Some wrongly insist that of all Jesus’ parables, this single one is to be taken literally, because first names are used like Abraham and Lazarus. If you’re interested, here you can find a well-written piece providing much evidence that this is indeed a parable and not a literal illustration. In this post, I’m going to look at who or what is represented by Lazarus, the rich man, and their death. It’s essential that we understand that this parable is simply a continuation and elaboration of what Jesus was saying in the preceding verses during his conversation with the religious leaders of Israel. Here is what Jesus was saying which led to this parable (NKJV):
“Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. 15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. 16 “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. 17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail.18 “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Now) There was a certain rich man…”
Allow me to rephrase what he said to make his meaning more clear:
“You (Israel’s religious leaders) make sure to appear righteous in the sight of men, but God is not fooled. He sees the corruption of your heart and detests your hypocrisy – using the allegiance and respect of men for your own gain, while in reality you are blind, foolish, and spiritually destitute. Therefore, according to the will of God, a new season of spiritual reality has begun, beginning with John. God no longer regards those who keep laws, but those who seek the Kingdom of God with spiritual violence. But woe to you, religious leaders, because the law cannot go unfulfilled, and since you are bound to the law by oath like a marriage, it would be like adultery for you to pursue the spiritual Kingdom of God outside of the constraints of that law.”
The Rich Man:
To those in Jesus’ day about 2,000 years ago, the rich man typified the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the Jews (the word “Jew” refers to the descendants of Judah, which is relevant as you’ll see). You’ll notice, in the parable Abraham refers to the rich man as “child.” This is because, as scripture says clearly, the Pharisees saw themselves as children of Abraham (and thus entitled to the blessings promised to him)1. Genesis chapters 29-30 state that Abraham’s descendant Judah, from whom the word “Jew” originates, had five brothers, and in the parable the rich man specifically mentions his five brothers. So this rich man represents the Jewish religious leaders, who Jesus so often warned and derided. The Pharisees live on in scripture as a representation of those among God’s people who promote and follow the way of religion. Therefore, for us today, the rich man in this parable represents those who promote the way of religion, which is that of natural understanding, natural perception, self-awareness, fear, and attempting to appear good or gain favor with God by a code of conduct and set of beliefs.
Jesus purposely describes the lifestyle of the rich man like this: (Darby Translation): “…he was clothed in purple and fine linen, making good cheer in splendor every day.” Purple was the color of royalty, and linen was worn by priests. These then represent the rich man’s royal lineage as a descendant of Judah and his elevated status as a religious leader. The Pharisees’ were content and confident (“good cheer”) in their law-keeping and knowledge, and they enjoyed the respect of other men due to their outward piety and grandiose appearance and behavior (“splendor every day”). But as we see in the parable and as Jesus said elsewhere, they did nothing to help those they saw as “beneath” them, certainly not at the expense of their comfort or their law.
Religion began the moment Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (which I wrote about in more detail here), and the twisting of mind/heart that happened at that time still pushes us toward religion today. The spirit of Christ will push us towards freedom and the establishment of the kingdom of God, based on love. Jesus was warning us that while the way of religion can be appealing, it is subtly very dangerous. Religion offers many enticing benefits and appears wonderful on the surface, seducing many well-meaning men and women into following it whole-heartedly, and once they are within it’s constraints, religion uses various means to keep them there, such as providing comfort, promising reward, threatening punishment, and persecuting or ostracizing those who would leave. But in the end, religion brings nothing but spiritual destitution, torment and death.
What’s amazing and scary is how similar Jesus’ description of the rich man is to the description of the immensely evil Babylon the Great in Revelation 18, who is described this way: “…she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning; for she says in her heart, “I sit as a queen and I am not a widow, and will never see mourning.’ 3 The rich man and Babylon are kindred spirits, both typifying blind, stubborn, deceptive religion, which fuels pride and self-centeredness, but for which Jesus died to free men from (among other purposes).
The name Lazarus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Eliazar,” which means “surrounded/helped by God.” (It’s not a coincidence that according to Genesis 15, Abraham’s chief servant and one-time heir was Eliazar! More on that next time). In Jesus’ day, Lazarus represented those (mostly Gentiles) who desired to be a part of God’s people, but remained helplessly shut out and oppressed.
Lazarus desiring the crumbs from the rich man’s table reminds me of Mark 7:25-29, where a Gentile woman comes to Jesus asking him to cast a demon out of her daughter. He tells her that the children (Jews) should be given bread (God’s favor and blessings) first, then the dogs (Gentiles). But the woman replies that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. This answer, which demonstrated authentic and prophetic faith, impressed Jesus and her daughter was immediately set free. Unlike the rich man (religiously confident Israel/Judah), Lazarus had no supply of bread (law and prophets, Jewish bloodline and covenant, doctrine).
Lazarus was oppressed by evil spirits and evil men (the dogs licking his wounds), but was unable to improve his situation, remaining oppressed until he and the rich man “died.” For us today, Lazarus represents the violent kingdom-seekers who Jesus said were replacing those whose confidence before God was in their religion based on the law and prophets. The Lazarus kingdom-seekers are humble, desperate and often overlooked and shunned by the religious; people who desire God from the heart and are not confident in their own knowledge or works. Religion tends toward routine and rigid formulas, but the Spirit doesn’t work that way. Of the two men, Lazarus was actually the one blessed in God’s sight, because as Jesus said in the “beatitudes,” the blessed are those poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peacemaking, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pure in heart, and persecuted for righteousness…4
Their Death and “Afterlife”
After describing the state of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus literally says “it came to be” (meaning God’s timing/season had arrived) that both died, at the same time! That is very significant!!! Remember Jesus saying immediately before telling this parable that the law and prophets were “until” John? Since John had already come, Jesus was saying there was a new season in place and the old season had ended, or “died.” The death of the old season came to both types of men simultaneously. Death in this parable represents the ending of the season of the law and prophets which began with Moses. The “afterlife” in this parable represents the effects of the new season. Once the law was fulfilled and superseded, the tables turned. The rich man became tormented, as he lost all his comforts and basis for his self-righteousness, while Lazarus begins to be comforted by Abraham, who Paul’s writings remind us predated Moses and the law, and whose promise from God was not attached to the law or prophets, but was attached to Christ. The new season, still in effect today, was that of the spiritual, violent kingdom-seekers, of whom Jesus was the first and of whom we have the privilege and right to be as well.
Rich man = Jewish religious leaders (and those today who promote/uphold religion, especially at the expense of sacrificial love).
Lazarus = Gentiles and seekers of God’s kingdom who had been shut out of covenant/fellowship with God.
Death = the ending of the season of the law and prophets.
Afterlife = the dramatic change resulting from the beginning of the new season of spiritual Kingdom-seekers.
With the primary characters and their death now explained, in my next and final post of this series I am going to look more at what Jesus describes after death and what the ramifications are for us today. Thank you for reading, God bless you.
1.Matthew 3:9, John 8:39
Genesis 29, 30