(A) Introduction. Read: Luke16v19to31

As I have indicated in the previous exposition (Luke16v1to15) the two parables and three statements in chapter 16 are all ironical. Perhaps the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is more satirical than ironical. (An irony is where you express your meaning by saying or writing the opposite of what you mean. A satire is a clever story or saying that ridicules a belief or individual.) We will not get to the truth of what Jesus means by the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus unless we accept that Jesus used irony and satire to convey important truths. He was, unlike many conservative evangelicals, a high risk teacher!

(B) Misuse of the parable.

Conservative evangelical Bible teachers, like Warren Wiersbe, use the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to teach about what happens in the afterlife namely, at death the righteous go to heaven (a place of bliss) and the unrighteous to hell (a place of torment). As I have indicated in my article on, 'Heaven and Hell,' this is in conflict with what the rest of the New Testament teaches.

At death we do not go bodily anywhere. Angels do not translate anyone bodily into paradise. If they did there would be no need for the resurrection. At death the body returns, in the well known words of the funeral service, to dust or ashes. The spirit is taken by God into storage - to await restoration to the resurrection body. The state between death and resurrection is most like sleep. For Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1Cor15v20. What happened to Jesus will also happen to us. When Jesus died he did not go bodily into the presence of God. His body remained in the tomb until his resurrection when it was taken up into the new. Judgement follows the resurrection. At the Judgement some will be appointed to eternal life and some appointed to eternal destruction - the second death. This is the New Testament pattern and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus bears little resemblance to it!

(C) Jewish belief about life after death at the time of Jesus.

There is no clear, unambiguous teaching about the afterlife in the Old Testament. What the Old Testament does teach is that God is a God of continuity rather than discontinuity. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus told the Sadducees, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive." Lk20v38. So long as God remembers us - as he remembered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we live! He is also the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land - and later out exile to the Land of Promise. In Job, Isaiah and Daniel there are fleeting references to a future resurrection.

So what was believed?

(1) The Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection, angels or spirits. See Acts23v8. So they must have believed that the reward for pleasing God was in this life alone. I find this view very perplexing. If God is faithful to his people in life - why not in death?

(2) The Pharisees believed in an afterlife - but they did not all necessarily share the same belief. Some believed that at death a man's soul or spirit was destined for Sheol (or Hades). Isaiah wrote: Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death. Is57v2. Then later, either in the Messianic Age or the Last Day, the righteous dead would be brought back to life. Such a belief was based on Scriptures like: Is26v19 and Dan12v1to4. We know that this is what Martha believed. When Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again Martha replied: "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." John11v24.

(3) Popular belief. Another belief existed among certain of the Pharisees and I have little doubt it was a popular folk belief - because in one form or another it has persisted through the centuries to this day. The belief was encapsulated by a story that owes something to Greek influence. The dead ended up in Hades but the fate of the righteous and unrighteous was very different. Hades consisted of two parts separated by a flaming river. One part was a place of torment for the wicked and the other a place of bliss for the godly. Abraham welcomed the righteous to the place of bliss. Those especially honoured would feast in his bosom - reclining at table with their head upon his breast - in the manner of John reclining on Jesus at the Last Supper.

Today Muslims believe that when a martyr dies in the service of Allah they go straight to Paradise where their needs are met by a bevy of virgins. Lots of nominal Christians are convinced that good people go bodily to heaven when they die where they will be reunited with loved ones. They will inhabit a world like our own - but better, and be able to look down upon what is happening here below. Even many genuine Christians seem to believe this. The wicked on the other hand will go to hell to be punished for their wrong doing.

Jesus made satirical use of the old story that reflected popular belief. It is not a story that can be taken literally by a Christian for several reasons:

    (a) Jesus, not Abraham, is the believer's exceeding great reward. The lamb is all the glory in Emmanuel's Land!

    (b) Jesus, not Abraham, will be the judge of our worthiness on that last Great Day.

    (c) It would hardly be blissful feasting within view, hearing and smell of sinners roasting in hell.

There is plenty along these lines in several internet expostions. Eg: (The information on the Pharisees' views was obtained from the Jewish Encyclopaedia accessible on the internet)

(E) Jesus' purpose in using an old folk tale satirically.

(1) It must have been a straightforward purpose.

In several internet expositions on this subject the rich man is said to represent the Jews and the poor man the Gentiles.

The Jews had been richly blessed by God for so long. They were spiritually rich in many ways but because they hadn't cared over much for the Gentiles they would come under judgment.

The Gentiles were like Lazarus. They were neglected and spiritually impoverished and as such despised by many Jews but, would in the future be welcomed into God's Kingdom.

It is too much to expect that Jesus' hearers could work this out. No one at the time would get it. The disciples - to the day of Christ's ascension - expected him to restore the kingdom to Israel. Acts1v6. Jesus would have completely failed to achieve his purpose if the parable was about Jews and Gentiles. I am sure he wanted the people at the time to get his meaning!

(2) What was the straightforward purpose of the parable?

Jesus told the parable to refute the widely held but erroneous belief that worldly wealth was a mark of divine approval. A rich man merited his wealth. Abject poverty on the other hand was a sign of divine disapproval and was also deserved. This was a way of squaring the reality of human experience with God's commitment to fair play (justice).

Lazarus and the rich man could not have been more different.

The rich man was dressed like a king in purple and fine linen. He enjoyed gourmet meals every day. He lived in a palace with a large gated portico at which the beggar lay. The beggar was allowed to remain. In some respects he was a perverse status symbol.

The poor man was crippled. That is why he was laid at the gate. He was covered in ulcers or abscesses. Lazarus was either too weak to fend off the stray dogs that licked his sores or this was his only recourse to some relief. The beggar lay where he did in the hope of receiving some of the waste food from the rich man's feasts - like the soiled bread the guests used to wipe their hands on.

The situation was chronically unfair unless the rich man was being rewarded for pleasing God and the poor man was being punished for his sins.

This was a widely held belief. The Pharisees said of the blind beggar Jesus healed: "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. Jn9v34. They ascribed his blindness from birth to his, or his parent's, sin. Even the disciples shared this view. Earlier they had asked Jesus: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jn9v1. Jesus told them - neither! On another occasion, when Jesus told his disciples that it was hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, they replied incredulously: "Who then can be saved?" Lk18v26.

(F) Jesus highlights the irony of the situation.

The key verse in the passage is: "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony." v25.

Jesus is saying that the rich man did nothing to deserve his wealth on earth. There is absolutely no good reason why God should make him wealthy. He wanted Lazarus to help him in his distress - to drip water on his parched tongue - but he hadn't helped Lazarus in his. Only the dogs eased the ulcerated limbs of the beggar. The rich man in his pomp considered there was a huge gulf separating him from Lazarus. They inhabited different worlds. He couldn't possibly be under any obligation to someone who was little better than sub-human. Now in Hades the tables were turned: Abraham said: "Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed." v26.

The rich man's wealth was not a reward from God. There were other explanations: He had been born into it. He had a privileged upbringing. He knew the right people. He was in the right place at the right time. He had a lucky break. That is all his prosperity amounted to.

Neither was Lazarus' situation on earth deserved. He had been born a cripple. It wasn't his fault. A widowed mother hadn't been able to do anything for him. All he was good for was begging and he wasn't very good at that. His malnourishment led to ulcers and weakness.

So here is the irony! Jesus implies that if God demonstrates his justice by the allocation of the good things in life and there was no sound reason for the rich man's prosperity and Lazarus' poverty on earth then, to even things up, God must reverse their situations in Hades - the rich man must suffer and Lazarus must feast in Abraham's bosom.

God made a quite arbitrary decision to favour one and punish the other on earth because based on the evidence there is no other explanation. So in Hades God quite arbitrarily reverses his decision and now it is Lazarus who has the good things and the rich man who suffers. No explanation is given for why Lazarus should be blessed and the Rich Man cursed in Hades except that a role reversal is somehow fitting!

(G) The reaction of the rich man and Abraham's answer

In extremity the rich man doesn't believe Abraham. He is sure that it cannot be as Abraham describes. God doesn't act in such an arbitrary fashion. He doesn't use future rewards as a way of compensating the undeserving poor for a wretched time on earth. The rich man is convinced there must be a moral dimension to the rewards and punishments God hands out after death. He believes that Lazarus must know the secret of pleasing God. He cannot be in Abraham's bosom just because he was poor on earth. So he wants Lazarus - not even Abraham - to return to earth to warn his brothers

Yet it is Abraham, not Lazarus, who gives the answer. He tells the rich man that the secret of pleasing God is in the Bible: 'They (the rich man's brothers) have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' v29.

That is all that is needed! If we ignore the Scriptures - the words of Moses, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles - no amount of supernatural signs - not even a man returning from the dead - will convince us of what God really wants from us.

The rich man could have learned a lot from the other rich man in the parable, Abraham. He epitomised faith expressed in action - something God credited to him as righteousness. See exposition on Abraham's faith.

Jesus did not tell the parable about the rich man and Lazarus to teach about the afterlife. He told it to warm men against complacency and presumption. If things are going well for you in this life don't think that God is necessarily pleased with you and all will be well when you die. The measure of a man's righteousness is not revealed by his earthly prosperity but his conformity to the mind and will of God as revealed in Scripture. This is known only by God - but will one day be acknowledged.

(H) Application.

(1) There is still a marked tendency to believe that a man or woman who enjoys success and wealth somehow deserves it. This is a view especially strongly held by those who are wealthy. I watched only today the chief executives of British Banks that have been bailed out by the taxpayer justifying the huge bonuses they intend paying themselves and some of their staff. They reckon they have deserved bonuses running into millions of pounds because of their performance and expertise. It is a bare-faced lie. They are only able to perform at all because the government rescued them for their crass incompetence. There is something repulsive about the unctious posturing of men who place far too high a value on their contribution to the financial well-being of the nation. I just cannot believe that they are being allowed to get away with it.

Sadly there are evangelical Christians who peddle what is called the prosperity gospel. It implies both that people who are favoured by God will be materially successful, and also that materially successful people are successful because God favoured them. This is just the kind of belief that Jesus told his parable about the rich man and Lazarus to denounce. How any one can read the catalogue of Paul's sufferings In 2Cor11v16to29 and still be an advocate of prosperity theology is beyond me.

(2) There remains an even stronger tendency to despise the beggars on our streets - the druggies, the winos, illegal immigrants and mentally unhinged. I have to admit they are not my favourite company. Most people ignore them. There is a huge unbridgeable gulf fixed between us. How long is it since you spoke to a beggar? They are almost sub-human. We don't want to know them - or help them. (See my story, 'A nearly perfect day.')

(3) Christians can easily assume that when things are going well God is dead chuffed with them. Conversely when life is going badly, and it can so easily go badly due to redundancy, ill health, misfortune in love, trouble in the church, God is displeased with them - and even punishing them.

This is not true. The Bible teachers that there must be times our faith is tested if we are to grow and mature as believers. It may be necessary for God to discipline us - as a loving father disciplines his children. (See expositions on: Hebrews12v4to13 and James1v13to18)

(4) The evidence that we are pleasing God is not to be found in our material well-being. Worldly success and prosperity is not a measure of God's satisfaction with us. That is the whole point of the parable we have been studying.

We find out what pleases God in the Bible - especially the teaching of Jesus recorded in the gospels. When the crowd asked the Master: "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." v28and29. If we desire eternal life rather than earthly success we must:

    (a) Trust Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. This is all we can do! In this respect we are no more, no less, than beggars. We are dependent upon and indebted to him alone for forgiveness.

    (b) Demonstrate our commitment to Jesus by obeying him. This involves caring for and helping the unfortunate - the handicapped, poor, sick, imprisoned and any others whose lives have been blighted by misfortune. We must do what the rich man in the parable signally failed to do when he had the chance.