Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Cruelty of Lazarus and the Rich Man

Last Sunday in church was probably one of my least favorite Bible readings. It was the telling of Lazarus and the rich man. It has always seemed to me to be a very cold, unforgiving, in-your-face sort of story. Leaving church, I mulled over my thoughts on the verse, before I had time to read more on it. My thoughts were that it is a cruel thing for Lazarus and Abraham to sit there and watch the rich guy burn and offer not even a word of consolation - just hard, cold you-should-have-acted-differently admonition. No empathy (is that the touchy-feely Politically Correct person in me? Probably.) is shown for his plight at all. (It does not help that I forgot that it is a parable and not necessarily a literal event.)

The reading was this:

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Copied from the NIV version as printed at

The Lesson of Repentance

Jeff pointed out the "often unnoticed key to the story: the rich man never asks for forgiveness."


Jeff continued, "in fact, he goes right back to his old ways, demanding that Lazarus bring him water to quench his thirst."

Well, there is that. And it occurred to me that not giving him water may have been an act of mercy in and of itself. Like when you're hungry but you're trying to eat healthier or on a diet, so you take just a bite of something. Then you want More, but you can't have it, and it becomes it's own torment. The pain of the fire the rich guy was feeling would hardly have been quenched by dipping a finger in and having that drop might have been torture since he couldn't have more.

More from Jeff, "I don't think it's so much that Heaven is denying him water, as that Heaven is no longer allowing him to exploit Lazarus for the sake of his material comfort. Note that his first instinct, from within the very mouth of hell - is not to say, 'I see now what I have been and I have done. Father forgive me and comfort my victims,' but to brazenly tell Heaven, "Send Lazarus with water - I'm thirsty."

Heaven's answer: Lazarus is safe from the likes of you now.

I mentioned that I thought men have an easier time being cold when it comes to discipline than moms do. 

So Jeff pointed out one more thing, and it was a good one: If you look at the "guff" as proceeding from the rich man himself, from his own impenitence and intransigence, it may seem less cold. It was merciful of Heaven to allow the rich man life at all.

How long are the rich men of the world supposed to have to come around? How long are the Lazarus of the world supposed to endure it? The hard truth is, not everybody repents.

The Unforgivable Sin is to refuse forgiveness - how can it be otherwise?

To be clear, he was not railing about rich vs. poor here - there are good and bad people in each group, but those questions caught me. How long...? 

Asking for forgiveness should be our first priority. Treating others well and being kind should take place over our own comfortable little world. But there is a place for being put out of the larger group until you can behave well.

What Many Children Are Taught Using Lazarus and the Rich Man... 

The meaning to this group of verses is often taught (and certainly was to me in some of my Sunday schools growing up) from a literal viewpoint, and presented to Christian children as a means of teaching how to treat one another and as a description of the firey place of Hell. As a child, I found this idea that my loved ones - or even myself! - could be burned in a pit for all eternity, and further that God could allow such a place to exist when He was supposed to be a good and loving God, terrifying. I worried over it for years, actually. There is an example of that here in this Sunday School handout lesson.  

The message is very watered down in the lesson, of course and left open to interpretation. There are many interpretations of Verse, so the takeaway here could well be to keep a close tie with your children and discuss what they are told by their teachers whatever class they are in! 

Two Different Ideas on Lazarus and the Rich Man from Other Sources 

The ideas as presented in the two resources below were never presented to me in Sunday School, but I can see validity to both of them. Whether those more learned that I on each side would agree with one another, I don't know, but they both make sense to me.

I found a pretty thorough explanation of the various symbolism on in which the assertion is that the symbolism actually posits the listening priests of the day as the Rich Man and the "five brothers" as the other Jewish branches, and Lazarus as a stand-in for the Gentiles of the day, who will come to God and salvation through Christ. This series of verses one of many parables that Jesus told to send a message to his listeners. I am not educated enough in all the various symbolism of the Church and the Bible to speak about that (but I am studying on it with these verses to try to understand more). offers a somewhat different explanation. In this second version we're back to a slightly more literal meaning in which Jesus is said to be describing a state of the sinner's soul as it relates to the (for lack of a better word) energy of God. In this telling, that energy is felt by both Lazarus and the sinning Rich Man, but felt differently. The Rich Man feels that energy as a fire as he is in need of cleansing and not ready to perceive that energy as a loving, warming Light; Lazarus had his time of scourging while on Earth and so perceives God's Light as a warm, healing energy. 

What have you found to be the message in Lazarus and the rich man? 
How has your Bible affected you today?


  1. Jeff definitely has a good viewpoint of it ... the rich man doesn't really repent, does he? He isn't really sorry that he was so negligence while he was alive. He didn't really do a falling-on-his-knees forgive-me act, he asked for water. At least he thought to ask to spare his family!

  2. Very true - that line of thinking went against my general grain, but I saw the logic to it and the rich guy was definitely still a jerk, even then. It's still not my favorite verse, but I am learning!

  3. Great insights! :D I would like to throw my two cents in if I may :D

    1) To piggy back off the point about the rich man never asking for forgiveness, or never repenting. I don't think Jesus allowed a chance for repentance in this parable. This parable shows (in the post resurrection sense) the eternal permanence of our acceptance of Christ or our rejection of Him. I believe verse 26 highlights this aspect, "26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’" Which that verse is interesting in relation to the fact that so often you will hearing preaching and teaching that those in Heaven will never even think about those in Hell much less want to go to them. This verse seems to suggest the opposite. That is something I have studied before, but I won't go into that here because it would be too long and technical lol

    2) This one is just purely an insight that I noticed for the first time (and I've read this numerous time lol). Verse 31 says, "31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” I take this to be another one of Jesus's prophecies of Himself. How true that last verse is though. Jesus did rise from the dead and still people aren't convinced. I hear the argument, "If God wanted me to believe in Jesus so much why doesn't He just make it obvious, or tell me, or do something miraculous... etc...." The sad thing is that those same people that cry for and demand signs rationalize and excuse away those very things to include the Resurrection of Christ and even those things that happen in today's times, and also the famous passage from Romans that says we are without excuse because God has made Himself know through his very creation.

    Well, that was my almost literal two-cents worth ;)

    1. Hi, James! I'm always quite happy to hear a different angle. This particular set of verses has always bothered me, and I get a little more out of them each time I hear them. Perhaps I have not been open to hearing the whole message before now; who knows?

      I must confess that I am not skilled enough to say much about your first point, without really thinking it over. The 2nd point is one that has occurred to me before. The "signs" truly ARE all around us - and so many pass those signs off as coincidences, while believers call them signs. I have another post coming soon that is just one more illustration of how God works in our lives - or at least *my* view of His work in my life! If you haven't read it, take a look at my post "I hope you get what you deserve" for another one.

  4. I just started reading "On Wealth and Poverty" by St. John Chrysostom (Translated by Catharine P. Roth, SVS Press).

    I haven't gotten far enough in the book to offer much help from it, but it is a whole series of sermons by St. John Chrysostom on this passage. So far so good . . .


I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...