I remember being very young and hearing a minister dramatically describe the flames and fires of hell in a sermon. I know I was somewhere between the age of six and seven. At this time, I also had little knowledge of salvation in Christ, so I worried about my eternal destination. Couple this thought with a dream I remember having even earlier as a child, where in the dream I was being chased by a devil with a pitchfork. Wrapped with fear by just the possibility of damnation I was drawn to scripture that talked about heaven and hell.
The allegory of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel offers several important teaching lessons. Just as the prodigal son provides a look into the great depth of love, grace, and forgiveness of God the Father, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus points to the coming wrath. Additionally, it reinforces the seriousness of sin, and that there will be many who will not believe despite a believable resurrection account. Note, the indirect tie to Christ and resurrection in the parable is intentional.
We know from the Gospel account Lazarus suffers immensely on earth and the rich man is comforted with wealth and earthly pleasures. In the first-century Judean culture at this time, the common belief among religious leaders was if somebody was sick or lame it was because they were wicked. This belief is just as misguided as a literal reading of this parable might seem to declare the rich are damned and the poor are righteous, solely because of their poverty. Unfortunately, there are preachers who are teaching this falsehood, just as their preachers who shamelessly preach God wants us to be blessed with material abundance and comforts. Remember, we are made righteous by Christ alone (Romans 3:24).
The parable turns or reverses itself with the death of the beggar and the rich man. Now, Lazarus is comforted by the bosom of Abraham in heaven and the rich man is tormented in hell. Lazarus literally means “he whom God helps.” Jesus told several parables in the 16th chapter of Luke, and the account mentions that the Pharisees overheard and sneered at Christ. Christ responded by saying, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”
This parable ultimately tells us little about heaven and hell, because a strict literal reading is to miss the point entirely. Revelation is a much better book to examine for descriptions of the afterlife. Even so, there will indeed be separation from the righteous and unrighteous. It does tell us however, that the compassionate are heard by God. Compassion also deals with responding to the message and teachings of Christ and his Good News.
In addition, the parable is a powerful reminder of the question, “What are you doing with your blessings bestowed to you by God?” In this Thanksgiving season, as in all seasons, it is essential for us to transform our minds beyond the here and now. The parable teaches us about sin, selfishness, and greed, but it also teaches us about our spiritual condition. The rich man represents one who has turned away from trusting God and is trusting his lineage (Abraham) and trusting himself, or his own wealth. Lazarus, throws his trust in the charity and compassion of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a reminder to be authentic and charitable to our neighbors, just as Christ is. It also reminds us real charity and authentic charity is in knowing God and walking with God. Those who know the Lord will have compassion. Especially since they so easily recognize their dependence and need of God.