Some of the teachings of Jesus are simple and clear – others take more sweat of the brow (research, consultation, and prayerful seeking of the Holy Spirit) to get to the bottom. Jesus frequently used parables to teach the people that constantly surrounded Him. Parables of course are marvelous word pictures having giant spiritual applications that can be presented with very few words. He confided to His disciples why He used parables: He said it was because it is God’s purpose to conceal many of the truths of His Kingdom from those who aren’t ready or willing to receive them. If a person really wants to get the message hidden in a parable they’ll put in the time and effort to seek it out. They will not be disappointed, but the truth will be revealed to them.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one such complex lesson. Over the years I’ve heard many explanations for this parable, but have always been confounded by several elements of the story which, if taken literally, seemed to run counter to scriptural doctrines dealing with spirit, soul, and body, death, eternal rewards and punishment, grace, salvation and the sovereignty of God.
Rich man, poor man – a message of Kingdom authority transitioning
Many people presume that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a teaching about good and evil, reward and punishment, heaven and hell. I don’t believe it has much to do with any of those doctrines whatsoever. I think the misunderstanding for many is a simple forgetfulness that IT IS A PARABLE, and its individual component parts were never intended to be taken literally. The language describing both the rich man and Lazarus is figurative and symbolic and must be delved into with that in mind.
To understand any parable, you need to first identify the primary audience to whom Jesus was addressing his message. And for the two groups that made up that primary audience, namely the Jewish leaders and Jesus’ closest followers, I don’t think there was any doubt as to Jesus’ intent. The clues were so obvious that it couldn’t have escaped either group’s attention that the rich man represented the Jewish leaders while Lazarus represented the followers of this upstart clergyman who claimed to be their Messiah.
The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes were the spiritually rich men of their time – chosen by God to cherish, protect and share His Word with the world. The story’s colorful descriptors made this abundantly clear: first the man in the parable dressed in the colors and finery of royalty and priesthood; second he personally identified with “Father Abraham” (the grandfather of Judah) and with Moses (the giver of the Law); and finally, he referenced his five brothers (for Judah, the father of Judaism literally had five brothers from the same mother – Leah.)
And the character of Lazarus just as clearly represented this newly revealed mystery of the Church, Clearly his “poverty and sickness” could not be that of a literal beggar in the street. Rather, he represented the spiritually poor converts (primarily Gentile, but also the less educated average Jew on the street.) It aligns as well with Jesus’ statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Lazarus’ association with the dogs that eat the table scraps further ties him to Gentiles whom the Jews considered “dogs.” It was to this haggard group of religiously and intellectually challenged men and women that God was passing the seat of authority in His Kingdom, since its former keepers under the Old Law had rejected His Son.
In figurative and symbolic language the Rich man who had never lifted his finger to help Lazarus asks for a drop of water on the tip of Lazarus’ finger to cool his parched tongue. On another occasion Jesus had accused the scribes and Pharisees thusly: “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Centuries earlier ten of the twelve tribes of Israel had split away from Judah when King Rehoboam refused to lighten the burden of the people he ruled, but made it heavier inciting them with the words: “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins!… Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” And the prophet Isaiah had declared “Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen, because their tongue and their doings are against the Lord.”
In the parable we find Lazarus in the “bosom of Abraham”; while Judah who should have been there is found on the other side asking for mercy. But Lazarus couldn’t come over to help the Rich man even if he wanted to, because of the chasm separating them. Of course we now know that the chasm can be breached, but only by Christ – not man – even if that man were “Father Abraham.”
While Jesus explained this truth in a parable which His Jewish audience would understand, Paul in speaking to his Gentile converts used simple clear language: “Has God cast away His people? Certainly not! … through their fall, to provoke them [the Jews] to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles… if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?” Both Paul in his letter to the Romans and Jesus in the parable are speaking of the Church.
So in all of this, the parable does not speak literally about the value of a person’s financial status (rich versus poor), nor does it literally address the eternal consequences of behavior or the existence of Paradise or Hades. Jesus is speaking about the placement of the Church into the spiritual headship role in the Kingdom of God; a position once occupied by the Jewish people before they reneged on their covenant obligations.