The Rich Man and Lazarus – Part 2Otis Sellers
The Rich Man
In many sermons that are preached on this message this rich man is presented as being exceedingly vile, and is set forth as a representative sinner. There is no such picture here, and our Lord exercised care that no idea of great wickedness is set forth. That would have spoiled the picture He is drawing. All that we know of this man is that he was rich, that he wore expensive clothing and that he lived luxuriously every day. This is all we know of him, and it is very little. There is not enough here to form any true estimate of his character, since the facts given deal with his state. They reveal nothing of his character. As Trench says: “He was one of whom all may have spoken well; of whom none could say worse than that he was content to dwell at ease, would fain put far from himself all things painful to the flesh, and surround himself with all things pleasurable.”
In our smug self-righteousness we are apt to think that these statements describe a great sinner like Ahab or Judas Iscariot, but this is wholly imaginary. The average middle-class American of today probably dresses better, eats better, and enjoys comforts far beyond what this man ever dreamed. We do not judge a man’s character to be bad when we discover that he is rich. Neither do we judge a man as wicked because he dresses well. And while we may question the wisdom of living luxuriously and splendidly, we do not question its morality. Why then should the man in this story be judged as flagrantly wicked’? Do we dare to calumniate one whom our Lord did not? True it is that he may not have fed the beggar, but even of this we cannot be sure.
We are not told how this man gained his wealth, so, if we desire to be among those who “impute not evil” let us not say that his riches were gained dishonestly. Our Lord gave no revelation concerning this, and Abraham made no such accusation when he spoke to him. In view of this, a simple quatrain fits well here:
Be sure that you have Scripture, For all you say or do;
And where God’s Word is silent, May you be silent too.
It is evident that our Lord desired to set forth a composite picture of the rich and powerful men in Israel at that time, especially the Pharisees, but also the Sadducees, the Scribes, Lawyers and Priests. Let us not be guilty of taking from or adding to His picture.
The Poor Man
The next character set before us is a poor man, a man in desperate need. In many studies this poor man is represented as being a godly man, a devout man, a saint. But there is no such portrayal in the words of our Lord. He sets him forth as a poor man, one afflicted all over his body with ulcerating sores, but nothing more than this. Our Lord seems to have exercised care in avoiding any such picture of this man. There is not one single fact revealed about this poor man that would bring forth admiration or compliment. His condition arouses our sympathy, but we see nothing about him that is worthy of emulation. We would not dare to advise anyone to pattern their life after his, nor can we point to him and say “Go thou and do likewise.” We would feel more rapport with him if we had been told that he looked to God to supply his needs, rather than looking to a rich man for crumbs. We wonder if God’s provision of prayer had a place in his life. From what we are told we know only that his expectation was in the rich man.
Some who read these lines will feel that I am treating this poor man somewhat harshly. I admit this, but hasten to say that this does not arise from lack of feeling and sympathy for him. It springs only from my desire to maintain the true picture the Lord gave of him, and to counteract the false picture of great godliness that men are so prone to paint of him.
It must be admitted that there are some things about the rich man that deserve censure. He dressed too well and lived too luxuriously, but, all in all, he was not a bad character. But while there are things about him we might condemn, there is not one thing about the poor man we can commend or admire. There is no known fact about him that suggests a righteous man or a man of faith. If he had lived in David’s time, David could not have written his great testimony:
I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. Psalm 37:25.
The reader can confirm all that has been said about these two men by carefully reading the words of the Lord. The honest seeker for truth cannot accept the idea that this is a story in which the righteous and wicked are set in contrast. There is nothing revealed concerning the rich man that even suggests great wickedness, and nothing revealed about the beggar that suggests righteousness. The rich man is no picture of a sinner. The beggar gives no picture of the saint.
As the story continues we find that in course of time the poor man died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. Here greater questions present themselves. Is this an actual historical record? Are we to understand this literally? If not, then how is it to be understood? Did the angels actually carry the dead Lazarus? If one should say, “A man died in the street and friends carried him home” what would this mean? Shall we understand this to mean one thing and the statement concerning “the poor man” to mean another thing?
It is just at this point that those who insist on the historical reality of this passage want to inject the ideas of a “soul” or a “disembodied spirit.” But how does one carry a soul and why would a soul need to be carried? No such idea is conveyed by the words of our Lord. It was the poor man who was laid at the rich man’s gate, it was the poor man who died, and it was the poor man who was carried by the angels.
This is the first and only reference in the Bible to “Abraham’s bosom.” This term presents a new problem-one which many solve by saying that this is a new name for heaven or for paradise. But if this is true, why is it never used again? And if, as many insist, it speaks of some compartment in a mythological hades where the spirits of the righteous dead are supposed to be between death and resurrection, then why is it suddenly given this name? Further more, what was it called for several thousand years before the time of Abraham? Even the superficial student must admit that there is something strange about this term and its sole appearance in this passage.
Next, we are told that the rich man died and was buried. There are many who feel that the words of our Lord here need some polishing. They insist that it was not “the rich man” who died that it was the rich man’s body, and that the rich man was not buried only his body was buried.
After the declaration that the rich man died and was buried, we get a picture of his condition. “In hades he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” As the story continues we find that he is in the same general locality as Abraham and Lazarus, and that his sufferings are greatly intensified as he looks across a gulf and sees Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. From this it is seen that even though the distance between them was great, yet it was within seeing and speaking distance, since he saw them and carried on a conversation.
If the rich man could see them in bliss, then they must have been able to see him being tormented. And if, as some hold, his torments were shut off from their view, they could still hear him. In view of this can anyone believe that Abraham and Lazarus were supremely happy while they looked upon a man being tormented and heard his pleadings for a few drops of water. To hear a tormented man pleading for water would cause supreme distress to any sensitive person. Callused indeed would be the man who could be in bliss under these conditions. No wonder that those who hold to the literal interpretation of this portion conveniently arrange to close out hades as the place of both good and bad, and move the good to heaven within a few months after these words were spoken.
Those who can get joy out of the sufferings of others, those who can find pleasure in a scene of suffering, are sadistic. Sadism is one form of insanity. Can we believe that Abraham’s nature had been so changed that he could be in bliss while witnessing the sufferings of another and hearing his plea for some slight relief? I fully believe that my own nature is such that if I had been there, I would have made some attempt to alleviate this man’s suffering even if I had plunged into the great gulf in the attempt. I trust that I will always be willing to risk the loss of my own comforts if by so doing I can alleviate the sufferings of another.
The conversation between the rich man and Lazarus is one of the strangest to be found in the Bible. The rich man seeing Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom called to him, addressed him as “Father Abraham” and pleaded with Abraham to have mercy on him. This causes many questions to arise: Why did he appeal to Abraham? Was Abraham the chief man in that place? Was Abraham tormenting him? Was Abraham withholding water from him? Did Lazarus have a finger that could be dipped into water? Did the rich man have a tongue that could be cooled by it?
The rich man did not cry out to God. His plea was to Abraham, and his strange plea becomes even more strange when it is considered in the light of Abraham’s answer. Abraham addressed the rich man as “Child”, and bade him remember that during his lifetime he had received his good things and that Lazarus had received his evil things, with the result that he is now comforted while the rich man is tormented.
This reply of Abraham presents a major problem. How strange it is that when this man appealed for mercy he was not reminded of any sin, wickedness or unbelief. He is not charged with idolatry, with having oppressed the poor, of being a robber of other men’s goods, of being a spoiler of orphans, or a persecutor of widows. The only reply that is made is that the rich man had received his good things during his lifetime so he is tormented now.
If Abraham’s statement means anything, if it teaches anything, then what else can it say but that positions are surely reversed in the life to come? But this is repugnant to every passage in the Word of God that sets forth the things that affect a man’s destiny. From Abraham’s lips came no accusations against the rich man, neither were there any words of praise for the beggar. Their cases are summed up in the statement that one got his good things during his lifetime while the other got his evil things. This statement of Abraham should cause some serious thought. It cannot be lightly brushed aside as having no bearing upon the suffering and bliss being experienced by these two. If it has no bearing upon the matter, Abraham should not have said it. If it is an “answer” that is “no answer”, our Lord would not have reported it.
As I consider it, I consider my own life, which I must regard as one that has been filled with good things. I would be ungrateful and unthankful to consider it otherwise. I was born in a good home, of good parents who loved me and cared for me. I did not have it as easy as children do today, yet my childhood was a happy one. My life as an adult has been filled with innumerable good things. I have enjoyed good health. My marriage has been a benediction. My testimony is, “Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.” Now, does it follow that since my life has been filled with good things, the life to come must be filled with evil things? And, if my life had been just the reverse, filled with sorrow and evil from the day of my birth, would this indicate that the life to come will be filled with good things?
I am sure that if my reader is instructed in the Word of God he will agree that the good things we have during this life, or the lack of good things, have no bearing upon the life to come. Our future is settled by our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. If a man enters into life, it will not be because of poverty, and if he goes into destruction, it will not be because he was rich. Yet, this is what Abraham told the rich man in answer to his plea for mercy.