We’re generally taught that Jesus was the master of parables, that he taught such deep messages through his analogies and stories. But that’s before you actually start to think about what he actually said.
I was directed to the parable about Lazarus and the rich man. It is found in the christian new testament in the third gospel called “Luke”, chapter 16 verses 19 to 31. Let me just show you what it says.
(19) There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and was contented every day brilliantly [the Greek word can imply good health as well]: (20) And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was thrown at his gate, full of sores, (21) And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. (22) And it happened, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; (23) And in hell he lifts up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (24) And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. (25) But Abraham said, Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented. (26) And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which want to pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from there. (27) Then he said, Please therefore, father, would you send him to my father’s house? (28) For I have five brothers; that he may strongly petition against them, so that they don’t also come into this place of torment. (29) Abraham says to him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. (30) And he said, No, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. (31) And he said unto him, If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16:19-31)
Whilst I tell you the problem with with this parable, it’s important to bear something in mind.
All most people have when they read this parable are the words on a page. They don’t have Jesus alive and with them at that moment to tell them what he meant exactly. Protestant christianity doesn’t accept tradition, so they have no historical link to Jesus’ intention, no teaching passed down from teacher to disciple directly from Jesus to any one of the many splintered factions (known as “denominations”) that currently makes up Protestant christianity at present. All we have are the words.
[ASIDE: Yes, I am ignoring those claims of the “spirit-filled” christians that say thay they have the “holy spirit” to tell them what the text means. I’m guessing it was the same “holy” spirit that inspired the splintering of the whole Protestant mess that now makes up that sort of christianity, each founder of each denomination being moved by some spirit to create some different group that “really” follows Jesus’ teaching!]
So here’s the problem. Based on the words of Jesus’ parable, what exactly was the sin of the rich man that merited him being continually roasted alive, kept alive in a flaming torment? What exactly did the rich man do that was so wrong, based on the text? In fact, another fantastic question would be this: what good did Lazarus do to merit the heavenly bliss that he received? What made Lazarus a good person, based on the text?
Now I know the instinct of some and the commentaries of others. I know some will say “he ignored Lazarus.” But the text doesn’t say that. It would have been nice for Jesus actually say that if he meant it, but he didn’t. Some commentators say that the rich man was a Pharisee, riding on the back of the slander that christianity has historical held against the Pharisees of being hypocritical and self-righteous. I’m not going to argue against the slander right now, but all I will say is that there is no hint in the text that the rich guy was a Pharisee. Even Abraham’s response says nothing. All it says is that the rich man was comfortable, and now he’s in torment and Lazarus got bad things and now he’s in such a comfortable place.
I’ll ask the question again: based on the text, what was the sin of the rich man that merited such torment? What was the good that Lazarus did that merited such a heavenly bliss, based on the text.
Look, it’s really easy to make up stories and explanations and possibilities based on hints and allusions, not just looking at what the text says but also what it doesn’t say. I know that. Part of me wanted to do it too. If the text were a person, we could ask it questions as a counsellor to get more information and get intelligible answers back. But text can’t do that. You get what you get and that’s it (unless there’s an explanatory text elsewhere, which we don’t have in this case).
The difference between the Hebrew and the Greek
If you actually pay attention to the text, you’ll find that the only stark contrast between the rich man and Lazarus is not wickedness or righteousness. The only difference you’ll see is money. On one had you have a rich guy and on the other hand you see a poor guy. That’s the main thing.
You’ll notice in the christian new testament that rich people usually get a bad rap. Being rich is generally not a good thing. It’s seen in another section of the new testament where Jesus says it’s as hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:24-25, Luke 18:24-25 – some christians say this is allegorical … again, notice the absense of clarification from Jesus himself). This makes it sound impossible, which is what the disciples thought afterwards. It is evidence like this that adds to the argument that the simple problem with the rich man in the parable above is simply that he was rich.
But if you actually read the Jewish Bible, you’ll see that a significant amount of the great patriarchs and righteous people were actually rich. This was true for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Israel left Egypt, they left with a lot of wealth. Just think of people like Kings David and Hezekiah. Even the book of Proverbs says that wealth is a defence and being poor can make a person deceitful whereas wisdom can make one rich (Rashi’s translation of Proverbs 10:4; Proverbs 10:15). This is not to say that being rich is the same as being righteous and being poor is the same as being wicked. There are just as many warnings that being successful and rich can create unwarranted pride. But the focus of the context of the Hebrew Bible, which is reflected in the tradition of Orthodox Judaism, is that it’s what you do with wealth that matters. Having money doesn’t make you evil. But it’s how you use and view money that determines what character you have.
Someone may say “well the new testament says the same thing as the Jewish Bible.” Unfortunately this parable about the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t help such a case.
Jesus’ parable is empty.
Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus is empty of any moral depth/correctness. It advocates the wickedness of riches and the righteousness of poverty, neither of which is really true in the real world. Most of the parable is spent talking about the comfort of one side and the pain of the other for it and the nonsensical turning of the tables that seems unrelated to a person’s character. So it doesn’t seem to be just about people remaining stubborn even if someone returns from the dead (the last few sentences of the parable).
The point is that once you actually look at the words of Jesus, without the notion that he is all-good and totally perfect, then you notice that he was far from good, and definitely not perfect.
Inspired by the book, “Judaism and Christianity: The Differences” by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin