Summary: A deep exploration into Luke 16:14-30 with emphases on understanding the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in context.
In these tough economic times, panhandling is a common scene. Visit any sizable city and it seems there is someone on every corner asking for money. No doubt, a few desperately need help; nevertheless the majority of panhandlers are taking advantage of the generosity of others. It is enough to make you numb to the problem of poverty and thus help no one. Worse yet, we could begin to think of ourselves as superior people because we are not like the poor person holding the sign. Our Lord told a parable of a rich man who whose heart was numb to the plight of a panhandler. In this passage Jesus challenged the conventional thinking of His day regarding riches and poverty and in the process taught His disciples the importance of using money to aid the poor.
Some debate surrounds the question of whether or not this is a parable or a factual story. Generally, those who believe this passage relates the events of a true-life story base their argument on two facts. First, they say, since this story is not introduced as a parable is should be views as a factual story. However, three other stories in Luke’s gospel are not introduced as parables but are recognized as such: The Good Samaritan (10:30-37); The Great Banquet (14:12-24); and The Unjust Steward (16:1-8). Therefore, just because a parable lacks a formal introduction that alone does not disqualify it as being a parable. The second reason put forth for why this is not a parable is that the poor man has a name, Lazarus. This fact is seen as significant since no other character in our Lord’s parables is provided a proper name. However, this argument fails to take into account the meaning Lazarus’ name and how it fits into the context of the parable itself, something that we will do in our study. But, someone might ask, “Why does it matter whether this is a parable or a factual story?” They would be right; ultimately it does not matter so long as the central message of this story is kept in context. Nevertheless, it has been my experience that those who are adamant about calling this a factual story do so in order to discuss, as they call it, the intermediate state of the dead and tragically ignore the powerful message our Lord taught about riches and helping the poor. Throughout this study I will refer to this story as a parable.
Our parable is set within the context of our Lords’ teaching on the use of riches and the Pharisees’ ridiculing of His instructions. Following the Lost Parables (Luke 15:1-32), Luke recorded the parable of the Unjust Steward and its accompanying principles governing the way disciples viewed and used material possessions (16:1-13). In summary, Jesus taught that we love and serve God, and use money in this life to make friends in eternity. However, “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things and they ridiculed Him” (16:14). The underlying problem of the Pharisaical system was that they were seeking approval from “men” rather than God (16:15). Their standard of righteousness was based on outward appearances others could evaluate; thus, in their hearts they loved money more than God (16:15a; cf. Luke 20:47). Therefore, in vv. 16-18, our Lord accused those who prided themselves as keepers of the law with being its corrupters. They had created loopholes in the Law which enabled them to fulfill their sinful desires, cases in point: marriage, divorce, and what constituted adultery (16:18). The Pharisees had corrupted God’s law to the point that their righteous-cloaked greed was exalted among men; nevertheless it was “an abomination in the sight of God” (See Jesus’ rebuke of the practice called Corban; Mark 7:10-13). Our Lord’s swift two-point rebuke set the stage for the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Lord begins with a vivid picture of “a certain rich man” (16:19) who lived in lavish opulence. He wore luxurious “purple” robes; even his undergarments were made of “fine linen” and his life consisted of “feast[ing] sumptuously every day” on the finest of foods. In the mind of the Pharisees this man’s riches proved he was righteousness (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Psalm 37:25; Proverbs 13:22). So entrenched was this belief, that when Jesus taught on the difficulty “a rich person” would have entering the kingdom of God, the astonished disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:25-27).
Outside the rich man’s gate was “a poor man named Lazarus” whose body was “covered with sores” (16:20) and who lived daily on the brink of starvation. From where he laid, he could have smelled the delicious foods and heard the revelry from the daily feast. His only desire was “to be fed with” the crumbs that “fell from the rich man’s table,” and yet the rich man and his guests repeatedly ignored him (16:21a). “But instead the dogs would come and lick his sores” (16:21b HCSB), providing Lazarus his only earthly relief. In the eyes of the Pharisees, and popular culture, Lazarus was getting what he deserved because sickness and poverty were viewed as divine judgments for sinfulness (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68; John 9:2, 34). In light of his plight, Lazarus’ name seemed a mockery; “He whom God helps” appeared to be he whom God has abandoned.