This parable teaches the importance of viewing others as people who Jesus loves and wants to save, through the work of the Holy Spirit. It warns against valuing property above people. Interestingly, however, a great deal of what this parable has to offer Sunday School teachers is what it doesn’t teach. We’ll explore the central meaning of the parable in more detail, as well as the theological pitfalls and how to avoid them.
The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–25)
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
The rich man is guilty of loving the comforts of this world to such an extent as to ignore the importance of the kingdom of God and those who preach the message of salvation. This is different than what one might assume, that wealth of itself is sinful. Reading Abraham’s words in verse 25, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish,” we should not suppose that riches now mean hell later, neither that poverty now means heaven later. Salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ. There are plenty of wealthy Christians and there are also unbelievers in poverty. God is the giver of all good things. Instead, we understand that the rich man allowed his prosperity to eclipse all else, including God. For this reason, death translates the man to hell rather than heaven.
When the rich man recognizes the reality of his eternal state, he beseeches Abraham, “I beg you, father, to send him 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (vv. 27–31). Given the request for Lazarus, we surmise that this poor man did have saving faith, and for this reason went to heaven. The hearer and reader is to be convicted that nothing should come before God and that we all do well to attend to those who preach the truth. Further, to heed the message of Christ only after death avails nothing.
In the process of teaching this narrative, be sure to help students understand that Jesus used Abraham because the Jews held the Old Testament patriarch in such high esteem. Heaven’s true joy and peace is the complete presence of Jesus Christ without the burden of the sinful nature, not a reunion with the most cherished loved one.
Our Lord’s words bless us as we read, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” This provides a glimpse into the overwhelming bliss of heaven; it is not our own strength but rather God’s own angels who usher the forgiven sinner to mansions of glory. What a blessed destination follows his life of deprivation and humiliation. Be encouraged to use this verse to illustrate heaven. Ask students to list the hardships they experience in life. Help them to see that heaven is eternity without such miseries.
The passage ends, “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” In referring to one who will rise from the dead, Jesus is referring to Himself. If the Pharisees didn’t understand this parable before Jesus went to the cross, perhaps they would after the Savior rose from the dead. Jesus, then, is not only our Savior but is also the prophet who warns of the wrath to come. He is the one who is risen from the dead to proclaim our need for salvation and also what He has done to provide it.
Idolatry is a central concern in this parable. The rich man couldn’t see God through the comfort his wealth provided. Ask students to list those things they wish to have in life above all else: money, cars, toys, friends, house, vacations, and the like. Lead them to consider when and what they would sacrifice to have these things. Push them to the limit on this point; help them to see what great value we humans place on earthly goals. Make sure they understand that such aspirations are sinful in themselves, leading to the temptation to pursue them over God and His kingdom.
Ask older students to imagine that a deceased relative returns to tell them about the experience of heaven. How would they react? Would such an event inspire them to greater faith? Explain that the Bible is God Himself telling us the same thing. If they seem to think that the word of a deceased relative would be more potent, ask why. Push for an explanation. As an object lesson, bring a pair of headphones or earplugs to class. Invite a student to wear the hearing protection as you talk about your favorite pastime. Help the students to see the connection between the earplugs and the stubborn sinful heart. Even if a deceased loved one returned with news of heaven, the sinful deaf heart will not hear until the Holy Spirit has opened it.
Blessings on your teaching!
Looking for suggestions on teaching other parables?