The Rich Man and Lazarus

William Bacon Stevens, 1857

Luke 16:19-31
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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!'
"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. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
"'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
"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!'"

In some respects, this is one of the most remarkable parables uttered by our Lord. It brings before us . . .
the two extremes of life,
the two extremes of death, and
the two extremes of existence beyond the grave.

Each of these couplets may be regarded as an act in the parabolic drama. The characters employed in their representation, being . . .
a beggar,
a rich man,
the patriarch Abraham,
and attending angels.

While the scene is laid . . .
in Earth,
and in Heaven,
and in Hell.

The consideration of these several acts will put us in possession of the true scope of the parable, and enable us to explain its minor features and design.

The first act exhibited before us, is the two extremes of life a very rich man and a very poor man.

The RICH MAN presents himself as being "dressed in purple and fine linen and living in luxury every day." Nothing could more clearly indicate his wealth and splendor; for though, in later times, robes of purple have been appropriated to royalty alone yet in Christ's day it was the dress of the rich, the great, and the favorites in the courts of princes. Robes of purple were very costly, because of the scarcity of the shell-fish (murex trunculus) from which the Tyrians obtained their celebrated dye; or from the rareness of the purple fish, from which, according to Pliny, the Phoenicians extracted their rich varieties of purple.

Of nearly equal costliness was the "fine linen," in which the rich man was clothed; consisting of an under-vest or tunic, composed chiefly of the Egyptian flax or Bambusa, which was of a soft texture, and so expensive, being worth its weight in gold, as to be worn only by princes, priests, or people of great estate. In saying, then, that he was "dressed in purple and fine linen," nothing more was needed to indicate the costliness and magnificence of his attire.

But he "lived in luxury," as well as dressed royally; and that not occasionally but "every day." His life was a daily feast, full of everything that could gratify the palate of an epicurean lord. Of course, his dwelling was in keeping with his wardrobe and his table. And when we say, therefore, that he was gorgeously arrayed, sumptuously fed, and nobly lodged we cover the whole ground of luxurious living, and that outward splendor which is so much coveted by men.

Turn now to the BEGGAR. His name is Lazarus. The name of the rich man has not been mentioned (for the term Dives, the Latin word for "rich, magnificent," is a conventional name given to him by uninspired writers) but that of the beggar has been recorded. The names of multitudes of the poor, whom the world knows not of will be found recorded in "the Lamb's Book of Life," and engraved on the palms of the hands of the crucified One while the names of but few of the rich, the wise, the noble, are written there; for they are the "men of the world who have their portion in this life."

Of this Lazarus (a name derived, as some think, from a Hebrew word, signifying a helpless person; or according to others, from a word which is interpreted God is my helper), it is said, that he was laid at the gate of this rich man, full of sores, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from his table; moreover even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The portal of a great mansion was often a place of resort for beggars, that the passers in and out might give them alms; a custom mentioned as far back as Homer, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and still kept up in many parts of the Eastern world. This description of Lazarus, like that of the rich man, is brief but emphatic, the strokes which draw his condition are few but masterly, and give us a full insight into his wretchedness and want. He was helpless, for the verb, was laid, being in the passive voice, implies that he was borne and placed there by the aid of others consequently was himself helpless. "Was laid at his gate" like a common beggar, a miserable dependent mendicant.

"Full of sores" diseased all over his body with grievous ulcers, which must have been intensely painful by their number and malignity, increased by his daily exposure and by the lack of proper sanatives and emollients.

"Desiring to be fed with the crumbs," not asking to sit at the rich man's table, nor yet to eat with his servants but only for the broken refuse crumbs which fell from the platters and was swept into the streets.

"Even the dogs came and licked his sores" he was so miserable that he was unable to fray away the dogs, which, attracted by the blood and sores of his diseased limbs, came and licked them, thus reducing him almost to the level of the brute creation.

These are the outlines of a misery rarely met with and present to our imaginations, a loathsome and repulsive object.

Such was the relative condition of the two in this life. The one, with a stately mansion, princely clothing, sumptuous fare, numerous servants, courtly friends having all that heart could wish or money buy; filling himself day by day with these objects of sensuality and pride, and neither thinking nor caring for the poor, the sick, the houseless, the hungry; absorbed in self, living for the present, reckless of the future!

The other, without a home, a bed, a table, with no companions but dogs, no resting-place but the gateway, no clothing but rags; hungry, diseased, helpless; a burden to himself, an offence to the rich; gathering a scanty pittance from the alms of travelers, and satisfying a craving hunger with the crumbs which he shared with dogs!

Who would not envy the rich man?
Who would not shun the condition of Lazarus?

But the scene changes, and brings us to the close of their respective lives. "And it came to pass that the beggar died; the rich man also died and was buried." Death is the common lot of all. Death blends the scepter and the spade, and knocks with equal pace at the gates of the palace, and the hovels of the poor.

The beggar died first. There is, however, no record of his funeral. He was hurried into the ground, perhaps unhonored, unwept, uncared for, "buried with the burial of an donkey, cast out beyond the gates of Jerusalem."

Not so with the rich man: "He died and was buried;" interred, doubtless, with pomp and ceremony; for the wealth which commanded friends when living, could command mourners when dead.

Here, again, who would not prefer the condition of the rich man to that of Lazarus? The one dies surrounded by skillful physicians, faithful nurses, helpful attendants, and is borne to the costly tomb with all the insignia of courtly grief. The other passes away alone, is coffined in his rags, and, without a mourner to drop a tear, and is hurried out of sight.

Thus closes the earthly history of Dives and Lazarus. Here the curtain of life drops and the bodies return to the worm, their native dust, and corruption.

The scene again changes, and the future, with its vast consequences, opens before us.

Dives and Lazarus again come into view but how changed their eternal destinies!

The rich man! Where is he? "In Hell, lifting up his eyes in torment!" Where were his riches, his purple robes, his sumptuous fare, his lordly mansion? Could none of these save him? Could none of these buy him a place in Heaven? No! stripped of his wealth, his robes, his feasts, his friends he is thrust into Hell, where his riches and luxuries but feed the flames which burn, but never consume their victim.

The beggar! where is he? His body, perhaps, had scarcely the semblance of an earthly burial yet his soul was borne "by angels into Abraham's bosom." What though princes even carried the body of Dives to the tomb? Lazarus had the higher honor, for celestial spirits conveyed his soul to glory!

The Jews expressed the happiness of the righteous at death in three ways:
"They go to the garden of Eden;"
"they go to be under the throne of glory;"
"they go to the bosom of Abraham." And it was in reference to this general idea, that our Lord introduced this expression, to denote the future happiness of Lazarus.

He was in the bosom of Abraham, "the Father of the faithful." He whom the rich man scorned to have at his table was received into the arms of Abraham, "the friend of God;" resting in the highest felicity which the Jewish mind could imagine!

The repose of Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham is represented in the parable as being seen by Dives, for it is stated that "in Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side." Here again our Savior accommodates his language to the common notions of the Jews, who were taught by the rabbinical writers to believe, that the gates of Paradise, were near by the gates of Hell; separated, indeed, by an impassable gulf yet within eye-range and ear-shot of each other.

As soon as the rich man saw Lazarus he recognized him, and calls him by name, and begs to Abraham, "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!" Brief words yet expressive of intense woe. The tormenting flame, the parched tongue, the quenchless thirst a thirst so great that the only blessing it asks is one drop of water from the "tip of one finger" superadded to the humbling position of a beggar asking like a miserable mendicant for a favor from the hands of him whom, on earth, he spurned with contempt, constitute the elements of his unearthly agony.

His request, as small as it is, is denied. He is bid to remember, that he, "in his lifetime, received his good things;" he was one of those "men of the world" described by the Psalmist, "who have their portion in this life," who flourish here "like a green bay-tree," "whose hearts were as fat as brawn," and who, in consequence, lifted up their proud spirits against God, asking, with all the insulting haughtiness of Pharaoh, "Who is the Lord that I should serve Him?"

All this he is bid remember, and as his busy memory wakes into more than usual activity he remembers God's calls of mercy rejected, his opportunities of grace slighted, his vows of obedience broken and guilt, transgression, rebellion, gather around his mind with most harassing power. Among all the fearful torments of the lost none will exceed those which memory will furnish in the perpetual review of the past!

Undaunted by the denial of this request, he begs another: "Then I beg you, father send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment!" By the first reply of Abraham, he ascertained that there was no hope for him, and abandoning all attempt to get a personal favor he turns his thoughts to his relatives on earth, who, pursuing, as he knew, the same course which he had followed would, like him, take up their abode in everlasting burnings!

For their sakes, therefore, he pleads that Abraham would "send Lazarus to his father's house," to warn them by his horrendous end of the dreadful fate which awaited them, if they continued in their sinful course. Abraham replies, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them!"

In the request of Dives, there was a virtual implication that he had not been sufficiently warned, an idea which is still further sustained in his rejoinder: "No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent!" evidently hinting that Moses and the Prophets were not a sufficient warning, and that had a messenger from the unseen world visited him, as he wished Lazarus to do his brethren he would have repented, and avoided that place of torment; thus aiming to charge upon God, what he had brought upon himself!

But Abraham closes the dialogue with the solemn yet emphatic assertion, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!"

The phrase "Moses and the Prophets" is a common formula to express the writings of the Old Testament. And the assertion of Abraham proves that where the teachings of these sacred books are disregarded no amount of personal revelation will be productive of benefit. For the same evil dispositions and perverse will which hinder men from believing the truths contained in the Scriptures, attested as they are by signs and wonders of most miraculous power, would lead them, after the first startling excitement was over to disbelieve even though one went unto them from the dead.

The point at issue between Dives and Abraham, resolves itself into this question: Is a standing Revelation from God, better suited to man as an accountable being than a special and individual one? This opens too wide a subject to be fully discussed here yet it cannot be dismissed without some statements which will go far to solve the question.

We might settle the matter in a very summary way by saying that whatever plan a God of infinite wisdom has devised is that which is best adapted to man as a spiritual and immortal being. A standing Revelation is that plan which God has devised therefore a standing Revelation is that which is best adapted to man as a spiritual and immortal being.

Those who acknowledge both the major and the minor premises, as duly assumed, will unhesitatingly adopt the conclusion for the syllogism is a perfect one, and in the simplest form.

Waiving however this strictly logical argument, which is amply sufficient for all honest and reverent minds we can discover many reasons why there is more weight, and should be more influence, in a standing Revelation than in a private revelation, made to particular people, in different times, places, and conditions.

A standing Revelation is not so easily counterfeited. It is of universal application, and thus bears equally on all. It is more easily appreciated and understood, as it concentrates upon itself the interpretation of thousands of strong, educated, and prayerful minds. It is more permanent and unchanging. It is better fitted to unfold the great lineaments of Jehovah's character. It is more consonant to the analogy of nature, wherein God operates through general laws, those standing and irreversible statutes of His physical kingdom, which we term the laws of nature, and upon the permanence of which is based all human science.

We go further, and assert that the evidence which sustains our standing Revelation, is greater than any which could be given by one coming from the spirit world. For consider what would be the nature of the evidence which such a messenger from the dead would give! It would be that of a private individual, who could tell only his personal experience, and would possess merely the authority of a traveler to the spirit land, narrating what he had seen and heard.

But is the evidence of such a one, at all comparable to the evidence of the Bible? Is the narrative of a finite creature to be preferred to the Revelation of the infinite God? Is the story of one who tells only what his limited observation has gathered better than the words of Him who knows the end from the beginning? Did Lazarus who rose from the dead have a better knowledge of the unseen world than He by whom He was raised?

Let us look a moment at the respective value of the two kinds of evidence. In the case of the Bible, the grounds on which we receive and believe it, are its public, unimpeached, and wondrous miracles; its numerous, comprehensive, and far-reaching prophecies; the unparalleled preservation of its sacred books; the ever accumulating mass of historical proof; its numerous collateral and corroborative monuments; its peculiar and supernatural doctrines; its perfectly demonstrable inspiration by the Holy Spirit; its reception by the universal Church; its minute adaptation to the multifarious needs of the soul; the regenerating power which it has already exercised upon the human race. And this evidence appeals to the affections of the heart, to the faculties of the mind, to the conscience, reason, and judgment of mankind.

In the case of an apparition from the dead there would only be the personal irresponsible authority of a single individual appealing not to your judgment and reason, for that would be lost in your fright; not to the sober faculties of your mind, for those would be paralyzed with fear; but to your excited imagination, to your stimulated imagination, startled into intense action by the standing before you of one "from the dead."

Let any candid mind say if this is any evidence at all, worthy to be compared to that which underlies the massive fabric of Scriptural Revelation! We know that just in proportion as the imagination is excited beyond its healthful operations, or the passions stimulated beyond their legitimate action, that . . .
the reflective and judicial faculties of the mind are depressed and weakened;
the perceptions of the intellect are distorted;
the decisions of the judgment are perverted;
the operation of the will is irregular;
and no true judgment or decision can be had or reached by an individual whose mind is either paralyzed with fear, or bewildered by excitement.

It is perfectly absurd, therefore, to place the evidence afforded by an apparition from the dead on a footing with that which upholds "Moses and the Prophets."

But, further, the very grounds on which men object to the testimony of the Bible, apply with greater force to the evidence of "one from the dead." The objections to the Bible are mainly on two grounds, namely, as a revelation of the will of God, and as a system of moral doctrines. The objection to the Bible because it is a revelation from God lies harder against a man from the dead, than against the Scriptures for what would his message be but a revelation? And a revelation of things beyond the cognisance of your senses, or the testimony of your fellow men! And so, of course, on Hume's principles it must be discarded, or else you are placed in the dilemma of accepting the evidence of a solitary and individual revelation, and rejecting the vast and ever accumulating evidence which sustains the Word of God. Which is most reasonable? Which demands the greatest credulity?

If the objection to a standing revelation be on account of its doctrines then, if the man from the dead taught the doctrines of the Bible, you would no more believe him than you would "Moses and the Prophets." And if he taught doctrines contrary to the Gospel then, before you can receive them, you must demand for their confirmation a proof as strong at least as that by which we prove the Scriptures to be of God, and even stronger, to counterbalance the prima facie authority of Revelation.

When such evidence can be produced, then will we "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it;" but as no such has been given, and none possibly can be we dismiss the objection as one originating in the pride of the sinful heart, unwilling to bow to the humbling doctrines of the Cross rather than in the deductions of a calm reason, or an unbiased judgment.

But the falsity of these subterfuges will still more strongly appear, if we remember the fact that the very condition of things desired by the rich man in the parable has already taken place and yet the anticipated results have not followed. One has come to us from the dead! Jesus Christ has already risen from the dead. And, what is of great importance to our case he rose for the very purpose of confirming the doctrines of Revelation; for Paul so rests the whole superstructure of the Gospel on the resurrection of Christ, that he says, with great emphasis, "If Christ has not risen then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain and you are yet in your sins!" Yet how few believe the words of Jesus; how few repent at His warnings of wrath, or His invitations of grace!

The very men who most clamorously say "but if one came unto us from the dead, and told us the facts concerning the unseen world, that sin is punished with unspeakable woe, and that persistence in our present course, will bring us to that place of torment we would certainly repent," are those who most sedulously refuse to listen to the teachings of the Savior who did come from the dead, and who tells us in the Gospel what He sees and knows of the world to come.

To the open ear of the sincere inquirer, the Scriptures speak out clear and full and he who yields to their guiding voice will, at death, be "carried by angels into Abraham's bosom!" But, to the willfully closed ear no attestations, come from wherever they may will prove effectual, for persistent unbelief will cast them all aside, and rush with infatuated step over every barrier, until death ends his earthly career, and "in Hell, he lifts up his eyes, being in torment!"

This parable is full of instructive suggestions:

This parable teaches that the condition of the soul, in the eternal world is not at all affected by the condition of the body in this world. "God is no respecter of people." Spiritual qualifications alone, shall decide our position in eternity.

This parable teaches that a man may be poor and miserable and despised on earth and yet be dear to saints, to angels, and to God. Joseph in Pharaoh's dungeon, David hiding in caves, Elijah "hunted like a partridge upon the mountains," the Apostles regarded as "the off-scouring of all things;" and above all, the personal history of our blessed Lord, who was "a man of sorrows," and "had nowhere to lay his head" amply sustain this precious truth.

This parable teaches that riches, honors, and friends are no security against death and Hell. "Riches," says Solomon, "are no profit in the day of wrath!" And Zephaniah boldly declares of the ungodly, "Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the Lord's wrath!"

HONORS are but rainbows painted on the spray of popular applause, vanishing as soon as formed; even as the Psalmist says, "Man being in honor, abides not."

FRIENDS are but flesh and blood, as mortal and as impotent as ourselves; "none of them" writes David, "can, by any means, redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him." He, therefore, who trusts in either of these, trusts in that which will fail him in the day of judgement!

This parable teaches that those who revile the godly and the poor in this life shall respect and envy them in the life to come. The rich man took no notice of Lazarus when living but was most anxious to secure his services when in eternity. And who are they "of whom" the Apostle says "the world was not worthy?" Its kings? its poets? its heroes? its philosophers? No! but the lowly, despised, and persecuted servants of God those who "had trial of mockings and scourgings; yes, moreover, of bonds and imprisonments, who were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword, who wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented." The world does not write these names in its history with illuminated capitals but they are written in the "Lamb's Book of Life!" They are not decked with earthly honors but they are dressed with kingly robes, and wear kingly crowns in Heaven!

This parable teaches that all those who have their "good things in this life" can expect none in the eternal world. So much are we under the dominion of the temporal and the material that the present too often absorbs our thoughts to the exclusion of the spiritual and the eternal. The cry of most men, like that of the departing Prodigal, is, "Father, give me the portion of the estate now." They are under the sway of sense they do not walk by faith. They live only for the present, and come under the class described by David, "men of the world, who have their portion in this life." They have chosen their part but it is a worldly one, and when called hence they lose it, and have no heavenly portion in the future.

This parable conveys a solemn warning to the rich. It is to be observed that our Lord does not charge the rich man with any positive crime or immorality. He merely states that he was rich, and lived in a style corresponding to his wealth, which may be said of many a truly good man. But he was evidently one who "trusted in his riches," of whom the Savior declared, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The snare of wealth lies in "its deceitfulness," and he who would avoid its entangling meshes, must use his riches as a steward's trust, for which he must give account at the judgment-seat of Christ.

This parable should prove a consolation to the pious poor. What though he begs his daily bread, and lies in rags at the gates of the rich? Was not Jesus born in a stable? And were not the birds and the foxes better housed than He?

The poor Christian may have no earthly treasure but he has "an inheritance reserved for him in Heaven."

His body may be full of sores but God says to his soul, "Your beauty was perfect through my loveliness, which I had put upon you."

He may have but "crumbs" to eat here but he has an invitation "to the marriage-supper of the Lamb!"

He may have no companions now but angels minister to him as one of the heirs of salvation, the Holy Spirit dwells in his heart as a Comforter, and Christ is to him "a friend who sticks closer than a brother!" And, from the lowest deep of earthly abasement, he can look up to God, and say, "Abba, Father."

Therefore, to all the poor and humbled Christians, we say, in the words of the once lowly and despised but now glorious and exalted Savior, "Look up, and lift up your heads for your redemption draws near!"

And finally, this parable teaches that our eternal future corresponds to our earthly character. We enter the world of spirits with precisely the same moral feelings with which we leave this present world. "As the tree falls so it lies." He who at death is sinful will be sinful still. He who at death is holy will be holy still. This being the case, as God's Word positively assures us, and there being guarantied to us only the present moment of time in which to prepare for this unending future, with how much emphasis should this consideration speak to us of the necessity of making immediate preparations to meet our God!

We may be summoned before Him at any moment. If called hence in an unrepenting and unbelieving state we shall enter that unseen world only to spend an eternity amidst the torments of the lost, with an impassable gulf between us and the land of bliss! An "impassable gulf!" No passing now! No passing ten thousand ages hence! No passing forever! Once in Hell, lifting up our eyes in torment and we are there forever!

For though there is remorse in Hell,
though there is sorrow there,
though there is weeping and wailing there
there is no repentance there, no faith there, no Savior there!

Now, there is mercy and forgiveness! Now, the blood-filled fountain is open! Now, the arms of Jesus are outstretched to receive us! Now, the Spirit pleads and moves upon our hearts! Now, the instrumentalities of grace are freely offered. Seize them now, "for now is the accepted time! Now is the day of salvation."