Rich Man and Lazarus – John the Baptist v Pharisees

Between the parable of the unjust steward, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, there lies a brief passage of a few verses that seem unrelated to either of these parables.

And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached and every man presseth into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery (Luke 16:14-18).

As we saw in the study of the previous parable, Jesus was challenging the morality of the Jewish loopholes to usury. When the Pharisees derided Jesus after this parable, Jesus wanted to tell them that this was not the only place where he took fault with them. Rather than enumerate all of their errors, Jesus alluded to the ministry of John the baptist to remind them of his messages.

A Practical Call for Repentence

Much of John the Baptist's ministry could be summarized as a call for repentence, and a practical manifestation of a changed heart via generosity. We see this in his Q&A session with those who attended his baptism:

"And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages" (Luke 3:10-14).

We know from Matthew 3:7-9 that the Pharisees resisted this call for repentance, and at the time of this parable, are still identified as "covetous" by Jesus.

The Sanhedrin and the Law

The Old Testament contains several injunctions that make it hard to justify selfishness. As a result, the Jews had created loopholes where they could temporarily amend, or suspend, or reinterpret the laws of the Old Testament. John Gill, a Bible commentator, writes:

for notwithstanding the great and excellent things they say of the law, yet they tell us, that the doctors of the sanhedrim had power to root anything out of the law; to loose or make void any of its commands, for a time, excepting in the case of idolatry; and so might any true prophet, or wise man; which they pretend is sometimes necessary for the glory of God, and the good of men; and they are to be heard and obeyed, when they say, transgress anyone of all the commands which are in the law. Maimonides says, that the sanhedrim had power, when it was convenient, for the time present, to make void an affirmative command, and to transgress a negative one, in order to return many to their religion; or to deliver many of the Israelites from stumbling at other things, they may do whatsoever the present time makes necessary: for so, adds he, the former wise men say, a man may profane one sabbath, in order to keep many sabbaths. And elsewhere he affirms, "if a prophet, whom we know to be a prophet, should order us , "to transgress anyone of the commands", which are mentioned in the law, or many commands, whether light or heavy, for a time, we are ordered to hearken to him; and so we learn from the former wise men, by tradition, that in everything a prophet shall say to thee, "transgress the words of the law", as Elias on Mount Carmel, hear him, except in the case of idolatry.'' And another of their writers says, "it is lawful sometimes to make void the law, and to do that which appears to be forbidden.'' Nay, they even say, that if a Gentile should bid an Israelite transgress anyone of the commands mentioned in the law, excepting idolatry, adultery, and murder, he may transgress with impunity, provided it is done privately.

We now see why Christ said things like

  • And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail (Luke 16:17).
  • Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Pharisees and Divorce

In addition to usury and the law, the rabbinic teachers had also given ample justification for divorce. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 90a the Jewish teachers list three reasons a man may divorce his wive:

  • She is promiscuous
  • She oversalted his food/burnt the food
  • The husband finds a woman more beautiful than his current wife.

John the Baptist stood adamantly against these easy divorces, and it was this platform that Herod killed him (Mark 6:17-29). It is a historical fact that Herod was sensitive to the teachings of the Jews–none of the coinage of King Herod had any graven images in compliance with the second commandment. Had the Jews been more true to Biblical injunctions on divorce (Matthew 19:8), Herod likely would have not divorced and remarried–an affair that likely led to a costly war with Aretas IV Philopatris.

We Have Abraham to Our Father

Finally, although it is not written here, one of the counsels John the Baptist had for the Pharisees was to bring for their own fruits of repentance, and not rely on the merit of Abraham their father. The Jews of the first century had a doctrine where merit of the patriarchs (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) was sufficient to save all of Israel. Such a teaching resurfaced in the dark ages in the form of indulgences and the notion of a treasury of merit accumulated by the penances of the saints.

  • There it speaks of those who are liable at that time for punishment in Gehenna, but our father Abraham comes and raises them up and receives them. He does not leave the circumcised behind and allow them to enter Gehenna, except for a Jew who had relations with a gentile woman, in punishment for which his foreskin is drawn, and our father Abraham does not recognize him as one of his descendants (Eruvin 19a).

For no principle was more fully established in the popular conviction, than that all Israel had part in the world to come, and this, specifically because of their connection with Abraham. This appears not only from the New Testament, from Philo, and Josephus, but from many Rabbinic passages. 'The merits of the Fathers,' is one of the commonest phrases in the mouth of the Rabbis. Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors. In fact, by their descent from Abraham, all the children of Israel were nobles, infinitely higher than any proselytes. "'What,' exclaimes the Talmud, 'shall the born Israelite stand upon the earth, and the proselyte be in heaven?'" In fact the ships of the sea were preserved through the merit of Abraham; the rain descended on account of it. For his sake alone had Moses been allowed to ascend into heaven, and to receive the Law; for his sake the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven; his righteousness had on many occasions been the support of Israel's cause; Daniel had been heard for the sake of Abraham; nay, his merit availed even for the wicked. In its extravagance the Midrash thus apostrophises Abraham: 'If thy children were even dead bodies, without blood vessels or bones, they merit would avail for them!' –The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim

It is this background that Jesus builds his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. A pharisee, expecting Abraham to save him, winds up in Gehenna, and a gentile who has no natural place in Abraham's bosom, is welcomed upon his death.