Luke 16:19–31, The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. This, and the other parables of Yeshua, are known as aggadah (also haggadah)—a very popular literary style during the second temple period whereby Jewish sages taught moralistic principles to their pupils. It was similar to our modern Aesop’s fables. This genre of literature included ethical and moral teaching, theological speculation, legends, folklore, poetry, prayers, historical information, interpreting of dreams, and expressions of messianic faith and longings. Aggadic literature, though instructive, did not contain legally binding theological and doctrinal dictums. Aggadic literature is to be contrasted with the legally binding halachic literature of the same period. Aggadic literature made use of parable, satire, metaphor, personification, and poetry. Aggadah was not systematic philosophy, but dealt in its own way with basic theological and moral problems.
The purpose of aggadic literature was not to convey point-by-point doctrinal truths, but to teach a moral. Most Christian teachers have used the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man as a theological basis for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (an exegetical leap that cannot be substantiated when one understands the nature of aggadic literature) and have missed the true meaning of Yeshua’s teaching. He is not making a theologically statement or halachic declaration on the state of the dead. What then is the point of his teaching?
Context is vital to understanding this parable properly, and all of the Scriptures, for that matter. Prior to this parable, Yeshua gives the Parable of the Unjust Steward that the attendant Pharisees interpreted as a rebuke directed at them (verse 14). Then Yeshua rebuked those who divorce their wives for the purpose of marrying another women. According to Yeshua, when a man does this, it is tantamount to adultery. Again, this was an affront against the Jewish religious system of the day. As Messianic author and teacher Joseph Dombek Sr. has observed, “[T]he Jews should have recognized that [Yeshua] was the Messiah, and that he represented the bridegroom for the coming kingdom. The Jews did not acknowledge him as the Messiah. They rejected his Father’s Word and committed spiritual adultery by setting up their own traditions and customs” (Mark 7:6–9). Because of their power and influence, the Pharisees had control of all aspects of the Jewish religion.
This parable is a continuation of Yeshua’s rebuke of the Pharisees, scribes and Jewish leaders of his day (Luke 16:14). Who were the Pharisees? The word “Pharisee” (Heb. perushim) means “separatist” because of the fact that the Pharisees did not associate with the common people who did not tithe, were ritually impure, and knew nothing of the law (in their opinion). The Pharisees regarded themselves as practitioners of the principles of “holiness” as described in the Priestly Code of Ezra. The Pharisaic community operated as a sort of “officers club” with strict rules for admission and maintenance of membership. Often a legal scribal scholar would be the head of local groups of Pharisees.
So when Yeshua speaks of the rich man living sumptuously and attired in purple and fine linen, as Dombek points out, he is referring to the Jewish religious leaders of his day, or to the house of Judah in general. After all, purple robes speak of royalty and the patriarch Jacob prophesied that the kingly line would continue in Judah until Shiloh (or the Messiah) would come (Gen 49:10). As leader of Israel, Judah had a position of regal responsibility to the nation of Israel and before YHVH. To accompany that responsibility the Jews were accorded special benefits as Paul indicates in Romans 3:1–2. To them were committed the oracles of Elohim. Therefore they were in a position to feed sumptuously on the Word of Elohim that had been committed to them for safekeeping. Did they share their spiritual wealth with others by reaching out in love to publicans, sinners, the impoverished and Samaritans? No. Yeshua rebuked them numerous times for failing to do so. Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example (Luke 10:25–37)?
Who then is Lazarus, the beggar? First, the beggar ate from the crumbs off the rich man’s table. Bread represents the Word of Elohim (Matt 4:4; compare John 1:1,14 with John 6:48–58). Lazarus desired to be fed spiritually from the richness of Elohim’s Word, but because he was an “untouchable” in the eyes of the rich man, and was not a member of the “in crowd,” Lazarus had to content himself with the leftovers.
Moreover, the dogs licked Lazarus’ sores. As Dombek points out in his analysis of this parable, Yeshua referred to the Canaanite woman from the area of Tyre and Sidon as a “little dog” (Matt 15:26). He contrasted this non-Israelite woman with the ten tribes of the lost sheep of the house of Israel (verse 24), who it was his stated mission to regather (Matt 10:5–6). The woman, in great faith, replied that even dogs are allowed to feed from the master’s table, and therefore benefit from the spiritual food, salvation and healing available through the Jews and the Jewish Messiah (Matt 10: 22 and 27). Upon seeing her great faith and perspicacity, Yeshua granted her the request that he heal her demonized daughter (verse 28).
Relating this to the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Dombek points out that in the eyes of the rich Jewish man, Lazarus was no better than a “Gentile dog.” Dombek states that it should have been the responsibility of Judah and his five brothers (Luke 16:28) (through Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Zebulun, Gen 35:23) to lead Israel in worship and obedience to YHVH through studying and teaching his Word to those of the nations around them, but because they had not done so they fell into the same condemnation as the rich man (who represents Judah).
Dombek continues, even though the rich man asked for Lazarus to return from the dead to warn his five living Jewish brothers about their upcoming fate, Yeshua implies that, since they too were negligently ignorant of the writings of Moses and the Prophets pertaining to their Messiah, how could they receive their resurrected Messiah—the very One that Moses and the Prophets had prophesied about?
In the parable, Abraham clearly shows that even though Yeshua would rise from the dead, the aristocratic and well-off Jews of the upper class would still not come to a saving knowledge of the Messiah, since they were too steeped in and blinded by their man-made traditions and customs by which the Word of Elohim had been made of none effect (Mark 7:7–9). The rich man was wrapped up in his fine religious garb, had enjoyed a sumptuous life of ease and had neither deeply or sincerely studied the Word of YHVH nor walked in the narrow way of righteousness. Furthermore, in his self-absorbed religiosity, he had failed to proclaim the Word of Elohim to others who might have benefited from his knowledge and understanding about the kingdom of Elohim, writes Dombek.
Lazarus, on the other hand, Dombek continues, represents Gentiles who would snatch up every crumb of truth from the rich man’s table and live by it. The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a condemnation of this hypocritical religionist’s affluence and unwillingness to follow the truth of the Scriptures as he should. He thus commits spiritual adultery by turning from the ways of YHVH Elohim and to satisfy his fleshly desires he pursues the customs of this world. Judah’s, and his brothers’, mission was to be a light to the nations (Gentiles). They were to share with others what YHVH had given to them and not to selfishly hoard it.
There will be many who self assuredly think that their position in the kingdom of Elohim is secure, but in reality, the flaming mouth of the lake of fire awaits these hypocrites while those they disparaged and disdained on the earth will enjoy eternal life in the company of the patriarchs such as Abraham. This is the real message of this parable.