Summary: Death is the great leveler. Not all rich men go to hell, nor do all poor men go to heaven. It was how Lazarus lived his life before God, and how the rich man squandered his opportunities, that determined their differing destinies.
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
It was against the Pharisees who were lovers of money that Jesus spoke the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It is a sad story, which shows two men in quite different lifestyles in this life, and the fate of each of them in the life to come.
1. The rich man, however important he thought himself to be, is not given a name in the Gospel. He is a man with fancy clothing and plenty of food, and a house big enough to have its own gate. Other people existed only to serve and pamper him. Even in the place of torment he imagined that Lazarus should be sent to serve him, cooling his tongue or carrying messages to his brothers.
2. Lazarus was a poor man. Lazarus’s poverty was so great that he had to sit begging at the rich man’s gate. Even bread, the basic food, was not readily available to him, and he would gladly have eaten the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.
Lazarus was sick, no doubt from malnutrition and the inability to maintain his health. The poor man could never afford doctor’s fees. The only compassion he received was from the dogs that came and licked his sores. This was not a hygienic thing to allow.
The only dignity that remained to poor Lazarus in this life is that he is given a name. The LORD God knows His own people, and calls them by name.
3. So the beggar died. We hear of no funeral, but rather of the angels carrying his soul to the bosom of Abraham. By this we may conclude that Lazarus was truly one of God’s children, a true son of Abraham living by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the repentant thief on a cross was told by Jesus, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
At death, the souls of believers enter into heaven. Their bodies remain in the earth. The Apostle Paul speaks of this state for Christian believers as being “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Thus they remain until the return of Jesus Christ.
4. The rich man also died. In this at least the rich man and Lazarus were equal. Death is the great leveller. “Death comes to all men and after death the judgement” (Hebrews 9:27).
The rich man was buried. In his case we do hear of a funeral. We can imagine that there would have been hired mourners, as was customary in their land. There may have been public orations from relatives and friends, and from flatterers who hoped to benefit from his legacy. This is the way of the world.
We do not, however, hear of angels bearing his soul to heaven, but rather of his immediate torment in hell. We may conclude from this that, whatever his upbringing or religious affiliation in this life, the rich man had not been a godly man, a true son of Abraham through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Whilst Lazarus was ushered immediately into paradise, the rich man had no place there. “There shall by no means enter heaven anything profane, but only those who are written in the Book of Life” (Revelation 21:27).
The rich man was sent to hell. This is the fate of the wicked, and of all that forget God.
5. The difference in judgement between the rich man and Lazarus was not simply a reversal of their social status, but a fair judgement on how they used their opportunities in this life. Not all rich men go to hell, nor do all poor men go to heaven.
It was not the poverty of Lazarus which guaranteed his acceptance into heaven, but how he lived his life before God. He begged, but he did not steal. Jesus makes no mention of the man publicly bemoaning his difficulties, or blaming others, or entering into political agitation, or condemning the rich man’s apparent heartlessness. That is all for God to judge.
Despite his poverty, Lazarus had learned contentment, as many do. More than this, he had learned the fear of the LORD - otherwise he would not have been received into heaven. “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD, than great treasure with trouble” (Proverbs 15:16).
Likewise, the rich man was not condemned to hell because of his riches, but rather for his missed chances. He had every opportunity to show compassion to the poor man at his gate, but does not appear to have done so. Surely he also knew the Hebrew Scriptures: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).
6. The separation between the rich man and Lazarus was full and final. When we die, we go to our respective places, either to heaven or to hell. We are judged on the lives we have lived, and on how we have used our opportunities to repent of a bad way of life by turning to our Lord Jesus Christ. We make our decision in this life, because after death there is no more opportunity for repentance. “If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall lie” (Ecclesiastes 11:3).