The Rich Man and Lazarus Part 6Otis Sellers
Of the three sects in Judaism at the time of Christ, the Pharisees were the most powerful. The actual group is believed to have numbered only about six thousand, but this was the inner circle. In the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are constantly mentioned in the same connection, and in such manner as to imply that they formed the same party. The strength of their influence was such that they dominated everything in Israel. They controlled the Sanhedrin, the priesthood, the civil courts, and all Jewish society. The Sadducees opposed them, but their opposition was so weak that the Pharisees tolerated it, knowing that the conservative Sadducees would not push it too far, and that they had sufficient power to crush it at any time.
The Pharisees had arrogated to their party all the right and authority that God had vested in the kings of Israel. They were a plutocratic oligarchy exercising all the kingly powers. This explains why the royal family was so insignificant when Christ was born in the household of Joseph. The Pharisees had taken to themselves the real work of the priests, that of teaching the people, leaving the priests to carry on the empty ritual, which without true instruction was devoid of any meaning.
The inspired record in the four Gospels tells us much about the Pharasaic character. They were described by John the Baptist as being a generation of vipers (Matt. 3:7); they made use of calumny in dealing with those whom they opposed (Matt. 9:34); they did not hesitate to murder to accomplish their ends and maintain their power (Matt. 12:14); they rejected all signs given by the Lord then demanded a special sign be given to them (Matt. 12:38); they transgressed the commandments of God by their traditions (Matt. 15:2); they were hypocrites (Matt. 23:3); all their works were done to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5); they devoured widow’s houses, then made long prayers in presence (Matt. 23:14); they were lovers of money (Luke 16:14); and they rejected the commandments of God in order that they might maintain their own traditions (Mark 7:9).
Having made void the Word of God, the Pharisees had adopted most of the platonic philosophy concerning the nature of man. From a mixture of Greek ideas and old Egyptian and Babylonian myths they had developed a doctrine of purgatory and of prayers for the dead. Josephus declares that the Pharisees taught that every soul is incorruptible, that only the souls of good men pass over into another body, while those of the wicked are punished with eternal suffering. They held that there is an immortal vigor in souls, and that under the earth there are rewards and punishments for those who have lived virtuously or viciously in this life.
Their shameful treatment of the poor in Israel shows that they loved only themselves and not the people or the country of Israel. Long before the time of Christ the wealthy and ruling classes were taken to task by the prophets for their cruel and unjust treatment of the poor. The Pharisees held that the distinctions between poor and rich were part of God’s plan, and they made poverty to be a virtue that would be rewarded with wealth in the life to come. The Sadducees on the other hand had worked into their beliefs the idea that poverty was a crime, and that to be poor was evidence of the displeasure of God.
One of the worst features of the Pharasaic system was the expulsion or excommunication from the life of Israel of those who had transgressed. At times their acts may have had some justification, but the Pharisees had carried it so far that once a man came under their strictures, there was no possible way for him to get back again into the life of Israel. These were the “sinners”, so often mentioned in the gospel records. As a rule they were guilty of nothing more than refusal to bow down to the despotic power exercised by the ruling clique of the Pharisees.
Once a man brought down upon himself the wrath of the Pharisees, there was no hope of pardon. They never forgave him. Once excluded and branded as a sinner, no one dared to help him, or to do business with him. The testimony of “sinners” was not valid in courts, and if anyone wronged them, they had no recourse to law. They stood, in their miserable condition, as examples of what happened to any who challenged the position or claims of the Pharisees.
In their distress many of them were forced to do business with or collaborate with the Roman occupation forces. This paid them well, especially if they became tax-collectors (publicans). This explains why publicans and sinners are often linked together in one group. They were shunned as traitors in Israel. Nevertheless, their real character is seen in the fact that many of them became the first disciples of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ.
When Christ came and started to teach the people, He, in so doing, challenged the Pharisees assumption that they alone were the teachers in Israel. When He presented His credentials, which were the gracious miracles He performed, they stepped into the arena to challenge Him. They could not match His wisdom so they plotted to destroy Him (Matt. 12:14). They refused to yield to anyone even one grain of the authority they had gathered to themselves. Their attitude toward Him was summed up in the words spoken by Christ: But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. Mark 12:7.
When the Pharisees appeared at the baptism of John, he wasted no time trying to change them, but branded them immediately as a “generation of vipers.” Jesus Christ called them whitewashed graves, hypocrites, serpents, children of Gehenna, thieves and murderers.
One important principle that must be kept in mind in studying the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that these words were spoken to the implacable enemies of Christ, the Pharisees. They were spoken to men whose doom was sealed when they charged that Christ performed His miracles by the power by Beelzebub the prince of devils. In doing this they blasphemed the Holy Spirit and committed the sin that had no forgiveness (Matt. 12:22-32). These words were spoken to men who were rigidly set against the will of God. Therefore, no revelation of truth was given to them (John 7:16, 17). And since this story is not a revelation of God’s truth, it has to be an answer to, a rebuke, an expose of the Pharisees. In other words, it is not a revelation of truth about future life, of the state of the dead, of future punishment or future bliss; but it is an expose of the base and warped ideas, principles, and practices of the Pharisees. Since satire is a type of writing or speaking, the object of which is to hold up vices and follies for ridicule and reprobation, then this is satire pure and simple. With these facts in mind we are ready to resume consideration of the story spoken by our Lord in the presence of the Pharisees.
The Occasion of the Story
It has been said that this story has always erroneously been considered “as a sort of an island in the Lucan narrative, cut off from the mainland of the Gospel, and having no necessary connection with its surroundings.” Those who regard it as such exclude all light that the context may throw upon the passage.
The key to the character of this story and to its meaning and purpose is found in the material that precedes it.
We must eliminate all man-made fences, such as chapter divisions and paragraph headings, from this portion of Scripture and begin our studies at the point where the Lord began to speak, then follow through to His last word on this occasion. The record begins at Luke 14:25 and continues without interruption to Luke 17:10. Every word spoken has a bearing upon the meaning, character and purpose of the story. It is evident that our Lord never moved out of His place while He spoke the words recorded between the two references just mentioned. It was the longest battle our Lord ever fought with the Pharisees.
As the scene opens in Luke 14.:25-35 our Lord is seen speaking to the multitude that followed Him. His words to them consisted of one dark saying and three parables.
The closing words of His last parable spoken to the multitude were, “men cast it out.” While these words were spoken of the savorless salt, they seem to have caught the ear and made an impression upon the publicans and sinners, for this was what the despotic aristocracy in Israel had done to them.
And since these words were followed by an invitation to those who had ears to make use of them, all the publicans and sinners drew near to Him in order to hear.
This scandalized and enraged the Pharisees since Jesus was receiving men whom they rejected and ostracized. They had assumed all the rights of kings and priests in Israel, but in no way did they accept the responsibilities toward others that were set forth in the shepherd and mediator character of kings and priests. The Pharisees never sought a sinner, and never brought one back to God. Between the aristocracy and the sinners there was a vast chasm that none of the people could cross and none of the Pharisees would cross. They maintained this irrevocable separation by their teachings. They insisted God had given them their place and only God could take it away. Our Lord ignored this caste system and went to the aid of those they had branded as sinners. This brought out their deepest hatred. They could not tolerate anyone alleviating the harsh punishments they had imposed upon certain men. They justified their lack of mercy by claiming that God was harsh, therefore they had to be.
When the publicans and sinners drew near to hear the Lord, the Pharisees and scribes began to murmur and to hurl their accusations (Luke 15:1, 2). And it seems that the publicans and sinners, long used to deferring to the Pharisees and desiring to spare the Lord any embarrassment that their nearness might cause, began to withdraw themselves from His presence. But His great love for the lost could not permit this, so our Lord spoke a parable to the Pharisees in the hearing of the publicans and sinners. This parable had two purposes-to rebuke and expose the Pharisees and to offer encouragement and hope to the publicans and sinners.
This parable is in three parts. There is a story about a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and a lost son (Luke 15:12-32). Each part rebukes and exposes the Pharisees and offers encouragement and hope to the sinners in Israel.
While the story of the lost sheep is a parable, we should not miss the fact that the story is satirical. Many will never see this, since this parable is usually treated in a superficial manner. Hundreds of ideas have been preached into this passage, resulting in the most astounding importations. Every statement and every word has been loaded with extravagant fancies, many of which have their origin in Dr. Sankey’s well-known hymn about the “ninety and nine that safety lay in the shelter of the fold.” This line has no real foundation in this parable. The importation of such ideas blinds the minds to the satirical character of this story which so effectually exposes the sordid miserliness of the Pharisees. To expose and rebuke their inordinate love for material possessions is the purpose of this parable. The word shepherd does not occur in it.
The question, “What man of you having an hundred sheep?” is directed at the Pharisees. When faced with the loss of one sheep their greed is so aroused that they leave the ninety-nine shepherdless in the wilderness and open to the attacks of wild beasts. Sheep were common in Israel. They were an article of commerce, and any man that risked ninety-nine to get back one that had strayed revealed a cupidity that cannot tolerate the thought of losing one bit of anything already possessed. Furthemore, the idea of a man calling together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him over the recovery of a lost sheep is amusing, to say the least. Such actions would be quite proper if a child had been lost and found, but they are preposterous in the case of sheep. A covetous man would think that all should respond to his invitation to rejoice, but there must have been one who said, “If that is all the party is about, I’m not going.”
Our Lord used a parable somewhat like this in Matthew 18:11-14, and it is to this that we should go for a great picture of the seeking Savior. In this parable all satirical elements are omitted. This was spoken to His disciples, not to the Pharisees.
However, in Luke 15 the statement about “ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” is pure satire which borders on sarcasm. There was no such thing in Israel as a just person who needed no repentance, but the Pharisees regarded themselves as such. The Lord Jesus took their assumed position, put it into words, then used these words in His satire against them.
The story of the lost coin is a further rebuke to the Pharisees (Luke 15:8-10). It emphasizes what He has already said. Their attitude toward a lost animal or a lost coin was one thing. Their attitude toward a lost sinner was something quite different. The addition of the story about the lost coin demonstrates that their search for the lost sheep was not due to their love for dumb animals since they showed the same care toward a piece of money. It was preposterous for the woman in this story to invite her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her over the recovery of a lost coin. It is normal for anyone to seek a lost coin, even to seek for it diligently if the value warrants it, but to call for people to rejoice over it is absurd. But it is only by a preposterous story that preposterous acts and attitudes can be satirized.
There could be no joy among the Pharisees over a sinner that repented, but there was joy in the presence of the angels of God. The Pharisees made diligent search for lost animals or lost coins, but never for a man. They esteemed animals and coins to be of more value than men.