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The Life of Jesus - Series 9: Episode 7

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 16:16-31

The parable is directed at the Pharisees and links to the previous parable. It warns against letting wealth and possessions distract from following the Law of Moses and the Kingdom of God. There are two eternal destinies after life.

The parable is directed at the Pharisees and links to the previous parable. It warns against letting wealth and possessions distract from following the Law of Moses and the Kingdom of God. There are two eternal destinies after life.


Hello, and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 7. We're talking about the ‘Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus’. This is found in Luke 16: 16 - 31. 

Introduction and Recap

The wider context of Series 9, is the ongoing journey to Jerusalem that we've discussed in some detail in many earlier episodes. A more precise context is to say that at this particular point, Jesus is telling a whole variety of different parables, and Luke records some remarkable parables at this time of Jesus' ministry, all of which are incredibly helpful for us. We've seen recently the Parable of the Great Banquet, and the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son or the Prodigal Son - the three famous parables of Luke 15, which we looked at in two separate episodes, and which tell us so much about what it means to be lost and what it means to be found by the grace of God. Especially powerful is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which has such a strong place in Christian teaching, because it tells us so much about the grace of God, the love of the Father, and the depth of sinfulness that humanity can get itself into, and our need of his forgiveness.

In the last episode, we looked at the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, which is the first half of Luke16, the passage that immediately precedes the one that we are going to look at in this episode. This is an interesting and challenging parable. Those of you who listened in on the last episode will know that this is quite complex and difficult parable to understand, but if you can get into the heart of the parable, it becomes clear that Jesus is focusing in on the question of money and wealth - and the power that comes with money and wealth, the selfishness and the corruption that comes with it, and the conflict between our general interest in money, and the priority of the Kingdom of God. We see a man who was corrupted - the steward, the shrewd manager - corrupted by money, and yet he was operating shrewdly. Jesus commended his shrewdness, but did not support the corruption of his attitude towards money and selfish ambition. That was the parable that we were looking at in the last episode, and the focus is around the power of money and wealth.

The Rich and Religious Pharisees

The way that parable ended with a discussion in verses 14 and 15 about the Pharisees is very significant, because that links that parable directly to the parable that we're going to look at today, and the other related teachings that come just before it. Before we start, let's quickly go back and see what Luke tells us at the end of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Verses 14 - 15,

‘The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight.”’

Luke 16:14-15, NIV

There are several things about this that are important for us. First of all, the Pharisees are listening carefully, and are identified unambiguously as being materialists - lovers of money - and that's a point of corruption, and it's a negative statement. They sneered at Jesus for telling this previous Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus challenges them saying,

‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight.’

Luke 16:15, NIV

Jesus here is identifying the status, the power, and the comfort that comes from the accumulation of lots of money and possessions. He is accusing the Pharisees of aiming at the power, prestige and comfort of money and possessions as a goal. He's indicating that he sees them as having a materialistic goal, despite the fact that they were religious leaders in the community. That's a fairly powerful criticism of them. He says,

‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others.’

Luke 16:15, NIV

How do they justify themselves? They are accumulating money, but they justify themselves by saying that they are very religious. They're religious and rich, and it's possible to justify accumulating a lot of money with a religious reason. Many people in different religions do exactly that, and in doing so, they're following the Pharisees. They were doing it in the time of Jesus. Jesus says that you may value your status and all you get, but it's of no value to God whatsoever. He is looking at the heart, but they are the ones who justify themselves by saying how religious they are. The way they do that, as we've seen on many occasions previously, is by identifying themselves as those people who follow the Law of Moses most strictly, and accurately. They are legalists. They follow the Law, and they've created all sorts of other laws that were not written in the Old Testament, and added them in, and encouraged, or taught the people to follow all sorts of very restrictive religious laws, but none of this restricts their interest in money and possessions. This is something hidden in the story of the Pharisees for the most part, but it comes to the surface here.

Jesus' Teaching to Introduce the Parable

This is the reason why Jesus teaches a few things in verses 16 to 18, which are an introduction to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and are a link to the previous parable and this conflict going on between the Pharisees and Jesus. They really didn't like what he said about money. Jesus goes back to some important teachings about the Kingdom of God and the Old Testament Law, just to get in perspective what's really happening through his ministry, and to challenge the Pharisees, who are hiding behind the fact that they say they are obeying the Law very strictly, therefore they're very religious, therefore they're right with God, and therefore their concern for accumulating money doesn't matter.

Verses 16 to 18, I'm going to read phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and try and get a feeling of what Jesus is saying here. Verse 16, ‘“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.”’ This is a reference to John the Baptist. The Law and the Prophets is a reference to the Old Testament - the Old Testament teaching, including the Law of Moses, and all those regulations that the Pharisees loved to talk about. They were all proclaimed until John the Baptist came. ‘“Since that time, the good news of the Kingdom is being preached”’. Jesus is here saying there's a new message coming, through John, and through Jesus and through his Apostles and disciples. A new message is coming, which is basically that the Kingdom of God has arrived, and the period of time where the Old Testament Law ruled over the Jewish people is coming to an end. ‘“The kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”’ Jesus has referred to this concept when he taught earlier on, in a similar way, as recorded in Matthew's Gospel. ‘Everyone is forcing their way into it’. People had to use force to get into the Kingdom of God to follow Jesus, because they were being prevented by the Pharisees, and other religious leaders who were saying, ‘No, no, no, we don't want this new message! We're sticking to the Law of Moses. We're sticking to our regulations.’ It took a bit of effort and force to say, ‘I'm going to break away from that. I'm going to follow Jesus. I'm going to believe in him. He's the Messiah. He's coming to bring a new covenant. He's coming to bring salvation. He's going to be dying and rising again from the dead.’ They're forcing their way in.

Verse 17, ‘“It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the law.”’ Jesus here is saying he's not disregarding the Law or abolishing it. It's still God's word, but as is stated clearly in Matthew 5: 17 - 20, Jesus isn't abolishing the Law, but he is fulfilling the Law. It's coming to its conclusion because something better is following it. It still exists, but it's not having the same authority as the message of the Kingdom is coming. Then in verse 18, Jesus takes an example of the fact that in the Kingdom of God, as he's proclaiming it, there is a high ethical standard, as high an ethical standard as there was in the Law of Moses, if not higher. He takes a single example - he could have taken a whole variety of different examples. In fact, if you read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, you'll find Jesus takes a variety of examples and he shows that the Law of Moses is intensified in its application in the Kingdom of God, because it's to do with the heart and the inner attitude. He takes the example of divorce and remarriage. Jesus takes a very firm line on this. We find out from Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, that the only exception he gives that allows for divorce for those who are believers is sexual unfaithfulness of one partner. The other one is then freed to legitimately divorce, but here he's making a more general statement:

‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

Luke 16:18, NIV

This is an example of the high moral standards that Jesus is maintaining, and even intensifying, in the message of the good news of the Kingdom of God. He's basically saying that although the Pharisees justify themselves by saying that they are obeying all of God's Laws, and they are more or less the perfect example of religious behaviour, Jesus said first of all they're corrupt because they're chasing after money, power, prestige and second, he's pointing out that as the message of the Kingdom of God comes, Jesus' message honours the Old Testament Law, and also maintains high ethical standards. It's not a free for all for people to do whatever they want.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Now we move on to the actual parable. The parable again has the theme of riches, money, possessions. The parable is directly connected to what was said about the Pharisees in verse 14, and it's directly connected to the theme of money that's in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. There's a continual theme. Jesus tells another powerful and incisive parable that really makes people think. We're going to read it now.

‘“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’

Luke 16:19-31, NIV

There's always a main point in every parable, and the main point here surrounds the significance of riches, and the way that they have lost all significance in the eternal world, and they pass away completely, and they're not worth pursuing. This is a story of extreme contrasts, the story of extreme wealth and extreme poverty; a rich man in a very wealthy home and estate, compared with the beggar on the street who is absolutely destitute. This is a story of the extreme contrast between heaven and hell, two different eternal destinies. Jesus often in his parables, and in his teaching, will indicate that there are two eternal destinies for every human being, and this is a central part of his teaching, and here that same reality comes out in the form of teaching within a parable. There is Abraham's side and there is Hades. Abraham's side is a representation of heaven, of eternal life for the redeemed. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. This would make a lot of sense. People anticipated that they would be with Abraham in the afterlife in some mysterious way in the Old Testament period. This is a symbol or an image of heaven, eternal life, and Hades is a place of torment, and Jesus often indicates that conscious suffering is part of eternal life for those who have not been saved, who have not believed, who've turned their back on the message of Jesus Christ. Immediately after death, this parable tells us, we enter into eternal life of one sort or another. We're either in the place of the redeemed, or in the place of the condemned, the place of the unbelieving, where there is suffering. We see here this unbridgeable gap. These aren't two destinies that are joined by a road that you can walk along. They are separated by an incredible chasm, an incredible difference. There are two eternal destinies. The shocking thing about this story is that the rich man ends up in terrible suffering, and the poor man ends up in great comfort and joy. But then, the rich man calls out to Abraham in this conversation, asking him to warn his family, his five brothers, not to neglect their religious duties and end up in the situation that he found himself in. He says,

‘“Let them warn them so that they will not come into this place of torment,”’

Luke 16:28, NIV

but Abraham replied, verse 29,

‘“They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.”’

Luke 16:29, NIV

Here's the ultimate irony of the situation. The teaching of Moses, tells the Jewish people unambiguously to care for the poor, and that's why Abraham says, ‘They have Moses, they have the prophets.’ For example, in Exodus 22: 21 - 23

‘“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. 22Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. 23If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.”’

Exodus 22:21-23, NIV

Chapter 23: 6,

‘“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.”’

Exodus 23:6, NIV

Verse 9,

‘“Do not oppress a foreigner.”’

Exodus 23:9, NIV

And so the story goes on. You find time and again in the Law of Moses that caring for the poor people in the community is actually a central part of their religious duty and yet, that has been completely ignored by the rich man. He has totally ignored the poor man at his gate for what appears to be a long period of time. It's a shocking story, and it concludes with the thought that even if someone should rise from the dead, it's not going to convince people, even if Jesus should rise from the dead.

The Significance of the Parable

Let's make some key observations about the significance of this story. It's a well-known story, it's vivid; it's clear. First of all, it indicates the eternal realities of heaven and hell, and the separation and the different destinies. The parable itself is supported in those convictions by the more formal teaching of Jesus elsewhere. We need to think about the significance of Lazarus. Lazarus didn't enter into eternal life and bliss and heaven and Abraham's side because he was poor. No, if we connect this story to the previous statement, we find in verse 16, as we discussed a moment ago,

‘“Since the time of John, the good news of the Kingdom is being preached. Everyone is forcing their way into it.”’

Luke 16:16, NIV

People are believing. We can assume, if you connect that thought with the story here, that this poor man who had nothing in this life, chose to believe the message of the Kingdom as he heard it. If we contextualise the parable with that immediately preceding teaching, we can see an interesting connection here. Despite opposition from religious leaders, this person who had no material wealth - he was in absolute poverty - was believing the message of the Kingdom and believing in Jesus. The implication is that the rich man was doing the exact opposite. He hadn't even taken any notice of the Law of Moses, concerning caring for the poor. He was obviously preoccupied with his materialism, and this goes back to the theme of the whole chapter; it goes back to Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees who loved money (verse 14). Jesus is saying that their love of money and status is of no value to God. It's not worth pursuing, it's an idol, it's something completely false, and just like the Pharisees are pursuing money, so the rich man here pursued his own abundant, selfish lifestyle. He is a symbol of those who resist the Kingdom, when the message is coming. Very often, it was the case in Jesus' teaching and experience that the poor people responded more quickly to the message of the Kingdom when it came.


Some concluding reflections. This parable primarily is about the deceitfulness of riches, and the way they hinder us from responding to the message of the Kingdom. The parable is aimed at the Pharisees and people like them, because they are in the immediate narrative. Jesus is talking to them at the very point that he delivers this parable. Wealth and possessions can have such a hold over us that it prevents us from hearing the message of the Kingdom and taking it seriously. We ignore it because we've got what we need, and we're chasing after something else in this life.

My second reflection, just to summarise the situation of these two men in the story, Lazarus was not saved because he was poor, but because he believed. The rich man was not damned for being rich, but for not caring for the poor, or believing in the message of the Kingdom of God. If we take together all the teaching of Luke 16, - these two parables and the short teaching in between the two - it is a very forthright, powerful, warning that Jesus is issuing. That warning was issued to people in his own generation primarily, which included, alarmingly, the religious leaders themselves, who turned out to be moneymakers as well. But that warning comes over to us, centuries later, and for us the issues are the same. They might be the same for you, as you're listening to this episode. Is the pursuit of money, possessions, security, comfort and status preventing you from making that big and radical decision to believe in the good news of Jesus? If so, you put yourself in a most vulnerable, and dangerous situation, because when your life ends, your riches will be gone, your status will be gone, everything you've worked for will no longer be available to you. You will face your maker, and you'll have to answer the question, ‘What did you do when you heard the message of Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the message of the Kingdom of heaven?’ That's really the thrust of this message today, and the point of this parable. Let us not be deceived by pursuing wealth.

God desires very much to provide for our needs, to provide sufficient. We can always ask him to meet our needs, we can pray the prayer: ‘Give us today our daily bread’ every single day of our life. God is committed to providing for us. We should avoid at all costs trying to build up a rich and affluent lifestyle as a means of self-fulfilment, gaining status and comfort in this life, because that becomes a blockage to receiving the good news of Jesus Christ. It ends up deceiving us, and the message today from this parable is to warn us not to be deceived and to give everything to follow Jesus Christ. Sometimes, that requires force, and that's what we see in verse 16. ‘“The good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”’ Maybe some of us need to be forceful and determined to overcome a preoccupation with materialism and possessions and put our trust in Jesus Christ and make the Kingdom of God our number one priority.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Can you think of examples from your own life where seeking after wealth or status had become a priority?
    2. Is being wealthy a bad thing?
  • Discipleship
    1. How has God provided for you? Give examples and then thank him.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What responsibility do rich Christians have? How can this be encouraged?
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