Dives and Lazarus
This story is often studied to discover the “what” of judgement. Yet it seems most in keeping with the context and content to read it as a parable. And, though we will learn much about the nature of judgement, undoubtedly it was the “who” of judgement that would have shocked Jesus’ hearers:
“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21)
The figure of verse 19 is commonly known as “Dives” since this is Latin for “rich man.” His riches make us think of the Pharisees who were listening, since verse 14 has told us that they loved money. He’s also a royal figure, clothed in purple. And later we learn that he has five brothers (v28). This points us in the direction of Judah who had five full-brothers and was the bearer of the royal line. Everything about this rich man would make the crowds confident of his eternal destiny.
On the other hand, Lazarus was wretched. His name is a transliteration of Eleazar. Given his close relationship to Abraham (v22) it makes us think of Abraham’s Gentile servant from Genesis 15. So not only is he poor and pitiful, he’s also an outsider to the covenant people of God. Yet, as we’ve come to expect now in Jesus’ right-side-up kingdom, everything gets turned around:
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” (Luke 16:22-23)
Death is the great leveller and judgement the great reverser of fortunes.
Verses 22 and 23 would have fallen like a ton of bricks on the crowds. The Pharisees – still reeling from their portrayal as the elder son – now have the implications of the prodigal son parable spelt out. Effectively Jesus is saying, “Let me make it even clearer – being shut out of the feast means the torments of hell! And all the while, those people you despise are flocking to the kingdom!”
“And [the rich man] 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. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” (Luke 16:24-26)
Notice that there is no intermediate state, such as purgatory. There is also no fluid state – “a great gulf is fixed.” And notice that Abraham’s bosom (paradise), as well as Hades (the more literal translation of “hell”), as well as the life of Dives’ brothers is all contemporaneous. There is no “soul sleep” of the believer while we wait for the general resurrection. The living and the dead; the damned and the saved are all conscious at once.
Perhaps it’s most striking of all to note that the rich man hasn’t changed a bit. He was mercilessly bossing Lazarus around in life and he continues to want to do it in death (“send Lazarus”). It has well been said before that hell was in Dives before Dives was in hell. The same self-serving spirit that possessed him in life is just that hellish impulse that will dominate him forever. But even as he “abandons all hope” himself, he makes this request:
“Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31)
Is the spiritual deafness of Israel’s elite so profound? Will they really be so unresponsive to heavenly warnings? Jesus says, “They already have rejected such warnings. They have failed to listen to the clear words of Scripture. Not even the resurrection itself would convince them!”
As an Anglican minister I am called on to take the funerals of people I have never met. Often I won’t know where the deceased stood with the Lord. But I do know one thing as I stand by their coffin and as I read from Moses and the Prophets, from the Gospels and the Epistles. As I speak from Scripture about the One who did rise from the dead, this story assures me of what the deceased wants me to say. Wherever they are now, they would urge me to “testify to their brethren!” And with Scriptures in hand I have a summons as compelling as resurrection itself!
Therefore Luke 16 would encourage me to testify something like this: Do not trust in wealth, in status, in pedigree, in religious accomplishments – do not trust in yourself at all. Come as a beggar to the One who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, to the One who rose from the dead. He still “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” Seek him today because tomorrow is promised to no one.