Jean’s Gospel: The Rich Man and Lazarus
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers— so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:19-31)
A prominent feature in this story is Jesus’ use of barriers, two types of barriers, one temporal and the other eternal. Using spatial imagery, Jesus presents us with a stark contrast between two types of barriers, two types of people, and their two profoundly different destinies.
“And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,” (Luke 16:20)
The first barrier is a gate which separated a rich man from a poor, hungry and lame man, named Lazarus. On one side of the gate, a rich man lived opulently every day. On the other side, Lazarus suffered horrible deprivation every day. The only care Lazarus received was from dogs, which came to lick his wounds.
Spatially, the gate depicts a very short and easy crossing between the rich man and Lazarus. The gate was passable during their lives. The rich man knew Lazarus by name and likeness. He or his servants could have passed through the gate to Lazarus, or someone could have brought Lazarus to the rich man. But the rich man ignored the plight of poor Lazarus who was laid at his gate. He showed less concern for Lazarus than the dogs.
“And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” (Luke 16:26)
Jesus describes the second barrier as a great chasm, which after their deaths also separates the rich man and Lazarus. On one side of the chasm, in heaven, Lazarus has found comfort at the side of Abraham. On the other side, in Hades, the rich man is now in constant torment and anguish.
Spatially, the chasm depicts a great distance. The chasm is eternally fixed and impassible. God determined the destinations of the rich man and Lazarus. As for the rich man, he exhibited no fruits of repentance in the use of his wealth: “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
“He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:31)
Once the rich man realized his destiny was fixed, he became concerned for his five brothers. How can they (and all of us) avoid the rich man’s fate? Jesus diagnosed the rich man’s fatal problem: “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ ” Even in Hades, the rich man despised God’s Word. The rich man wanted his brothers to receive a word from someone else. But Jesus says no other word than His will be effective to save a person.
Jesus told this story before the New Testament was written. Moses and the Prophets contain the Gospel of God’s grace through faith in the promised Messiah. However, we also have additional revelation in the New Testament, which testifies to the fulfillment of the promised Messiah in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should hear the entire Bible referred to in the phrase: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
The story does not tell us about the beliefs of Lazarus, but because he was carried by angels to the side of Abraham, who was saved through faith in God’s promise of a Savior, we may infer that Lazarus also was saved through faith in that promise.
“So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.’ ” (John 10:7)
Hidden underneath his poverty, hunger, foul sores and suffering, Lazarus was a beloved sheep, who waited patiently for his Good Shepherd to deliver him. He received his good things in the afterlife.
By contrast, hidden underneath his expensive clothes, daily feasting and outward righteous living, the rich man was a heathen. The imagery of Lazarus lying at a gate reminds me of Jesus, who refers to himself in John’s gospel as a door. Before the rich man, every day, at the gate (or door), was one of Jesus’ sheep. The rich man could have entered the sheepfold to help poor Lazarus, but he despised God’s Word. Without the illumination of God’s Word, the rich man was spiritually blind. His blindness caused him to see Lazarus as unclean, despised of God and deserving of his wretched plight, when in reality Lazarus was clean, beloved of God and saved for eternity.
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” (Luke 4:18b)
God’s Word and Gospel announce the grace of God in Jesus Christ who gave himself for us and by His blood has ransomed us for God. Jesus procured for us the forgiveness of our sins, life and salvation as a free gift for everyone (rich and poor) who believes in Him.
One of the many gifts that Jesus gives us is the recovery of our spiritual eyesight. May we use our new spiritual eyes to see the Lazarus who has been laid at our gates. The name Lazarus means “God has helped.” May it be our privilege and joy to be the masks behind which God helps the poor, lame and hungry who are laid at our gates. Amen.