What to Do with Lazarus and a Rich Man

100_0205One of the more difficult challenges for the credo-hopeful as myself is to find a safe place in the midst of so much disagreement within the realm of biblical interpretation.

Some insist that the old way is always the best way; stick with traditional thinking. They say, “If the plain sense makes sense, quit looking for another sense.

So what of when it doesn’t make sense… at least not to everyone; at least not to a growing number who are providing resources for dabblers as myself to indulge in? Take for example the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).

The traditional stance on this parable or narrative account holds that this is a severe warning to the travesty of an eternity spent in a place called hell for some, while for others, the wonder of dining forever in the bosom of Abraham, or as they will say, heaven.

But for many, no matter how the text is construed, at the end of the day, or at death if you will, there is the contention that those who live in poverty get to go to heaven, and as for the rich, well, we best take care of our teeth, for we’ll need them for gnashing one day.

The contention is of course settled by the “proof in the pudding” argument, that those who are saved by grace are changed, and riches are no longer their gods, resulting in a life of good works and not one spent selfishly wallowing in over-abundance.

Someone may ask though, “Why does the poor man then get to dine with Abraham?” We merely hear that because he received no reward in this lifetime, a greater reward awaited him at death. There’s no indication or evidence that this man is godly or that he’s ever done a good work. He’s just helplessly sick and poor, and the poor are just as capable of living a sin-filled life as the rich. It’s not that the text can’t be manipulated to meet the traditional end, it’s just that it requires manipulating that brings questions to the table.

Through the years I have heard a couple of approaches to the meaning of this story that vacate the traditional.

One of these alternatives considers the rich man to be national Israel and Lazarus the Gentile nations. This richness it is said that Israel enjoyed was their access to God. They were robed in the purple of His revelation and providence, while the Gentiles were laid at his gates without even having a knowledge of the one true God, because Israel refused to make Him known, not even with a crumb from his table if you will. The great gulf separating the two characters is said to be the difference between old and new covenants; they are irreconcilable.

If these who hold such understandings of this text are right, it seems to run hand in hand with other accounts, such as, “They will come from far away to dine with Abraham,” and “Even the dogs sit below the table for the crumbs that fall.”

While I’m not willing to make a dogmatic stand on where I fall within these thoughts and the related just yet, I do admit it is hardly hidden that Jesus spent much of His ministry trying to convey that something was very wrong with the Jewish people’s religion, that they had went astray from the relational God of their father Abraham, and that the destruction of their nation was imminent.

My unwillingness to readily adopt interpretations as this one is fueled by fear that it is only a means of escaping the humanitarian expectations Jesus prescribes we ought have for one another, or to negate the fear of knowing we are accountable for the welfare of others, while too often looking a lot like the rich man in this story.

51XAUizpuvL__AA160_Amy-Jill Levine in her work, Short Stories By Jesus, insists the message in this parable would have been perfectly clear to the culture of the day, where the Jews confused wealth as blessing and poverty as curse. She concludes her work on this parable with these words.

The parable tells us that we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate — on the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers — then we are lost.

Covenants old and new both place stringent emphasis on the care for the poor and the helpless. James would argue that all religion is useless if it does not produce a compassionate and charitable heart.

D. A. Carson, in his lecture on this parable, dissects the essence of the rich man’s problem by demonstrating that even in death and torment, he refuses to relent from his exaggerated self-worth. He continues to ignore Lazarus even in hell, dictating Abraham to send him as servant-errand-boy.

Since we still see through the glass darkly, it may be vanity to claim we fully understand this and maybe any of the parables, but regardless of what we walk away with, it would be fool-hearted to miss the disparity between the two characters. One of them was totally dependent on the mercy and grace of others, and inevitably on God Himself. The other basked in his wealth while refusing to acknowledge where it came from and where it was meant to be used.

A-J Levine tells of Albert Schweitzer citing this parable as the reason for his becoming a doctor and moving to a foreign land.

“He recognized that although the rich man, representing Europe, had access to medical care, Lazarus, representing Africa, did not.”

Justifiably, some may retort, “It is of utmost importance to focus on the spiritual needs of others. We can’t get bogged down with the physical, for eternity is in the balance.” But as my Pastor recently reminded, Jesus began his ministry to those he loved by first meeting them in the place where they were. To those who hungered, he fed. To the outcast he offered acceptance. He defended the lowly and the helpless.

Once he was in their world with them, then he directed the conversation to the greater need.

Could this parable, among much more, be speaking volumes toward the persuasive materialistic nature of western culture, even within the church? A quick inventory of my closet leaves me without defense, not to bring about mention of attics and storage containers.

Maybe this is why Jesus identified the poor man but not the rich man? Do you think there is a logical reason for the rich man to have no name? Think about this. Lazarus, a man who few could probably name is given a name, and yet a very wealthy man who anyone in the town’s proximity could probably have given not only his name if requested, but many more significant details. Why is this?

Most who will have access to these words I write are probably much like me; well off financially by the standards of the majority of the world.

Could it be left blank for whosoever will to insert their own?

One of the wisest things ever discovered by those interrogating the parables of Jesus was the recognition that we need not get bogged down by every detail of the story, as though every word has to have some transcendent purpose. Every good story is made up of the essential and the filler. This parable has a point, and Jesus was a masterful story-teller. Remembering the glass is cloudy, the point of this parable seems to give us opportunity to recognize that we all naturally spin toward a self-centered lifestyle of accumulating and hoarding. It’s not as though it is sinful to enjoy life. But it is so when we have no burden for the less-fortunate, when we indulge in excess and refuse to meet needs.

This is basic parable reading, I admit, to find the primary point of the text and then allow the filler to only highlight and emphasize the importance of the central message. We all have a Lazarus laid at our gates. I would surmise that the parable is meant to move us to ask, “What will I do about it?” But not just ask; ask and then allow the answer to identify the condition of our rich man’s heart.

About mtsweat

Seeking the rest that is only promised and found in Christ Jesus, along with my treasured wife of more than twenty-five years, we seek to grow in our relationship with our Heavenly Father, walk with the Holy Spirit as He moves our hearts, loving others always as Jesus loves us, and carry the news of His glory, the wonderful gospel, that gives light and life where there once was only darkness.
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15 Responses to What to Do with Lazarus and a Rich Man

  1. I believe the surrounding context provides more insight into the rich man and Lazarus story. In Luke 15 the Pharisees and the scribes are complaining about Jesus receiving and eating with sinners (vv. 1-2). So Jesus tells these men three different parables with the same message. The one who is lost (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son) and repents will be received with joy. The parable of the prodigal not only demonstrates the power of repentance and forgiveness, but it also demonstrated the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attitudes as the older brother. They always had the Father, but they were still not content. They also didn’t appreciate the affection given to the brother who repented and was received by the Father. They chose to be jealous instead of receiving the brother in love. Then in Luke 16 Jesus talks with His disciples about being faithful stewards. Having wealth wasn’t even the issue. The idea of putting wealth above God was the issue. In Luke 16:11-13 Jesus says to His disciples, “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

    Note that there’s a change of audience in v. 14, which says, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.” Jesus calls them out because they justify themselves in the sight of men instead of God (v. 15). It is to these men that Jesus speaks about the rich man and Lazarus. The fact that Jesus had just spoken about repentance in Luke 15 (the same conversation as Luke 16) and that the rich man mentions repentance in v. 30 seems to indicate that Lazarus had repented, which is why he is in Abraham’s bosom. Not only does this passage tell us a lot about the differences between Paradise and Hades, but I think the end is important for the Pharisees in particular. The rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent to his five brothers so that they wouldn’t experience the same torment (vv. 27-28). But Abraham responds that they have Moses and the Prophets (v. 29). In other words, they should know better, and his brothers also had access to the the Law and the Prophets (i.e., Pharisees and scribes). The rich man still laments and says that if someone goes to his brothers from the dead then they will repent (v. 30). It seems obvious that Jesus (since He is telling the story) is hinting at His own future death and resurrection, but this verse also explains that repentance is the key point. Whether someone is rich or poor, repentance is necessary for salvation. At the end of the story Abraham says to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31). In a way, I think Jesus is throwing the Pharisees and scribes a bone. He’s telling them the truth they need to know in order to have eternal life, but they keep missing it. He’s even hinting about what will happen, and we know that some of the teachers of the Law still came after Jesus’ disciples after His ascension (i.e., Saul (Paul)). I realize this is quite a long response, but I think there’s been too much focus on the poor versus the rich. Jesus spent time with both, but I think the poor were more receptive because they had nothing to lose. We read stories like Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, and see how he was changed by Christ. Jesus went to the Pharisees’ homes too. His disciple was also a tax collector who chose to follow Jesus. Ultimately, the message He is getting at is not to put anything, including wealth, above God. We can’t serve two masters. We should be faithful with what we’ve been given, little or much, but God should always be first. I hope this provides some helpful insight.

    In Christ,

    • mtsweat says:

      Very lengthy… I mean “very thorough” response. 🙂 I do agree with all of your response, and it is a very helpful addition. Especially in the context of your statement, “Ultimately, the message He is getting at is not to put anything, including wealth, above God.”

      I think part of “not putting anything above God” includes opening our eyes to see the needs surrounding us (laid at our gate), yes ultimately spiritual, but also physical. While I agree that in the original context , the Pharisees are the recipients of Jesus’ words, it is not difficult to see the application available to we of western culture, for it is just as easy to become wrapped up in doing church, and overlook Lazarus in his pain and poverty. If we do so, we are no different than the rich man in the story, don’t you think?

      • Raul Lopez says:


        There are two subjects that you seem to be approaching. Biblical interpretation and biblical application are two different things though application must be tied to interpretation. The problem here is that people tend to assume that a particular application to a passage of scripture is the interpretation of that scripture. Lauren hit the interpretation pretty much on the head here since the hearers are accounted for and the ‘story’ follows what the hearer’s problems were.

        As for applying this, there are many applications and Jesus may be teaching many things here but any application given to the passage of scripture MUST fall in line with the passage’s interpretation. As a quick example, this parable has nothing to do with uh… sexual immorality, for example. The applications of this passage must follow in accord with the interpretation… such as… as an example… is there ‘soul sleep’. This passage, though not specifically talking about ‘soul sleep’, does give evidence that ‘soul sleep’ is not probable in the least (and I venture to say not possible). Nevertheless, though I may apply the passage as an apologetic to the doctrine of ‘soul sleep’, the interpretation has little to nothing to do with the subject but… the interpretation does give evidence to the contrariwise idea against ‘soul sleep’.

        Hope that helped.

        • mtsweat says:

          Interesting. Thank you for the valuable input and for taking the time to share your thoughts. Very true that we cannot apply before knowing first what was said and who it was said to and what was meant for those original listeners. I do have to ask though, in the context of this passage, do you see an application for us today regarding the poor?

          • Raul Lopez says:

            The main thing that I see? Jesus is attacking the sin of covetousness. If you notice beforehand, the idea of an unhealthy desire for anything is what shoots out the whole message Christ was giving at the moment. That, in itself, is an application of this. Now to attempt to apply this passage to mean that all of the poor should be helped (not that they should not be) would misapply this particular passage. Nor can it be said that being rich would take you away from the kingdom of God. In today’s application, just like Christ was trying to teach the Pharisees (the thought that being poor meant that you were a sinner as well otherwise you’d be, at the least, financially stable), not to look down on the poor because they are poor. You can also apply this passage in reverse. You should not look up to someone because they are rich. A rich man is no more righteous than a poor man and a poor man is no more righteous than a rich man. Another possible application to this passage Is in the love of money itself, considering that the discourse Jesus gives is meant to answer the Pharisee’s attacks in defense of their own covetousness (verse 14). In the case of the rich man and Lazarus, you see that Abraham’s response to the rich man is… you were rich and now you are poor. Lazarus was poor and now he is rich.

            I don’t see much other application to this passage of scripture per se other than the what the interpretation itself points to as well which does a two-fold attack.
            1. Jesus attacks the religious institution that falsely assumes a malignancy to being poor.
            2. Jesus attacks the religious institution that falsely assumes that richness is a means to eternal salvation.
            3. Jesus attacks the religious institution that falsely assumes that a ‘closed’ religious belief that rejects entrance into his kingdom by earthly measures (unrighteous judgment).

            To get these points, you’ll also need to read from the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisees attacked the discourse given before this specific discourse. That discourse started with proper stewardship of the property of God and ended stating that one should not serve God’s property and instead serve the master that told them to take care of it. Simply put, the main applicable day to day message is;
            1. Don’t be proud thinking that, because you are financially better, that you are also more righteous.
            2. Don’t love what God gives but love the God that does give, both to the poor and the rich.

          • Raul Lopez says:

            Oops… Not two-fold but a three-fold attack

        • mtsweat says:

          Very good! I am interested though when you say “Now to attempt to apply this passage to mean that all of the poor should be helped (not that they should not be) would misapply this particular passage,” are you saying the rich man is not being held accountable for allowing Lazarus to lay at his gate in desperate need without helping him?

          Personally, I think that when Abraham declares the rich man’s brothers have Moses and the prophets, he was reminding him that the Law, and every prophet who ever prophesied, dictated the care for the poor, or the consequences of lack thereof. If his brothers were not interested enough to hear the Law, then they should surely care less if Lazarus returned and informed them.

          I do get all the requirements of we modern day masters of scripture interpretation, but at the end of the day, Jesus was pretty blunt about what Kingdom life looks like. He was harsh toward the religious (Pharisees, etc.) because they became self-consumed know-it-all me-me-me lovers of themselves hypocrites who would not lift a finger to help those in desperate need. In contrast, Jesus declared who His ministry would be to before He stepped into ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”

          I believe it is a right application of this text to find it sinful to allow the Lazarus’ of the world to be laid by the gate and do nothing about it. The question is, “Will I do something?”

          • Raul Lopez says:

            I’m going to take the liberty of breaking this response in parts if you don’t mind?

            Paragraph 1: Whether he (the rich man) is being held accountable or not for any sin of any type (except that of idolatry, loving something else other than God first) is an ‘assumption’. It does not state, within that passage of scripture ‘why’ the rich man is in torments. The assumption is good nevertheless but, just that, an assumption. It may be assumed that this is what occurred but that would take the idea into speculative theology which is outside the scope of proper interpretational principles. That’s why I would not use ‘THIS’ passage of scripture to apply that idea if the interpretation lends mostly towards stewardship, pride, and covetousness (which is a generalized form of unhealthy desires and specific to idolatry). Now, to apply that type of idea, other verses in the scriptures DOES have that in mind but even then, those passages that I have in mind are limited in scope… The main one that comes to my mind is James 2. You show your faith by how you treat those in need within the family of God and ignoring same shows a person without faith. I’m saying this particular passage would not have that in mind.

            Paragraph 2: You’re right and they knew this also, meaning the Pharisees. If anything though, they were ‘generous’ to the poor so the persons listening to this would not really feel an effect if that were the case in this passage. If anything, the reason many poor and hurting peoples hung around the temple doors is so that these Pharisees, in a show of piety, would give them money. This passage is mostly dealing with the ‘love of money’ and ‘covetousness’ rather than specifically the caring for the poor as well as partly dealing with idolatry (covetousness is a form of idolatry towards possessions).

            Paragraph 3: I agree with your statement but not so much as applied to THIS particular passage of scripture. The caring for the poor, in this passage of scripture is a fairly moot point especially since, in general, the Pharisees did give ‘generously’ (I say that in quotes because they kept a lot more than they gave – ref: the widow’s mite). The problem here is not that the Pharisees were ignoring the poor. The problem here is that the Pharisees were using the poor to augment their pride while, at the same time, being selfish themselves… “See Me! See all of this money that I give to these worthless people!” when, in fact, they were giving hardly nothing at all (percentage versus actual dollar amount – as ref: the widow’s mite).

            Paragraph 4: You get no argument from me there (we are to care for our poor brothers and sisters in Christ) but you’d be stretching it quite a bit using this passage of scripture to show that. There are much better ones for that and, as Lauren states, none of us are to ‘take care of all the poor’ as Jesus himself corrected Judas Iscariot on. “The poor you will have with you always but you will not always have me.” (paraphrased). Rich or poor, Christ is the center and give it to him (all of it – 100%).

        • mtsweat says:

          I am enjoying our conversation, as both Lauren and yourself offer valuable considerations of this text. Oh that I didn’t have to go to work… but I do.

      • I agree that it is easy to become wrapped up in doing church. I think it is just as easy to become wrapped up in doing social justice. I think the main point of Jesus’ story about Lazarus wasn’t that he was at the gate. It seemed to be common for poor people to lay at people’s (or city) gates waiting for food, money, etc. This seems to be more of a cultural illustration. For example, in Acts 3:2, a man who is lame from birth is placed at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful so that he can beg alms of people entering the temple. Instead of giving alms, Peter and John healed him (v. 6). This instance of healing leads Peter and John to preach the gospel. We may not always be able to give and heal, but we can tell people about Christ.

        Another great example that demonstrates the importance of spiritual food is in John 6. Jesus feeds the five thousand by performing a miracle, but the people seek Him out the next day. In vv. 26-27 Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” The people ask what they should do in order to work the works of God (v. 28). In v. 29 Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” Not surprisingly, the people want to see another sign even though they just saw one the day before (vv. 30-31). In vv. 35-40 Jesus explains the whole point of His message (also I think He knew the people were going to ask Him these things even the day before): “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” I think this is the same message He’s trying to get across to the Pharisees in Luke 16. I think the questions are: “Will they repent?” “Will they see who is standing before them and believe?” “Will they understand that wealth is not a sure sign of righteousness?” Lazarus chose God whereas the rich man chose wealth. Their choices had unalterable outcomes.

        In terms of taking care of the poor, I think we’re called to take care of the needs of the church, poor and rich alike. The entire New Testament expresses how Christians are to love one another, but it doesn’t say we are to help every poor person we meet. Even in the OT, Israel was taught to take care of the poor…within Israel. If strangers wanted to be part of Israel then they were accepted and taken care of as well. But there is no command of Israel to go out to the other nations and take care of the poor. Even in the NT, the command to love one another and carry each other’s burdens is given to the church. Acts 2:44-45 expresses how the church shared as anyone might have need (within the church, not with everyone). Yes, we should be lights to the world, and how we act and live should encourage people to be part of the church. If people saw how well we take care of each other, they would want to be a part of the Body of Christ. There are many humanitarian organizations that take care of people around the world, and if it is on your heart to take care of people around you then do so. But all too often people find a social justice message (especially nowadays) in Scripture that, in my opinion, isn’t there. Like Jesus said to the crowd who sought Him out after performing a grand miracle, we should not seek food that perishes, but rather the True Bread of heaven. Is it wrong to give to others? Of course not! But I think it’s important to remember the eternal over the temporary. The temporary lives of Lazarus and the rich man were short compared to eternity, and the decision of repentance made all the difference.

        • mtsweat says:

          I agree, it is easier to ‘do’ than to ‘be’ (borrowed quote). Social justice can become a god as much as wealth. I also agree that we cannot, nor are we called to place the greater emphasis on social justices rather than the gospel. Furthermore, I once again agree that our first concern is to minister to the body of Christ.

          But I disagree with you if you are saying that the rich man had no responsibility for the one laid at his gate, and that this isn’t a pertinent part of the parable. The text tells us he was laid there with a desire to have the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.

          As basic as this rendering may sound, “The story includes one with sufficient resources, one who is in dire need of resources, but the resources are hoarded and used selfishly,” it is what happens.

          Your illustration from Acts I think is telling… an act of love led to the preaching of the gospel. Thanks for the great discussion!

  2. Nice post, very well written! Thank you for your insights!

  3. ccragamuffin says:

    Is there perhaps even more to consider in “if the plain sense makes sense”? Because I agree with your interpretation that Jesus was making another great statement about the poor who are laid at MY gate..but…I think this IS the “plain sense”!!
    This story of the rich man and the poor man is in the middle of many stories Jesus was telling that greatly upset the Pharisees. Luke makes a point of writing immediately before the rich man/poor man story, that the Pharisees, WHO WERE LOVERS OF MONEY, heard the stories and sneered at Jesus. That is when Jesus spins the tale of the rich man and begins by warning them that God judges the heart. We must trust the judgement of any Lazarus to The Heart Knowing God (Cardio-Gnosis i.e.Acts 1:24!!!) and then we can see him here as just a foil in this story of the heart of the rich man. The rich man in the immediate context is a picture of the money-loving, outward-appearance-judging, I-am-blessed-because-I-am-rich-look-at-me Pharisees. But I am painfully thankful that you point out that he may be unnamed so that my name can be inserted.
    Great writing. Painful…but good. And now I better go fill some bags with donations for the rescue shelter…

    • mtsweat says:

      I really appreciate your ability to make sense of the plain sense. I do see why some choose to read more into the parable, even make the story’s focus minimize the “I am my brother’s keeper” central message, but I think in the context of the culture (and the audience as you wisely point out) that Jesus was crystal clear with this parable.

      I’m enjoying A-J Levine’s approach to the parables. She investigates their meaning through Jewish eyes. How cool is that?

      I’m also reading Cho’s Overrated right now, which makes a post like this double-convicting for me, as he acknowledges it is really easy to spend a lot of time thinking about the right thing to do, and yet never do it. Quoting Tolstoy, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

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