The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:10–31)
At least one Reformed Baptist leader called Luke 16:16 the “death blow” to Theonomy because he thinks it means “the law and the prophets” ended with the ministry of John. The comment was something like, “I have not seen a single Theonomist deal with this verse.”
He had not looked very hard. The quick and obvious response is simply to read verse 17. There is much more to it, though.
One of the things that is an absolute must when interpreting the Gospels is to see the larger contexts in which they relates their various scenes. Luke almost always cues us to Jesus’ immediate audience. Sometimes Jesus is talking to only his disciples, sometimes to the Pharisees directly, sometimes to the people around him in general. These are important cues and Luke gives them regularly.
In this passage, the relevant larger context begins in 15:1—Jesus befriending sinners, eating with them, and preaching parables about receiving the least (or worst) of them. Then in 16:1–13, Jesus turns to his disciples privately and teaches a parable that justifies building relationships with the heathen–even at the loss of personal capital. Then follows the relevant immediate context—still part of the same larger context—when the eavesdropping Pharisees pipe up. From here to the end of Chapter 16, Jesus is pressing them regarding judgment upon them according to the Law.
Not only does verse 17 indicate that the monumental, world-altering transition mentioned in verse 16 does not mean discontinuity of “the Law and the Prophets,” this larger context does the same, in various ways. In particular, pay close attention near the end of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: what is the standard by which these men are to be judged? What is the revelation these men are expected to believe and which is expected to be sufficient for them? Resurrection from the dead? Miracles? Not here, according to Jesus/Abraham. The standard would be “Moses and the Prophets.”
“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:31).
Luke does not refer to the Law or Moses directly often. That these two references appear here together in the same discussion of Jesus shows a remarkable unity of context—in fact, they tie together the two ends of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in 16:15–31. Thus, 16:29 and 31 reinforce well what is said in verse 17. Jesus is thus hardly invoking discontinuity of the Law in verse 16. That would make nonsense of the rest of the context. In fact, it would make nonsense of the whole larger context of Jesus’ covenant lawsuit against Israel/Jerusalem that begins in Luke 9:51. No, Jesus teaches here that the Law will remain as the standard at least until the Day of Judgment.
The question remains, of course, of how the Law is to be used during this age of the Kingdom since John (and since Jesus has fulfilled it—Luke 24:44). The transformation and new application of the Law, however, is a different question altogether from the alleged abrogation of it in 16:16. That allegation, we can safely say, is disproven from the context itself.
Divorce and Disinheritance (Luke 16:14–31)
It is clear that the Pharisees understood what Jesus was saying, for they “ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14). Surely they understood Him to be defending His fellowshipping with sinners and tax collectors, and then telling the disciples to nourish relationships among the “unrighteous” wealth as well. “Ridiculed” here translates the Greek exemukterizon. A mukter is a nose. The verb literally refers to turning up one’s nose, though it was apparently a colloquialism for scorning and mocking in general. But here it could have a more literal application: the Pharisees thought themselves too pure, too righteous to mix with those “sinners” who didn’t meet their standards. They literally walked around with their noses turned up at these people, and now they did the same thing to Jesus who practiced befriending sinners.
Kingdom and Divorce
Jesus’ response shows that such pride and arrogance was the very sin of these Pharisees. The response is two-fold: the first part is direct application of the Law, the second part parable. In the first, He tells them,
You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:15–18).
Jesus then proceeds directly into the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We will discuss this parable in a moment; for now, it is important to acknowledge the continuity of the response from verse 15 through 31. In fact, the full context of the whole scene stretches from 15:1 through 17:10, and the reader should seek to interpret everything in that section as part of the same context. But Jesus’ current interaction with the Pharisees covers verses 14 through 31, and should be understood as a single coherent response. This may seem a bit troubling in that Jesus appears to be jumping between different topics rapidly: first on the Pharisees’ pride, then the Law and prophets, then the seventh commandment, then a parable about heaven and hell. But to see it this way is to miss the thread of meaning that ties the whole response together, and in fact, is to charge our Savior with a lack of coherence we should not expect from the Author of the Law itself. Instead, we need to see the common theme on which all of this hangs, and it is this: the Pharisees (indeed Israel) ignore God’s Law in the name of being the only keepers of the Law, and there is a judgment coming in which God will judge them according to the true depravity of their hearts. To see how this theme holds throughout, let us examine the first part of Jesus’ remarks:
First, Jesus responds by rebuking their covetousness. The text has already told us explicitly that they were “covetous.” The word is literally “lovers of money” (philarguroi), the same word used in 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” They had, after all, just been provoked to ridicule Jesus because they eavesdropped on the parable of the unjust manager: Jesus had just told the disciples that sometimes it is better to lose money than not have friends. Who in the world would teach that we should sometimes forgive people’s debts? (Luke 11:4.) These Pharisees had no idea how profound the issues of money and debt really are. They lived only by surface appearances, and now Jesus exposed that: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:15).
Second, Jesus rehearses the true nature of the Kingdom Law (again). The law and the prophets were until John, but since then, the Kingdom of God is preached (v. 16). Jesus is not teaching an “end of the Law and a beginning of something nicer” lesson here, for that would contradict the very next verse: “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (v. 17). No, Jesus is arguing that the Kingdom that was announced long since in the Law and prophets has arrived since the ministry of John the Baptist. It was here now. It was time to understand the fullness of the Law and the Kingdom now, and yet so few did. Instead, “everyone forces his way into it.” The RSV captures the spirit of this verse slightly better: “everyone tries to enter it by force.” This recalls the image of the many standing outside beating on the door of the narrow gate (13:25). Instead of repenting, the Pharisees ridicule and impose burdens on others. By forcing down others, they vaunt themselves as the heirs of the Law. Had they understood the true spiritual depth of the Law (see Matt. 5–7; Luke 6:20–26), they would have understood that God’s Law demands perfection of the heart; they would have therefore seen that they themselves were also wretched sinners and needed repentance.
Despite their shallow external treatment of the Law, God judges the depths of the heart (v. 15). And that perfect Law is eternal: it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the slightest part of that Law to fail (v. 17). Indeed, the Jews were about to witness the passing away of their “heaven and earth,” Jerusalem, the Old Covenant world. The passing away of Jerusalem would come as a result of judgment according to the very Law they had for so long ignored and abused. While to some it may seem a stretch to refer to Jerusalem as “heaven and earth,” Jesus will more explicitly make this application in Luke 21:32–33: after describing the coming destruction of Jerusalem vividly, Jesus adds, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is a clear reference to Jerusalem that would in fact (“will”) pass away, and would do so within Jesus’ generation. The meaning is certainly the same in Luke 16:17. The Law itself was eternal, and would stand as the bar by which Jesus would sue that generation’s adulterous/idolatrous expression of the Law.
This is why the very next verse jumps to the seventh commandment. Jesus is not switching topics randomly; this is perfectly consistent with His message. This is a divorce lawsuit against unbelieving Israel. She has adulterated the Law; she has prostituted herself in exchange for the things highly esteemed by men, but which are condemned by God (v. 15). She was an adulterer. She was also a blasphemer since she had left her true love in the name of her true love—ignored God’s Law in the name of the purest expression of the Law. She was a prostitute disguising herself as a pure virgin. Jesus brings the true Kingdom and with it the true Law. True inspection and judgment of that adulteress had come. The threat to this generation who left their love to find another was the verdict of adultery. This is what verse 18 is about.
This is why a parable about heaven and hell follows immediately. Jesus will drive home the point about the eternal nature of the Law and the coming judgment.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31)
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19–31).
Apart from the obvious context in which Jesus delivers this parable, there are two highly revealing details in it that tell us it pertains to His immediate situation. One of these ties the parable directly back to His preceding comments about the Law and the prophets and the Kingdom of God. This is Abraham’s response to the rich man near the end of their discussion. Burning in hell, the rich man finally realizes that evangelism would be a good thing—perhaps his family should be warned about this awful place. “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them. . . . If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke 16:29). In other words, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached” (16:16). This is a very clear connection that shows continuity in Jesus’ discourse. The message is clear throughout: the day of judgment has come; if you do not truly believe the Law and the prophets, you will be judged by them (cf. John 5:39–47). That judgment would not consider outward appearances—the rich man’s display of status and wealth were no indication of God’s Kingdom blessing—but would be a judgment of the heart (16:15).
The second revealing detail is less direct yet even more interesting: the clothing of the rich man in the parable. “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen” (16:19). While it is possible this is merely meant as a general description of wealth, the rich biblical theology of Jesus’ teachings spur us to dig more deeply. Purple and especially fine linen were the well-known distinctive dress of the priesthood and of the Temple. This is verified, of course, directly in the Law itself (Ex. 25–28; 35–39) and in many other allusions in the history and the prophets. In the parable, these are no casual details. They identify the rich man directly with the chief representations of old covenant Israel, the high priest and the Temple.
These “priestly” details also play a central identifying role indirectly in other places of the New Testament. They clearly help identify the Great Whore of Revelation 17–18 as Jerusalem: “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet” (Rev. 17:4). “Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste” (Rev. 18:4). This idolatrous city was a false priest of God; she was laid to waste. But the true Bride will be pure and worthy of the clothes of the priesthood. The same book tells us, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” (Rev. 19:6–9). The harlot has no right to wear the priestly clothing, “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:9), and unbelieving Jerusalem had no righteousness (Rom. 10:1–4).
The New Bride’s righteousness was not her own, it came from Christ. Christ is the true High Priest, the one who truly has the right to the priestly clothes. For this reason, He is dressed in purple (Mark 15:17, 30; John 19:2, 5) and scarlet (Matt. 27:28) during His sacrifice, though the soldiers had no idea what they were really doing; and He is wrapped in fine linen at His burial (Matt. 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; 24:12; John 19:40; 20:5–7). The Gospels thus present Jesus as the true High Priest, the true representative of true Israel, throughout the time of His sacrifice and offering of Himself to God.
So both directly (in the Law and prophets) and indirectly (in biblical theology) we have a solid witness that purple and linen refer to the representative priesthood of Israel. It is fitting, then, that as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees—pretenders to the inheritance of Israel—He would make sure they saw themselves (indeed, all of Israel) as the rich man in the parable.
It would be interesting, even more, if the Lazarus here refers to the real Lazarus whom Jesus loved and who had died and was resurrected by Christ in John 11. I doubt this highly, though. Some people have denied that this story is a parable due the fact that it does not begin with an explicit “and he told them a parable.” But this is lazy reasoning: neither the parable of the prodigal son (15:11–32) nor the unjust manager (16:1–9) which He had just told begins with an explicit designation as a parable, and more examples are not hard to find. The rich man and Lazarus is a parable, and we should resist the temptation to read more into Lazarus than the parable itself provides.
With that said, Lazarus would clearly not have been a candidate for ruler of the synagogue. He was a beggar, had no wealth, nothing, was probably diseased since he was covered with sores, and thus by all measures was a social outcast. Yet, just as the rich man’s wealth, Lazarus’ poverty was no measure of his election. Has Jesus not just painted these Pharisees a picture of Job in his misery (Job 2:7–8)? And yet we know that God restored such a man to be the wealthiest man of the east by double in the end (Job 1:3; 42:10–17). So such a man could indeed be part of the elect remnant of God’s Kingdom. Indeed, this is where Lazarus’ name becomes important: it comes from the Hebrew Eleazar, meaning “Whom God Helps.” This man has God’s grace.
The story plays out that both die: Lazarus is carried in Abraham’s bosom—a true son of Abraham—but the rich man is in Hades suffering torment. Looking up from his position, the rich man begins the dialogue with Abraham. First, he begins with a command: “Send Lazarus to give me water” (16:24). The fallen rich man, even when burning in hell, thinks he deserves to be served by others. Even in judgment he is ignorant of being judged. He remains so arrogant as to think even Abraham should obey his commands. He assumes to impose his own will in place of the will of the patriarchs, and of God. As is usual with the Pharisees and lawyers, they seek to place burdens on the backs of others in order that they themselves may be helped (cf. Luke 11:46).
Abraham refuses the request for two reasons: 1) each of their (Lazarus and the rich man) positions now was just as it should be. Judgment had come for each, and the reckoning was that God had now exalted the humble and cast down the proud. Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and the rich man in torment was all a perfectly just outcome. Besides, 2) there was a great chasm fixed between the two parties over which none can pass (v. 26). The point here is clear: the judgment is final. The application is clear, as well: Israel had her chance while Jesus was there, but once judgment comes there would be no turning back. Judgment is final, and irreversible.
The rich man, however, is not done. He makes a second request, this time less commanding but more desperate: “Send Lazarus back to warn my five brethren” (v. 27–28). He still thinks Lazarus should serve his interests, but at least he is now concerned for others besides himself. Yet Abraham refuses this request also. There is no need for sending Lazarus, the rich man’s brethren (the Jews) already have the best witness that can be given: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (29). The answer is a mini-lesson in itself: the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, and yet had ignored them and would continue to ignore them to their own destruction. The rich man himself knew them and had ignored them. It was the greatest indictment the Pharisees and indeed all of Israel could receive: that they held God’s own Word in their hand, heard it preached in their synagogues, looked the Word incarnate in the face, heard Him teach in their streets, ate and drank with Him (Luke 13:26), and yet never heard Him, never received Him.
In their unbelief, the Pharisees—the rich man—did not believe this. They demanded something more than the Word. The Word alone was not powerful enough to teach them of the truth to come, to warn them of the wrath to come. “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’” (19:30–31). Just as the Pharisees and the multitudes had already demanded a sign from Jesus, the rich man demanded a miracle (Matt. 12:38–39; Luke 11:16, 29–30). The Pharisees could not have missed the clear references to themselves all through this parable. Here Jesus portrays their unbelief of the Law-Word of God with masterful irony: these Pharisees who esteem themselves the highest example of Abraham’s children in the land, are here placed in hell, arguing with father Abraham over the power of the Law. The punch line, of course, is that they had been opposing Abraham all along (John 8:33–47). Abraham ends the discussion affirming the sufficiency of Scripture: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 19:31).
The overall meaning is clear: the Pharisees had totally ignored God’s Law and would be judged accordingly. Indeed, Israel had ignored the very oracles with which she was entrusted. Jesus had come—the Kingdom had come—and He was gathering the remnant of the elect from among them, even the lowliest sinners among them. These Lazaruses would be saved; the covetous, unfaithful priests would be damned. Thus, Jesus did not mind mingling among the sinners and tax collectors, nor teaching His disciples to befriend them as well.
There are enduring spiritual lessons here worth mentioning; they pertain to fallen human nature: First, we tend to overlook our obvious duties and opportunities for charity in this life (vv. 20–21). Second, fallen men cry for mercy after the fact of judgment; by this we see that fallen man thinks he deserves mercy even after he has been judged (v. 24). We learn that after judgment, however, is too late, and God will no longer grant mercy to the unjust (v. 25–26). Third, even in begging mercy, fallen sinners burning in hell think that they should be served by other people (v. 24). Fourth, even when rebuked for their self-deceptions, they still think other people should serve their interests somehow (v. 27). Fifth, fallen sinners burning in hell quickly develop an interest in evangelism (vv. 27–28). Sixth, fallen man wrongly thinks that displays of power or miracles will convert men’s souls (v. 30). Seventh, when fallen man has finally exhausted his own devices, he learns that he never once considered the Word of God (v. 28–30) which was right in front of him the whole time. He also learns that dogs were more merciful than he (v. 21).
Next Section: Faith and Faithfulness (Luke 17:1–10)