What We Can Learn From The Rich Man and Lazarus

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The rich man and Lazarus. Yet another great story told by Jesus that packs a punch. If you haven’t read this story you should, it’s fascinating. Read it here: (Luke 16:19-31)

Let’s look at what’s going on in this story. 

The Set Up

This story is all about the contrast between the two characters in this story, the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus doesn’t even bother to give the rich man a name in his story. Rather he let him be a representative for all who live life in such a manor as he did. He makes it clear that this man is living a lavish lifestyle, at the extent of others. This man lived his life adorned in the finest clothes, including purple, which only the wealthiest could afford, and feasting daily. This guy had it made.

In starch contrast there’s Lazarus. The only thing that adorned him was sores, and all he had to eat were scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Jesus even adds a detail that showed just how low this guy was, that dogs licked or snipped at his wounds. This detail is significant as it would have made him unclean, unable to worship properly. This was the ultimate degradation. The only thing that Lazarus had that the rich man didn’t was a name. Jesus personalizes his concern for the poor man with a name.

Jesus’ story starts with these two men whose lives couldn’t be more different. Even in their death there is considerable contrast. The rich man is buried, undoubtedly anointed with oil, wrapped, and carefully placed in a tomb. And Lazarus’ body was tossed aside; a fair assumption is that he was thrown into the city dump, Gehenna. Jesus offers detail after detail to show just how different these guys’ life, and death, really was.

Now dead, we get a glimpse of their “life” on the other side.

New Place, Same Man

This is where Jesus’ story now gets interesting. Lazarus is carried to Abraham’s side. And the rich man goes to Hades. Even in the after life they still live in contrast to each other. But now the roles have reversed. Lazarus is now living in luxury and the rich man is living in torment. Ironically he’s still called the rich man, though he now has nothing.

The rich man is now in torment, important to note he is not being tortured as many picture hell. Rather torment, and we will see that this is a self-inflicted torment not one brought on by an outside force.

While in torment there seems to be a moment of regret, a time where the rich man seeks forgiveness. Luke 16:24 tells us that he calls out for mercy. And we might feel bad for him… But we just need to read to the end of the verse to see he hasn’t changed a bit.

The rich man asks for mercy, but not mercy to be saved from his current circumstances. Rather he asks for Lazarus to be sent to Hades so that he can dip the end of his finger in water and cool his tongue. That might seem like a rather strange request, but his intent is crystal clear. The rich man wants Lazarus to once again be in a place of servitude of him. In other words he still thinks he’s more important and he wants to be the top dog. He hasn’t changed one bit.

The Hell He Chose 

Many people reading this story assume the picture Jesus is painting is hell. And it very well might be. But we shouldn’t try to take from this story what Jesus didn’t intend. This isn’t a teaching on hell. Rather a teaching on the consequences of our actions towards others.

For more on what Jesus said about hell check out this article: What Jesus Said About Hell (and what it means) 

In Jesus’ story the rich man wasn’t thrown into hell because he didn’t believe. He found himself in a place of torment because of the way he treated others, specifically Lazarus.

God is not locking the rich man away. The rich man locked himself away; he chose to go there. Even when there seemed to be an opportunity to repent and change his ways he didn’t. Instead, he demand that Lazarus come and serve him again.

Jesus ends his story with a rather sad statement, but one that will prove true. Even if someone were to raise from the dead they would not be convinced to change their ways. In a short time Jesus will do just that, but still that won’t be enough for some to change their ways.

In this story Jesus makes clear that the man is locked up in his place of torment. But the lock is on the inside. The man refuses to come out. He would rather reign in torment than be a servant in God’s kingdom.

I’ve written more on this topic here: Rethinking The Traditional Views of Hell

The Implications

This parable is both a jab at the religious leaders and hope for those oppressed. Jesus gives a warning to those that aren’t paying any attention to the needs of others. That attitude has no place in God’s kingdom. Until they repent and change their ways they live in a place of self-torment. That’s the way it has to be; true happiness is not found at the expense of others. Jesus is warning his audience, the religious leaders, that their treatment of others does not lead to where they think it does.

While a jab for some, there is hope in this story for many as well. Many listening were the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the taken advantage of. For them this story is one of hope. That one day their pain will end and they will find the life they truly desire with God.

This parable is designed to force us, the readers, to reflect on how we treat Lazarus-like people. The rich man remains nameless so that we can place ourselves in his shoes.

Where Do You Fall?

Are we like him? He clearly knew Lazarus, he asked for him by name. He knew he was in need, but he refused to even give him the scraps from his table. Lazarus was forced to gather only what fell. The rich man saw the need and ignored it. He had no compassion. Even in death he still saw Lazarus as beneath him. This story asks the question, is that you? Do you treat people like that? Do you have the resources but refuse to give them? Is your heart hardened towards those in need?

This parable shows us that we get what we ultimately want; we get what our lives were truly about. We can either reign in torment, be a god in our own hell. Or we can be a servant of God and be in paradise with Him. It’s up to us. The way we treat others shows us which direction we will take. But it’s not too late for us if we find ourselves on the wrong side of the equation. Unlike the rich man who refused to repent, we can and find the life that we were meant to have.


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