In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable commonly known as The Rich Man and Lazarus. It reads:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And 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.’ 25But 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. 26And 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.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (ESV)
The first thing we need to realize before we attempt to understand the message of this passage is that Jesus is telling a parable. This is not a report of a historical event. It is a story that Jesus is using to teach a lesson. This means that we need to focus on the main point (or points) and not the details of the story that are there to make the story work as a story.
Some will argue that this passage is not a parable because it does not begin with the phrase “And he told them a parable…” as other passages do (e.g. Luke 18:1). The argument is that since the text does not say this is a parable, we should not assume it is. The reply to this argument is that you do not have to look far to find other parables that are not explicitly called parables in the text. Just look at The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13) as examples. Neither of these two parables are identified as such in the text, but everyone accepts that they are, indeed, parables.
Another clue that our passage is a parable is that it begins with very similar wording as the parables appearing just before it in Luke. The Parable of the Prodigal Son begins with the phrase “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11). The Dishonest Manager begins with “There was a rich man who had a manager” (Luke 16:1). And The Rich Man and Lazarus begins with “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple”. The fact that it follows the same pattern as the parables before it, indicates that we are still dealing with a parable.
So, since we are dealing with a parable, let us first begin by saying what this parable does teach us:
- The rich man finds himself in Hades because he failed to show mercy towards Lazarus.
- While the rich man ironically asks for mercy while in Hades, he is told that he will not receive any and that his situation is permanent. The mention of a “great chasm” that cannot be crossed indicates the permanency of the situation.
- The primary issue that results in a person ending up in Hades is a lack of repentance. This is indicated by the rich man’s desire for his brothers to repent in verse 30.
- True repentance results in a changed life. In this case, it results in showing compassion for others in need. The rich man had a need to repent as indicated by his lack of compassion towards Lazarus.
- There is no excuse for those who refuse to hear God’s word (“Moses and the Prophets”).
- This parable does not teach us that those in heaven and those in hell can communicate with one another. This is a detail to make the story work as a story. There is no other place in Scripture that indicates that there is any communication between those in heaven and hell or any ability to see into one place from the other.
- This parable does not teach that there is a place known as “Abraham’s bosom” where the dead go. The ESV translates the phrase as “Abraham’s side.” The phrase is not meant to teach us that there is another place outside of heaven and hell. Jesus’ hearers would have understood that anyone who went to be with Abraham was in the place where those favored by God went. If anyone was with God, it was Abraham. To be at his side was to be with God also. In short, he was in heaven.
- We do not learn that the righteous dead are carried to heaven by angels. This point was to develop the contrast in the story between Lazarus, who found favor with God, and the rich man who did not.
So, while there are important things to learn in this passage, we should not develop our understanding of what heaven and hell are like from this parable. We must look at other texts to find that information.