Lazarus and the rich man

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is often presented as Bible "proof" that good people go to heaven and bad people go to a "hell" where they are tormented by fire. It is easy to jump to this conclusion, but the parable actually has a different meaning or message altogether. First, here is the text of the parable, as found in Luke 16:19-31:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And 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 thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

 Note that nothing was said about Abraham being in heaven: it is often assumed that Abraham is in heaven in the parable, but the parable does not say so. Could Abraham have been in heaven? Jesus said in John 3:13 that "no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man..." Actually all of the Old Testament faithful, including Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets are still in their graves. The apostle Peter mentioned this in regard to David, saying: "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day... For David is not ascended into the heavens..." (Acts 2:29 and 34). Other verses such as Daniel 12:2, Acts 13:36, Ecclesiastes 9:5,10 and Job 3:13-19 give further evidence that the Old Testament "saints" are not in heaven but remain in their graves, awaiting their resurrection. If we assume the parable shows that Abraham is in heaven, then the Bible would be contradicting itself. On the other hand, if Abraham is still in his grave as the other scriptures indicate, then what is the parable about?

Fortunately some of the details provided in the parable give clues to its true meaning. In the parable Abraham called the rich man his son, and the rich man had five brothers. Now these might seem to be meaningless details, but they are not: they help identify who the rich man represents in the parable. Abraham had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons from whom came the twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews of Jesus' time were one of those twelve tribes, descended from Jacob's son Judah. Judah descended from - and therefore was considered a son of - Abraham, by Isaac and Jacob.

When Jesus gave the parable He was speaking to the Pharisees, who were Jews and were well aware of their genealogy. Their ancestral father Judah had five brothers by Jacob's first wife Leah. Genesis 35:22-26 lists the five brothers (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Zebulun) and the other six half-brothers:

... Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun: The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin: And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid; Dan, and Naphtali: And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid; Gad, and Asher: these are the sons of Jacob, which were born to him in Padanaram.

So we see that the rich man could symbolize Judah - the Jews - in the parable. If that's the case, then do the other points in the parable make any sense? For example, why was the rich man rich? And who was Lazarus, and why was he in poverty outside the rich man's gates? And why did they change places? And what was the significance of Lazarus going to Abraham's bosom, while the rich man was in torments? And what was the message of the parable?

Why was the rich man - symbolizing the Jews - rich? The Jews had a covenant with God, with the special promises - blessings - which that covenant provided. That covenant was originally made with all twelve tribes of Israel; no gentiles had the covenant and blessings available to them. The original blessings are listed in Deuteronomy 28, which begins with the following description:

And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store...

So we see that the Jews were "rich" because they had a privileged special covenant with God, with promised blessings. So who would Lazarus symbolize in the parable? Lazarus symbolized the Gentiles, who were excluded from the covenant. The Gentiles were in poverty, relatively speaking, owing to the fact that God's covenant and blessings were not available to them... yet. They were outside the rich man's "gate," so to speak, "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table." The covenant and its blessings were only available to the "rich man" - the Jews - to whom Jesus addressed the parable. The phrase "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table" brings to mind the account of the Gentile woman that came to beg Jesus to save her daughter; note Jesus statement that the "children" - the Jews, heirs of the covenant with God - should "first be filled":

For a [certain] woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet: The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter. But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast [it] unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (Mark 7:25-30)

When Lazarus died in the parable, he next appeared at Abraham's bosom, meaning that he became a very close or special friend of Abraham. To lean on another's chest or bosom was, in their time, indicative of a close friendship. An example of this was the relationship between the apostle John and Jesus: John 13:23 recounts that "Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved."

Now, what was the significance of the death of Lazarus, and his appearance as a special friend of Abraham? Lazarus' death signified a change in the Gentiles' status with God: a covenant was made available to them, made possible by the sacrificial death and resurrection to eternal life of Jesus. The terms of the new covenant are summarized in John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Why are the Gentiles (those who are true Christians) shown in the parable to be bosom friends of Abraham? Because they have the same belief or faith in God that Abraham had. Through faith the Gentiles can attain the righteousness of Abraham; they spiritually have bosom closeness with Abraham as indicated in the parable. The apostle Paul described Abraham's faith, and showed that Christians are considered righteous because they have faith like Abraham's:

He [Abraham] staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. (Paul, in Romans 4:20-25)

Lazarus' death symbolized a change in the Gentiles' relationship with God: a covenant was made available for them. The rich man's death also signified a change for the Jews: the parable showed that their covenant with God would be put aside, leaving them "in torments," seeing "Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom." The Jews would no longer be a special nation to God, "on high above all nations of the earth." The Gentiles who had faith would be God's people instead. In the parable Abraham reminded rich man saying "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented." "Tormented" in this verse is translated from the Greek word odunao, which means mentally grieved or anguished: the opposite of "comforted."

The apostle Paul wrote about the Jews', and all Israel's', fall or "stumble" from their covenant with God: "I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy" (Romans 11:11). The Jews "stumbled" owing to their disobedience and disbelief. That stumbling made way for a covenant to be established with the Gentiles. Paul wrote to the Gentile Romans: "For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief" (Romans 11:30).

What was the "great gulf" that was between Lazarus and the rich man - between the Gentiles and the Jews? It is faith that separates the unbelieving Jews from the believing Gentiles. Without faith the Jews could neither attain the righteousness of Abraham nor adhere to the covenant made available by Christ. Furthermore a spiritual  "blindness" has fallen over the Jews until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. Paul commented on this several times. Here are examples:

For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (Romans 11:25)

But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. (2 Corinthians 3:14,15)

The parable concludes with Abraham telling the rich man "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Here Jesus was telling the Pharisees that their disbelief in the scriptures would not change even if they saw someone rise from the dead, as the scriptures promised would happen. Jesus was, of course, referring to His own promised resurrection: Psalm 16:10 prophesied that His soul - His body or self - would not be left in hell - the grave:

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

Jesus used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to show that the Jews were about to lose their place as God's chosen people, and be replaced by those who had not been favored before: the Gentiles who believed. Unfortunately many have assumed the parable is a message about good people going to heaven and the wicked going to a hell where they are tormented by fire... even though heaven, good, evil and judgment are not even mentioned in the parable. The final setting for the rich man, in a hell where he was tormented by fire, was purposely taken from the popular Greek pagan beliefs of the time. Jesus knew the Pharisees would recognize this and then look for a deeper, symbolic meaning in the parable. Paradoxically, most professing Christians today do not recognize the setting as pagan because so many pagan Greek beliefs have, through the centuries, been assimilated into mainstream Christian doctrine!

Jesus gave numerous other parables on the same theme, showing that the Jews were about to lose their place to the Gentiles who would believe. Here is one of the other parables:

There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

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