The account of Lazarus and the rich man is commonly termed a parable. The words were spoken by Jesus to illustrate a very specific point to a very specific audience. That specific point, contrary to some commentators, is not the need to provide for the poor. The law given to Moses most certainly required individuals of means to provide for the poor. The specific audience whom Jesus addressed was the Pharisees, and, despite their errors in applying the law, the Pharisees would have publicly provided for the poor and, having done so, would have boasted of their actions.
The setting for verses 19-31 is established in verses 14-16. Jesus’ words are directed to the Pharisees. It was Jesus’ intent that His words be received by the very ones who derided Him (v. 14). The Pharisees, in their attempts to justify themselves, ignored the intent of the law. The Pharisees perceived themselves to be rich in understanding and esteemed others to be inferior. Their way was not God’s way (v. 15). If the Pharisees had correctly applied the law and the words of the prophets, they would have embraced and responded to the message of John the Baptist (v. 16). In the text before us, Jesus makes known the consequences of failure to heed John’s message.
In verses 19-21, Jesus starkly contrasts the rich man and Lazarus. All who look upon the rich man, see a man who possessed great wealth and was not lacking in any way. All who look upon Lazarus, see one who is totally dependent upon others for survival, one who is hungry, one who is in pain and whose only relief is supplied by dogs who lick his open sores. There is a reason for such a striking contrast. In the eyes of men, the rich man was blessed and Lazarus was not. If the Pharisees who listened to Jesus were asked at this point in the narrative which of these two men were they (the Pharisees) most like, they would have answered the rich man. The Pharisees equated material wealth and righteousness. Abraham was righteous and Abraham was made rich. Job was righteous and Job was made rich.
There is a problem with this thought process. Abraham and Job were righteous because they believed God. In the midst of the darkness that pressed in upon him, Job stated: “I know that my redeemer liveth.” Abraham was prepared to offer up Isaac, believing that God would be true to His promise that his seed would through Isaac. Abraham believed God would raise up Isaac. Abraham’s and Job’s material well-being was a blessing from God. Jesus revealed that the rich man’s increase was not of God and that the rich man did not believe God as he died and went to hell where he was in torments.
The beggar died and was carried to Abraham’s bosom. Again, Jesus presents His audience with a vivid contrast. The beggar was named Lazarus, a name meaning, “one whom God helps.” The beggar possessed a righteousness that was given to him by God. The rich man possessed no righteousness at all. Jesus placed this picture of extremes before the Pharisees such that they might realize their true estate — that the rich man was representative of them.
The formerly rich man appealed to Father Abraham for mercy. Abraham is the father of the faith. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. In this instance Father Abraham speaks for God. Abraham links the man’s past (a lifetime of good things) to his present state (existence in torment) and states that there is no means by which one as Lazarus can relieve the agonies of one in torment.
Upon learning that Lazarus cannot relieve his suffering, the man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them to change their ways lest they, too, come to this place of torment. Again, Abraham speaks for God: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In verse 31, Abraham states: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
New Testament believers hear the words of Moses and the prophets because we believe one who rose from the dead.
Because the Pharisees did not hear Moses (failed to comprehend the intent of the law) and did not listen to the prophets (who spoke of the Promised One who would justify many), they did not respond to John the Baptist’s call to repent.
The outreach of God the Father through the words of God the Son to the Pharisees is punctuated by the beggar’s name. At a later time, these same Pharisees would be given cause to reflect upon Abraham’s charge that one not hearing Moses and the prophets would also not be persuaded by one who rose from the dead. News that this same Jesus had raised a different Lazarus from the dead would trigger memory of Jesus’ words. God is not willing that any should perish but not all shall come to repentance. God reaches out to them who are hard of hearing.
The day of grace (the day in which men can repent) is the day in which one hears Moses and the prophets. The rich man let the day of grace pass. God’s mercy is great but it is not forever. New Testament believers, like the beggar, are justified by the righteousness that God supplied.