Answer to Correspondence—Is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) a parable, and what is the teaching of it?
I do not think there can rightly be any question regarding the parabolic nature of this scripture. “Abraham’s bosom,” the “great gulf,” the drop of water from the finger of Lazarus, all proclaim it to be one of the parables of our Lord. It is not said to be a parable in Scripture, but neither is “The Good Samaritan” (chap. 10), “The Great Supper” (chap. 14), nor “The Talents” (chap. 19), though these are all parables; that is, they are allegories by means of which moral lessons are conveyed.
There are two parables in Luke 16, and they hang so together that there is no understanding of the second without the apprehension of the teaching of the first. And in contrast with chapter 15, which is spoken to the Scribes and Pharisees, these are spoken to His disciples. Chapter 15 sets forth the grace of God in its blessed activities for the salvation of lost and ruined men. Chapter 16 sets before us the effect of that grace, where it is in any measure apprehended, in the conduct of its subjects, and also the eternal consequences of its reception or rejection by men.
Israel had been God’s steward in the past dispensation. Earthly possessions were theirs by the gift of God. But Israel were unfaithful, and had wasted the goods committed to their trust. Now they were to be no longer in this favoured place. Grace taught those who came under its power to look beyond earth, and instead of using the goods which were still at their disposal for their own fleshly gratification, to use them with a view to everlasting habitations, when all would be over with their sojourn here. It was on the principle of “laying up for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold of eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19; see also Hebrew 6:18). It is no question at all of the grace by which one is saved, and that altogether apart from works, but it is the teaching of that grace that has saved us, leading us to sacrifice all present advantages in view of what is future and eternal.
In the previous dispensation earthly riches were a sign of the favour of God to those who possessed them; but that dispensation was now at an end, for Christ was in rejection, and man’s unfaithfulness proved so that He was no longer to be God’s steward, though still having in possession His Master’s goods which He may use in view of the future, but being put out of His stewardship, He must find some abiding-place outside the present life. The covetousness of the Pharisees (v. 14) prevented their going in for things which were matters of faith, because they were unseen, and in their estimation too visionary to be trusted. They went in for the good things of the present life, as though they could use the things of God as they pleased. Therefore the Lord lifts the curtain of the eternal world, and shows them that there everything is reversed.
Lazarus has a name in heaven: he is well known there. The rich man is nameless. It is “a certain rich man.” His folly was exhibited in his cleaving to earth when the dispensation that gave the earth to man on the ground of his faithfulness was closed. He should have gone in for habitations in heaven.
Though in their separate state, they are still viewed as in their bodies, in order that the true nature of their circumstances may be made known to us, for we know nothing about spirits. The one is in the best place a Jew could think of, and the other in utter misery.
The parable also teaches, what is denied by many, the consciousness of the soul after death, and the reality of bliss in heaven and torment in hell.