This section of
Scripture has been more misunderstood by students of the Bible than many other
parts of the divine revelation. There is a definite reason for it! It is the
assumption that Christ is relating a story of literal occurrences, rather than
an account rehearsed in parable form. The truth is, however, the narrative is a
parable from beginning to end. Once this important point is understood, the
meaning becomes clear and significant.
A sure and quick
way to inflame the wrath of some preachers and Christian laity is to say the
story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable. They will not have it! The mere
suggestion that the account is symbolic is enough to bring on the charge of
"theological liberalism." To many people today the normal bedrock of teaching
concerning Christís judgment upon sinners rests with the literality of this
story. And one must admit, it shows a judgment of severest consequences! It
seems to state, in vivid and graphic detail, the condition of wicked sinners
after death. They appear to be conscious, in extreme torment, engulfed in flames
that will never be extinguished and that they will remain in such excruciating
pain for all eternity. And true enough, if the account of Lazarus and the Rich
Man is not a parable of thoroughly symbolic meaning, this would be their fate!
Such a scene is
so horrendous to imagine that it is no wonder vast numbers of fearful people
walk down the aisle to accept Christ after hearing a sermon on the literality of
the story. It never seems to occur to such preachers that this consignment by
Christ to a never-ending judgment for sins committed in this short life, makes
Him to be the most unjust and unreasonable person in the universe. Simply
because someone in China or the Soviet Union (to pick two atheistic countries)
never had a chance to hear of Jesus Christ and His redemptive message, and
confine him to a never-ending HELL is beyond belief for a merciful and loving
God who sent His only begotten son to save and redeem this world (John 3:16).
However, this interpretation is part of the exact scenario being preached in
many churches and revivals today. And letís face it, that is precisely what
ought to be taught if Lazarus and the rich man is a literal narrative.
there cannot be the slightest doubt that the whole account is a parable from
start to finish. What many people conveniently fail to realize is the proclivity
of teachers, speaking in early Semitic languages like Hebrew (or even in Greek
when speaking in a Semitic environment), to constantly use the symbolic or
parable form of teaching to the people they taught. Christ was no exception!
things spoke Jesus unto the multitudes IN PARABLES and without a parable spoke
he not unto them. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,
saying, ĎI will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been
kept secret from the foundation of the world.í" Matthew 13:34Ė35
Parables are a
form of storytelling in which the physical features of some well-known subjects
are exemplified to relate an essential spiritual teaching. On many occasions the
incidents are greatly exaggerated to heighten the teaching. One famous example
is that of Christ when he said the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds (when
everyone knew it was not) and it becomes the greatest of trees (which again was
not literally true). See Matthew 13:32. No one in the first century would have
thought that Christ was stretching the facts. Of course he was! But it was a
simple form of teaching that all people were using in that time. 1
Since we are
told dogmatically that Christ was always in the habit of speaking to the people
in parables (as a common mode of instruction in the Semitic world of the first
century), why do people today insist on the literality of symbolic language,
while people in Christís day normally did not? Note one thing that the apostle
Paul said which has to do with the fire of judgment, yet no one in ancient times
(or even today) takes literally. Paul said: "If your enemy hunger, feed him; if
he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap COALS OF FIRE on his
head" (Rom.12:20, from Proverbs 25:22). This mention of the fires of judgment on
a person was only intended in a figurative sense. It shows that a personís
conscience would be "singed." No literal fire was meant!
And so it is
with the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man! No one with common sense could
possibly believe that Christ was giving literal teaching. The whole thing is
figurative from start to finish, and anyone who says differently should examine
the matter closer.
Let us now look
at the subject carefully. In no way should a person believe that literal acts
were being discussed by Christ. Practically every detail of the story has a
symbolic meaning to it, and this can be shown so clearly. When a person adopts
an erroneous literality to the account, the message that Christ was trying to
convey is destroyed and its true symbolic meaning is tarnished!
The first thing
to notice is the fact that Lazarus ate of the crumbs that fell from the Rich
Manís table. Now, are the crumbs literal or symbolic? If literal, then tell me
how Lazarus would have had enough to eat? A few measly crumbs could hardly feed
any grown man. Obviously, Christ meant that the man ate the scraps (intended for
dogs or other animals). However, the literalists would demand real crumbs so
they can get the Rich Man into a real burning hell!
Then it says
that Lazarus died and was carried by the angels into the bosom of Abraham. Where
was Abrahamís bosom? Some people say it signifies the heavenly abode, heaven. In
fact, the bosom of Abraham actually means the breast part of his body. Can they
get Lazarus and ten million other redeemed Christians in that one bosom of
Abraham? There would not be any room to breathe, let alone stretch ones arms.
All people, however, rightly recognize that Christ is here giving a symbol.
True! That is just the point that we wish to make! If one part is figurative,
all can be!
We then find
that Abraham is able to carry on a conversation with the Rich Man and that
Lazarus could be seen with Abraham, though the text says that Abraham was "afar
off." How were they able to talk with one another? If Abraham and Lazarus were
in heaven (as many preachers claim today), it shows that the redeemed would
still be in constant contact with the rebellious sinners in hell and that the
redeemed would be seeing their tortured and agonized faces as they writhed in
unrelenting pain. Indeed, they are close enough to be in conversation with them!
Can you imagine the joy and happiness the saints would have while viewing the
agony of all the wicked in hell for all eternity? But if this story of Christ
were to be taken literally, that would be the outcome. What glory would it be to
see your unredeemed father, your unconverted mother, sister, brother, son,
daughter, wife or husband having to experience the rigors of an eternally
burning hell without any relief ever in sight, while you bask in the sunshine
and happiness of Abrahamís bosom? And remember Abraham was close enough to carry
on a conversation with the Rich Man. And the Rich Man was close enough to
Lazarus to recognize him.
that is highly irregular of our experience is the fact that the Rich Man was
able to speak at all. Would he not more likely be screaming his head off at the
terrible excruciating pain that he was being subjected to? Again, if the account
is literal, we find a most impossible situation in the story. Even more than
that, what does the Rich Man seek from Lazarus? It is not to drag him out of the
fire, but simply to take a drop of cold water and put on his tongue. Why, the
Rich Man ought to know that such a thing would not relieve his pain in the
slightest! How can a drop of physical water give benefit to a spirit being (as
the Rich Man would be)? The water, if literal, would turn into steam before it
could do any good. And why did not the man ask Abraham to bring the drop of
water to his tongue to cool it? Abraham was far closer to the Rich Man, or at
least it looks this way because there was no conversation with Lazarus. What was
so special about Lazarus that his drop of water would cool his tongue, but
Abraham was not asked for any help?
The point is,
the whole scene (though instructive and significant in what our Lord was trying
to teach) is impossible to explain sensibly if Christ was teaching fact.
However, make it a parable (as it truly is, remembering that Christ would not
teach without a parable), then the message becomes beautiful and understandable.
Again, everyone knows Paul did not mean literal "coals of fire on oneís head" in
The True Story
The story of
Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable (Matthew 13:34). Once this is recognized
the interpretation behind the narrative can become quite meaningful. It is also
very important to note the context in which the parable is found. There was a
reason why Christ spoke this parable at that time. Christ had just given His
teaching about the unjust steward who had mishandled his masterís money (Luke
16:1Ė13). This parable was told to further illustrate what proper stewardship
Let us first
consider the identification of Lazarus. This is the only time in Christís
parables that a personís name is used. Some have imagined that this use of a
personal name precludes the story being a parable. But this is hardly true. The
name "Lazarus" is a transliteration of the Hebrew "Eleazar" (which means "God
has helped"). The name was a common Hebrew word used for eleven different
persons in the Old Testament.
analyzes the parable, this Eleazar can be identified. He was one who must have
had some kind of affinity with Abraham (or the Abrahamic covenant), for the
parable places him in Abrahamís bosom after death. But he was probably a
Gentile. The phrase "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich
manís table" was typical of Gentile identification (see Matthew 15:22Ė28). Even
the phrase "laid at his gate" is reminiscent of the normal one used by Jews to
denote the Gentile proselyte "Proselyte of the Gate." This Eleazar must also
have been associated with stewardship because Christ gave the parable precisely
for the reason of explaining what represents the true steward.
There was only
one Eleazar in the historical part of the Bible that fits the description. He
was a person associated with Abraham, he was a Gentile (not an ethnic part of
the Abrahamic family), and a steward. He was Eleazar of Damascus, the chief
steward of Abraham.
"And Abram said,
ĎLord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my
house is this Eleazar [Lazarus] of Damascus and lo, one born in my house is mine
heir.í" Genesis 15:2Ė3
Long ago it was
suggested that the Lazarus of the parable represented the Eleazar associated
with Abraham (Geiger, JuJ Zejtschr., 1868, p. 196 sq.), but for some reason very
few modern commentators have taken up the identification. But once this simple
connection is made, a flood of light emerges on the scene which can interpret
the parable with real meaning.
The Lazarus of
the parable represented Abrahamís faithful steward Eleazar. And faithful he was!
Though he had been the legal heir to receive all of Abrahamís possessions
(Genesis 15:3), Abraham gave him an assignment which was to result in his own
disinheritance. But the Bible shows he carried out the orders of Abraham in a
precise (and faithful) way.
said unto his eldest servant of his house [Eleazar], that ruled over all that he
had, ĎPut, I pray thee, your hand under my thigh: and I will make thee swear by
the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a
wife unto my son [Isaac] of the daughters of the Canaanites.í"Genesis 24:2Ė3
to do what Abraham desired, although the fulfillment of his task meant the
complete abandonment of Eleazarís claim to any of Abrahamís inheritanceóboth
present and future! Each step that Eleazar took northward to procure a wife for
Isaac was a step towards his own disqualification. Eleazar recognized this, for
he admitted to Laban, Rebeccaís brother, that "unto him [Isaac] hath he
[Abraham] given all that he hath" (Genesis 24:36). There was nothing left for
him! Thus, Eleazarís faithfulness to Abraham resulted in his own disinheritance
from all the promises of blessing which God had given to Abraham. They were now
given to Isaac and his future family. That inheritance included wealth,
prestige, power, kingship, priesthood, and the land of Canaan as an
"everlasting" possession. But now Eleazar was "cast out." He and his seed would
inherit nothing. Thus, the parable calls Lazarus a "beggar" who possessed
nothing of earthly worth.
Who Was the Rich
The Rich Man was
an actual son of Abraham. Christ had him calling Abraham his "father" (Luke
16:24) and Abraham acknowledged him as "son" (verse 25). Such sonship made the
Rich Man a legal possessor of Abrahamís inheritance. Indeed, the Rich Man had
all the physical blessings promised to Abrahamís seed. He wore purple, the
symbol of kingship, a sign that the Davidic or Messianic Kingdom was his. He
wore linen, the symbol of priesthood, showing that Godís ordained priests and
the Temple were his. Who was this Rich Man who possessed these blessings while
living on the earth?
tribe that finally assumed possession of both the kingdom and priesthood, and
the tribe which became the representative one of all the promises given to
Abraham, was Judah. There can not be the slightest doubt of this when the whole
parable is analyzed. Remember that Judah had "five brothers." The Rich Man also
had the same (verse 28).
"The sons of
Leah;  Reuben; Jacobís firstborn, and  Simeon, and  Levi, and Judah,
and  Issachar, and  Zebulun." Genesis 35:23
"And Leah said
... Ďnow will my husband be pleased to dwell with me; for I have born him six
sons.í" Genesis 30:20
Judah and the
Rich Man each had "five brethren." Not only that, the five brothers of the
parable had in their midst "Moses and the prophets" (verse 29). The people of
Judah possessed the "oracles of God" (Romans 3:1Ė2). Though the Rich Man (Judah)
had been given the actual inheritance of Abrahamís blessings (both spiritual and
physical), Christ was showing that he had been unfaithful with his
responsibilities. When the true inheritance was to be given, Judah was in
"hades" and "in torment" while Lazarus (Eleazar, the faithful steward) was now
in Abrahamís bosom. He was finally received into the "everlasting habitations"
"A Great Gulf
The parable says
that a "great gulf" [Greek: chasm] was fixed between the position of Abraham and
Eleazar and that of the Rich Man [Judah]. What was this chasm? The Greek word
means a deep ravine or valley ó a great canyon with cliffs on each side. Its two
sides were also "afar off" from each other (verse 23). It was "a great gulf
fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they
pass to us, that would come from thence" (verse 26). Note the italicized word
"pass." In all other occasions of its grammatical use in the New Testament, the
word was used to denote a passage over water. And in Greek imagery of the abodes
of the dead, there was usually some kind of water barrier between the righteous
dead and the wicked ó either a river or ocean. This is also represented in
Jewish conceptions of the compartments for the dead ó "by a chasm, by water, and
by light above it" (Enoch, ch. 22).
It was also
common for many chasms (those described in Greek literature) to have water in
their regions of deepest declivity. Let us now look at such a chasm from a
Palestinian point of view. In that environment there is only one possible
identification for the "great gulf" of the parable if it is to fit the meaning
of the Greek chasm precisely. This would be the great rift valley between the
highlands of Trans-Jordan and the hill country of Ephraim in which the River
Jordan flows. This fault line is the greatest and longest visible chasm on
earth. And what a spectacular sight it is! As one looks over the chasm he sees
impressive cliffs on each side, a desert in its wastelands, and the River Jordan
meandering in the center.
chasm of the parable with the Jordan rift unfolds a beautiful symbolic story
well recognized in contemporary Jewish allegorical narratives of the time. In
the center of this "gulf" was the River Jordan. It divided the original land of
promise given to Abraham from ordinary Gentile lands. The west side of Jordan
represented the area that the Bible considered the original Holyland. As the
angel said to Joshua: "Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon
stand is holy. And Joshua did so" (Joshua 5:15). When the Israelites finally
entered the chasm of the Jordan and crossed the river, they then considered
themselves in the Holyland the land promised to Abraham and his seed!
land of Canaan (west of Jordan) was also a symbol of final spiritual salvation.
The author of Hebrews recognized that Israelís crossing of the River Jordan
under Joshua (and the taking of the land of Canaan) was typical of Christians
obtaining their true "rest" in the future Kingdom of God (Hebrews 3:1Ė4:11).
Even American Negro spirituals with which so many of us are familiar ("crossing
into Canaanís land") are reflective of this early symbolic theme.
Recall also that
the Rich Man was depicted as being in flames of judgment (verse 24). In this
same rift valley were formerly located the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which
were "set forth for an example suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude
cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making
them an ensample unto those who should after live ungodly." 2 Peter 2:6
allegorical applications are understood, the teaching of the parable becomes
simple and instructive. The theme of Christís narrative was true stewardship.
Though Eleazar [Lazarus], Abrahamís trusted steward, had disinherited himself
from earthly rewards by his faithful obedience to Abrahamís wishes, he was later
to find himself (after death, when true inheritance comes) in Abrahamís bosom.
But the chief representative of Abrahamís actual sons (Judah, the spiritual
leader of all the Israelite tribes) remained East of Canaan as far as true
inheritance was concerned. He had inherited all the physical blessings while in
the flesh, but at death he was not allowed to pass the spiritual Jordan into the
final Abrahamic inheritance.
because of rebellion, he was not allowed to pass the "great gulf" to enjoy the
land of milk and honey. True enough, Judah had been blessed with the kingship,
priesthood, the divine scriptures, the prophets, and other untold blessings, but
he was not allowed to enjoy the true spiritual blessings of the future because
he was unfaithful with his sonship and was refusing the true message of
salvation offered by Godís own Son. Christ said: "Neither will they he
persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:31).
The only Gospel
to carry the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was Luke who was the companion
of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. It showed a specific message that Gentiles
could now inherit the promises to Abraham provided they were faithful as Eleazar
had been. Yet Paul did not want the Gentiles to be conceited in their new
relationship with God.
Israel hath not obtained that which he seeks for ... God hath given them the
spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, ears that they should not
hear; unto this day." Romans 11:8
But "Have they
stumbled that they should fall? God forbid" (verse 11). "Now if the fall of them
be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the
Gentiles [like Lazarus-Eleazar]; how much more their fullness" (verse 12).
One of these
days, according to Paul, "all Israel shall be saved" (verse 26). God will show
mercy on the natural sons of Abraham as He has on faithful Gentile stewards.
This shows that the hades, the purple, the linen, the torment, Abrahamís bosom,
the great gulf, and even the persons of Lazarus and the Rich Man were all
symbolic and not literal. After all, the narrative was a parable.
Summary of the
1. The Lazarus
of the parable was Eleazar, Abrahamís steward (Genesis 15:2).
2. He was a Gentile "of Damascus" ("a proselyte of the gate") who "ate the
3. He was disinherited (to become a beggar) but he remained faithful to Abraham
4. When this earthly life was over, he received Abrahamís inheritance after all
(he was in Abrahamís bosom) ó in "everlasting habitations."
5. The Rich Man of the Parable was Judah. This son of Jacob had five literal
brothers as did the Rich Man.
6. He was also a literal son of Abraham, while Eleazar (Lazarus) was not!
7. The Rich Man (Judah) also had the kingship (purple) and the priesthood
8. Yet Judah (representing God on this earth) was not the true steward of the
9. Though he and his literal brothers had been graced with the "oracles of God"
(the Old Testament) they would not respond to the One resurrected from the dead
10. The "great gulf" was the Jordan rift valley the dividing line between
Gentile lands and the Holyland of promise (Abrahamís inheritance). Crossing the
Jordan was a typical figure recognized by the Jews as a symbol of salvation.
these factors are recognized, all the points in the parable (with its context)
fit perfectly to give us some simple but profound teachings of Christ. It shows
that the physical promises of God (though excellent) are very inferior to the
spiritual redemption that anyone (Jew or Gentile) can have in Christ.
Ernest L. Martin, Ph. D., 1984