Luke 16 Part 3
19. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.
First we are introduced to this “certain rich man.” Let us dispel from this verse several myths about this man. First of all, there is no evidence here that he was named “Dives,” and there is no reason to call him this. Secondly, there is no reason here to think that this man was particularly evil. We could charge him with dressing quite elegantly, but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself. Cornelius describes the angel who visited him in Acts 10:30 as wearing “bright clothing,” which basically means splendid attire. If merely dressing well were a crime, this angel would be destined for hell, which certainly cannot be the case. There is nothing inherently wrong with fine clothing.
The passage also states that he fared sumptuously every day, which indicates that he ate well and lived an elegant lifestyle in this regard as well. Yet if that is a crime worthy of hell, then just about every single person in the United States reading this message, and in a good many other places as well, would surely be on the road to hell right now, since every last one of us fares far more sumptuously every day than this rich man could have ever dreamed. The next time you go into a grocery store imagine how this rich man’s eyes would have popped at the multitude of exotic and unusual foods stocking every shelf! If this is a terrible evil, then it is one that we are far guiltier of than this rich man ever was. There is just no evidence here that this rich man was evil. He was simply rich.
20. “But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate,
Now a poor man named Lazarus is introduced. Notice that he is a beggar and that he is in poor health, being full of sores. Notice also that no mention is made of his having been righteous. If being sick and poor are the criteria for being righteous, then many who have been guilty of what we consider terrible crimes are excused by virtue of these two facts. There is nothing in Lazarus beyond being poor and sick to recommend him to us. We cannot charge him with any wickedness, nor credit to his account any righteousness. The only thing about him we know is that he was poor.
Lazarus is laid at the rich man’s gate. Who laid him we are not told, but it would seem likely that these were friends of his who cared for him, and hoped that this rich man, who certainly had the means to help him, might have compassion on him and alleviate his suffering.
21. “Desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
Lazarus does not appear to be asking for much, just some small amount of food and comfort at the rich man’s gate. This is described as “crumbs” here. We do not read whether or not the rich man actually provided the crumbs Lazarus sought. Yet we cannot imagine a beggar would remain for long in a place if he was getting nothing there. To imagine that this rich man totally ignored Lazarus and gave him no help is a seemingly insupportable suggestion. We might say that the rich man could have done more, but let me point out that he also could have done far less. We can find no picture of any terribly evil man in the rich man here, any more than we can find any picture of virtue in Lazarus. All we know is that he looked to the rich man to provide for him. Perhaps we could say that he might have done better to look to God, though this might be being rather hard on him. But we certainly cannot say that Lazarus was any great picture of righteousness and faith, or that the rich man was any great picture of wickedness or unbelief.
22. “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.
The beggar finally dies, probably from the disease he was suffering under. Yet his death was not the end of his part in this story, for we read that he was at this point carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. This is a strange reference indeed. Nowhere else in Scripture do we read of angels carrying anyone to an eternal home, nor do we read of any place called “Abraham’s bosom.” This is a thing unique to this passage. Moreover, we have the problem of what was carried. If Lazarus died, what was carried to Abraham’s bosom? If a man died in the street and his friends carried him home, what would this mean? Why should the statement in this verse be any different? Those who insist this is a literal story of actual events always leave literalness behind here, bringing in some idea of disembodied souls or spirits. Yet this is carried into the story from elsewhere, and not drawn out of the passage. Was Christ really giving us our one real look behind the veil, and showing us what happens after death, in contradiction to all else that the Bible has to say on this subject? Or is something else going on here that we have failed to understand?
Lazarus is the first to die in the story, but he is followed in death by the rich man, who also dies and is buried.
23. “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Suddenly, from merely having been buried, we come upon the rich man apparently quite awake and alive, suffering torment in Hades. No mention is made of how the one who had been buried came to be there, yet there he is. Now in this state, he lifts up his eyes and sees Lazarus and Abraham enjoying the pleasures of what apparently is a place of comfort called Abraham’s bosom.
Yet how strange that Abraham, a man of compassion in this life so much so that he sought the salvation of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, now seems to have no pity on this poor, tortured rich man! How can this be? Can Abraham and Lazarus really be enjoying themselves while this unfortunate rich man suffers within their field of view? Can they be pleased with their lot while the tormented cries of the damned reach their ears? It would seem that both Lazarus and Abraham have much less compassion for the rich man than the rich man may have had for Lazarus when he was sitting at his gate!
24. “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.’
The rich man cries out to Abraham, whom he apparently identifies as the ruler in this place called Abraham’s bosom. He desires that Abraham will deign to send Lazarus to offer him some small comfort by dipping his finger in cool water and then dripping it on his tongue. This seems strange indeed, for the rich man’s tongue should have been back buried in the grave, as we saw in verse 22. Moreover, if Lazarus was a disembodied spirit or soul, as so many claim, then why does he have a finger? Did the angels carry Lazarus bodily to Abraham’s bosom, there to revive him to enjoy its comforts? This does not seem to make sense.
Now the rich man’s pitiful cry for relief from his torment would stir the heart of most. Those of compassion who hate to see any man or beast suffer are common in our world. Yet the Abraham and Lazarus of this story do not seem to be of this sort.
25. “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.
Abraham responds to the rich man. He recognizes that this rich man is a descendent of his, calling him “son.” Yet this word is teknon in Greek, and means “child,” not “son.” He shows no compassion on him. How, we wonder, could Abraham and Lazarus have been so heartless in looking upon this rich man’s suffering? Those who take pleasure in looking upon the sufferings of others we call sadistic, and sadism is a type of insanity. Is the man Abraham, the one who pleaded for Sodom before the Lord, so changed at this point that he can peacefully enjoy a life of pleasure while he watches one he acknowledges as a descendent of his suffering in torments? This is a sad change for Abraham indeed.
Instead of showing any compassion, Abraham rather justifies the rightness of the rich man’s sorry condition. He reveals to the rich man why he was being punished. But his answer has nothing to do with any wicked thing that this rich man might have done. Neither does it have to do with any lack of faith that he had. Abraham does not charge this rich man with rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ, nor does he charge him with living a sinful life. Rather, Abraham tells him that since he had received good things in this life and Lazarus had received evil things, now their situations had been reversed, and Lazarus was now comforted while the rich man was tormented. Surely if this is the way of determining future destinies, then, as I said earlier, without a doubt then both this author and most if not all my readers are bound straight for torment when we die! This statement seems all the more ridiculous when we consider that these words are coming from Abraham, one of the richest men in the Bible.
Is this the true teaching of the Word of God regarding what determines a man’s fate in the life to come? I must in all gratitude admit that my own life has been filled with good things. I have little to complain about, and much to be thankful for. If I was quite honest, I would have to say that I of all men am most blessed. Am I, then, to look forward to nothing but torment in the life to come? If I were born as an untouchable in India, would I have been much better off, since then I would be able to look forward to comfort in the life to come?
Let all who love God’s truth reject utterly any such thoughts! We know that it is not for riches that any man is condemned in the life to come, nor is it for any poverty that one is welcomed into eternal life. Yet if this is so, then why did Abraham say this? Was he just wasting words? Why would he make such a claim if it was not true, and why would Christ repeat his erroneous answer? These are questions that most who deal with this passage are not only unwilling to answer, but totally ignore. Yet these questions arise nevertheless.
26. “’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.’
Abraham, after telling the rich man he deserves what he is getting for daring to be rich in life, now seems to excuse his lack of compassion by explaining to him that helping him would be impossible. There is a great gulf between them, Abraham explains, and no one can cross it. We notice that Abraham makes no effort to cross it, and his excuse seems not to ring true. Surely any person of compassion would have tried to find a way to help this suffering man. Yet Abraham seems more than content to sit by and enjoy his lot while watching this poor rich man suffer.
27. “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house,
The rich man, realizing that there is no hope for himself, now most selflessly turns his thoughts to his family. This is certainly a commendable thing, since anyone who has suffered severe pain knows that it is very difficult in such a circumstance to think of anyone but yourself. Yet this rich man in his pain and suffering thinks of those he most cares about. Once again, this man does not recommend himself to us as any kind of a greatly wicked man.
28. “’For I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’
The ones the rich man has in mind at his father’s house are his five brothers. He pleads with Abraham for them, and asks that Lazarus might be sent to warn them, presumably to give up their wealth and live a life of poverty so as to avoid this terrible fate. What a noble thought on the part of the rich man…to be in such pain and yet still thinking of others! Surely he is a far more sympathetic character in this story than either Lazarus or Abraham. If we had to identify a hero in this tale, it would surely be the compassionate rich man, not the cold and uncaring Abraham and his subservient Lazarus.
29. “Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’
Abraham replies to the rich man’s request, and he seems to have as little concern for the rich man’s brothers as he did for the rich man himself. He scoffs at the idea that the return of the rich man from beyond death would in any way affect his five brothers. He suggests that they have Moses and the prophets, and that they should hear them. When Moses or the prophets ever said that one needs to be careful to be poor and sick so that he won’t come into torment in the life to come, Abraham does not explain. Nor does he let us in on why he himself is being comforted when he was rich and comfortable in his past life. His answer reminds me of the famous French queen who, when asked to have pity on the poor, replied with her heartless pronouncement of “Let them eat cake!”
30. “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
Though this request has been as utterly rebuffed as his first one, the rich man’s concern for his brethren causes him to plead with Abraham to change his mind and send someone to warn them. Notice that for his brothers he pleads a second time, whereas he only pleaded once for himself! A man this selfless is surely commendable. This is yet another evidence of the rich man’s superiority to either Lazarus or Abraham in this story.
31. “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.’”
Abraham again refuses the rich man’s request, telling him that his brethren will not believe, even if one rises from the dead to warn them. No compassion is shown for the rich man or his brother, and he is left in torment, while Abraham and Lazarus continue in bliss.
What can be the meaning of this strange story? If we view it as a literal narrative, or even as a teaching parable, we will find ourselves in the most puzzling of difficulties. Yet if we see that this story is a satire, then the truth of this tale will start to fall into place.
It is a fact that satire is often misunderstood by those who do not understand the things being satirized. Satire is written to poke fun at conditions that are very familiar to the author and the ones reading his satire. These are usually the conditions that prevail in the author’s own day. Any who are unfamiliar with these conditions, or who live at some other time or in some other culture than that which the author was satirizing, might totally miss the author’s real intention, and imagine that he was just telling a story for the story’s sake, or for some other reason.
It has been said of Alexander Dumas, the author of the famous book on The Three Musketeers and its two sequels, that he actually plagiarized this story from a nearly two-hundred year old book he checked out of the library and never returned. Alexander Dumas might have believed that this book was a record of actual men and events taking place at that time, or else a rousing adventure story set by the author in his modern-day world of two hundred years before Alexander wrote his own book. Yet whatever he thought, some modern scholars believe that the book that Alexander based his novels on was actually a satire, and was meant to ridicule certain ridiculous, foolish, and misguided elements of the culture in which the original author was writing. This satire and the reasons for it Alexander Dumas never seems to have understood.
Whether or not this view of Alexander Dumas and The Three Musketeers is correct, it is true that satires are often misunderstood by those who do not understand the culture in which the satire was written. Only familiarity with the things being satirized can ever reveal the barbed humor and critical commentary of the satire to the one reading it.
The fact that this story was not the literal teaching of the truth Christ wanted to convey can be demonstrated by considering the well-defined groups of people to whom Christ dedicated His words. These can be categorized by their nearness to or distance from the Lord Jesus Christ. First of all, we see the three, Peter, James, and John. Luke 9:28 is one example of words spoken just to these.
The second group is the twelve. Of course, the twelve included the three. These were his disciples who became apostles. They were representatives of all those who learned from Him. He gave them revelations of truth that He did not give to the common people. If He told a parable, He would gladly explain it to them upon request.
Next was the people. These were those who listened to His words and considered them diligently. These heard His words, and heard them gladly, yet they never saw fit to actually become His disciples. They seemed to want to learn from Him, and He gladly gave them truth, but they were unwilling to take the further step of actually becoming His disciples, and so He held back certain things from them.
Next was the crowd. These were just the mob, which was made up of various men, some of whom seemed to be just sensation-seekers who wanted to see a miracle, or to hear and consider something new, or to be a part of some new or popular movement. To them, the Lord always spoke with a parable. This does not mean that everything He said to them was a parable, but rather that He always included a parable in the message when He spoke to them, much as if we would say of a speaker that, “He always uses illustrations.” Of course, we would not mean that every word was an illustration, but that this speaker always uses one whenever he speaks.
The last group to whom Christ spoke were the religious leaders, made up of men like the scribe, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These men could also be called the rich, and they formed the upper class in Israel, that caste that dominated all life in the land. To these men, the Lord spoke with stern and critical rebukes. He was not interested in giving them His deepest and most precious truths, but only in exposing their greed, hypocrisy, and hardness of heart.
Now these men had dominated the scene to such an extent that the royal family, made up of the legitimate line of David, had no real power in Israel. Even the usurper line of Herod recognized by the Roman government did not have all that much power over the people compared to the powerful rich class. Thus they had really taken the place of kings in Israel. Moreover, they had taken the place of the priests as well. God’s will had been that the priests would teach the people. Yet the Pharisees had taken over that task, and left the priests to do nothing but perform the rituals of the temple. Thus, this dominating rich class overseen by the Pharisees had taken upon themselves the place of both king and priest in Israel.
Now as I pointed out above, if we understand that Christ is here setting forth how the Pharisees had negated the truth, we will start to see what this story is all about. We have to remember that the Pharisees were very wealthy and very greedy. Moreover, they had perverted the true doctrines of God for their own teachings. Remember how earlier Christ had rebuked them for refusing to help their needy parents. They had been claiming that all their money was dedicated to God and therefore couldn’t be used for the unimportant task of caring for their poor and aging mothers and fathers! Thus the Pharisees and rulers were adept at weaseling out of giving their money for the aid of any of the poor, even their parents.
Now as I said before, it seems that one of the Pharisees’ methods for excusing their total neglect for the poor was by making poverty a virtue, and by saying that those who are poor in this life will have their fortunes reversed and will be blessed in the next life in an imaginary place called Abraham’s bosom. By saying this they could justify refusing to give money to relieve them, claiming that this would be cheating the poor out of a place in Abraham’s bosom.
The hypocrisy in this seems evident, but the Pharisees were so well-respected that they usually got away with it. Not with Christ around, however. Christ, by using this brilliantly-crafted story, ironically carries the Pharisees’ teaching out to its logical conclusion. Surely if the poor are blessed in the next life, then the rich must be cursed. So the Lord used the Pharisees’ own teaching to condemn them to a place of torment in the next life! In His story He incorporates many other elements of the Pharisees’ false teachings. For example, the great gulf was another teaching of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees claimed that there was a great difference between them and the common people, a great gulf that could never be crossed. This created a caste system in Israel, wherein the rich and powerful were far beyond and above the poor and powerless class. The Pharisees and rulers taught that they were somehow more righteous than the other group, the common people, and thus they inherently deserved the riches and privileges and honors they were given. This can be demonstrated for us partially by their statement to the formerly-blind man in John 10:34, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” As if the Pharisees weren’t born in sins! But they actually believed that they were not, even though the common people were, and this caused a great gulf between them and the common people.
Now Christ uses this false teaching of the gulf against the ones who had created it. Just as they heartlessly refused to aid the suffering of the poor because of their imaginary gulf, now in Christ’s story the rich man receives no help from Abraham because of the same gulf. Just as the rich claimed that they could give no aid to the poor because of this gulf, now the rich in their misery receive no aid because of it.
Another of their diabolical practices was that of the total and irreversible excommunication of certain men they labeled as “sinners” from life in Israel. These men were often just those who dared to question or oppose the dominating will of the Pharisees. Once these men had cast someone out of Israel, that man had no recourse, and no way to get back into the community or to receive pardon. Their testimony would not be accepted in court, and if any wrong was done to them, they had no way of seeking repayment for it. No one would voluntarily do business with them, or have anything to do with them that they could help. Thus these pitiful men stood as examples of what would happen to anyone who opposed or criticized the Pharisees. Often those thus cast out were forced to look to Rome for help and protection, and became tax collectors on behalf of the Roman overlords. This just made them all the worse in the eyes of the rest of Israel, for now they were looked at as traitors to their own nation. Yet their true character is shown by the fact that often these men became the first and most loyal followers of the Lord, even beginning from the baptism of John.
Many people miss the point of this passage in attempting to use it to support the idea of hell and the eternal conscious torment of the damned. Yet this passage abounds with clues that indicate that this is not a true story or even a parable, but instead a satirical use of the Pharisees’ own false doctrines against them. The Pharisees had accepted most of the Platonic theory of the nature of man, and of the immortality of the soul. They taught that the souls of good men would pass over into another body, whereas the souls of the wicked would be tormented. They said this took place under the earth. This was not the teaching of the Old Testament, but the things that these men had brought in from Plato, and from Egyptian and Babylonian myths.
From the reference to the rich man wearing purple at the beginning to the not-so-subtle dig about not believing when someone rose from the dead at the end, this story overflows with evidence that this story is Christ’s way of satirizing the Pharisees’ false and self-serving doctrines. If one accepts these things as truth one has to accept the evil of being rich and eating well, the fact that God’s ideal for our future is for us to become totally heartless and unmoved by the suffering of others, and the idea that on the basis of one passage God can throw down all of what He said in the past about salvation and the basis of it, not to mention death and what happens after it. No, this story is not at all the teaching of Christ on death or the fate of men after it, but rather His scalding rebuke of the Pharisees and the awful, sinful teachings that they promulgated.
Since satire is a form of storytelling meant to expose and ridicule false and condemnable practices, this is the form Christ turned to in order to cap off His castigation and ridicule of the Pharisees and their false and abominable beliefs and practices in this monologue we have been examining in these last two chapters of Luke. Keeping this in mind, let us turn once again to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and, starting from the beginning, see what we can draw out as the true message and teaching of the passage.