The Rich Man and Lazarus
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is another well-known illustration of Jesus. Through it we learn about what life after death is like. At times you will find some who dismiss the significance of the story by stating that it is only a parable. However, it is not called a parable in the Scriptures and it contains one feature that makes it different from the parables that Jesus told: this story names one of the main characters. In Jesus’ parables, a illustration is given from life, but the illustrations are generalized. They are something that could easily happen, but Jesus is not talking about one particular event. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, details are given about a particular event. Even if this was a generalized tale, it doesn’t mean the things discussed are not true or only imaginary. All other parables are based on real events. Labeling this story a parable does not make it any less real.
The rich man was extremely rich. He had clothing dyed with the most expensive dye available in those day, a purple dye made from a rare shellfish found along the coast of Tyre. The cloth itself was fine linen, a product of Egypt, and was worth twice its weight in gold in those days. Food was not a problem as he ate fine food daily.
Lazarus’s condition was miserable. He was covered with sores, so hungry that he would have liked the scraps from the rich man’s meals. Though he was right by the rich man’s gate, there is no indication that the rich man ever took note of him or helped him in any way. The dog’s of the street, a despised animal in Jewish society, treated him better than the rich man.
Eventually Lazarus died and was carried to Abraham’s bosom by the angels. Angels are mentioned in other places as gathering souls (Matthew 13:38-43; Matthew 24:31). To be in someone’s bosom is to be held and comforted like a mother holding her child in her lap. Thus Lazarus was taken to a place of comfort. From other passages, we conclude that he was in Paradise (Luke 23:43; II Corinthians 12:4).
The rich man also died, but he ended up in Hades in a place of torment instead of comfort. Hades the name for the grave or the realm of the dead. It is called Sheol in Hebrew. The agony was so great that he longed for just a drop of water to cool his tongue. Worse, he could see into Paradise and see Abraham and Lazarus in comfort. He cried to Abraham, his ancestor, for relief.
From this we realize that death is not a place of unconscious existence. The rich man was well aware of his condition and the condition of others. He recognized other people and as we will see later, he remembered his life on earth. We still vestiges of his old life as he asked Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him.
Abraham explained that he was not able to help him. He was in torments because of how he lived his life on earth (Romans 2:1-11). He had comforts on earth and that would be all he could expect. Notice the subtle difference between the rich man and Lazarus. While on earth the rich man received the good things he earned, but there is no possessive pronoun before the evil things Lazarus received. The implication is that the evil that he was given wasn’t earned by him. God had placed a great divide between the two realms of Hades. No one could change his location. His relationship to Abraham was of no benefit (Luke 3:8).
The rich man then begged that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers. While it was too late to change his condition, it would be a comfort to know that his family did not follow him into this place of torment.
But Abraham pointed out that they had sufficient warning. They had the writings of Moses and the Prophets. The rich man objected that this wasn’t enough. If they were visited by one from the grave, then they would listen and change. Notice how again the rich man desired that Lazarus serve his purpose. However, Abraham pointed out a basic truth: If a person will not listen to God’s teaching, then a miracle would not convince them either.
And such is illustrated repeatedly in the Gospels. The writings of Moses and the Prophets testified of Jesus (John 5:39-40), but the Jews weren’t convinced by them nor did the miracles of Jesus persuade them (John 5:36).