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The Rich Man and Lazarus

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

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AT table one day Dr. Luther was asked whether he took the story of the rich man and Lazarus for a parable, or for an actual fact. The Reformer replied that to his mind the opening passage at any rate is evidently historical. The description of the rich man is so life-like. There is his dress, and his table, and his five brothers all following in his footsteps. And then the painful picture, as if it also had been taken from the life, of a certain well-known beggar with his sores, named Lazarus. Yes, said Luther, I do think our Lord must have known the rich man and Lazarus in Galilee, or in Samaria, or in Judea.

Now, whether it is pure history, or pure parable, or founded on fact, this tremendous Scripture is equally true and is equally solemnising to us, since it comes straight to us from our Lord's own lips. And our main errand here this evening is to enquire in His temple just what lessons our Lord would have us all to learn and to put in practice out of this terrible story.

The very first thing, as I think, that we are to see clearly in this scripture is this, that the rich man is not in hell simply and wholly because he had starved Lazarus to death. I used to read this parable so superficially as to think that the rich man is where he is altogether because of his starvation of Lazarus. But I see now that our Lord nowhere says so. No. Let the full truth be told even about a man in hell. Let him get all the advocacy, and all the exculpation, and all the palliation, possible. No; it is nowhere said that Lazarus died of this rich man's neglect. Not at all. On the other hand, the crumbs that were sent out to Lazarus must, as I think, have been much more than mere crumbs. They must have been both many and large and savoury crumbs, as I think, else Lazarus would not have been laid so regularly and so long at that gate. Those who carried Lazarus to that rich man's gate every morning did so, as I think, because they had found out by experience that this was the best gate in all the city at which to lay Lazarus down. They had tried all the other gates in the city, but they always came back to this gate.

It is quite true, the rich man might have done much more for Lazarus than he did. For instance, he might have fitted up one of his many out-houses for Lazarus to live in; or he might have arranged for a weekly pension to be paid to the incurable pauper in his own hovel; he might even have sent his own physician to report to him as to the symptoms and the progress of Lazarus's sores. But he did not do any of these gracious actions to Lazarus. At the same time he did not issue an angry order that that putrifying corpse, called Lazarus, must no more pollute the air before the door of his mansion. He might have given orders to his servants that that disgusting carcass was to be carted away for ever from out of his sight. But it is not said that he was so hard-hearted as that. He is in hell, indeed, but he is not in hell for that; his hell would have been both deeper and hotter than it is, if he had said and done all that against Lazarus. For you must know that there are degrees in hell as there are in heaven; there are depths and deeper depths there; and there are hot and hotter beds there; and with less and less water to cool tormented tongues. And that being so, this rich man might have been even worse than he is, as He here tells us, who has the key of hell and of death in His hands.

Both our Bible and our daily life are full of the real lesson of this scripture-the great danger of great riches to the rich man's immortal soul. Every day we see great riches simply ruining their possessors' souls both for time and eternity. Rich men are so tempted to become high-minded, proud-spirited, arrogant, imperious, selfish, forgetful, and cruel. Rich men get their own way from everybody, and there is nothing in this world so bad for a man as just to get his own way in everything and from everybody. All men yield to a rich man. All men prostrate themselves before a rich man. He speaks when he pleases, and he is silent when he pleases. All are silent when he speaks and wait till he has finished what he has to say. He will not bear to be contradicted or corrected, and all men learn to leave him alone. A rich man would need to be a very good man before his riches come to him, and then he would both know the temptations that lie in his riches and would strive successfully against those temptations. And if he is not a truly good man before he is a rich man; if he is not a meek, modest, humble-minded, considerate Christian gentleman before he is a rich man, a thousand to one he never will become such a gentleman after he has become rich. At the same time, while all that is true, great riches are sometimes great stepping-stones to a high place in heaven; that is to say, when they are in the possession of a man whose treasure does not lie in his riches. To go no further than Abraham in the history now open before us. Abraham was a very rich man. One of the finest chapters in all the Old Testament turns upon Abraham and his great riches. So rich was Abraham that his mere overflow was quite enough to make Lot his nephew a rich man also. Only, though Abraham in his generosity could make Lot a rich man, he could not make him a gentleman. Abraham might have turned upon Lot and might have said to him that every horn and hoof that Lot possessed he possessed through his uncle's liberality. But what did Abraham as a matter of fact say? He said these immortal words to Lot. "Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will take the right: or if thou depart to the right hand, I will go to the left." What a Christian gentleman was Abraham, and that too such a long time before the day of Christ! And what an abominable mind his nephew in his greed exhibited! And the root of the whole contrast lay in this. Abraham had begun life believing God. He had sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all those flocks and herds were added to him. And with them there was also added an ever humbler, an ever nobler, and an ever-heavenlier, mind. Once get Abraham's humble, noble, heavenly, mind, and then set your heart upon making riches as much as you like. For the good that you will then be able to do all your days, both to yourself and to all other men, will be simply incalculable.

But it is time to pass the great gulf, our Lord leading us across it, in order to learn from Him some of the great lessons that He here sets us to learn, both in heaven and in hell. And first in heaven. Well, Lazarus who now lies in Abraham's bosom, had his own temptations as he lay at the rich man's gate. And had he yielded to those temptations he would not have been where he now is. He would have been where the rich man now is. Lazarus's temptations were to be embittered, and to repine, and to complain, and to find fault with God and man. Lazarus had Asaph's temptations over again and the Seventy-third Psalm may have helped Lazarus to overcome his temptations. "As for me," said Asaph, "my feet were almost gone: my steps had well-nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. Therefore his people return thither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. For all the day have I been plagued, and chastened every morning." And like Jeremiah also, Lazarus would remember the sins of his youth, and then he would lament in this manner-"Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? He sitteth alone and keepeth silence. He putteth his mouth in the dust if so be there may be hope." And then, since he had been brought up to read and remember his Bible, he would call this out of Micah to mind. "I will bear the indignation of the Lord, until He plead my cause, and execute judgment for me." Which He did one day. For one day when the rich man's servant took out his morning crumbs to Lazarus he was nowhere to be found. For just when the previous night was at its darkest, and just before the dawn, the angels came down and carried Lazarus up into Abraham's bosom.

Perhaps the most terrible piece of pulpit rhetoric that ever fell from any preacher's lips is to be found in one of Newman's Catholic sermons. I had intended to quote it at this point but I feel now that I dare not. It is too terrible. It is literally true, but you would turn sick under it. For it describes what every lost sinner will say and do when he comes to himself too late before the judgment-seat of Christ. Just think for yourself what you will say and do if you come to yourself for the first time there. Well, that is Newman's terrible sermon. And then he goes on with his fearful satire to give us the conversations about this and that lost soul that go on in every mourning coach on the way home from every such rich man's funeral. But, terrible as Newman's pulpit can be, there is no pulpit anywhere with the concentrated terror of our Lord's pulpit when as here He takes us and lays our ears against the door of hell. The rich man also died, and was buried. And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried, and all hell heard him, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, for I am tormented in this flame. And all hell listened till it heard Abraham's answer. And Abraham said, Son, remember! And the smoke of their torment went up, as never before, when they all began again to remember.

It is hell on earth already when any sinner begins to remember. Myself am hell! cried Satan when he began to remember. And we are all Satan's seed in that. We simply could not continue to live if we did not manage, one way or other, to forget. When God comes and compels us to remember, what a tornado of despair overwhelms our hearts till we manage again to forget. Now, as you would not lie down in hell, Son, remember! Relieve God of His strange work, and remember. Set your past sins in order before yourself from time to time. Take the remorseful work out of God's hand and take it up into your own hand. Go back and remember. Go back to that day. Go back to that night. Go back to that hour and power of darkness. Remember those who are now in hell and who were once your companions in sin. Remember that man. Remember that woman. Remember all that they remember about you. We sometimes speak of the book of memory. Read often in it, especially in the blackest pages of it. "I have no books, but I have myself," said a great genius and a great saint. Well, you may not have many books, but you all have one book. It is a great book. It is a tragic book. It is such a book that there is no other book like it to you for terror and for horror. And then it is all true. It is no romance. It is no invention. For it is the literal record of your own past life. Return often to that book. Hold daily readings in that book.

There are many more lessons in this terrible scripture. But there is one lesson specially intended, as I think, for us who are ministers. This lost soul seems to have had no hope for his five brothers if they were left alone with the minister he had been wont to meet with at his father's table, and had been wont to hear preaching on Sabbath. In hell he seems to have come to be of the mind of our forefathers who magnified the reading, but "especially the preaching, of the word." That is to say, he became a Puritan in his appreciation of earnest preaching, when it was too late. He admitted that his five brothers had the Prayerbook and the Bible. 'But so had I,' he said. 'Only, I never opened them. I did not understand them. And none of the young fellows who dined and danced in our house ever once opened their Bible any more than I did. Among my father's servants we had a man in black who read prayers morning and night: but I seldom was present, and when I was present, I always fell asleep. Nobody paid any attention to his dronings. He never spoke to me alone. Nor did my father nor did my mother. Nobody ever took me and told me that the wages of a life like mine would be paid me in this place of torment. Else, if they had, do you think I would have been where I now am! O Father Abraham: pity my poor brothers, and send and deliver them from those dumb dogs that eat and drink till they cannot bark.'

A lesson from hell-as it seems to me-how to read, and how to teach, and how to preach; especially how to preach. 'Put a testimony into it,' he says to us toothless preachers. "Testify" is his very word to us from hell. 'Show your people that you believe it, if no one else does. Especially, speak straight out to your young men; they are open and honest. They will believe you, and will honour you, and will through you escape this place of torment. "Testify!" and again he says-"Testify!"

Son, remember, testified Abraham, that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things. Now, my sons and my daughters, what are your good things? And what are your evil things? What is your treasure? And where is it? On what is your heart set day and night? When you pray to your Father in secret, for what do you most importunately and unceasingly ask? Child of God, I will answer for you. I know what your evil things are, and what are your good things. Just go on in that mind. Just go forward in that pursuit. And some day soon-the day is at the door-the same angels that carried up Lazarus to Abraham's bosom will come and carry you up to be for ever with the Lord, and to be for ever like Him. And, till they come, make this your song every morning and every night and the whole of every day and every night-

God is the treasure of my soul,
The source of lasting joy;
A joy which want shall not impair,
Nor death itself destroy.
Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'The Rich Man and Lazarus'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​t/the-rich-man-and-lazarus.html. 1901.
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