NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of July 26, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.
The last couple weeks, we’ve been looking at the parables of Yeshua, and today is going to be no exception. Two weeks ago, we explored the parable of the unjust ruler; last week, we took a closer look at the parable of the weeds; and today, I’d like to take some time looking at another parable. As I prayed about which of Yeshua’s many parables to delve into today, I kept coming back to one in particular: the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus.
Now, many great teachers have spent time on this one; next to the Parable of the Lost—or some would say Prodigal—Son, it is one of Yeshua’s most often-quoted parables because of what it teaches about social justice.
So, is there anything we can gain from looking at this parable more closely, that we haven’t heard before? Let’s find out.
First, let’s establish a common frame of reference for our discussion; let’s first read this parable in its entirety, which we find in:
“Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.
“In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”
One of the reasons this parable is one of Yeshua’s most-quoted is because it seems clearer and easier to understand than, say, the Parable of the Unjust Ruler. And indeed, there is much to be gained from simply reading the pashat, the plain meaning, of the text.
It can remind us of the theme Yeshua taught on with the Parable of the Talents, that our riches in this world are not to be used exclusively for our own comfort, but to reach out to those in need so that the kingdom of the L-RD can spread. It reiterates the theme that all that we have comes from the L-RD, and it is not our own to do with as we please, but we are to use what we have been given to help those who have little—or nothing at all.
The parable has such a universal message, we can even find parallel teachings in the works of the ancient rabbis. For example, we read this in:
Babab Bathra 10A
R. Yosef b. R. Yehoshua said, He was sick and had an out-of-body experience (where the soul briefly leaves the body and then returns.) His father asked him, “What did you see [in your out-of-body state]? He replied, “I saw a topsy-turvy world; those who are on top in this world [respected for their wealth and power] are at the bottom [in the World to Come]; and those who are on the bottom in this world [the poor and downtrodden], are on top.” His father told him, “[You did not see an upside-down world] but an unconfused, sensible world.”
This concept of the kingdom of heaven, the World to Come, as a place where everything seems upside down according to how things are in this life is a theme Yeshua used often. And I don’t believe Yeshua is just using this theme to make a point in a dramatic, attention-grabbing way. I believe He is speaking to us about a kingdom reality.
This can be an unsettling message, and it ought to be. There are many ways in which we can indulge ourselves and our own needs in this life while ignoring the needs of those around us. If we think that simply because we attend a congregation that seems to properly teach the Word of God, that we celebrate the L-RD’s feasts and festivals properly, and that we agree with all the right theology, that this will excuse us from ignoring those in need, well—maybe you’ll want to read through this parable again on your own when you go home today.
You see, all of us in one way or another are tempted to view Yeshua in the way that makes us feel the most comfortable, the most at ease with ourselves as we already are, without being challenged to change or improve our lives. While nearly all believers will say they want to know the L-RD, the truth is that it’s a lot easier to know Him when he seems to largely agree with us.
However, this can lead to many false images of who Yeshua actually is, and ultimately of who God is. And that’s idolatry.
Yet the Yeshua of the New Covenant writings, the Yeshua of history, is not such a convenient figure. He’s not just a Pound Puppy doll we can hug when we’re feeling sad and blue! He’s not American, he’s not a Republican or a Democrat, and he’s not someone who just tells you what you want to hear. Nowhere is this more clear than in this Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus.
Yet how we view Yeshua often depends on who we are. If we are Baptists, he seems like a Baptist; if we’re Lutheran, he seems Lutheran. The same goes for any movement you can think of, from Assembly of God to Catholic to Presbyterians to Evangelicals to even those of us in Messianic Judaism.
And it extends to others religions, whether monotheistic or not. To those in Islam, he is Muslim, for example. Whatever you are, that is how you prefer to view God. Yet is this compatible with how God presents Himself to us?
Some teachers spend much time trying to wipe away the confrontative truth Yeshua states so plainly that what Yeshua is actually saying in rather plain, simple language gets lost entirely. Ask yourself, how often have you hear some teacher say something like this: “Well, what Yeshua REALLY means here is…”
Now, there are times when Yeshua’s words do need further explanation. There are statements that have been poorly translated and require a deeper understanding of first-century times and culture, first-century Judaism, of the familiar sayings and idioms of that time and place.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus is not one of those instances, however. It’s message is clear. If you use all that God has given you only on yourself, you have received your reward in full; if you go through life not caring about the unmet needs of those around you, you may be unpleasantly surprised about how you will spend eternity in the World to Come.
So, why does Yeshua teach this? Why does He seem to value social justice over other forms of religious devotion, such as a deep and devout belief? We get a clue from:
But Yeshua heard the question and answered, “The ones who need a doctor aren’t the healthy but the sick. As for you, go and learn what this means: ‘I want compassion rather than animal-sacrifices.’ For I didn’t come to call the ‘righteous,’ but sinners!”
“I want compassion, not animal sacrifices.”
So what does that mean? Well, as I’ve been teaching each week, looking at the words used in this passage for mercy and sacrifice, Yeshua is saying he desires compassion on the poor and needy with an intent to help them out of their troubles, far more than he desires self-denial, sacrifices, or all our other outward expressions of religious devotion.
Let’s look at this another way.
We all know that it’s a good thing to fast, right? The discipline of denying ourselves so that we can dedicate ourselves to prayer is something many teach. Yet how often, when you fast, do you gather up the food you would have been eating for that meal, or that day, and donate it to a family that has no groceries, or bring it to a food shelf, so that the food you would have eaten is passed on to others in need of a meal?
You see, self-denial—sacrifice—can be a good thing. Fasting can be a good thing. But if we’re just storing up our goods and eating them later on, rather than passing them on to those who have no food at all, well … what do you think God is more concerned about? The fact that you go hungry by choice a few nights a year? Or that there are families who go hungry all the time and have no choice about it at all? Even if you were denying yourself, if you did nothing to improve the lives of those in need around you, how much have you done?
See, you don’t have to be Bill Gates to feel convicted by this parable. You don’t need to be super-rich. All you have to be is selfish, concerned only about your own needs, and never thinking of the needs of those around you.
If that describes your behavior and your attitudes, then it doesn’t matter if you make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year or $2.5 million a year: this parable is a warning to each of us.
Some people will, no doubt, feel unsettled by this. They might argue that helping the needy is purely the government’s job; that’s why they pay taxes. Others might argue that helping the needy with a handout creates a cycle of dependency on government, and teaching self-reliance through offering real jobs is a greater form of charity—though in a nation with double-digit unemployment rates, such an argument rings a bit hollow these days. So the question remains: why not do both, to the extent you can?
Remember, Yeshua is not a Republican or a Democrat. How you help the needy is not as important as making sure you do help them in some way, making sure they don’t sit for a lifetime outside your gates, wishing for the scraps that fall from your table because you never once invited them in to share a meal, nor do you offer them a way out of their poverty by helping them gain employment.
Now, this is the pashat—the clear, direct, literal meaning of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus. And if this is all that this parable had ever been used to teach, we could simply read it every now and again as a reminder to help our fellow man and that would be that.
However, there are some teachings out there, ways to interpret this parable, which are false and misleading. I’d like to address one of those issues as well today.
One of the most disturbing ways of misinterpreting this parable is drawn from the last few verses, so let’s refresh our memory of what they actually say. We read this in:
He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”
This passage is where misunderstanding arises. Some teachers assert that in this passage, Yeshua is predicting the faithlessness of the Jewish people in the wake of His death and resurrection; that the hidden message of this parable is that Yeshua knew the Jewish people would reject him as Messiah, and that this parable is some sort of indication of that.
My first Messianic Rabbi taught me a special word that describes this sort of teaching, and I’d like you all to learn it right now. Repeat after me, one syllable at a time: BA-LO-NEY!
Baloney. Exactly. Nothing could be further from the truth, and no teaching could be more out of step with the first-century reality of Yeshua, his ministry, and the ministry of His disciples, His talmidim.
First of all, let’s address the context: in this parable, Yeshua is clearly teaching about the differences in the rewards for the selfish rich and the needy poor. Why, then, would he suddenly, without skipping a beat, begin talking about the Jews and the Gentiles? The answer’s simple: He wouldn’t.
The argument goes that the rich man represents the Jews, who are rich in their closeness to God from the time of the patriarchs and the Torah until the arrival of Yeshua, and that Lazerus represents the Gentiles, who have been poor in their relationship with the L-RD until they are brought to Abraham’s bosom, basically being grafted in as a substitute for the Jewish people.
Let me say it again, and clearly: this interpretation of this parable is pure replacement theology. It is false and misleading and has no basis in the actual teachings and intent of Yeshua.
You see, those who teach from this perspective tend to forget that from the time of Yeshua until the ministry of Paul, in the first century, the movement of those who followed Yeshua as Messiah was a movement almost completely made up of Jewish believers. In fact, there were no Gentiles in it until Peter met the Ethiopian eunuch, as recorded in the book of Acts.
Furthermore, many of the initial so-called Gentile converts were not complete heathens but, rather, Hellenized Jews who had spread throughout the world in the diaspora, following Israel’s capture by Babylon and the destruction of the first temple.
Yes, there were also Gentile converts who were neither Jews nor Hellenized Jews; but the point is that, at least throughout the first century, the vast majority of Yeshua followers were Messianic Jews, not Gentile converts. Even as Gentiles began to be welcomed into the movement, they were in the minority overall.
Interpreting this parable from a replacement theology standpoint is also not consistent with how Yeshua outlines His own vision of his mission while on this earth in other parts of the Gospel accounts. Take, for example:
A woman from Kena‘an who was living there came to him, pleading, “Sir, have pity on me. Son of David! My daughter is cruelly held under the power of demons!” But Yeshua did not say a word to her. Then his talmidim came to him and urged him, “Send her away, because she is following us and keeps pestering us with her crying.” He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Isra’el.” But she came, fell at his feet and said, “Sir, help me!” He answered, “It is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to their pet dogs.” She said, “That is true, sir, but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their master’s table.” Then Yeshua answered her, “Lady, you are a person of great trust. Let your desire be granted.” And her daughter was healed at that very moment.
Now, if you want a teaching that indicates Yeshua will extend the tents of Jacob to include a mixed multitude of faithful Gentiles, this passage is a far better one to look at. But notice what Yeshua says here about His ministry. He is here for the lost sheep of Israel, and it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. These statements indicate his role is that of a Jewish messiah first and foremost.
Yes, he ultimately does heal the Canannite woman’s child, but only after clarifying his messianic role, and due to her great faith. There is no Gentile replacement of the Jewish people present in this teaching. God is merely doing as He has always done, allowing a mixed multitude of those who are faithful to the L-RD to attach themselves to Israel and be included in His promises. Yet, importantly, this does not indicate a Gentile replacement of the Jews in the promises of God, merely an inclusion. A both/and, not an either/or.
There are many examples of such inclusion, from Ruth to Tamar to Rahab to Ephraim and Manassah and many more. Also, the mixed multitude who joined the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt. There are many such cases. That is all that is indicated in our passage from Matthew; Yeshua shows mercy to a woman showing great faith, but does He dump his twelve Jewish talmidim and put this Canaanite woman in their place? Of course not.
If anything, this episode with the Canaanite woman merely supports the idea that because of the Canaanite woman’s persistence in trusting Yeshua to heal her daughter, He granted her request!
The nature of the L-RD is to show mercy to all who trust in Him from their hearts; yet His promises remain His promises, no matter what.
So, to return our focus to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus, the question now becomes, “Okay, so if these last few verses of the parable don’t indicate Gentile replacement of Israel, what are they about?”
Frankly, I believe what these last few verses indicate is the opposite of the replacement theology assumption. They are an indication by Yeshua that the written Torah, the prophets, and the writings are all sufficient to bring people the message of God’s salvation.
After all, that is what Avraham says in this parable, right? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
And when the rich man suggests that having Lazerus return from the dead would lead them to repentance, Abraham corrects that assumption. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
And history has borne this out, hasn’t it? You see, this is not a teaching about Jew and Gentile at all, but about those who are willing to trust HaShem and obey Him, and those who are not. You’ll find people like that among both Jews and Gentiles.
Those who listen to and obey the L-RD will recognize the Messiah; as Yeshua has taught in John 10:27, “My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, they follow me.”
But those who are unwilling to study Torah or the prophets, those who are unwilling to trust HaShem and obey His instructions—did Yeshua’s death and resurrection change everything for everyone? Are we all, throughout the Earth, believing in the L-RD, hearing from God directly, and doing only what He commands us, never substituting His will for our own?
You see, the deeper meaning of these last verses are not a teaching about the Jewish people or the Gentiles, the nations; it is a teaching about our fallen nature. Those of us who recognize our sin and agree with God about it seek Him out, and look to the L-RD for our strength and salvation.
What Yeshua is hinting at here is that His death and resurrection won’t, by itself, change all of humanity’s worst instincts.
Those who are willing to trust HaShem didn’t need it as proof; God’s salvation is found in Moses and the prophets, because all they teach point toward Messiah Yeshua.
But for those who didn’t believe in the first place, even Yeshua’s death and resurrection did not change their hardened hearts.
Is this idea that Yeshua puts forward through this parable, that even Moses and the prophets alone are enough to bring people to the L-RD, true? Yes. Even Paul agrees with that, as we read in:
II Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is valuable for teaching the truth, convicting of sin, correcting faults and training in right living; thus anyone who belongs to God may be fully equipped for every good work.
We must keep in mind here that when Paul uses the term Scripture, he is referring to the same documents as Yeshua referred to when he said, “Moses and the prophets.” Remember, the New Covenant writings, the haB’rit haChadesha, hadn’t even been gathered together yet at the time Paul wrote these words. The Tenakh is the only thing Paul, as a first century Messianic Jew, could be referring to here.
The concept of HaShem being our salvation is not solely a New Covenant concept. The L-RD is praised for being our salvation throughout the Tenakh, all of which points us toward the promise of that salvation, the Messiah who came first to suffer and die in our place in the way of Joseph, but who one day soon will be returning in the way of David, as a conquering ruler.
Let’s not be like the rich man or his brothers, failing to worship the L-RD despite having Moses and the prophets and—even more—having Yeshua, who has risen from the dead!
Instead, let’s allow the L-RD to enter our lives, take His place as the one who is in control of our lives, and be our God.
Let’s allow Him to rule us so completely that we do not turn a blind eye to those around us who are in need, but give to others out of our own plenty and blessing, so that their needs our met in real, tangible ways.
So, let us join in the first mention of the word salvation—the Hebrew word yeshua—which points us toward our Messiah, as found in the victory song of Moses after HaShem had the Red Sea swallow up the army of Pharaoh. His entire word has one unified and unique message: salvation through our Jewish Messiah, the Messiah Yeshua.
Let us praise the L-RD together in:
Then Moshe and the people of Isra’el sang this song to Adonai: “I will sing to Adonai, for he is highly exalted: the horse and its rider he threw in the sea. Yah is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation (my yeshua). This is my God: I will glorify him; my father’s God: I will exalt him.
We all know the chorus based on these verses. Let’s quickly sing them together.
I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea!
The L-RD, my God, my strength, my song, has now become my victory!
The L-RD is God and I will praise Him, the L-RD is God and I will exalt Him!