By Michael Riley

Inasmuch as many scholars and laymen alike have endeavored to clearly articulate the meaning of Jesus' words recorded in Luke 16, one could certainly ask why another visitation to the story is in order. There is a seemingly endless list of people who have weighed in on this topic who hold, in general, what I would call an orthodox interpretation of this passage. The orthodox view holds, among other things, that:

1. The teaching is NOT a parable but is an accurate depiction of the dead as they languish in Hades ('Hell' to 1611 advocates) and the saved reside in Abraham's bosom (whatever that is) prior to the final resurrection and judgment of mankind.

2. Lazarus and the rich man were real people.

3. The dead are clearly conscious after death.

This view has serious flaws in it, or at least that is what I believe and it is why I am writing this article. I will not go into any great detail in substantiating the flaws of the orthodox teaching, but will, mainly, highlight each point and offer a brief description of its weakness. Overall, I will spend much more time in arguing for an alternate meaning to the teaching - a meaning that does not have the problems inherent in the orthodox view.


At the very least, the following issues or weaknesses need to be addressed by adherents to the orthodox view.

1. The acceptance or rejection of Christ is not mentioned in the teaching as a basis for salvation with regard to the state of either individual. You will search in vain as much for the poor man's acceptance of Jesus as Savior as you will for the by the rich man's rejection of Him. (In fact, Jesus didn't put Himself into the story at all.)

2. The basis of salvation for the poor man seems to be for no other reason than that he was poor and suffering. This, as a condition for salvation, would have us believe that all poor people are to be saved whether they accept Christ or not and that they are granted salvation based on the difficulty they experienced while on Earth. Such a position is untenable if for no other reason than that the 'poor' have by no means always been 'saints'.

3. In contrast, the basis for damnation of the rich man seems to be for no other reason than that he was rich and negligent. This, as a condition for damnation, would have us believe that all rich people are evil, negligent, reprobates or some combination thereof. Notwithstanding the Bible's varied teachings on the danger of misusing money and trusting in it rather than God, it is simply not the case that all rich people have lived negligent or evil lives. Some have, to be sure, but not all.

4. For this not to be a parable runs afoul of Mark's thunderous assertion (4:33-34): "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything."

5. It contradicts repeated assertions by Jesus and Paul that death is really just another form of sleep. Even the Old Testament writers taught there was no consciousness after death.


Hoping to have at least scratched the surface of your curiosity, I want to move on and posit an explanation for a teaching that does not have orthodoxy's problems listed above. Specifically, what would it mean to you if I could illustrate that proper understanding of this teaching 1. keeps it as a parable, 2. does not speak to the final judgment and the ultimate outcome of mankind let alone Christians, 3. is, therefore, not concerned with either works or the lack thereof nor the acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ as a basis for salvation and 4. does not contradict the Scriptures repeated teaching of sleep as a metaphor for death? As regards number three, this covers the problem of both the poor man's salvation and the rich man's damnation.


So just what was Jesus teaching those who heard Him? Good question. Although it is true that the Bible does not clearly identify the context for every parable, e.g. the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25, we are in luck here. The context of this parable starts, for the purpose of this article, in the previous chapter, Luke 15! We find the opening words in verses one and two: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to her him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' "

As was so typical of Jesus we find Him teaching the wounded and harried crowds of people who gathered to hear Him. He was, no doubt, teaching them about the good news of the Kingdom. The crowds heard Him gladly another scripture records. He had compassion on them for they "were like sheep without a shepherd". They illustrate or typify one broad class of people God deals with. There was also another group there that day. A group that had been repeatedly blessed by God, yet showed no signs of thankfulness. The Pharisees were in the audience. Their reaction to Jesus - well that's another matter entirely. They weren't... pleased with what Jesus was saying or doing, to say the least. He certainly wasn't pleased with them.

Then they murmured! Of all the things not to do! You'd think they would have learned a few things from God's dealing with Israel of old. How many times do we read of the Israelites murmuring and complaining while Moses led the Israelites in the wilderness? After repeated carping, doubting, rebelling and complaining, God "rewarded" their lack of trust by strewing their bones in the desert! Not a pleasant story, yet, one that should have made an impression on the Pharisees. Apparently it didn't. So these two groups are before and in the presence of our Lord, the privileged and the blue-collar folk, the elite and the anonymous. Jesus now decides to describe to both the description of God's attitude toward each. He told them a parable - a single (tauthn -- this) parable composed of five parts to address God's view on mankind as illustrated by these two groups of people before Him - the prototypical form of the lost and the arrogant.


First to the commoner, the weary, the down-trodden, Jesus testifies of God's love through two stories while giving them a double-witness composed of the man who loses even a single sheep from a flock of 100 and a woman's reaction to the loss of a precious coin. He then tells us of the love of the Father in the Prodigal Son. Secondly, in the last portion of this story, we see Jesus start to deal with the latter group - a decided and remarkable shift in focus away from God's love to His frustration with the leadership in Jerusalem in prototypical form of the rebuke of the older brother, the story of the dishonest or unrighteous steward, and finally the current topic of the rich man and Lazarus.


Think of it this way: It's like having a coin in your hand. The coin is single, but it has two sides. And these two sides are the two groups of people Jesus addresses the parable to. How thrilled must have been the people in the crowd to learn of the love of God has for them. The Pharisees, in contrast, remained spiteful even when the ominous tone of Jesus' teaching focused on them. Humility (as NOT evidenced by the older brother), the instinct for self-survival (as in the case of the Unrighteous Manager), or - the third strike - the fear of dissolution or death (as in the case of the rich man and Lazarus) should have kicked in among the Pharisees, the scribes and the teachers of the Law and caused them to change their minds about Jesus. Unfortunately, these profound and serious threats did not produce the desired effect. Not that Jesus wanted the leaders to have such hard hearts nor enjoyed pronouncing judgment on them --He did not. He did, however, grieve over Jerusalem and its stubborn leadership:
Matthew 23:37-38 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate."


Although the first two parts of the parable - the lost sheep and coin - are easy enough to see, let's jump ahead to the third portion of the parable, the Prodigal Son. Before I go there, I would call the reader's attention to four little words in Luke 15:4. They are, "until he finds it." Picture this man losing even one of his 100 sheep. He's out the door immediately looking for it... "until he finds it." Yet the God of heaven and earth must not be totally represented by this man because, whereas the man may find his lost sheep, Orthodox Christianity insists God is destined to lose most of what He alone has created. Or will He? Perhaps we might just dare to hope that our God will seek the lost of all ages "until He finds them." Do we dare?


The younger brother was a real idiot wasn't he? Yet I think he represents in prototypical fashion mankind in general. We all want our way don't we? And anybody who gets in our way gets run over. If somebody else gets hurt or is wounded by our selfishness, well, that's just too bad. Look at the arrogance and foolishness of the younger brother. Yet how different the outcome of the young man's folly! Read the record.

I won't review the entire story here, but suffice it to say, that when he figured out that the pigs he was tending were eating better than he was, he gained a whole new perspective on the home and father he had so arrogantly deserted. At least the training humbled him. He would have refused to be called son and would have been happy just to be a servant in his father's house. Yet what happens? The father sees him afar off - what a precious thought that God continues to watch for our return - and leaves the house to go out and greet him and to welcome him home. What love! The lad can barely get his memorized speech out, "Father I am no longer worthy to be called your son..." The father will have none of it. He gives him the ring, the robe and a feast - all prototypes of the heavenly realm. The harried people of the day may not have totally understood all the aspects of the story, but I'm willing to venture that they celebrated the God Jesus described to them.

Yet what of the attitude of the older brother? Why do you think Jesus added this to the story? Certainly if all He wanted to do was to teach us about being obedient to His principles, He could have stopped with the restoration of the younger brother. No. He went on. What of this older brother? What a crybaby. "Father I've been faithful yet you never gave me a calf that I might make merry with my friends..." His brother was as good as dead! Yet now he is back, safe and sound and all the elder brother can do is stew in a rage out in the back yard! And the Father went out to him... too! This ungrateful lout was behaving, strangely, like the younger brother was before he got his training in the pigsty! Yet his attitude looks all too similar to the Pharisees. A man who hasn't walked in 38 years is now walking and all the Jews can do is complain about the man carrying his pallet! Squawk. Squawk. "Daddy, where's my goat that I may make merry with my friends?" There seems to have been something totally out of order with the priorities of both the elder brother and the Pharisees as regards to Jesus and His ministry. No wonder Jesus added this portion of the story.


The next portion of the parable tells us the story of an unrighteous manager who found himself out of a job, a post, a stewardship and a responsibility. Many people have wrestled with the seeming difficulty of the teaching Jesus gave here. It is hard for us to picture our Lord countenancing let alone commending such corrupt behavior as exhibited by the manager. At the very least he was guilty of influence buying, at the most he was embezzling his master's profits. The real key to solving this dilemma is to see it in the context listed above. Jesus was contrasting the actions of a non-religious individual with the lack of action of the Pharisees. Faced with the prospect of a bleak future the manager, at least, acted... even if it was only for himself. The religious leadership, having been sternly warned that their stewardship was about to be lifted from them, did... absolutely nothing. They changed not one attitude about Jesus or His teachings - even though the evidence of the miracles should have provided more than enough proof of His credentials to prove He was who He said He was. Yet Jesus asserts that the improper actions of a selfish steward are better than the total lack of action of the Pharisees and other leaders. Their failure to act would seal their doom. How sad; how truly sad.


Now that we have the context firmly established, we can more clearly see what Jesus was driving at in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man - Judah - the ruling elite in Israel of His day was about to be brought to ruin - death, if you will. Recall Judah had 5 brothers. The rich man wore robes of purple. He feasted sumptuously. He cared not one wit for the well being of others around him. And what of Lazarus? Some authors believe he represents the lost tribes of Israel In fulfillment of the prophecies given to Hosea , they went into captivity, lost their special relationship to God, and lost their own identity - they died, so to speak - so that they no longer even know of their past relationship to God. They have endured trials in the lands of many foreign nations - the dogs of the story. They have been in the wilderness and are now separated in space and time from Jerusalem, God's eternal city. Yet, for all this, there was no aid forthcoming from the Rich Man to Lazarus.

The death of Lazarus and his subsequent scattering among the nations would also serve as a warning of the oncoming death of the Rich Man fulfilled literally in 70 A.D when legions under Titus arrived on the scene and destroyed Jerusalem. The Rich Man and Lazarus were, yet, children of Abraham through Israel. The lost tribes would be comforted in the wilderness. The Jews - the offspring of those in Jerusalem in Jesus' day - in subsequent history - have suffered immeasurably. It would seem that the Jews couldn't escape trouble no matter where they went. This portion of the parable does seem to describe the fate of Judaism and the lost tribes very well. Jesus said that even if one were to come back from the dead, they would not listen! How prescient. He is the one who would come back from the grave. He is the one greater than the prophets, Jonah or the Queen of the South. Yet even after His resurrection, they would not accept Him. How on target!

If my exegesis is correct, then we can see how Jesus' description in this portion of the parable has nothing to do with the final state of mankind at all.
There is so much to learn from this five-part parable. Sadly, it seems to me, that this view is too seldom taught.


In closing this discussion, I should also point out that apologists for the orthodox view have yet another issue to explain. In verse 23 the rich man finds himself in Hades - incorrectly translated as Hell in the KJV. Yet in Revelation 20:14 we see that Death and Hades were cast into the 'lake of fire' thus bringing to an end the existence of Hades. If the story in Luke is supposed to be descriptive of the final state, then the failure to mention the 'lake of fire' weakens the orthodox position. Of course if the story is a parable, then no appeal to the 'lake of fire' need occur.

I should also point out that those who hold the orthodox view would make a day of Judgment a moot point or afterthought to God's justice. If you find yourself being tortured in Hades when you die, is there any doubt about where you are going to spend eternity? The judgment would become pretty much a rubberstamped sentence. Even in civilized countries the accused are not punished until after the trial has commenced and judgment has been rendered. Yet, our God tortures the lost before they are judged and then forever after. Is this really the Gospel Jesus would have us teach? Is this really the way God would have us portray his role in Justice? It seems to me that this view of God's final plan for mankind turns a proper view of God upside down? How so? It is the Psalmist who having learned of God was inspired to write:
Psalm 103:8-17 "The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children..."

The sense of these words argue that God's natural way to be is merciful and forgiving. His mercy is "from everlasting to everlasting" while his anger is explicitly stated to not last forever.

Yet to suffer in Hades forever would seem to indicate that it is His mercies that are fleeting and that his anger lasts forever. How tragic. How sad. There are some who will, in order to avoid this blessed view of God will turn and argue that it is not a case of God's anger but His sense of justice that is lasting forever. If you are one of those, I would really ask you to stop and evaluate just what happened on the cross so long ago. Look at the sense of the words above. The sentiments of these words are mirrored in the New Testament as Paul closes the 11th chapter of Romans, that grand conclusion to Paul's discussion of God's sovereignty which is traced in chapters nine through eleven. There we see Paul welling up with praise for God as he sees the plan and heart of God perhaps clearly for the first time. In verse 32, Paul exults: "For God has consigned (shut up) all mankind to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all."

I encourage anyone reading these words to prayerfully consider them - and then to experience the joy of the Father's glorious plans for all mankind hinted at therein. Oh, can we not open our eyes to see the grand expanse of the Father's ultimate plan based on His love for us!