What the hell, Lazarus?

Once again, thanks for your questions and comments during our Heaven and Hell series on Sunday mornings. It’s been good to hear your thoughts and address some of them as we go along. I got a good one this week asking about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16…

In contrast with Matthew, Mark and John, Luke wrote his gospel (and the book of Acts) from an almost journalistic point of view. He seems to have “interviewed” people who knew and were with Jesus, as well as Christians who continued on after Jesus’ ascension, which is probably why Luke tells more of Jesus’ parables than the other gospel writings (twenty four in all). I have former junior high students who are now in their 30’s that can quote some of the stories I used as illustrations in my many deep theological teachings as a youth pastor. They may have long-since forgotten what the deep theological teachings were, but they somehow remember the stories–verbatim. As I read Jesus’ parables I can imagine Luke sitting down with former lepers and previously shunned women remembering the life-giving and life-changing stories Jesus told them as they traveled together before he died. That’s the genius of parables–people remember a good story better than a good sermon. 

By the time we get to the parable of Lazarus (not to be confused with the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead), Jesus had been working overtime, masterfully weaving a vivid tapestry of eyebrow-raising, dogma-destroying, temple-toppling, Sadducee-slaying parables. The entire Judean countryside was buzzing with his scathing indictments of the arrogant religious elite, matched only by his proclamation of God’s extravagant grace for the least, last and lost. Every story was punctuated with, yet another, miraculous healing or harrowing exorcism–unmistakable indicators of his authority and power. Widows, orphans and foreigners loved him. Pharisees, Sadducees and young rulers wanted him dead.

In our efforts to discern what Jesus was trying to say to the people around him–and then understand how it impacts us–we have to look for the ways his teachings connect before we can look at any particular one on its own. Jesus was on a mission. Every story he told, every demon he cast out and every miracle performed pointed toward the bigger picture–his bigger message. Luke seems particularly interested in making two major points in his presentation of Jesus’ parables. First, God is the unrivaled champion of the poor, the oppressed and the outcast: the prodigal son, the lost coin, the lost sheep, healed lepers and crippled women were all powerful examples of how extravagantly Yahweh loves and cares for hurting people. The second point Luke underscores in his gospel is that God’s great love for the lost walks hand-in-hand with his profound disgust and disdain for those who would cause harm to his beloved children: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”!

The reason this is important is that the interpretation of any particular parable will always be rooted in the larger message of the gospel as a whole. Think of it this way, if Luke had a tattoo it could likely be a quote from Proverbs, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 

So, what’s the deal with Lazarus? This parable in Luke 16 is often titled, “The Rich Man and Lazarus”. The story is about a rich man who lives lavishly and selfishly, and Lazarus, a poor man who sits on the porch outside his house. Lazarus is pitiful–covered in sores (complete with dogs licking his sores) and longing for food scraps from the rich man’s table. Both men die and, while the rich man finds himself in Hades, Lazarus is escorted by angels to be with Abraham. In his agony (apparently there is fire involved), the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus down to give him even a few drops of water to ease his pain. When Abraham refuses, the man asks that Lazarus be sent back to his house to warn his five brothers of the torment that awaits them in the afterlife. Of course, Abraham denies him that request as well saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”.

If you’re tracking with me so far in our larger conversation about heaven and hell, you might have a guess as to what I’m going to say about this parable: it’s not about heaven and hell.

 Open your Bible and read Luke 16–the whole chapter. It starts with a parable about a guy getting fired and ripping off his boss. It ends with Jesus saying, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” (we don’t have time to get into that one). Next, Jesus is being ridiculed by the Pharisees for teaching that they cannot serve God and money, so he accuses them of loving the things God hates. Then he calls them out as adulterers for divorcing their wives and marrying others’ divorced wives. Safe to say, things were getting heated (no hell-pun intended). On the other side of the Lazarus parable, in chapter 17, we find Jesus’ statements about rocks being tied around peoples’ necks and being tossed into the sea.

“There was a rich man who…feasted sumptuously every day…” The Lazarus story is strategically placed in the middle of this string of scathing images and harsh reprimands from Jesus directed toward those who worship money and power. The rich man loves being rich and feels no shame whatsoever in giving Abraham the order to send Lazarus to take care of him (as if Abraham is his equal and would understand the request). You may also notice the rich man never says a word about where he finds himself after he dies. Jesus had just finished teaching that you can’t worship God and money–you have to choose one or the other. The “rich man” in the story obviously chose money–it’s the closest we get to a name for the guy. He made a conscious decision to enjoy a life of luxury and doesn’t seem surprised to end up in Hades after he dies. The only comment he really makes about where he winds up has to do with his extreme discomfort and that, if he can’t be helped, he’d like to give his family a heads up that things are worse than they might expect. *It’s worth pointing out that Hades in this parable is a reference to “the place of the dead”, similar to Sheol in the Old Testament. Typically, when Jesus refers to the final punishment of the condemned he uses the word, “Gehenna”.

Lazarus, meanwhile, is firmly planted at Abraham’s side (a more literal translation would be “in Abraham’s bosom”). He is healed and safe and face to face with the first man to be chosen as one of God’s precious people–Father Abraham. This story reveals and illustrates volumes about the heart of those who God deems as righteous and the delusions of those who assume they must be doing something right if they have such great lives this side of death. The diseased and oppressed and lonely and poor who gathered around Jesus would likely never forget his message–God redeems the suffering of this life and justice will be served to those who worship the gods of money and power. The wealthy and powerfully abusive Pharisees at the edge of the crowd could not have missed the fact that Jesus’ bitter depiction of the rich man was aimed directly at them.

So why do we get distracted from the central message of this parable and, instead, fixate on where the story takes place (Hades and Abraham’s Bosom)? I can think of three big reasons that time and space won’t allow for this week’s email. We will continue the discussion next week, but in the meantime, let me make sure to be clear on something: the context of this story is not irrelevant or unimportant. It is not a bad thing to include the story of the rich man and Lazarus in conversations about heaven and hell, however, we have to be extremely careful in how we use Jesus’ parables in establishing Christian doctrine. 

In talking about heaven and hell, we have established a short list of non-negotiables–what the scriptures make clear that we must all agree on: the real story is about heaven and earth…in order for sin and evil to be eliminated, justice must be served…Jesus is the just judge who will bring a final and irrevocable judgment to all people and there will be a line drawn between the righteous (who are gifted eternal life with God) and the condemned (who are separated from God’s presence and punished for their sin). These points are clearly made and affirmed in the entirety of the scripture narrative. Outside the non-negotiables, we can talk and reason and debate different interpretations of the afterlife without violating the foundational truths of the Bible.

The same guidelines can be applied to parables. We have to ask ourselves what Jesus’ primary message is in the story: how does it connect to the surrounding stories, actions and teachings in that passage, and in what ways does it reflect how that particular author (in this case, Luke) is presenting the gospel story of Jesus? Once we establish the main point, the peripheral details of the story are interesting and important, but not necessarily meant to stand alone as pillars of doctrine. I’m excited to see where this takes us in the next few weeks!



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