Luke 16 Part 4

greed04Having discussed the teachings of the Pharisees which led to the satire the Lord is presenting here, we now return to the Biblical record of the rich man and Lazarus and discuss what we believe the true teaching of this story to be.

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 a rich man. Remember that in Israel, the classification of “rich” did not merely indicate one who had money, as it does today. Rather, this was the name for the dominating, ruling class in Israel. Thus it is to this caste that this man belongs.

Next, we see that the rich man is “clothed in purple.” Purple was the color of royalty. Thus, this is pointing out that the rich in Israel had set themselves up in the place of kings over the people. Yet they did not live up in any way to the standards God had set forth for those who ruled over his people. They had no mandate from God to rule, and made no effort to fulfill God’s requirements for rulers, yet they lorded it over the poor as kings. In Matthew 23:2, the Lord said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” They did, yet what a mess they made of it!

Next, we see that he was clothed in fine linen. Linen was the material of which the garments of the priests were made, and the Lord demonstrates here that these rulers had not just taken upon themselves the place of kings, but also of priests over the people. Any position that was powerful and desirable, they were eager to grab for themselves.

Now this man fares sumptuously every day. The rich class in Israel lived in a splendid manner, enjoying the best of food and comforts. Their position shielded them from the poverty and misery that were the lot of most in Israel under the heavy hand of the Roman occupation. They did not feel the pain of the majority in Israel, nor did they care to. They were more than happy to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle, and do so at the expense of the people whom God would have had them serve.

20. “But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate,

Here we are presented with a second character, a beggar. This man represents the poor in Israel. The Biblical idea of the poor is not just of those lacking in funds, but rather has much to do with oppression. Those who were poor were those who were suffering from the oppression and misrule of those more powerful than they were. This was certainly true in Israel at this time, when the rich and powerful Pharisees used their power to dominate the powerless, and mistreated and neglected them as they saw fit.

This beggar’s name is Lazarus. This name means “God a help.” This refers to the common practice of the rich, ruling class at this time to throw off upon God their responsibility to care for the poor. James complains of this practice of the rich in James 2:15-16.

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

This blessing that the rich would offer the poor, “Be warmed and filled,” was really a prayer that God would do these things. Since the practice of the time was never to say the name of God, they would sanctimoniously leave His name out, but they were really referring the needs of a person to God. Yet the Lord had made it clear in the law that the care of the poor was the responsibility of the rich. Leviticus 25:35-38 makes this clear.

35. ‘If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. 36. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. 37. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. 38. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

Thus it was the responsibility of the rich to help the poor. Yet they refused this responsibility, and threw everything back on God. Compassion could not move them to care for those placed under their care. This attitude is thus personified in the name “Lazarus,” or “God a help.”

Lazarus was full of sores. This represents the overall miserable condition that the poor were in. Any illness or affliction was enough to move any man from the state of poverty to the verge of starvation. Yet illness was common among these poor classes, whose lives were so hard already.

Lazarus was laid at the rich man’s gate. The gate was where all business was done, and so this symbolizes the rich man’s authority. As we saw from Leviticus above, the care of the poor was really the responsibility of the rich, given them by God. Yet the rich did not accept this responsibility, and largely left the poor to fend for themselves, or else added to their affliction. The Lord complains of the Pharisees, “You devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.” He is referring to their practice of loaning money to widows at high interest rates, and then taking their houses from them when they could not pay. They would then make a show of praying for these widows as their homes were foreclosed upon! This kind of hypocrisy was abominable to the Lord.

21. “Desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

This man Lazarus is not asking for any great gift from the rich man. Rather, he just wishes for the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Very little was needed in many cases to relieve the plight of the poor. It was well within the means of the rich to offer them what solace they could. Yet the rich generally refused to do this, preferring to keep every bit of their wealth for themselves.

The dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores. We know from Matthew 15:26-27 and Mark 7:27-28 that the Gentiles were called “dogs” by our Lord. This refers to the fact that often the Roman occupiers would see the dire needs of the poor, and would come to their aid in what ways they could. An example of this is Cornelius in Acts 10:2, who gave much to the people of Israel in the form of gifts to the poor. Thus the Gentiles demonstrated that they cared more for the poor in Israel than their own, rich Israelite leaders did!

Now once again we would emphasize that the Old Testament made it most clear that the poor were the responsibility of the rich in Israel. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is another clear example of this.

7. “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, 8. but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. 9. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin among you. 10. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. 11. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’

In light of passages such as these, it is hard to see how the Pharisees and religious leaders got by their responsibility to help those who were destitute. Yet the Pharisees were the teachers of Israel, and their teachings dominated everything. No one would dare go against what they practiced and taught. Thus it seems that they spread the lie that the sad state of the poor would be reversed in the life to come. When a person was sick and impoverished, they taught, that meant that when he died, he would receive great blessings in payment for the poverty and suffering he had experienced in this life. Thus, it was God’s will that such be poor, and they did not dare go against God’s will, or do anything that would take away the blessed state these poor were sure to enjoy in the future. While we might marvel at the hypocrisy of such a teaching, we must also ask ourselves why the people would believe such a thing without questioning it? Yet remember the absolute power the Pharisees held over the people. Some might have been smart enough to see through this teaching, and to have realized that if poverty was a sign of riches in the life to come, then riches should be a sign of poverty in the life to come. Yet no one would dare bring this up, or contradict the words of the rulers. That is, no one until Christ came and walked the earth.

Now the Lord was not afraid to oppose the Pharisees. He took their teachings and exposed them by expressing them fully, and pointing out their logical conclusions. For this, He was greatly hated and feared by those who so benefited off of the self-serving doctrines they had concocted.

Now, having set the stage by introducing these actors and situations to us, the Lord is going to take both the rich man and Lazarus and treat them in His story as the teachings of the Pharisees would suggest. What He is going to set forth is neither His teaching nor God’s truth, but rather a satire based on the hypocritical and un-Scriptural doctrines that the Pharisees so famously taught in Israel. The result of this is the startling story we read in the following verses.

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.

Both the beggar and the rich man are made to die in the story. The beggar, upon dying, is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. This was in harmony with the teachings of the Pharisees. Abraham’s bosom, a place found nowhere else in Scripture, can be found in the teachings of the Pharisees, described as a place of bliss after death.

23. “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

We are not told how the rich man got out of his grave and into a place of torment called Hades. It is here that many insert some vague idea of a disembodied soul, failing to note that the rich man had eyes and could see, something that does not seem consistent with one who has no body. However, sensible or not, this picture is all in line with the teaching of the Pharisees.

Now while in this place of torment, the rich man lifts up his eyes and sees both Abraham, the one ostensibly in charge of the place named after his bosom, and Lazarus there with him.

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 a pitiful plea to Abraham to have mercy upon him. He hopes that Lazarus will dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue, to relieve some of his torment in the flame. Again, Lazarus has a finger, and the rich man a tongue. This does not fit with any idea of disembodied souls.

The Companion Bible points out that, “The Pharisees taught that in life two men may be ‘coupled together,’ and one sees the other after death, and conversations take place. See Lightfoot…The Pharisees gave long stories of similar imaginary conversations and discourses.” So this very scene is reminiscent of the Pharisees’ kind of teaching. However, the Lord has now turned their teaching methods back on their own heads!

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 replies to the man’s request, explaining why he cannot or will not grant it. He says that the rich man received his good things in his lifetime, whereas Lazarus received his evil things. Now, Lazarus enjoys the good that he missed out on, while the rich man suffers the pain and misery he never experienced in life.

Notice that in this reply not a word of God, not a word of faith, not a word or righteousness or wickedness can be found. The reason for Lazarus’ reward is his former poverty, and the reason for the rich man’s suffering is former wealth. This response is repugnant to the gospel, to salvation, to justice, and to the rest of Scripture. Why then did Abraham make this response? The only answer is that he was made to reply to this rich man according to the perverted doctrines of the Pharisees and scribes, and was repeating back to him the very things the Pharisees taught the people, only logically turned back on their own heads.

While Abraham acknowledges that this rich man is a descendant of his and has the right to call him “father,” he shows no compassion whatsoever on the one he calls his son. While this does not seem at all to fit with our picture of the historical Abraham, it is perfectly in line with the practice of the Pharisees and the way they treated the less fortunate in Israel. With the same careless indolence with which Abraham dismisses the rich man’s plea for help, they had often dismissed the pleas of the poor and waved aside any importunity and ignored any claim that these might have to help and comfort. In Christ’s satire, the same heartless attitude that the rich had shown to others is brought back on their own heads.

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.’

Since this claim might appear to ring false even in the ears of the one saying it, Abraham goes on further to make another excuse as to why he cannot lift a finger to help the rich man. He explains that there is a great gulf fixed between himself, Lazarus, and the rich man, allowing for no passage one way or the other. While a man of compassion might have looked for some way to bridge this gulf, it is clear that Abraham has no such idea in mind.

The rich had quite purposefully created a great gulf between themselves and the poor in Israel. While God in His law had certainly set up no such thing, or even offered a hint at any kind of caste system like this, the Greeks seem to have set this up during their uprising in Israel, and when Antiochus was defeated and driven out, this part at least of his perversion the rich were happy to keep in place. They believed and taught that there was a huge difference between them and the common people. No poor person could ever become rich, nor could any rich person ever become poor. Remember, this had to do with power and position as much as wealth, and besides, the rich looked out for their own, and no rich man ever needed to worry about coming to total poverty. Thus this rigid division was set in place, and the rich maintained that it was right that it be so. Yet the ultimate hypocrisy of this whole thing is shown in the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ and Joseph His father, the rightful heirs to the throne of David in Israel, were of the “poor” class! Thus this whole thing is shown to have been a sham and a deception.

Once again, the Lord turns the tables on the rich. Just as they had refused to help the poor in life because of the imaginary gulf they said existed between them, so now the rich man after death is cut off from any aid from Abraham or Lazarus because of this gulf. He turned their foul teaching against them, and showed it up for what it was.

27. “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house,

Finding his plea for his own comfort rejected, the rich man now thinks of those in his father’s house. What is to become of them once they die? Having their good things in life, surely they are doomed to come to this place of torment with him. Thus, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to them.

28. “‘For I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’

The rich man particularly thinks of his five brothers. He wishes Lazarus to testify to them, warning them of their danger of also coming to join him in his place of torment. Again, we could commend such a selfless thought as this in the rich man when he himself was suffering such pain!

29. “Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’

Abraham dismisses this request as glibly as he dismissed the first. His brothers have Moses and the prophets, he tells the rich man. Let them hear them. Again, we are struck by the heartlessness and lack of concern that Abraham shows here. That men could have such an attitude in the face of suffering and misery might be astonishing, yet this is exactly how many of the rich in Israel treated their poor neighbors every day. They would rather give them into the care of anyone but themselves, and wish them any good except that which would require even the smallest sacrifice on their part.

30. “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

The rich man is disturbed by this answer. He does not feel that Moses and the prophets are sufficient to warn his brothers. Indeed, one would search these Scriptures in vain to find any hint there that the poor are to be rewarded for their poverty, or the rich to be punished for their comfort. Thus, the rich man suggests that his brothers will be much more likely to submit if one goes to them from the dead than if they merely have to read Moses and the prophets.

This suggests another arrogant attitude of the Pharisees which we see throughout Christ’s ministry. That is, they seemed to think that they were deserving of a greater or more spectacular sign than that given to the common people. For example, in Matthew 16:1 and Mark 8:11, they sought of Him a sign from heaven immediately after He had fed the four thousand with seven loaves and a few small fish! Yet the Lord was unwilling to give them any such sign, but demanded that they compare His works that they had seen with Moses and the prophets, even as everyone else had to do.

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 answers with one last barb against the Pharisees. If they refuse to hear Moses and the prophets, then even one rising from the dead will fail to persuade them. This was no doubt true, and yet it was also a dig at the fact that the Lord had already raised men from the dead. This might even help explain the name “Lazarus” in this story, for he was the most prominent man raised by our Lord from the dead, and yet the Pharisees truly did not believe in the Lord even then. Rather, they would work to put Him to death, and then He would even Himself rise from the dead to prove that what He taught was true, and that He was righteous in God’s sight. Yet even Christ’s resurrection and all the evidence given them of it failed to convince these stubborn and godless Pharisees.

Thus the Lord’s satire ends. This story, like all Scripture, is most profitable. It is a very effective rebuke of the Pharisees, and a correction of their false teachings. It exposes their hypocrisy and makes plain their lies and their greed. It is perhaps the most brilliant example of the Lord’s opposition to them and their self-righteous teachings. It has a most worthy place in the Word of God. Yet it is only valuable if we recognize its true character, and learn from it the lesson that God intended for it to convey. If we instead insist upon twisting it to support our preconceived ideas and prejudices, then we have made it of none effect, not to mention all the teaching elsewhere in Scripture having to do with death and what lies beyond it. Let us all be careful here, as always, to rightly divide the word of truth, and to keep this story in the place that God set for it. Only then can we learn the true lesson of the rich man and Lazarus.