I’ve mentioned before that in Luke there are two dynamics playing as one of the subplots: (1) Luke advocates for the poor, and to be treated well by followers of Jesus, and that the rich will be subject to judgment for their pride, greed, and lack of social compassion; and (2) “the rich” symbolize sinners, and “the poor” symbolize the godly. With that in mind we approach this story.
The rich man is described in extreme terms, and so also the poor man. They are polar opposites, economically, health-wise, and in their degrees of comfort. The rich man defines all the “blessings” of this world—he is the pinnacle of what we call life—and the poor man defines the lowest, the last, and the least. He might as well be dead.
On one level it’s a story about how God vindicates the poor and judges the rich. The story is filled with images of excess and deprivation. God raises up the poor and pushes down the haughty. Those who neglect the poor will be condemned. It’s a story of grotesque economic disparity, and about wealth and suffering. Despite the common idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favor, this story gives the opposite teaching from every angle.
On the other level it’s a story about humility’s link with godliness, and pride’s link with sin.
At the beginning of the story the poor man gazes on the rich man’s blessing, longing to have what he has. In the end, the rich man gazes on the poor man’s blessing, also longing to have what he has.
The beggar dies, and was carried by angels to Glory. The rich man, we are told, died. Just died—an understatement given his “status”. The rich man, despite his “blessings from God,” turns up in hell. In other words, don’t be fooled by visual impressions and by society’s evaluations. He symbolizes pride, autonomy from God, and callous disregard for the poor.
Knowing that God is a God of love and forgiveness, he begs for pity and mercy in the afterlife as he did in his mortal life. After all, if that is God’s character, he cannot help but show mercy, and if he is really a good and loving God, he cannot endure to see anyone in agony for eternity. He hopes for mercy because he belonged to the people of . We find out again what has been said many times: nobody’s keeping score, and there is no such thing as “birthright.”
The symbolism here is of agony and torment. In the Old Testament, thirst and death by thirst are often presented as divine judgment, so that’s the point here. Another symbol is that the tongue (lips) is often a symbol of morality. So saying, he wants his guilt removed and to be in the place of honor, comfort, and peace. He is suffering on many levels.
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’ ” Here the reversal of role and status shows the story to be symbolic. Wealth in Luke is often a symbol of godlessness, while poverty is a symbolic of those who seek God. It’s ridiculous to think that the meaning of this is that those who had it good in life will be punished, and those who had it rough will be rewarded. Rather, the point is clearly that of spiritual position (the symbolic interpretation of the story) and the consequent eternity.
“And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot.” The symbolism of this part of the story tells us that there is no way for the people in heaven to help those in hell come over. There is no intercession and no mediation. Death pronounces the finality of decisions made in life.
“Well, if there are no second chances, then warn my brothers, who are still alive, so they know the truth.”
“The truth has already been spoken and recorded,” comes the answer.
“It’s not enough. It’s not good enough. It’s not strong enough. it’s not convincing enough. Do more, like bring someone back from the dead.”
For those who insist on an existential, tangible experience of God before they will belief, they will not receive it. Jesus says that tangibility is not the convincing factor. Tangibility is ultimately as subjective as anything else, so our eyes, ears, and senses can be fooled. Sometimes we think we see what we did not, or swear we didn’t see something we did. In addition, sometimes we see something, and then doubt it: “Did I just see what I think I saw?” Ultimately our guts and brains cooperate to determine what we choose to believe, and our senses only play a part in the drama.