In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells us a story about two people who are on opposite sides of the social strata for 1st century Israel. Lazarus is a poor sickly beggar while the second character in the story is a rich man who had everything he could dream of. There is some debate as to whether or not this was a parable, rather than a rendition of an actual event, but I tend toward believing it to be simply a parable. At the very least, Jesus tells this story with the intent to impart a lesson to us.
This is a story with two scenes, the first being at the rich man’s house, and the second being after both men had died. In the first scene we see Lazarus, described as a beggar covered in sores laying at the gate of the rich man’s house begging for the crumbs falling from the rich man’s table, with dogs licking his sores. In contract, the rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen, and living in luxury every day. The contrast between the two could hardly be greater. One at the height of the social strata; the other at the bottom. One with everything; the other with nothing. Scene 1 closes with both men dying.
When scene 2 opens these two men find their positions reversed. Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham (which some equate to Paradise) where he is comforted, while the rich man finds himself tormented in Hades. And between the two is a great gulf that cannot be crossed. Again, the contrast between these two men could not be greater.
We now find the rich man making two requests of Abraham. The first is that Abraham would send Lazarus to him to bring just a drip of water for his tongue, bringing him some relief in his agony. Abraham’s response to the rich man makes it clear that it is not possible to cross the gulf that separates the rich man from Lazarus. Once you find yourself on one side, or the other, of the gulf, you have no chance to move to the other.
The next request of the rich man was that Abraham would send Lazarus back to the world of the living to worn the rich man’s brothers of the fate that awaited them, hoping that would change their lives and thus avoid their brothers fate. Abraham responds that they have the writings of Moses and the prophets, who give warning of the fate awaiting those who are disobedient.
But the rich man persists in the request, expressing that one returning from the dead would surely be more convincing. But Abraham declares that the one who would not heed the warning of the prophets, would also ignore the words of one returning from the dead.
While there is much in this account that we could focus on, if it is indeed a parable, then there is a specific point that Jesus is trying to make here. And personally I believe it to be delivered in Jesus final statement: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” I believe Jesus is looking ahead to his own resurrection and the response that people will make to it. There are some who had chosen to follow God’s call based on the writings of the prophets, and to them Jesus resurrection was a wonderful, and confirming, sign. But to those who were not responding to God’s earlier message, even Jesus resurrection would be unconvincing.
This makes me think about the many times I have heard someone say that they would believe in God only if he would do some amazing trick that could only have been produced supernaturally; as if the very existence of the universe is not enough. But I wonder; would any miracle, or series of actions, be enough to convince someone who did not want to be convinced? Probably not!
I believe a mistake often made when reading this parable is to make too much of the setting Lazarus and the rich man find themselves in after death. For any parable to be effective, it must have a setting that is understandable to the people hearing it. Jesus is not likely introducing some new concepts to them concerning the fate of the dead. Rather he places his story in a setting that is familiar to them already: a setting that seems to have been introduced into Jewish thought after the close of the Old Testament.
Is Abraham’s bosom heaven, the final resting place of the righteous? Or is it an intermediate resting place? Is Hades the final home of the unrighteous? Or is it also an intermediate resting place? Or do we find ourselves in some entirely different situation when we leave this life? You can find those who will support any of those views, as well as any number of others. As for me; I do not think it is relevant to the lesson Jesus is trying to make.
I actually take two lessons away from this parable. The first is that our place in eternity is determined here in this life and cannot be changed in the life to come. And that those who are inclined to believe will do so, while those who choose not to believe will not be convinced regardless the proof, the miracles they claim would convince them, or the fulfillment of some list of demands.
Accept God’s message for us today, and live with him for eternity. Reject the message he gives to you today, and spend eternity separated from God.