Chapter Twenty-Eight


THE key to the meaning of a parable is either in the parable itself or in the context surrounding it. In this case the key is in the context.

The chapter which contains the parable under review opens with another parable, that of the unjust steward. Its essential lesson is that men who do not put their earthly possessions to a use which will glorify God will not have entrusted to them “the true riches.” In other words, the eternal destiny of men will be conditioned on the use they make of the life and gifts of God placed at their disposal in this world.

Among those who heard this parable were “the Pharisees,” who are particularly mentioned. Their chief characteristic was love of money. The record is: “The Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things; and they derided him.” Luke 16:14.

To these covetous Pharisees in particular the Master Teacher addressed the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Before the assembled multitude He speaks to them directly, saying: “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” Verse 15.

Riches the Result of Goodness?

The full meaning of this scathing rebuke cannot be understood until we know how far the Pharisees had carried their love of money. They had come to believe that the possession of wealth was the supreme mark of divine favor and blessing. Men were rich, they believed, because they were good. Their goodness impelled God to entrust them with riches. The degree of their goodness could be determined by the amount of their wealth. On the other hand, the poor were manifestly under God’s frown. They were poor because they were evil. The degree of their wickedness could be determined by the depth of their poverty. If they were not evil and under divine displeasure, they would not be poor. The blessing of God manifested itself in wealth; His curse was disclosed by poverty.

Jesus was fully acquainted with this wholly false philosophy of the Pharisees. He constructed His parable out of the materials which this philosophy provided. As His chief actors He chose a rich man, a very rich man, and a poor man, a very poor man—to his hearers a very righteous man, the recipient of God’s favor, and a very bad man, the subject of God’s wrath. He reversed the accepted philosophy by consigning the rich man to hell and sending the poor man to Abraham’s bosom! Nothing would be better calculated to demolish the accepted Pharisaic philosophy —and create profound attention—and show that acceptance with God has little to do with worldly prosperity.

The Lord constructed this parable, as He did other parables, out of materials which were close at hand, and to suit the notions of things held by those who heard Him. In doing so it was not His purpose to either approve or to oppose these notions. When He spoke the parable of the unjust steward and described his cunning and trickiness in making “friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” it was not for the purpose of endorsing cunning and trickery, but to teach a lesson regarding the proper use of money. The sharp practice which is a part of the parable is not a part of the lesson taught.

When He spoke the parable of the unjust judge, to whom in one respect He likens Himself, the point is not to understand Him as approving of the injustice or holding up the selfish, hardhearted judge as a commendable example. When He spoke the parable of the great supper, the lesson is not that He sanctions sumptuous banquets and feasts at which there is gluttony, drunkenness, and revelry. The lessons are wholly otherwise. Nevertheless, these are the materials used to convey the lessons He had in mind to impart.

False and Ghostly Notions of Heathenism

Another thing must be held in mind in the attempt to reach a correct understanding of this parable. The Jews, and particularly the Pharisees whom He here addressed, had received and adopted very generally the fanciful, false, and ghostly notions which were held by the heathen peoples around them. The Jews had penetrated far among the surrounding nations in their commercial dealings. Many had taken up residence and carried on trade in other countries. They found the Egyptians, the Persians, the Hindus, and the Greeks holding views of the underworld of the dead in which the upright and good were assigned to regions of peace and honor, and the corrupt and bad were assigned to regions of fire. These views they made their own, and to such an extent that Eisenmenger records that “Paradise is separated from hell by a distance no greater than the width of a thread.”

That our Lord was thoroughly acquainted with the false and pagan views which they had substituted for the truths of their fathers is plainly apparent in His taking and using these false views to confound their philosophy. How exactly He couched this parable in terms of their false beliefs is obvious when their views regarding the underworld are explained. This is done by Josephus, a great Jewish historian, a contemporary, but never a follower, of Jesus. Here is what Josephus, himself a zealous and devout Pharisee, wrote about the belief of the Pharisees regarding Hades:

“Now as to hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, it is necessary to speak of it. Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region wherein the light of this world does not shine; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness. This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one’s behavior and manners. In this region there is a certain place set apart as a lake of unquenchable fire, whereinto we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day afore-determined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust and those that have been disobedient to God, and have given honor to such idols as have been the vain operations of the hands of men, as to God himself, shall be adjudged to this everlasting punishment, as having been the cause of defilement; while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined in hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined. For there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe there stands an archangel with an host; which gate when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, they do not go the same way; but the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world; not constrained by necessity, but ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see, and rejoicing in the expectation of those new enjoyments which will be peculiar to every one of them, and esteeming those things beyond what we have here; with whom there is no place of toil, no burning heat, no piercing cold, nor are any briers there; but the countenances of the fathers are of the just, which they see, always smile upon them, while they wait for that rest and eternal new life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call the bosom of Abraham.

“But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand by the angels allotted for punishment, no longer going with a good will, but as prisoners driven by violence; to whom are sent the angels appointed over them to reproach them and threaten with their terrible looks, and thrust them still downward. Now those angels that are set over these souls, drag them into the neighborhood of hell itself; who, when they are hard by it, continually hear the noise of it, and do not stand clear of the hot vapor itself; but when they have a nearer view of this spectacle, as of a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire; they are struck with a fearful expectation of a future judgment, and in effect punished thereby; and not only so, but where they see the place (or choir) of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it.”—Whiston’s Josephus, p. 824.

Source of Parable’s Materials

No one who reads this description of Josephus will have any difficulty in discerning where our Lord obtained the materials for the construction of His parable. The similarity is plain and complete. Each of them refers to Abraham’s bosom, and this is mentioned in no other place in Scripture. Each of them mentions the lake of fire, the great gulf which none could traverse, and the spirits of the good and the bad. Both declare that the good are in a condition of rest and reward, and the bad in torment.

In using the materials provided for him in the false views of the Pharisees, Jesus had no intention of approving these views. It was not His purpose to teach that somewhere in the heart of the earth there is an enormous cavern in which from the day when death struck down the first human being, the spirits of all men as they die are transported in an endless procession of both the saved and lost. He had no intention of teaching that the disembodied spirits of dead sinners have been, in this underworld, tormented during thousands of years, while the disembodied spirits of saints look on from a near-by place, so near as to find it possible to hold converse with the lost and witness the writhings and twistings of the damned and hear their shrieks and blasphemies.

One additional point should be held in mind. It is that nothing is said by our Lord regarding the characters of these two men. All that is said is that one was rich, the other poor. It is not said that one was bad, the other good. One is given a name, Lazarus, a very common name in that day. By tradition—not by our Lord—the other has been named Dives. But the parable refers to him merely as a “certain rich man.”

False Views

Expounders of this parable usually describe the rich man as proud, sensual, miserly, and every way corrupt; and Lazarus as meek, patient, prayerful, and pure in heart. But they do this necessarily because of the uses which they propose to give the parable. Nothing of this kind is said by the Lord. Nothing of this kind is any part of the parable. It is wholly imaginary and completely unwarranted and unsupported in the parable itself. It has been done so long and so uniformly, however, that to most believers it has come to seem a part of the parable itself, which it is not.

There is no slightest intimation in the actual words of Jesus that Lazarus was one iota better, morally, than the rich man. He is represented merely as poor, beggarly, diseased. He could have been all that and still be a downright sinner. Indeed, all that might have been, as is often true in similar cases, the result of sin. The parable refrains from saying. It also sheds no light on whether he was chastened and made a better man because of his afflictions.

The rich man is represented merely as rich, possessed of everything which was calculated to minister to his earthly happiness and comfort. He may have been a good man as well as a rich man. Nothing appears in the parable contrary to such a supposition—and nothing to support it. He is not accused of riotous conduct, of licentious actions, of gambling, of irreverence, of blasphemy, or violation of any law of God or man. His conduct is not criticized in any way. From Christ’s description he seems in no way blameworthy. His only fault, if it be a fault, was that of being rich, dressing in good clothes, eating good food. If that be sin, there are many sinners enrolled on church records today who are looked upon as saints. As far as the Christian faith is concerned, it is not a sin to be rich, nor is it a virtue to be poor.

Material Bodies in a Spirit Abode?

Moreover, these two persons are most surprisingly represented as taking their bodies with them into Hades, a supposedly spirit abode, and retaining possession of their physical organs and functions.

Lazarus is not said to be with Christ in heaven, where the spirits of dead saints are supposed to be. He is said to be in Abraham’s bosom and so close to the fires of hell as to be visible to the rich man in the flames.

None of this, as has been pointed out, is in agreement with the general teaching of Scripture. Nowhere does the Word of God say that the saved and the lost in the intermediate state will be conscious, and certainly not within speaking distance. There is no reasonable ground to suppose that our Lord designed by this parable to teach anything at all regarding the rewards and punishments of the future state. He had no intention of endorsing the pagan notions about the intermediate state which the Pharisees had accepted. It was not His purpose to sanction the revolting and wholly untrue doctrine of purgatory which the Roman Church bases on this parable.

Purpose and Design of Parable

What, then, was His purpose and design? What did He mean His hearers to understand by His words? What is the lesson of the parable?
It teaches a number of things of great importance. It discloses with impressive emphasis that men decide their eternal destiny in this life; that there is no probation after death; that if men in this life make self-indulgence the chief end of existence, they cut themselves off from future joy; that by their own decision they fix between themselves and God an impassable gulf; that the possession of riches is not the equivalent of the possession of righteousness; that to experience poverty is not necessarily the result of God’s frown; that the poor may be saved, the rich may be lost; that earthly riches are a trust from God, and account will be required of their stewardship.

All these lessons can be gained from the parable. But it was meant to teach more. There are certain very definite and specific things it etched into the minds of those who first heard it.

Consider the circumstances under which it was spoken and those to whom it was addressed.

Jews and Gentiles

The proud, hypocritical, self-satisfied Pharisees stood about, covetous, derisive, possessed of wealth, position, power. They claimed to be the children of Abraham, heirs of the promised kingdom, in favor with God before all other people. They looked upon other nations, all other nations, with contempt. They regarded those outside their circle, certainly those outside their nation, as scarcely worthy to eat of the crumbs which might fall from their own well-supplied table of privilege and standing with God. Indeed, they had, as a nation at least, been highly favored of heaven.

They could be rightly spoken of, and with accuracy and precision, as rich in all their high privileges. It was no exaggeration to refer to them as clothed in purple and fine linen.

In comparison with the Gentile nations about them it was a true description which our Lord gave of the Jews when He said the “certain rich man”—the Jews—fared sumptuously every day, while Lazarus—the Gentiles—was famishing for the bread of life.

Moreover, it was true that the Jews had come to suppose that the rich blessings heaven had conferred upon them were given to them as special favorites of heaven, and that the distinction between them and others, themselves as heaven’s chosen, all others as outcasts, would always exist.

The context of this parable shows that our Lord had been presenting parable after parable designed to rebuke their pride, their self-conceit, their hypocrisy. In the strongest colors He had depicted the divine displeasure of their condition and their course. He had denounced their abuse of their high privileges, and endeavored to get them to see that their hopes were vain.

He had gone so far as to warn them that their pride and self-righteous attitude would result in their rejection in favor of these very Gentiles whom they so much despised.

“Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and  gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.” Luke 13:26-30.

The Great Teacher had spoken the parable of the presumptuous guest (Luke 14:7-11) who had pushed himself into the highest seat at the feast, and who was humbled by being made to take a lower seat.

He had cautioned the Jews (Luke 14:12-14) that when they made a great dinner, they should invite, not their “friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor the rich neighbor,” but “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.”

He had spoken the parable of the “certain man” who “made a great supper, ” and of the rejection of the guests first invited because of their frivolous excuses. He described the extension of the invitation to the poor and maimed, the halt and the blind, to take the places of the rejected guests. (Luke 14:15-24. )

He had spoken the parable of the lost sheep, and the prodigal son, and of the covetous, dishonest steward.

And the total result was that they, being covetous, “heard all these things; and they derided him.” (Luke 16:14. )

Meaning Could Not Be Misunderstood

With that background, and under these circumstances, and to these smug, self-righteous people, He now speaks the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and clothes it with language, and puts it in phrases, and describes conditions, and persons, and characters, in such a searching, incisive fashion that they could not possibly miss its terrible meaning. It follows the same line He had taken in the former parables; it has the same general purpose, and that purpose was to bring home to these supremely self-satisfied, haughty, high-placed Jews, the lesson that it was the divine purpose shortly to reverse their high position in favor of those whom now they so much despised.

This, then, is a searching, impressive prophetic parable of the Jews and the Gentiles. No prophecy has been more exactly fulfilled than this. The Jews died as a nation. They lost all their high privileges and possessions. The very land which they had been given was taken from them. Through the centuries they have been outcasts, hunted, hounded, despised, oppressed as no other people in history.

On the other hand, the Gentiles have had extended to them the high privileges of the truth of God, and become sharers in the promises made to Abraham. Indeed, they are, as it were, in Abraham’s bosom, children of faith insofar as they receive the true Messiah as Saviour and Lord.

The Great Gulf Fixed

Moreover, through these centuries there has been a great gulf fixed between Jews and Gentiles, not of space, for they have been in speaking distance always, but a gulf which has kept them apart. And that gulf of separation has been amazingly preserved through the centuries. The Jews are still obstinate in their refusal to accept the true Messiah and His gospel of grace. Missionary endeavor has been less successful in their behalf than for any other people. It may well be said still, as it was then, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” One has risen from the dead to prove the accuracy of the saying, and they will not believe. They still have Moses and the prophets; and One of their own nation, the divine Son of David and of God, has risen from the dead, He of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. But they will not hear.

That such an interpretation is in exact accord with the terms of the parable will be seen by a consideration of those terms. A look again at the two persons of the parable, the rich man and Lazarus, will show they are plainly and decisively marked. The description of the rich man clearly identifies him as a representative, a symbol, of the Jews as a people.

He was “clothed in purple and fine linen.” According to the law in Exodus 28:5, 6, 8, 15, Moses was instructed to make for Aaron and the priests, the representatives of the Jewish people Godward, “garments … for glory and for beauty.”

“They shall take gold, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen … with cunning work.”

Peculiarities of Jewish Nation

These were the peculiarities of the dress, the clothing of these representatives of the law, or the Jewish system. These peculiarities our Lord attributes to the dress of the rich man of the parable. They are sufficiently identifying to enable anyone to recognize the rich man as the representative, or symbol, of the Jewish nation.

The Jews were rich in those abundant communications of truth, knowledge, and peculiar privileges which God had endowed them with by direct communications or through the prophets whom He had sent to instruct them from time to time, till at length He spoke to them “by His Son.” They were rich indeed in those high and exalted advantages over all other nations and people.

The period of their exclusive enjoyment of these privileges was their “lifetime.” The time came when these privileges were to be lost to them. That period is represented as a death. It was the death of their whole ecclesiastical polity, the loss of their standing with God as His chosen people, which ended their “lifetime” of peculiar privilege; and which extended their privileges and blessings into a more spiritual and universal system, embracing other people. This is the change which is represented as a death and a burial.

After death and the loss of all his privileges and possessions the rich man was consigned to punishment. The his-. tory of the Jews, from the destruction of their temple, city, and system of sacrifices, to this day, covering nearly nineteen centuries, fully justifies this symbolical description given by our Lord of the misery to which they would be subjected. Their history for the past nineteen hundred years removes all doubt regarding the accuracy of this interpretation. “Wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Regarding the overthrow of their city and nation and the following tribulation to come upon them, Jesus said: “These be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” Luke 21: 22.

Since the ecclesiastical and national death of the Jews— the rich man—as the people of God, there has been a claim maintained among them that Abraham is their father. It has brought them no relief.

One Raised From the Dead

The rich man in torment expressed the wish that light and information be sent to his people by a resurrection of one from the dead. To this the reply was made that one raised from the dead would avail nothing to those who rejected all the previous light God had given them. “Neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.” How true this proved to be is evident from the attitude of “the chief priests and Pharisees” when Jesus actually raised a “Lazarus” from the dead. (John 11. ) They called a council, and “from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him [Jesus] to death.” In this they demonstrated that they “would not believe though one rose from the dead.”

After they had accomplished their sanguinary purpose and put Christ to death, and He also had been raised from the dead under circumstances which should have removed all doubt regarding His deity, the same obstinate unbelief remained.

Thus, the parable, as far as the rich man is concerned, is fairly and fully carried out in the Jewish nation, illustrating the stubborn and immovable unbelief and consequent misery and torment of that people following their refusal to receive Jesus as the Messiah.

That Lazarus represents the Gentiles is equally apparent. In comparison with the blessings conferred on the Jews, they were poor. They were excluded from the temple worship, being allowed to approach only the outer court, where some of them indeed sought the crumbs of truth and knowledge which might nourish their impoverished spiritual life.

But the time came when they no longer remained in that excluded condition. The blessings of the gospel were extended to them, the privilege of becoming Abraham’s children by belief in Abraham’s seed. So they passed out of the pitiable state to find themselves in Abraham’s bosom, partakers of that covenant which God made with Abraham. “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:29.

The parable has nothing to do with the state of the dead. The parallel between the history of the Jewish people and the parable spoken by Christ is too plain, too complete, too perfect in all its specifications to admit of any interpretation other than the one here given.

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