The passage in Luke about the rich man and Lazarus has been an epicenter of debate for years. The biggest questions surrounding this passage have to do with its validity on the afterlife and if it was an actual event. Is this a parable or not? Does this tell us what heaven and hell is like? We will try to answer these questions the best we can by looking at the context and patterns already set before us in Scripture. Let’s begin.
This story takes place in Luke 16:19-31. In my opinion, I think there is more evidence than not to say that this is indeed a parable and not some real life encounter. I say that for two reasons. First, its unifying themes fit in with the rest of the parables that surround its context. This story is about a poor man and rich man and we have just looked at parables that deal with issues of status, poverty/riches, and being lost (ch.14-16). This story carries the same themes. The second point to consider is that this parable starts out exactly the same way as the previous parable Jesus had just told about the shrewd manager. To me, this fits the realm of parable characteristics, however, we must learn from this story instead of debating a technicality.
The next question on the table has to do with the afterlife and if this parable gives us insight into heaven and hell or paradise and hades, etc. If we just focus on whether this passage deals with the afterlife, I believe we have missed the point of the entire story. Let’s focus on the context of this story.
This story deals with a poor man and a rich man. The poor man, Lazarus, suffers terribly in his earthly life. The rich man has a very extravagant life and enjoys an abundance. However, after they both died, the roles seemed to be reversed. Now Lazarus is in comfort while the rich man is suffering. Let’s review the parable of the banquet just a few sections before all this. A great banquet was thrown and the original guests declined so the master invited “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (14:21). The man invited the guests that were the lowest of society and they were invited in and enjoyed the banquet. In the same way, Lazarus was now being invited in to live in a way that he had never before and it was offered to him by God.
I think this parable fits two perspectives of parable interpretations and meaning. This parable describes how Jesus is offering a kingdom that is totally opposite to the way in which today’s current society runs. The poor and low of society are exalted in God’s kingdom and the proud are humbled (Matthew 23:12, Proverbs 29:23). The other area it can fit into is the decision we will make when we are offered Jesus and the kingdom. Will we reject Jesus like the rich man and his family? Or will we be like Lazarus and accept, although we may suffer here, but realize our reward? It is a decision we have to make when offered the kingdom.
The significance for us can be taken in two ways. First, we can always make sure that we are supplying justice in this world and that we are uplifting and honoring those the world does not. Second, we can make sure we are accepting Jesus when the world says otherwise. This parable may give us insight into the afterlife, but more importantly it is giving us a picture of how to live in God’s kingdom now.