There may be no more debated and misunderstood parable than that of the rich man and Lazarus. Some have debated whether or not this story is a parable. The wording, however, bears clear resemblances to Jesus’ other parables and there is no good reason to suppose that it is anything but a parable. Others have drawn all sorts of theology from this parable about heaven, hell and eternal judgement, which completely misses the point by ignoring the context.
The context of the chapter and the preceding parable must be kept in mind as we read this one. In the previous parable, Jesus warned his disciples not to be like the money-loving Pharisees, whose entire motivation was to build their wealth in this life and who boasted of their wealth as evidence that they were right with God. Jesus instead exhorted his disciples to ensure that their focus was eternal. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus continues this subtle rebuke of the Pharisees.
It is helpful to consider that the basic story told in this parable was shared by many similar first-century folklores. Hugo Gressman has suggested that there are at least seven different versions of this particular story, while N. T. Wright observes, “The story carries clear echoes of well-known folk tales, to which Jesus is giving a fresh and startling twist.” The twist to which Wright refers is the destiny of the characters. In other versions of this story, the rich man typically awakes in paradise, while the beggar ends up in torment. Jesus flips the story on its head like a modern-day teacher telling the story of Cinderella in such a way that Cinderella is the villain and the stepsisters are the heroes.
In the previous parable, Jesus subtly rebuked the Pharisees for trusting in riches rather than relying on and submitting to God’s word. The punchline of this parable is much the same and highlights Jesus’ real point. The lesson in this story has nothing to do with heaven and hell and everything to do with the Pharisees’ idolatrous view of wealth.
In the parable, Jesus tells of an unnamed rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. This is the only time that he uses a proper name in his parables, and it serves to humanise the beggar. In Pharisaic thought, wealth was exalted and beggars despised. Jesus flips this thinking on its head.
When both the rich man and the beggar die, the rich man—rather unexpectedly, compared to similar stories—ends up in torment while the beggar ends up in paradise. The rich man begs for someone to be sent back from the dead to warn his living brothers about their dreaded destiny if they will not repent. He is told, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” When he objects that they will only believe the words of one resurrected, Abraham responds, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
This is the crux of the message. The Pharisees believed that their wealth was sure evidence that they were right with God. They looked to their material welfare for eternal confidence. Jesus warned that wealth was no guarantee of divine favour and illustrated his point by portraying the rich man in torment and the beggar in paradise. He then urged his disciples to realise that, rather than trusting in their wealth, as the Pharisees did, they should trust in God’s word. Wealth was no guarantee of favour with God. Only God’s word pointed to the true way of salvation and obedience to his word was the surest evidence that someone was right with God. In their love of money, the Pharisees had once again missed the mark.
Like the Pharisees, we have a tendency to misplace our trust. We may not place our trust in our wealth (then again, we might), but we might place it in our Christian heritage, our Bible reading, our prayer life, the regularity of our church attendance, or our compassion to the needy. We may try to earn God’s favour with our good works. We may look to worldly philosophies to discover the secret to pleasing God. Jesus’ parable points us back to Scripture, the only sufficient source for gospel truth and godly living.