Jefferson Vann – Five Questions to Ask While Reading the Rich Man and Lazarus Story

I love the story of the rich man and Lazarus, but not for the same reason that many others do. It is a story that we can all easily picture. We see a fat rich man, clothed in a purple robe, feasting all the time in his big house, while just outside his door a beggar waits and starves. Then they both die, and things change drastically. The former beggar is now welcomed into a very comfortable place. But the former rich man is burning in agony.

The rich man and Lazarus is the last in a string of stories Jesus told in response to the Pharisees criticism of the riffraff that Jesus was associating with.1 We can read those stories in Luke 15-16.

  • a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in the wilderness and searches for the one that he lost,
  • a woman ransacks her house looking for a coin that she had lost,
  • a prodigal son returns, and is welcomed by his father, but not by his older brother,
  • an employee is about to be fired, so he makes sure that he has plenty of friends to take care of him when that happens.

Jesus got to the point of these stories when he told those Pharisees “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts.”2 The parable of the rich man and Lazarus highlights the fact that some people think their eternal destiny is safe because they are currently doing ok. But God is looking for people who know they need him. He is looking for people who repent of their sins and trust in his gospel of grace.

But even though we all mostly get that point, the incidentals of the rich man and Lazarus story seem to side-track many of us. We start out with a clear view of rich Pharisees, but wind up with scary pictures of flaming torment in the afterlife. Our reading of the parable tends to get us off target to its original purpose.

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