The Poetry of Jesus in ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’

The Poetry of Jesus in ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ February 21, 2024

For centuries, scholars have debated whether Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable or an account of a true, historical narrative. Thankfully, regardless of whichever side of the fence one falls on, it doesn’t change the clarity or the message of the story. Both hermeneutical approaches yield clear warnings about the eternal consequences of sin and the hope we have in the gospel, as preserved in Holy Scripture. Truly, the perspicuity of God’s Word is a gift to His people!

One of the primary arguments of those who hold to the historical narrative point of view is that Jesus uses specific names in the text. Such is not the case for Jesus’ other parables. Instead of proper names, characters are usually given descriptive archetype titles such as “The Dishonest Manager” or “The Prodigal Son”. The giving of proper names is a compelling argument for this historical point of view. Yet, despite this fact, I still hold firmly to the notion that this story is indeed a parable. Why? Because of Jesus’ spectacular use of poetry. This has been overlooked by some commentators. One of the amazing things about studying scripture is that highlights the infinite breadth and brilliance of Jesus.


The Juxtaposition of Characters

Juxtaposition is a powerful communication tool. By contrasting two, unlike things, we glean more than looking at these things by themselves. This is exactly what Jesus uses in the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The two characters rely on each other to teach the message of the parable. Notice that while Jesus never directly condemns the Rich Man’s actions, He manages to effectively build a case against him by holding him up against his counterpart, Lazarus. Truly, this is brilliant storytelling. Writers sometimes refer to this type of juxtaposition as a “foil”. Meaning, that the two main characters and their qualities are only rightly understood when they’re placed side-by-side.

Jesus tells us that the rich man is clothed “in purple and fine linen” and that he “feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). How about Lazarus? Comparatively, Jesus tells us that instead of being covered with clothes, he is covered with “sores”, and that instead of feasting he is starving. It says he “desired to bed fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” (16:21). The Rich Man’s behavior, when isolated, is hardly compelling. Yet with the juxtaposition and plight of Lazarus, the heinousness of the Rich Man’s crime is displayed. He is a self-absorbed man who lacks compassion and kindness.

I’m reminded of Proverbs 14:31, which reads, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” The Rich Man has greatly neglected his poor neighbor and his conduct has shown contempt for God. The Rich Man has sinned against a holy and just God.

The depth of the crime is emphasized when Jesus adds the interesting element of the dogs in verse 21. Jesus says, “Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores” (16:21). In this culture, dogs were viewed as little more than troublesome scavengers. The Jews looked with disdain upon dogs; they were among the dregs of animals. Again, Jesus uses distinction to point out how wicked the Rich Man was. The detestable dogs demonstrate more kindness and compassion towards Lazarus than him.

Jesus continues His use of the foil technique in the second scene of the parable. Both characters have died, and their positions begin to invert. The Rich Man is “buried” while the Lazarus is “carried by angels” (22). The Rich man, who once enjoyed a life of comfort, is in Hades in torment. Whereas Lazarus is now at Abraham’s side enjoying heavenly prosperity. (23). Remarkably, we see that the Rich Man has now become the beggar, asking for a single drop of water to cool his tongue (24). Jesus’ ability to teach in parable and via contrast is brilliant. In just a handful of verses, largely via juxtaposition, Jesus paints a poignant picture of two men, their lives, and their eternal states. The implications for the reader/hearer are nothing short of profound.


Vivid, Dramatic Imagery

I would be amiss if I did not speak to the horror of this scene that Jesus is rendering for us. Using collocation, we are reminded of the eternal weight of sin and its judgment. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said, “I have never met a mere mortal”. We perceive that here. The human soul is eternal and will one day stand before God to give an account (Hebrews 4:13). The Rich Man is paying the eternal price for his sin and is “in anguish in this flame” (24).

Consider for a moment the vivid, dramatic imagery Jesus is using in this text. Jesus says, “he lifted his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (23). What a moment of sheer terror! The Rich Man lifts his gaze to see the beggar he despises standing with the Jewish patriarch, Abraham. The Rich Man is begging and pleading for relief, yet he finds none. It is easy to hear the desperation and despair in the Rich Man’s estate. He longs for help, but none will ever come. Jesus, via Abraham, then seals the eternal fates for both men, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” (26). Appealing directly to the emotions and fear of the reader, Jesus urges the reader to look unto their souls for fear of joining the Rich Man in hell.

The use of vivid imagery continues in the final scene of the parable. The Rich Man, now dreadfully aware of his fixed, eternal state, finally begins to think of someone other than himself. He has great concern for his 5 brothers. He says, “’Then I beg you, Father, to send him (Lazarus) to my father’s house – for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (27-28). Abraham refuses and The Rich Man pleads again, “Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ (30).

For the original audience, the suggestion of someone rising from the dead would have been completely fantastical. Death is fixed; no one comes back. Jesus has baited the audience and then he sets the hook. Abraham replies, “’If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'” (31).

One could spend days writing and examining the theological implications of the response to The Rich Man’s request to raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet in the interest of our topic, I will only touch on it. Jesus knows that Pharisees are listening to this parable. I would argue that they are likely the primary audience. The Pharisees consistently rejected who Jesus is; they hated Him. They refused to listen to Him before He went to the cross and Jesus knows they will reject Him afterwards. So, there is an element of condemnation directed towards those who reject Jesus. He will soon be raised from the dead and it will not be enough evidence.

Furthermore, we see how Jesus points us back to the scriptures. It is here we find the truth of the gospel and hope of salvation. If we wish to escape hell and understand the path to salvation, we must search the scriptures – they are sufficient.

All of scripture testifies and points to Jesus as the Messiah, In John 5, Jesus is speaking to the Jews and He says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me”. Every word of the Bible is meant to glorify and point us to Jesus. He is the one who saves. He is the one who died on the cross to save His people from their sins. This is why we study this book. Because in it we come to know about God, and through it God saves. Paul tells us in Romans 1:16 that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation” and in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”


Poetry in a Name

Earlier, I referenced the given name argument from those who hold to a historical narrative point of view. This genuinely is an excellent point. However, for me, it only adds credibility to it being a parable. This begs the question: why would Jesus then take the exception and give a character a name in this parable and no other? I believe that He is doing it for theological, doctrinal, and poetic beauty.

If you look up the name “Lazarus”, the word/name literally means “God has helped”. That’s magnificent! Think about it for a moment in the context of our story. Lazarus was a beggar in desperate need of someone to heal and save. He was a man who had no possessions to offer; he was wholly destitute. But, in the end, “God has helped”.

Spiritually speaking, we are all like Lazarus. We are all beggars, lying at the gate of the King. But unlike the wicked rich man in our parable, King Jesus sees us and has compassion for us. Once again, the use of juxtaposition teaches much about the wonder and character of Christ.  Jesus comes outside, and He heals our diseases. He picks us up and carries us inside. He clothes us. He warms us up. He seats us at the table of the King. He feeds us, and He gives us drink. In Christ, our every need is met.

God has helped.

For all who feel their situation is beyond hope, they should remember that God helps. I am reminded of the heavenly promise we have in Revelation 7:16-17: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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