make friends in eternity. However, “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things and they ridiculed Him” (16:14). The underlying problem of the Pharisaical system was that they were seeking approval from “men” rather than God (16:15). Their standard of righteousness was based on outward appearances others could evaluate; thus, in their hearts they loved money more than God (16:15a; cf. Luke 20:47). Therefore, in vv. 16-18, our Lord accused those who prided themselves as keepers of the law with being its corrupters. They had created loopholes in the Law which enabled them to fulfill their sinful desires, cases in point: marriage, divorce, and what constituted adultery (16:18). The Pharisees had corrupted God’s law to the point that their righteous-cloaked greed was exalted among men; nevertheless it was “an abomination in the sight of God” (See Jesus’ rebuke of the practice called Corban; Mark 7:10-13). Our Lord’s swift two-point rebuke set the stage for the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Lord begins with a vivid picture of “a certain rich man” (16:19) who lived in lavish opulence. He wore luxurious “purple” robes; even his undergarments were made of “fine linen” and his life consisted of “feast[ing] sumptuously every day” on the finest of foods. In the mind of the Pharisees this man’s riches proved he was righteousness (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Psalm 37:25; Proverbs 13:22). So entrenched was this belief, that when Jesus taught on the difficulty “a rich person” would have entering the kingdom of God, the astonished disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:25-27).
Outside the rich man’s gate was “a poor man named Lazarus” whose body was “covered with sores” (16:20) and who lived daily on the brink of starvation. From where he laid, he could have smelled the delicious foods and heard the revelry from the daily feast. His only desire was “to be fed with” the crumbs that “fell from the rich man’s table,” and yet the rich man and his guests repeatedly ignored him (16:21a). “But instead the dogs would come and lick his sores” (16:21b HCSB), providing Lazarus his only earthly relief[ii]. In the eyes of the Pharisees, and popular culture, Lazarus was getting what he deserved because sickness and poverty were viewed as divine judgments for sinfulness (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68; John 9:2, 34). In light of his plight, Lazarus’ name seemed a mockery; “He whom God helps” appeared to be he whom God has abandoned.
In the process of time, both the rich man and Lazarus died. In a Pharisaical frame of mind, the eternal destinies of these two men were fixed. The rich man would carry on his festive lifestyle in the presence of Abraham, while Lazarus’ torturous sufferings would continue in Hades. However, Jesus completely reversed the conventional expectations, thus dramatically illustrating His words, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:15).
“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side” (16:22a). Death brought an end to Lazarus’ suffering. Too poor for a funeral, his hollow body of skin and bones would have been dumped in a potter’s field, quickly forgotten by all who knew him. Yet, unseen to human eyes, “He whom God helps” was quickly escorted by the angels to Abraham’s side. The phrase, “Abraham’s side” (ESV) or “bosom” (KJV) denotes closeness and honor in a meal setting (ref. John 13:25; 21:20; cf. Matthew 8:10-12; Luke 13:28-30). In life, Lazarus was a sick, starving beggar who lived outside the rich man’s gate; in eternity he was on the inside as an honored guest at the table of Abraham. The words of the Psalmist sum up his life: “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6).
“The rich man also died and was buried” (16:22b). His life of ease, comfort and pleasure suddenly ended. His riches would have afforded him a grand funeral, yet from a divine perspective it was not worth mentioning. On the other side of the grave, the rich man found himself in the hellish torment of Hades. From there “he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (16:23). In life he had not used his wealth to aid the poor, thus he had no friends to receive him in the eternal dwelling (16:9). He had callously hidden his eyes to the plight of poor Lazarus; consequently, he would suffer eternal curses (ref. Proverbs 28:27).
From the flames of torment the rich man “called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me” (16:24a). The unsympathetic rich man was now the beggar pleading for mercy and, in a way, seeking to become “He whom God helps.” He appealed to Abraham based on their kinship (16:24, 27, 30), however, his relationship to the patriarch had not guaranteed his salvation, nor would it ensure him minimal comforts (cf. John 8:31ff). He entreated Abraham to send “Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue” pleading, “for I am in anguish in this flame” (16:24). Despite their relationship and the rich man’s suffering, he received no comfort. “Child, remember that 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. And besides all of this,” Abraham added, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (16:25-26). Just as Lazarus was refused help from the rich man’s table, the rich man was refused help from Abraham’s table.
Rebuffed, the rich man pleaded, “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (16:27-28). Since his eternal state was fixed, perhaps he thought he could change the course of his brothers’ lives. In a figurative sense, the rich man’s brothers were the Pharisees who were listening to this parable. Presumably, the five brothers lived lives of luxury just as he had and yet he realized that one can gain the whole world but lose his own soul (ref. Luke 9:25). Again, Abraham was not persuaded to grant his request, “They have Moses and the Prophets,” he said, “let them hear them” (16:29). To “hear” means to listen and obey. The rich man’s brothers, and the Pharisees they represented, had ample information to reform their lives. Countless passages in the Old Testament called for Jews to compassionately use their wealth to alleviate the plight of the poor. Deuteronomy 15:11 summarizes those instructions, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” Also, the prophet Amos bluntly described the judgment of God against the rich of Israel who, at the expense of the impoverished, lived indulgent lives (ref. Amos 4:1-3; et. al). Furthermore, even the Proverbs spoke of the blessedness of aiding the poverty-stricken (ref. 19:17; 22:9; 28:27; 29:7). Though the Pharisees had ignored God’s word regarding the use of their riches to help the poor, these instructions still stood and they would ultimately be judged by them (16:15-18).
Amazingly, the rich man sought to correct Abraham’s assessment of his brothers’ situation. He knew too well that they would require something more than scripture. “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (16:30). Ironically, no one listened to Lazarus’ pleas for help in life, but the rich man was sure they would heed him in death. Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:31). Abraham pointed out the brothers’ refusal to repent was the result of hard hearts toward God and His word, which no supernatural event would cure. With these words, our Lord ended His parable.
I often picture Jesus walking away at this point, leaving the Pharisees alone to fume over what He had said, shocked by the dramatic and unexpected turn of events. Not only had this seemingly righteous man been sentenced to a life of eternal torment, but his own patriarch refused his request for mercy. In dramatic fashion, our Lord drove home the consequences of seeking the approval of men and ignoring divine teachings, especially on the proper use of wealth in aiding the poor.
The great lesson taught in this parable is timeless and foundational to the faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This love is expressed by obeying the Lord’s commands to help the poor, cheerfully supplying the needs of one’s deprived neighbors (cf. James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:17-19). Scripture nowhere teaches that being well off is sinful. Rather, our Lord, through this and other passages, sounded a note of warning concerning the “deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:22). Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 is an excellent summary of our Lord’s teachings and a fitting conclusion to our study: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God…They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
A shorten form of this article appears in the August issue of Biblical Insights.
[i] Some debate surrounds the question of whether or not this is a parable or a factual story. Generally, those who believe this passage relates the events of a true-life story base their argument on two facts. First, they say, since this story is not introduced as a parable is should be views as a factual story. However, three other stories in Luke’s gospel are not introduced as parables but are recognized as such: The Good Samaritan (10:30-37); The Great Banquet (14:12-24); and The Unjust Steward (16:1-8) and several others. Therefore, just because a parable lacks a formal introduction that alone does not disqualify it as being a parable. The second reason put forth for why this is not a parable is that the poor man has a name, Lazarus. This fact is seen as significant since no other character in our Lord’s parables is provided a proper name. However, this argument fails to take into account the meaning Lazarus’ name and how it fits into the context of the parable itself, something that we will do in our study. But, someone might ask, “Why does it matter whether this is a parable or a factual story?” They would be right; ultimately it does not matter so long as the central message of this story is kept in context. Nevertheless, it has been my experience that those who are adamant about calling this a factual story do so in order to discuss, as they call it, the intermediate state of the dead and tragically ignore the powerful message our Lord taught about riches and helping the poor. Throughout this study I will refer to this story as a parable.
[ii] Commenting on v. 21, Robert’s Word Pictures states: “Moreover, even the dogs” (alla kai hoi kunes). For alla kai see also Luke 12:7; 24:22. Alla can mean either “moreover,” though it often means “but.” Here it depends on how one construes Luke’s meaning. Additionally, in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IVP), pp. 385-386, Kenneth Bailey provides three reasons why the licking of the dogs should be viewed as a compassionate , especially in contrast to the Rich Man’s uncompassionate actions. First, he states alla should be translated as “but instead” thus forming a contrast with the rich man. He continues to state that in the Greek this contrast is clearly seen and important to the story. Second, he cites a Harvard study to show that dog saliva contains helpful antibodies that facilitate healing. Third, somehow the ancients knew this and a major healing temple was present in the ancient city of Ashkelon. There archaeologist have unearthed over 1,300 dog skeletons used in the temple. This would also explain the prohibition of Deuteronomy 23:18 which forbade the worshiper from bringing “the wages of a dog” into the temple treasury. In the ancient world dogs were not kept as pets but where used for idolatrous healings. Therefore, since, as RWP points out, the language of the verse does not force one to accept the dog’s licking of Lazarus sores increased his pain and suffering, I’m inclined to accept Bailey’s explanation.