Perhaps in all Scripture no passage has been so grossly misunderstood as Luke 16:19-31. Certainly this passage has been at the root of the pagan idea that an "intermediate state" will exist between death and resurrection. Not only so, but the entire chapter does not appear, to a cursory reader, to be well connected, with the result that it is not easily understood.
Moreover, as Archbishop Trench observed long ago, "The Great Teacher in parables allowed Himself no transgression of the established laws of nature, in nothing marvellous or anomalous; He presents to us no speaking trees or reasoning beasts." This is true in all the Lord's thirty parables, excepting one, which we are now examining. Eight of the other parables are taken from agricultural or pastoral subjects, while twenty-one are connected with domestic affairs. All of them might be matters of daily occurrence, common in every condition of life, and easily understood by all. These parables are pictures "laid aside" one in order to drive home a truth.
But the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is very different from all the others. No longer do we read of the flock or the field, the farmer or the household. Instead we become aware of a world entirely new to us, with a place of torment and a place of bliss. The atmosphere is supernatural. Here are people who have died, yet they can converse with each other, even in flesh, and apparently in blood. Lazarus reclines in the bosom of Abraham, far off from the Rich Man, and seemingly a river separates the two parties, all in the Unseen or Hades. There is nothing like this strange scene elsewhere in Scripture.
Why does the Lord so suddenly develop this parable, without giving the explanations which we would like to see? Have we in this chapter only a number of disconnected statements or stories? Certainly not; the Lord is pursuing very much the same course all through. From verse 14 to verse 31 He has two principal ideas: the rejection of the Pharisees, and the permanence of the Law. In the parable of the Unrighteous Steward the Lord gave general lessons on the proper use of worldly wealth. In verse 13 the Lord shewed that one cannot slave for God and for worldly wealth or mammon. There must be undivided service and devotion to God. Naturally, the Pharisees, who all along were too fond of money, derided the Lord, who here broke off what He had in mind to tell them, and told them instead what we find in verses 15 to 18. That is why these four verses have the appearance of being fragmentary. The Lord was interrupted by the sneers of the Pharisees, but answered them bluntly, as they deserved. If the account seems abrupt, it is at least quite natural. Pharisees who pushed themselves into the front rank and sought to justify themselves, or shew themselves as " coming up to standard," were merely abominations before the eyes of God. They could not tolerate the spiritual sense in which the Lord took the Holy Law, while exposing their appearance of great sanctity, when they were really full of avarice and greed.
So the Lord continues: "The Law and the Prophets—as far as John; thenceforth the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing himself into it. . . ." Nevertheless, it is easier for the heaven and the earth to be passing by than for one ceriph of the Law to be falling. Then the Lord adds, in close connection with the same Pharisees, verse 18 concerning their adultery.
The Pharisees made a great shew of righteousness through their zeal for the Law, at the same time accusing the Lord of not giving the Law its proper place. So the Lord replies that the Law is permanent, and that adultery goes against that Law. He tells them that a new age is commencing, which will terminate their dominion. Formerly they had made their pedestal the Law and the Prophets, but now their reign was over, and any man could now enter the Kingdom of God. Their legal system, whereon they had built their throne, was about to crumble, while the Holy Law which they had ignored and violated would remain as the age-long expression of the Divine Holiness, and as the standard whereby they would eventually be judged. Their professed zeal for the Law was nothing but a hypocritical pretence, because they relaxed its obligations by their traditional glosses concerning marriage and divorce, even putting away a wife for the most absurd and trivial reasons, and thus allowing adultery.
Here we note a contrast between the end of the legal economy and the permanence of the Law.
Having rebuked the Pharisees, the Lord now proceeds without interruption, and returns to His chief objective, namely, what He meant by faithfulness in the unrighteous mammon (v. 11). So He cites the case of a wealthy person who was not faithful, the Rich Man.
It has often been pointed out that verse 19 is connected directly with what goes before by the little Greek word de, meaning "yet" or "now." "Now a certain man was rich," or, "Now there was a certain man, rich and dressing himself in purple and cambric." The meaning is not that he became rich. The word" now" proves that the Lord was still addressing the Pharisees, and it is evident that what the Lord said was aimed at them.
Lazarus, on the other hand, is not even termed a man; he is merely "a poor one." His name signifies in Hebrew "My God helps," or "God is my helper."
It must be noted that not one word is said by Luke in favour of either man or in disfavour. Their characters are not described. One was rich and the other was poor and ill. The parable is as far as possible from declaring that poverty will be rewarded and riches punished in the next world, apart from all moral desert. That would not be fair or right. The Divine standard is different. However, the implication must be that the Rich Man was selfish, just as "gentlemen" are often selfish and self-indulgent. He may have seen that scraps of food were doled out to Lazarus every day, and Lazarus would no doubt be grateful for the favour.
Yet the main lesson of the Lord, throughout the whole parable, was quite in line with His usual teaching—the inculcation of that love from man to man and from woman to woman of which the proud Pharisees were so deficient; and the stern warning that as the right use of wealth will help men on their way to eonian glory, so their abuse of wealth will help them on their way to eonian shame and sorrow. The Rich Man had obtained in full his good things in life, while Lazarus had got evil things.
Elsewhere in the New Testament there is no description of the realities of the unseen world. Not even the other Lazarus (John 11 and 12) has anything to say about his brief abode in the Unseen.
The fact that the Rich Man and Lazarus are represented as still possessing bodies in the Unseen, similar to those they had on earth, shews that the situation was not real. The Rich Man had died and been entombed (Luke 16:22), which means that his spirit must have returned to God, while his soul no longer existed. How then could he possess eyes and a tongue, and how could he be in anguish in a burning fire? Lazarus, too, possesses a finger. The whole imagery presupposes that Abraham, the Rich Man and Lazarus are still in the body, and surrounded by bodily conditions. Could anyone imagine such conditions as existing after the Lord died?
In Hades the two compartments are depicted as visible from one another, so that the blest witnessed the sufferings of the lost, while the lost could view the felicity of the blest. And yet, between them, an impassible gulf or ferry, which however did not prevent them from talking to each other. The Rich Man's prayer reaches a departed saint, and Abraham receives it without rebuke. There is no hint in the New Testament of anything similar, and had the prayer been real, the fact would justify the many superstitions of the Church of Rome.
The Rich Man, too, is not dead to all good action. He possesses at least one fine quality, even in his anguish, for he is very anxious concerning his five brothers, whose conduct, he knows, would make them liable to sharing his own sad fate.
It has often been objected that it is inconceivable that the Lord would use such imagery if He knew that it was only a caricature of the truth. It must be evident that the Lord gave the proud Pharisees a most effective dose of their own medicine, because chapter 17 commences without one word about their whereabouts, and the Lord is now addressing His disciples, face to face. Indeed, in verse 5, He is with His apostles, a term occurring in the four Gospels only nine times in connection with the Twelve. Apart from the three cases where the Lord gives their names, the word "apostles" is used generally of private gatherings.
Evidently the Pharisees must have slunk away, completely silenced by the Lord's withering words, just as they had slunk away in John 8:9, "Now those hearing came out (Middle Voice; each one on his own account) one by one, beginning from the elders, to the last." Seemingly, everyone of them had been guilty of the same crime with which they accused the woman. Not a single one of them was "incapable of sin" (anamartEtos), so that he might be "a first one to be casting a stone at her."
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century A.D., tells us something about the opinions of the Pharisees: "Every soul is incorruptible, yet there migrates into a different body that of the good only, but that of the bad is being chastened with unseen punishment." As for the Sadducees, "They do away with the duration of the soul, and the punishments and honours in hades" (Jewish Wars book II., ch.8, para. 14). That is to say, the Sadducees did not believe that the soul lived on, whereas the Pharisees believed the soul was incorruptible. The Sadducees held that souls died with their bodies. (Antiquities book XVIII., ch. 1, para. 4). Here I ought to caution readers who may possess Whiston's Josephus or Brenton's translation of the Septuagint and Apocrypha, that these translations are very loose and inexact. Whiston gives his own interpretation by inserting the word eternal before punishment, instead of the word unseen; and inserting before the word duration, "the belief of the immortal."
In his "Antiquities" Josephus also tells us that the Pharisees delivered to the people a great many observances not written in the Law of Moses, which the Sadducees rejected (book XIII., ch. 10, para. 6).
That these Pharisees preferred their traditions to the Scriptures is demonstrated by Matt. 15:1-9, where the Lord calls them hypocrites. Yet when the Pharisees discovered that the Lord, who based His teaching upon the written Scriptures, was calmly and boldly making use of one of their own ridiculous and childish fables against them, it seems that His clever and ironical manoeuvre had been too much for them.
Such men thought that the possession of the good things of this life implied that God was favouring them, just as many think today. The parable was intended to teach them how little real happiness depends on wealth. The Rich Man's fault did not lie in his being rich, but in his selfishness, his indifference to others, apart perhaps from his relatives. Abraham too was a wealthy man, but he was not selfish. In verse 25 it is "thy good things" which the Rich Man gets hold of, whereas, Lazarus only gets "the evil things." The good things were selfishly appropriated by the Rich Man. Yet this verse does not teach either salvation by poverty or judgment because of riches.
As for the five brothers, their danger lay not in wealth, but in their lack of repentance in view of the Law and the Prophets. The Prodigal Son could come to himself, rise up, and go to his father, and admit that he had sinned (ch. 15:17-18), while the Steward of ch. 16:3 was so concerned that he "said within himself," What shall I be doing? Here was change of moral concern, but it seemed to be impossible to get the heart-hardened Pharisees to come to repentance. Had they made it their business to study the Law and the Prophets seriously, instead of superseding them with fanciful and trivial inventions, they might have become humble. How realistic is the statement attributed to Abraham, "They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them go on listening to them" (verse 29). But the Rich Man thought this was ineffective, and was sure that "if ever someone from dead people may be caused to go to them, they will be repenting." But Abraham retorts, "If to Moses and the Prophets they are not listening, neither, if ever someone out from dead people may be rising, will they be persuaded."
And not very long after, Some One did rise out from the dead, yet that extraordinary fact failed to bring the Nation to its senses, with the result that Israel for nineteen hundred years has been continuously in a state of torment, humiliation, and shamefacedness, and without any clear expectation in the world, until the Nation repents.
The gross misinterpretation of the Parable since the Dark Ages ought to teach us the need for,a very careful study of the Scriptures. Even today the great mass of Christendom is plagued by a totally false explanation, which is likely to endure till the Lord comes. Many famous scholars have tried to explain the Parable in a sense which flatly contradicts the rest of the Scriptures, thus making the Bible seem to contradict itself. Certain teachers have found it wiser to say nothing at all about the Rich Man and Lazarus. Yet our principle ought to be, that wherever there is a difficulty, in Scripture, we must have faith that a solution lies somewhere awaiting us.
A.T. Last updated 12.6.2006