The Rich Man And Lazarus, Part One

Human Destiny

Concordant Studies

WHEN interpreted as a parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus offers no opposition to the teaching of the Old Testament concerning the death state. When read as literal history it negates the entire volume of Hebrew revelation. The alternative that presents itself to the student is that of allowing this passage to dominate and control the explanation of the remainder of Scripture, or else to interpret these verses in such a way as will not conflict with, or contradict it. To the student who adopts the latter course a grave difficulty immediately presents itself. The problem is, How may we interpret as a parable that which is not called such?


The advocates of what has often been termed the Platonic philosophy are quick to take advantage of the omission of the word “parable” from the sixteenth of Luke, and the strength of their objection must be conceded by every lover of truth. The evils of “spiritualizing” Scripture are all too painfully manifest in the standard commentaries of Christendom, and are sufficient in themselves to deter us from following their example.


The first step to be taken in our examination of this passage is to remind ourselves that the chapter headings of our English Bibles are entirely of human origin, and, as factors in the division of Scripture, are sometimes mechanical rather than logical. And while we thoroughly appreciate these divisions as helps to locate Scripture, we must at the same time depreciate them as so many hindrances to the understanding of it.

In consequence of the isolation of Luke 16 into a separate chapter, its contents have often, if not always, been examined as a sort of island in his narrative, cut off from the mainland of the account, as if they were words which had no connection with their surroundings. The consequence is, of course, that the interpreter by so doing excludes whatever light the contextual subject matter might throw upon the passage. That this surrounding material is most helpful and suggestive we shall see as we proceed. As it is our present desire to test the claim that Luke 16 contains no parable, we shall do well to begin our study by eliminating the man-made fences from this portion of Scripture and commence our investigation at the point where the Master began to speak, rather than at the point where our theological instructors would have us begin to read. This will, in a sense, broaden the field of inquiry, and though at first sight, it may seem to make the problem more difficult of solution, eventually it will prove to furnish the key to its explanation.

We are confidently assured in the name of generations of Bible scholars that the account given to us in Luke 16 is to be literally and historically understood; that here we have a picture of the world existing on the other side of death’s dark veil; that there it is definitely proved by One Who knows that the dead are not dead, but, if anything, more alive than ever; and that the death state is one of intense consciousness for the departed, rather than one of “sleep” as represented in other scriptures. This view, of course, is largely dependent on the absence of the dreaded word “parable” from its immediate vicinity. How false the foundation of this conception is may be easily shown.


How many parables have we in the fifteenth of Luke? Every Sunday school scholar will at once reply “three,” for so they are always told. But let us go slowly, and apply the rule of interpretation commonly used in Luke 16, to this chapter! Where does it say we have three parables in Luke 15? Is the story of the lost coin called a parable? Is that concerning the prodigal son called one? We search the chapter in vain for the use of such a term in immediate connection with these latter stories. Therefore—let us be logically consistent—we have no parable of the lost coin, and no parable of the prodigal son, no more than we have a parable of the rich man and Lazarus! Such confusion must always flow from that species of myopia which hinders the Bible interpreter from seeing any more than the immediate context, and indeed sometimes hinders him from perceiving even that. The truth is that the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son of Luke 15; as well as the stories of the unjust steward and the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, are not parables in themselves.

Instead, each is a fractional part of the complete parable which includes all five pictures within it, commencing with the fifteenth chapter and ending with the sixteenth. It is therefore incorrect to say that in these two chapters, we have five parables, but correct to say that in them we have one parable in five parts. And when, in verse three of Luke 15, we read, “Now He told them this parable,” this is not to be confined, and does not refer, merely to the story of the lost sheep, but embraces the entire collection of symbol-pictures which in their completeness constituted the parable which He spoke.

The first important result of thus perceiving our Lord’s characterization of this story as a “parable” is that we find the chief defense of the usual interpretation to be made of straw, and the way opened up to a study of the parable as such. The second result of importance will be that we shall not study the story of Lazarus by itself, but will rather examine it as grouped with and affected by, its fellow members in the entire parable. And they will be found, we think, one with it, not merely through juxtaposition, but because they sustain a logical relationship to its contents. Further on we hope to point out some of the affinities between the two chapters. For the present, we must content ourselves with drawing attention to that which occasioned the utterance of their contents.


The Laodicean ecclesia in the book of Revelation is Pharisaic in its boast, “of nothing have I need!” (Rev.3:17). That utterance embodies in a simple phrase the abominable attitude of the Pharisee towards God and man. It echoes the language of him who thanked “the God within” that he was not as “the rest of men . . . . or even as this tribute collector” (Luke 18:11). Little did he glimpse the truth of his real state, one who was even as the Laodiceans, in all their vain self-complacency. Such was the proud boast of, and the real truth about, the Pharisees whose narrow beliefs on the associations of the Master called forth this parable in its entirety. On the other hand, we find the “tribute collectors and sinners,” downtrodden and despised, the objects of contempt and loathing from the Pharisaic aristocrats. Both classes are grouped together in Luke 15:1,2, and it is the angry murmur of disapproval from one of these classes that furnished the suggestion for the parable.

Meeting these two distinct classes on the threshold of the narrative, it is no wonder that the entire parable is colored by their presence. In the first part of the parable, the “tribute collector and sinner” is the principal subject, the Pharisaic class being, at best, in the background. In the second the sinner alone is seen, without any reference being made to his self-righteous opponents. The fourth section parallels the second inasmuch as there the Pharisaic class is also seen by itself without any reference to their group. And as the lost piece of silver showed forth the utter helplessness of the sinner in the most absolute of all the symbols used, so in the case of the Unjust Administrator the true character of the Pharisee, with his utter disregard of true righteousness, is most vividly portrayed. The third and fifth sections group together both of the classes mentioned, and fitly bring to a climax through their impressive symbolism the great disparity which existed between them, first in a moral, and then in a dispensational way.

That the fourth section of the parable, in which the Pharisaic character alone was portrayed in all its hideous hues, brought home a stinging truth to its hearers, is plain in verse fourteen which shows how, unable to longer bear the scorpion lash of presented fact, the lips that cannot deny the charge seek vain relief in bitter derision of the speaker. The interruption by those whose souls had withered beneath the scorching words of Him who was Truth draws forth the parenthetical remarks of verses fifteen to eighteen. The interruption here does not bring the parable to an end, it merely suspends it until the digression is consummated when its onward flow is resumed. And it may as well be argued that the words “Now He said” in 15:11 break off the parable at that point, as that the words “Now He said to His disciples also” in 16:1 break off the symbolism there. Indeed on this point, we think we may confidently claim that the contents of these two chapters are so obviously run in the same mold, and possess so many indications of being suggested by the same occurrence (the grumbling of 15:2), that they may best be understood as a variegated presentation of the same subject.

The relation of the different parts of the parable may be displayed structurally as follows:

(A) THE SHEPHERD—The Divine Attitude Towards the Lost. indent.gif (829 bytes)
(B) THE LOST COIN—The Tribute Collector Alone. indent.gif (829 bytes) indent.gif (829 bytes)
(C) THE PRODIGAL (and his brother)—The Moral Difference
between Publican and Pharisee. The “Far Away” One Brought Near. indent.gif (829 bytes)
(B) THE UNJUST STEWARD—The Pharisee Alone. indent.gif (829 bytes) indent.gif (829 bytes)
(C) THE RICH MAN (AND LAZARUS)—The Dispensational
Difference between Pharisee and Publican.
The “Near” One Cast Far Away.

We must now give some attention to the details of the parable. As the spiritual wealth of each of its sections has been well explored, and as the reader is well acquainted with the many beautiful applications which have been taken from them, there is no necessity for us to enter into endless repetitions of the practical truths deducible from these chapters. We shall, however, draw attention to the dispensational atmosphere which pervades the string of symbols employed by the Master.


The figure of the sheep is peculiarly associated with Israel. It saturates Old Testament thought, is prominent in the imagery of the Gospels, is employed by Peter in his epistles to the dispersed kingdom believers, and colors the contents of the book of Revelation. It is not, however, used by the apostle Paul in any of his writings. The “members” to which he ministers are not members of a flock, but of a body. In keeping with this, while in “Old Testament” type, and “New Testament” teaching, the Lord is represented as the “Lamb,” in the Pauline revelations He is not so seen, but rather as the Christ. And the Body which God is now creating is always termed the Body of Christ, while the Bride, the product of Israel’s kingdom, is ever referred to as the Bride of the Lambkin.

As this is a parable which we are considering, a study of the usage of this word will determine from the nature of the symbol employed that it must be a kingdom parable—one that has to do with Israel and not the nations, and which must not be interpreted into it. That impudent determination to pass unnoticed the inspired discriminations of God’s Word, so observable today, is the cause of more confusion in the church than is the learned ignorance of the Higher Criticism.

In Isaiah 53 when the repentant nation speaks, it does so with a united voice. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” is a confession that knows nothing of a ninety-and-nine which never strayed from the Shepherd’s fold. The figure of irony would seem to be present in the reference to those “just ones having no need of repentance.” That those needing the shepherd-ministry of Messiah amounted to but a mere percentage of the nation is obviously untrue. The idea that the number of those who knew their lost condition, and so were prepared to use the great national confession of Isaiah fifty-three, was a negligible quantity, Scripture shows to have been the case.

The connection between this item and the remainder of the parable seems to consist in its exposure of the false valuations of the Pharisees, for the sheep that seemed to be the nearest to destruction proved to be the closest to salvation, the supposedly “safe” ones missing the security which the shoulders of the shepherd provided. Similarly, in the story of the Prodigal, it was the one away from home who was nearest the father’s heart, the real prodigal being the stay-at-home who could praise his own virtues while he derided his parents’ stinginess. And this line of constructive thought runs into the texture of Luke 16, for there we find the rich man poor, and the poor man rich.


The first element of disproportion which strikes us, when we compare the second and fourth sections of the parable, is that which exists between the values represented in them. The fractional value of the coin which the woman seeks, is dwarfed by the larger amounts in which the administrator deals. Naturally, this deepens the intended contrast between the two characters symbolized, and helps to better display the crookedness of the one who trifled so callously with the principles of righteousness, while the other’s solicitous search is magnified thereby.

The “administrator” is a fit personification of Israel’s corrupt officialdom. Nor need we wander beyond the limits of the “Gospels” to learn of their corrupted state (cf Mark 7:1-13). They yield ample testimony to the manner in which the Jews discounted the righteous claims of the law, as the administrator in Luke 16 discounted the just claims of his master. The administrator had no more authority for thus reducing his master’s claims than the various sects had for daring to alter the demands of God’s holy law. In this comparison, we have a strong suggestion as to who it is we find shadowed in the conduct of the rich man’s representative. And, as we shall see later on, the unrighteous servant had the approval and praise of his unrighteous lord, showing forth that priests and people, rulers and ruled, teachers and taught, were all alike in Israel.

One cannot read “Hebrew” history and fail to notice how at various times the ministry of women received the seal of divine approval. In Judges, the history of failure on the nation’s part is lightened by the contrastive successes of feminine valor. And does it not seem in place in Luke that the administrator’s failure (the collapse of official Israel) should be offset by a woman’s faithfulness? The strength and pretentiousness of official position belonged to those who failed; the weakness belonged to those who shared the shepherd’s attitude to the sheep that was lost. The irony of the reference to “ninety-nine just persons who have no need of repentance,” is not repeated in this section, hence the entire action and meaning of the symbol centers around the patient shepherd-like search on the woman’s part for the lost silver coin. And as the Pharisees are not found here, so neither are the “tribute collectors and sinners” to be found in the story of the unjust administrator, the “debtors” in the latter portion being introduced merely as necessary, though not typical, actors in its movement.


The fourth section of the parable demands a little careful attention on our part. In it, we have “a certain man, who was rich,” introduced to us who, by similarity of descriptive phrases at least, seems linked up with the other “certain man [who] was rich,” spoken of in the next and last section. There is similarity in more than descriptive phrase also, for the rich man of the fourth section is as calloused to the demands of righteousness as the other rich man of the fifth section is hardened to the demands of charity in regard to Lazarus. This has often been called the parable of the Unjust Steward, but with equal justice, it might be named the parable of the Unjust Lord, as the servant merely reflected the unrighteous character of the master who commended his servitor’s cunning in guarding his own interests. The “steward” was the official representative of the rich man, even as the Pharisees were representative of the nation, insofar as they reflected in themselves the self-centered condition of the people.

That any should read the “lord” mentioned in verse eight as being the Son of God is astounding, especially when such a view would make God’s Holy One to speak in approval of the dishonest servant’s conduct. If understood as being the latter’s master, in other words, the “certain man, who was rich,” the difficulty vanishes, and the Spotless One is saved from even the shadow of the stain the alternative view would suggest. The Lord Jesus does not counsel His disciples to “make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9, AV). The passage is rhetorical and should be translated as a question. When it is thus considered, the unity of the passage, and the infinite purity of the Messiah, will both be very evident. The difficult portion is: “And am I saying to you, Make for yourselves friends with the mammon of injustice, that, whenever it may be defaulting, they should be receiving you into the eonian tabernacles? He who is faithful in the least is faithful in much also, and he who is unjust in the least is unjust in much also” (Luke 16:9,10, CV).

“The parable of the unjust steward confines itself to the Pharisees and scribes, the stewards of Israel’s wealth. They were dissipating His treasures and were fond of money and served their own greed for gain rather than ministering to the glory of God. They were prudent in the things of this life to the extent of jeopardizing their prospects in the eons to come. The emphatic I shows that there is a contrast intended between the lord of the unjust steward and Christ. This cannot be expressed in the indicative. Moreover, the Lord does not commend unrighteousness, and advise deceit. Besides, the sentiment immediately following is quite opposed to such double-dealing. Faithfulness, not shrewdness, is the requisite for honors in the kingdom.

“Money or means of any kind are only trivial and temporary factors in the life of faith unless we view them as tests with a view to the acquisition of the true riches. Those who are faithful stewards of material wealth, which is theirs only to use for a time, and not to possess forever, may expect a reward in kind in the kingdom. The Pharisees died rich and will have no place in the glories of the Messianic reign. Christ died in the most abject poverty, yet He will be weighted with the wealth of all earth’s highest glories. Even in this day of sovereign grace, present riches are too often a hindrance to future reward, when they may well be a means of preferment by their faithful and gracious dispensation. Neither the most conservative investment nor the most fortunate speculation will yield as safe or as profitable proceeds as a share in the concerns of God. It yields, not only temporary returns, but eternal dividends” (CONCORDANT COMMENTARY, p.121).


That the recording of what is called “Jotham’s Parable” in Judges 9, which he used against the men of Shechem, is the fruit of inspiration we fully believe, though it is not equally obvious that the words spoken by him were inspired. His incorporating in his speech the great symbols of the fig, the olive, and the vine—so prominent in later Scripture—would suggest that he “built better than he knew.” The main point to which the writer would draw attention is that historical actuality is not absolutely necessary to a parable. Timeless truth may be taught in graphic fashion by personifications which appear impossible of actual occurrence. Language may be attributed to mute and sometimes inanimate objects: “If the foot should be saying, ‘Seeing that I am not a hand, I am not of the body.’ ” “That which is molded will not protest to the molder, ‘Why do you make me thus?’ ” (1 Cor.12:15; Rom.9:20).

In Jotham’s parable, language, thought, and some form of governmental order, are ascribed to the vegetable kingdom without any suggestion of impropriety on the speaker’s part. We wonder how many champions of orthodoxy there are who as strenuously insist on the literalness of the events in Judges 9 as they do on those of Luke 16, since the basis of their literal interpretation is common to both, the word “parable” being as absent from Judges 9 as it is from Luke 16. Consistency, however, is one of the marks of truth, and its absence is one of the distinguishing features of Platonized theology.

The objection that the Master would hardly draw truth from that which could have nothing more than a fictitious existence, or from experiences which could have no experimental reality, must fall flat, for it may be brought with equal force against any of the figures of speech used by the holy spirit throughout the Word. Indeed, is not the supposition of the clay speaking to its molder, or of one member of the body individualizing itself in pride against another member, somewhat removed from the sphere of experience?

Our parable is mainly a collection of just such figures as those referred to, as when a tongue is imputed to the one whose fleshly member has corrupted in the grave, or as when the supposedly disembodied Lazarus can still enjoy the physical relief which water bestows on a parched tongue. When understood as figures these matters occasion no difficulty; when understood literally they breed unanswered questions and propound riddles to which no solution may be found. That other parables are historically possible cannot be denied, but he who would lay down as a principle of interpretation that every parable must be drawn from the real happenings of everyday life, while entitled to his opinion, must nevertheless produce solid proof to support it before we can accept it as unquestionable.

The writer’s attention must be devoted to the two chapters which contain the five-fold parable he is considering. He will be forgiven, however, if he pauses for a moment to suggest that the five pictures presented here by Luke have not merely a reciprocal relationship between themselves, but have a direct bearing on other portions of this account. For instance, in the twelfth chapter, the coloring of Luke’s narrative reminds us strongly of the parable presented later in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters. In 12:15 the Master enunciates the truth that “one’s life is not in the superfluity of his possessions.”

Certainly, that is all that life meant to the rich man of Luke 16. The truth which the Lord declared is pointed with a parable, which contains much that links on to the latter chapter. The phrase “a certain 1 man who was rich” again confronts us; the similarity between the two “certain” rich men does not end in the parallelism of their descriptions but continues in the character which both are shown to possess in common. Here, too, is wealth, and wealth alone. Here is a man who may be described more fitly by what he has, than by what he is. But to this rich man as well as to the other, does disaster come. In both parables we have rich, self-centered fools, to whom total loss occurs by reason of “death” (cp the prodigal widow, who, “though living is dead,” 1 Tim.5:6; and the profligate son who “was dead and [yet] revives,” Luke 15:24).

In Luke 16 our attention is directed to two particulars: Verse 22 of chapter twelve seems to bridge the gap that lies between these two portions of Scripture by directing the disciples not to worry about what they should eat, or what they should wear. In considering the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, it would seem as if the “prodigal son” obtained what the “rich man” was deprived of. In the parable of the rich fool in chapter twelve, attention is not at first directed as to who should obtain the wealth the poor blind miser would leave behind him, but the approach to that aspect of the matter is prepared in the question asked of him, “Now, what you make ready, whose will it be?” (Luke 12:20).

There the question is asked but not answered, but in verse 31 we find these words addressed to the despised disciples: “Be seeking the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.” Note also that there the kingdom is advised to be sought, but in 16:16 it is described as being opposed. Immediately preceding the story of Lazarus we have a reference to divorce (16:18), but here we seem to be in a different sphere, for the thought of a bridal feast, and wedding festivities, is made to illustrate the truth (12:36). The fourth section of the parable in chapters 15 and 16 dealt with a servant’s unfaithful service; but if we have an unfaithful servant there, we have here the administrator who is both faithful and prudent (12:42).

Luke 16 may be briefly summarized in three words: Deprivation; Divorce; Death. The shadow of the coming removal of the unjust administrator from his office, the removal of the unfaithful wife from her relationship, and the removal of the unthankful miser from his riches.

Alan Burns

1. The word “certain” represents the Greek indefinite relative pronoun tis; its standard is ANY. Unlike some usages of the English word “certain,” the Greek word tis never denotes specificity; instead, it points the reader to generality or indefiniteness.

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