The Rich Man and Lazarus – Part 7Otis Sellers
The story of the prodigal son portrayed the sinners in Israel. In it there is no condoning or excusing of their sins. All satire and sarcasm is left out, as it would be out of harmony with His expressed attitude toward them. His statement about the prodigal “joining himself to a citizen of that country” in order to avoid starving is probably a veiled reference to the fact that some in Israel were forced by want to take the demeaning labor of collecting the burdensome taxes imposed by the Romans. No greater or more positive words of encouragement could have been given to the publicans and sinners than those contained in the story of the prodigal son.
The record of the elder son (Luke 15:25-32) sets forth the attitude of the Pharisees. The younger son was lost in the far country but this one is lost in his own father’s house. The reception given the younger son caused all the hardness of the self-righteous brother to boil to the surface. From boasting about himself he turns to blame for his father.
The parable ends abruptly, and rightly so. No application is made. It is left to the Pharisees to make their own application. One is prone to wish they had asked the Lord, “What did that brother do in answer to his father’s appeal?”
All these words were spoken to the Pharisees in the hearing of the publicans and sinners. But our Lord is not yet through with the Pharisees. Without leaving His place He turned to His disciples and spoke to them in the presence of the Pharisees. The story He told them is one of the strangest to be found in the Bible, but it is the real key to the character of the story of the rich man and Lazarus which follows it. Therefore, it must be examined with care.
1 And He said also unto His disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.
4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?
6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.
7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.
8 And the Lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
This strange story has perplexed Bible students throughout the entire Christian era. It is quite reasonable and believable as far as the seventh verse, but when the eighth verse is added, it becomes unbelievable, preposterous, and absurd. However, this is what our Lord intended it to be since absurd ideas and principles can be satirized only by means of an absurd story. The absurdity is all the more glaring if the story is paraphrased so that it appears in modern dress.
A certain man of great wealth and many holdings had a business manager who was in charge of all his affairs, and a report was brought to him that this manager was wasting his possessions. So he summoned him, questioned him concerning this, and finally told him to prepare a complete audit of his dealings, as he did not consider him fit to manage his affairs any longer. This greatly troubled the manager, for he did not know what he would do for future employment. His record of dishonesty would follow him and bar him from a like position, he was not physically able to do hard labor, and he was too proud to beg. The future seemed entirely black.
Thinking it over he hit upon a scheme to make quickly some friends and put them under obligation to him, all at his employer’s expense, so that when he was discharged, they would have to find a place for him in their establishments.
Putting his plan into action, he called in everyone that owed his employer money. The first one who came owed ten thousand dollars, so the manager told him to take his contract and write a new one for five thousand. The second one owed four thousand, so he told him to take his contract in exchange for a new one showing an indebtedness of two thousand, and so on down the entire list. They were very glad to do this, and they thanked the manager for it, telling him that they would be glad to return the favor if they could ever do so.
When the wealthy man discovered what his crooked manager had done, he commended him for acting so shrewdly in looking after his own interests and continued him in his position at a good increase in salary.
Whether we read it in the King James Version or recast it into modern language, the story is still absurd. Such a thing never happened, and it never will happen. This steward worked these creditors into a position where he would be able to blackmail them into supplying all his needs when his position was gone. They are parties to a crime, a conspiracy to defraud, to illegally enrich themselves at the expense of another. No employer will ever commend a man for such crooked dealings. A man of the world would never believe that such a thing would happen. Nevertheless, there were some who were supposed to be “the children of light” who were actually believing that such a thing was going to happen in their dealings with God. How true it is that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
The Lord’s story about the dishonest steward was told in order to expose the preposterous and absurd position of the scribes and the Pharisees. They controlled everything in Israel, but they used their position and power to bring gain to themselves. They discounted every requirement of God in order to make friends for themselves and to perpetuate their own systems and powers. They looked with pride and satisfaction upon their accomplishments, and actually thought they were commended by God since they were commended by men. They were out of favor with God, so they used the things of God to secure favor with men.
Our Lord laid bare their ridiculous position by telling a ridiculous story. It is a masterpiece of satire. No stronger rebuke could have been spoken. He summed it all up by calling to their attention the obvious fact that even men of the world would not believe that an employer, who planned to discharge a man for unfaithfulness, would change his mind and commend him when he became guilty of still greater unfaithfulness. No man of the world would ever believe this, but the scribes and Pharisees, who regarded themselves as children of light (John 9:41), acted as if they believed it. He put their principles into words and lashed them with this story.
This is then followed by one of the most ironic statements in the Bible.
And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Luke 16:9.
Many and varied have been the attempts to explain these words. Ingenious translations have been worked out in order to try to bring this statement of our Lord into harmony with His later statement, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” There is no need to do this. The difficulty here is man-made. This passage does not set forth a moral precept. Failure to recognize that the mode of expression here is irony has caused much confusion. In irony the meaning of the words is directly opposite to that which is literally stated. These words are parallel in character with the declaration of God found in Judges 10:14.
Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.
The disciples did not take His words as a moral precept. They knew they had already made friends of the One who alone could receive them into everlasting habitations (John 6:68).
The Lord continues speaking to His disciples, but the character of His words change to literal truth. All satire and irony is dropped, but every statement is a barbed shaft pointed at the Pharisees. They are to hear what He literally taught His disciples. This is what He says to them.
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Luke 16:10-13.
Luke informs us that “the Pharisees also, who were covetous heard all these things.” (Luke 16:14). He was not even speaking to them, yet they got the meaning of His satirical and ironical remarks. They knew better than anyone else the things He was satirizing. They could not deny the truth of His words so they sought vain relief in bitter derision of the One who spoke them.
It was their love of money that prompted this derision of Him. In fact the love of money was behind most of their acts. Their love of praise was strong, their love of attention was stronger (Matt. 23:5), but their love of money was strongest of all. Love of God, love of parents, or love of mankind would never move them, but love of money would cause them to act every time. There were no appeals that could cause them to untie the strings of their purses. Many of the teachings were devised for the purpose of getting more money or holding on to what they had. A Scriptural example will illustrate this.
The law said “Honor thy father and thy mother; and who so curseth (dishonors) father and mother, let them die the death.” In view of this it would seem that if the parents of a Pharisee were in want that parental love would rise above their love of money. But this was not so. To keep from supporting their parents they had promulgated a teaching where all they had to do was say to their parents “It is Corban”, that is, that all their money was dedicated to God and therefore could not be used to relieve destitute parents. According to their teaching this freed them from all obligation to their parents. See Mark 7:9-13.
This derision of Him by the Pharisees as stated in Luke 16:14, caused the Lord to interrupt His message and to speak directly to them. Luke records His words which I will paraphrase in order to expand them. This is what I believe He meant (Luke 16:15-17).
You deride me and scoff at me, but you cannot deny the absurdity of your teachings, neither can you deny the charges I have brought against you. You have perverted the Word of God in order to justify yourselves and your acts before men, but God knows your hearts. By dealing unjustly with the oracles of God you have gained the esteem of men, but your acts which are highly esteemed among men are detestable in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were God’s means of dealing with Israel until John, but you have made the commandments of God ineffective by your traditions. Since John the Baptist the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is showing great enthusiasm for it, but not you. You lock the doors of the kingdom of God against men. You will not go in yourselves, neither will you allow those who purpose to enter to go in (Matt. 23:13). But I tell you it is easier for heaven and earth to pass than for the minutest part of the law to fail. Consider this one example. It is true that God through Moses permitted divorce and gave the grounds for it. But you have degraded this in order to fulfill your own desires. You have worked out a system to get around God’s law and in your own eyes be free from the sin of adultery. Nevertheless the law stands and all who accept your teachings concerning divorce, then enters into relationship with another woman is guilty of adultery.
The interruption caused by their sneerings did not bring an end to His message. His words to His disciples are only momentarily suspended. After His direct rebuke to the Pharisees the onward flow is resumed. Other things are yet to be exposed and rebuked.
By the preposterous story about the unjust steward our Lord exposed the ridiculous practices of the Pharisees who discounted the righteous claims and requirements of God. They did this in order to make friends for themselves and to perpetuate their own system. But this was only one of their absurd actions. Our Lord referred to these when He said in Mark 7:13: “And many such like things ye do.” In continuing His discourse our Lord exposes and lays bare a number of these things. They are quite evident in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Some of these are:
1.Their assumption of the position and rights that God had ordained for the king in Israel.
2.Their intrusion into the priest’s office. They had taken over the chief work of the priests-that of teaching-leaving the priests to perform the empty ritual
3.The luxurious and magnificent style in which they lived at a time when most of Israel was suffering great hardship due to the Roman occupation.
4.Their shameful neglect of the poor in Israel in direct violation of God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 15:7-11.They justified this by their teachings.
5.Their harsh treatment of the sinners in Israel.
6.Their teaching that at death certain angels carried good men to a place which they called “Abraham’s bosom,” while others were taken to a place where “temporary punishments” were meted out to them “agreeable to everyone’s behavior and manners.” They held that poverty and hunger were God’s punishments upon men while they were upon earth, and if men accepted their punishment without complaint they would not need to pay for these sins in the future. They held that riches were a sign of God’s favor, and that poverty was evidence of His displeasure. They claimed that if they helped the poor they would be acting contrary to God.
7.The caste system which they had established in Israel and which they rigidly maintained.
8.Their idea that God would speak to them in a special way, and not in the manner in which He spoke to the common people. They were so exalted in their own minds that they rejected the idea of God speaking to them in the same signs He gave to others. This is seen in their actions of demanding a sign from heaven immediately after the Lord had fed four thousand from a supply that was hardly enough for one man.
9.Their teaching that if a man received evil things in this life, he would receive good things in the life to come. This teaching was concocted by the rich rulers in order to keep the poor in subjection. It was a “pie in the sky” sort of doctrine which was intended to keep the hungry from demanding bread here and now. The Pharisees never followed this teaching out to all its conclusions. Our Lord in His satire made this teaching a “two way” street.
These are some of the things taught and (whenever convenient) practiced by the Pharisees. They are woven throughout the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. Many of them will be found in the history written by Josephus15 . Many of them will be seen in the things censured and condemned by our Lord. These are the things exposed, ridiculed, and rebuked by our Lord in the satirical story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
There was a certain rich man. This character in the Lord’s story points to the aristocratic ruling class in Israel. This was composed of Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and scribes. The word rich in Scripture does not refer exclusively to those who had money. It described a class of men, a definite caste. A place in it was usually hereditary. An idea of the general character of those in this caste can be gained from such passages as James 2:5, 6 and 5:1-6. This caste system was rigidly maintained in Israel. The gulf between rich and poor had no bridges, and the rich would permit none to be built.
Which was clothed in purple. The word purple describes a cloth which was customarily worn by kings. The kingly claims of our Lord were mocked by clothing Him in purple (John 19:2). The statement that this rich man was clothed in purple points to the fact that an aristocratic class in Israel had assumed the place of kings. They had assumed the authority while disregarding altogether the responsibilities that God had laid upon rulers in Israel. “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” 2 Sam. 23:3. The ruling class in Israel was tyrannical and oppressive. They were not just, they did not rule in the fear of God, and they lacked entirely the shepherd character that God expected of those who governed His people.
And fine linen. This was the garment worn by the priests in Israel. It points to the fact that a clique in Israel controlled the priesthood and had assumed the chief prerogative of the priests, that of teaching the people. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” was the Lord’s words concerning them (Matt. 23:2). His words stated a fact, but they do not admit the right of these men to Moses’ seat. They were not called to this seat as Moses had been. He assumed that seat reluctantly, but these men had assumed his seat of their own accord and were determined to hold it. They were self-appointed usurpers and acted as though their pronouncements were as binding as the revelations God gave to Moses. They taught precepts and bound them upon others but would not apply them to themselves. “They say, and do not” (Matt. 23:3 ) .
And fared sumptuously every day. This points to the splendid manner in which the rich ruling class in Israel lived. Their position shielded them from the oppression and sufferings which most Israelites had to bear because of the Roman occupation.
And there was a certain beggar. This character is brought into the story to point to the poor in Israel. In English the word poor is used to emphasize the poverty of the person or persons so described, but in the Hebrew and Greek the prominent idea is that of the ill-treated or miserable. Even though the poor were often, no doubt, persons in need, they were primarily those suffering from some kind of social disability or distress. Passages such as Amos 8:4; Isa. 3:14-15; 10:1, 2; 32: 7, Ezek. 16:49; 22:29, show the poor to be those who were oppressed by a high-handed and cruel aristocracy. In the writing of the prophets we find that the wealthy, ruling classes are constantly taken to task for their cruel and unjust treatment of the poor. This had not changed in the least in our Lord’s day.
Named Lazarus. The fact that this name is used is a definite part of our Lord’s satire. This name means “God a help” and it has reference to a practice that seemed to be common in Israel— that of the rich referring to God all requests by the poor for help. They would answer all requests for food and clothing with the stock phrases “Go in peace, be ye warmed, and be ye filled” and yet do nothing to fulfill these needs (Jas. 2:15, 16). These words actually mean “God! will warm you, God will fill you”, but the word God does not appear due to the fact that the Jews would not use His name in ordinary conversation.
Was laid at his gate. A gate in Scripture was the symbol of authority. The poor in Israel were the responsibility of the rich, but the rich threw the responsibility back upon God. They would devour a widow’s property, then make long prayers to God for her help.
Full of sores. A further description of their miserable condition, as is ever the case of the poor in an occupied and oppressed country. They suffered many wounds from the tyrannical and oppressive Roman conquerors. They also suffered deprivation from tax-gathers and lawless neighbors, and heaped upon this were the wounds they suffered from the aristocratic class in Israel. Indeed they were full of sores.
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. There is no record of a revolt of the poor in Israel against the rich. All they ever asked for was a little easing of their hard lot, a thing well within the power of the Pharisees to grant. But they refused to fulfill the directive of God as set forth in Deuteronomy 15:7, 8.
Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. There can be no doubt but that this statement points to the fact that many merciful acts were performed for the poor in Israel by individuals in the Roman army of occupation. Cornelius was one who gave much alms to the people (Acts 10:2).
Up to this point in His story our Lord has set the stage and placed the characters upon it. Now He is going to take these characters, move them about and cause them to speak, but in harmony with the principles and teaching of the Pharisees.
All teaching in Israel was rigidly controlled by the Pharisees. No one could teach without their authority. No matter how preposterous or unfair their teachings became, none dared to question or criticize them. What they bound upon others, none dared to bind upon them. The scribes took their precepts and repeated them parrot-like to the people. This is why they spoke as those having no authority (Matt. 7:29). The scribes did not believe what they taught, but they had to teach it or risk the anger of the Pharisees.
When the Lord appeared upon earth He took their doctrines and turned them back upon them. He exposed their principles by putting into words the things they practiced. By so doing He incurred their deepest hatred.
Among their teachings was one that implied that if a man were poor and needy in this life, he would be rich in the life to come. This kept many satisfied to be poor, helped maintain the gulf between rich and poor, and spared the Pharisees the task of helping them. They intimated that if this life were filled with evil things, the life to come would be filled with good things. But this was as far as it went. They never allowed this idea to go so far as to say that if a man were rich in this life, he would be poor in the next; or if a man enjoyed good things in this life, he would receive evil things in the life to come.
The motive behind their lopsided teaching is evident. No commands in the Word of God could be plainer than those which made it the duty of the rich in Israel to care for the poor. Even the crafty Pharisee would have difficulty in explaining away such plain statements as those found in Deuteronomy 15:7-11. So they made these words void: by a tradition that made poverty to be a virtue that carried a guarantee of great bliss in the next life. By getting the people to accept even gnawing hunger as being the will of God, they saved themselves from the unpleasant duty of untying their own purse strings.
While it is only surmise it may have been that by some such teaching as this the Pharisees had committed some grave offense against one whose name was Lazarus, and this could be another reason why the Lord gave this name to the character in His story. There may have been a man who was wretchedly poor and pitifully sick. Day after day he lay upon the streets, too weak to help himself in any manner. His condition may have touched the hearts of many, but they were in no position to help. Their sympathy and pity for him called for something to be done-but what could be done. Someone may have suggested that in view of this man’s desperate need, his case should be brought to the attention of the rulers in Israel. Certainly in view of their wealth and power they would not refuse the few crumbs required to relieve this poor man’s distress.
It may have been that a committee was sent to the Pharisees. We can imagine the fear and hesitancy that accompanied such a task, but their sympathies drove them on. So this man’s case was laid before the Pharisees.
This placed them in a difficult position. They could not deny that the poor man needed help, and they could not say they lacked the means to help him. If they bluntly refused, it would hurt them in the eyes of the people. It appeared that for once they would have to open their purses.
But the Pharisees were masters of every situation, always ready with some teaching that would relieve them of their obligations. They probably expressed their deep compassion for the poor man, wiping away a few tears as they did so. This always made a good impression. They recounted with sorrow how his whole life had been one of poverty, filled with evil things. But, said they, better times were sure to come soon for him. He had received his evil things in this life, and this signified that he would get his good things in the life to come. Why, then, should they go against God, and change the wretched state of this man when that very state presaged a better state in the next life.
If the people saw the contradictions in teaching such as this, they dared not state it, for the Pharisees were in authority and the common people never questioned or answered back. They may have reasoned within themselves that if evil things were the guarantee of good things in the future life, then good things in this life must signify evil things in the life to come. However, if they did reason after this manner they never expressed it. Few there were who dared to brave the wrath of a Pharisee (see John 12:42, 43). Thus the Pharisees protected their wealth and position by leading the people to believe that poverty was a cardinal virtue. But it was a virtue which no Pharisee cared to possess.
When the greatest of all teachers appeared upon earth, He was not afraid of them. They demanded to know of His authority to teach, but He refused to tell them. In His censure of them He took their own teachings, held them accountable for their idle words, judged them out of their own mouths, and bound upon them what they had laid upon others. He, by means of satirical stories, developed their teaching to all its logical conclusions and forced upon them all its consequences. If one position was to be reversed in the life to come, then all positions were to be reversed. If the poor were to be rich, then the rich should be poor. If a man on the good side of a great gulf in this life, then he should be on the evil side in the life to come. This is the situation we find in the second part of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Our Lord caused all actors to move and be in complete harmony with the teachings and principles of the Pharisees. The result is most startling, especially so when dead men begin to act and talk.