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The rich man and Lazarus, Part 1

Sep 29, 2014

We have now reached the crescendo of this series of parables that Luke arranged in a particular order to convey the gospel of the Kingdom. The first two focused primarily upon the House of Israel. The third introduced us also to the older brother, whose grumblings identified him with the scribes and Pharisees (Luke 16:2, 29). The fourth focused almost entirely upon this older brother, the evils figs of Judah, showing how they would be fired from their position of stewardship over the household.

The final parable is that of the rich man and Lazarus. The two main characters once again represent Judah and Israel, the two sons. This parable shows the condition of both nations after they have “died.” Israel died in 721 B.C. when the Samaritans completed their conquest of Samaria, the capital of Israel. Judah was yet to die in the great war with Rome (66-73 A.D.).

The Two Men

Luke 16:19 begins this way:

19 Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day.

The Pharisees and religious leaders must have looked at each other awkwardly at that moment, since they and the temple priests were dressed this way (Exodus 28:5). These were the leaders of Judah.

20 And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores…

Isaiah speaks to Israel, saying in Isaiah 1:5-7,

5 Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick; and the whole heart is faint. 6 From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts, and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil. 7 Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence; it is desolation, as overthrown by strangers.

These “sores” are used as a metaphor for the rebellious state of Israel, which had refused God’s law. The nation was in need of salvation, which broadly means a sound state of health, body, soul, and spirit. The name, Lazar, or Lazarus, is in the Hebrew Eliezar, “the help of God,” or “God helps.” Abraham’s chief steward, a man of great faith, was named Eliezar, and when he went to find a wife for Isaac, he was a type of the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16). Eliezar was a Syrian from Damascus, a fitting location, considering the fact that Israel had been taken to Assyria.

Once we identify the characters in this parable, it is easy to see that this is not about people dying and going to heaven or hell. Jesus did not mean to tell us that rich men go to hell, while poor men go to heaven. Those who interpret it this way take the position that Lazarus was a true believer, while the rich man was not. But in fact, Israel’s ill health was a metaphor for their utter rebelliousness and lawlessness.

When we see the connection between Lazarus and the prodigal son, it is clear that Lazarus was not described as a righteous man, but only as a poor man. Yet when we compare him with the prodigal son, we know that he pictured Israel, which was destined to repent and return to the Father.

The numeric value of the name Lazarus in Greek is exactly 144. Hence, the underlying prophecy hidden under the surface is that he also represents “the elect,” which phrase (as used in Romans 11:7, KJV, also carries the numeric value of 144. This suggests that the remnant of grace, or the elect, are not perfect, but are repentant.

Israel Among the Nations

Luke 16:21 continues the description of Lazarus,

21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.

The House of Israel had been deported to Assyria, sentenced to live among the nations, far away from the Word of God in Jerusalem. Like the prodigal, Lazarus needed food. The “famine” that the prodigal experienced carried over to Lazarus as well.

The Jewish attitude toward non-Jewish nations was that they were “dogs.” Jesus Himself did not consider them to be dogs, but He well understood the thinking of the day. One day Jesus took His disciples to Phoenicia in order to expose the heart idolatry in their hearts (Matthew 15). When they arrived, they were met by a Canaanite woman who begged for Jesus to help her daughter. He pretended to disdain her, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

When she persisted, Jesus said to her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). By this time, no doubt, the disciples were nodding in agreement, as this reinforced their traditional view of other nations.

But the woman said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). The disciples were dumbfounded, for it was evident that she had great faith, though she was a Canaanite. The trap was sprung, and Jesus said, “O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28).

The irony is evident when we understand that this field trip was taken to expose the unclean food of the word that the disciples had been eating all of their lives in regard to this bad attitude toward non-Jews. Jesus’ apparent reluctance to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter is contradicted by the fact that this was Jesus’ sole purpose in going to Phoenicia with the disciples. After this incident, they turned around and went back to Galilee.

In fact, Mark 7:30 shows that they probably accompanied the woman to her home. Otherwise, how would Mark have known the final detail that he revealed in his account:

30 And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having departed.

How did Mark know that she had found the child lying on the bed? Someone was an eyewitness to this healing. Mark included this detail, because his gospel was written for a Roman audience. But Matthew’s account, written to Jews, omitted this, no doubt because it would have enraged the Jews unnecessarily.

The point is that the common thinking in that day was to equate non-Jewish nations with dogs. This would have been how Jesus’ audience would have interpreted Jesus’ parable in the story of Lazarus. They all knew that the House of Israel was scattered among the nations as lost sheep wandering among the “mountains.”

What is interesting is that “the dogs were coming and licking his sores.” This is what dogs do to show their sympathy and to cleanse wounds. So this should be considered as an act of kindness and acceptance toward the lost House of Israel.

The Fate of the Two Nations

Jesus then skipped to the end of the story, telling us the fate of both nations after their destruction, or “death.” Luke 16:22 says,

22 Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.

The story preserves the order of death, because Israel died first in 721 B.C. Lazarus (Israel) was said to be taken to Abraham’s bosom by the angels. When the rabbis spoke of righteous men’s death, they were said to be carried away by angels. They were also familiar with the phrase Abraham’s bosom, for it was said,

“The day that Rabbi died, Rabh Adah Bar AHavah said, by way of prophecy, This day doth he sit in Abraham’s bosom.”

“There are those indeed that expound, This day doth he sit in Abraham’s bosom, thus; that is, This day he died.” (Lightfoot, Commentary, Vol. III, p. 170).

Lightfoot comments further, saying on page 171,

“We may find out, therefore, the meaning of the phrase according to the common interpretation, by observing, first, that it was universally believed amongst the Jews, that pure and holy souls, when they left this body, went into happiness, to Abraham. Our Saviour speaks according to the received opinion of that nation in this affair, when he saith, ‘Many shall come from the east and from the west, and shall sit down with Abraham’.”

Jewish teaching in Jesus’ day often taught that the righteous were carried to the (heavenly) Garden of Eden, called Paradise. Other times, they spoke of the righteous being taken “under the throne of glory.” The third manner of speaking was to say that the righteous went to Abraham’s bosom.

The implication is that Lazarus was righteous, although we know from the details of the other parables that the prodigal was righteous only because he repented and returned to his father. The House of Israel, then, was cast out among the nations, but in the end, they were destined to repent and to return, not to the old land, but to their Heavenly Father.

By contrast, the so-called “rich man,” who had feasted on the word of God every day and was dressed in priestly robes and splendor, found himself in hades. The evil figs of Judah, who grumble at the idea that their brother might repent and be blessed, will find themselves—as a nation—in the torment of tribulation, according to the judgment of the law. In Luke 16:22 we see that “the rich man also died and was buried.” Take note that he was buried, while Lazarus was carried. Luke 16:23 says,

23 And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Being far away from Abraham was a metaphor for being far from the Kingdom of God. The grumbling scribes and Pharisees had a mindset that was “far away” from the faith of Abraham and the Abrahamic calling. That calling was to be a blessing to all families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). How were they to be blessed? Luke wrote the answer in Acts 3:25, 26,

25 It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 26 For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.

The Jewish viewpoint was to secure the blessings of God for themselves. They believed themselves to be “chosen” to enslave all other nations, rather than to set them free by the power of the Jubilee. The Abrahamic calling was not to enslave but to bring all men to repentance, so that all men might draw near and enjoy the fruit of the Kingdom. But they thought the law had been given to them only, and that other nations were lacking in the ability to understand or follow the ways of God. They usurped the scepter by killing the King, because they no longer thought of themselves as stewards of the vineyard.

For this reason, Jesus said, they would be fired from being God’s steward. They would be replaced by another ethnos which would do God’s bidding (Matthew 21:43). Their attitude, even after being “buried,” was still far from Abraham. This seems to be a reversal of roles, since the prodigal son had been far away, and now we see the rich man was far away. Israel, which had been cast out, had repented and had now drawn near, while Judah, which had been near, was now cast out and was far away.

The dispersion of the evil figs of Judah after the nation died, did nothing to bring the Jews near to Abraham. Instead, they were in torment, despised and persecuted. I do not commend anyone for mistreating Jews, nor should we think fatalistically that this parable justifies the nations for oppressing them. Yet their oppression is well known in history, and it is prophesied in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

(To be continued)

This is the first part of a mini-series titled "The Rich Man and Lazarus." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

This is part of the eighty-sixth part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones