Let's begin by reviewing the definition and purpose of a parable. Merriam Webster's defines a parable as "a short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson." Jesus often used parables in His teachings. His disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables. He answered, "'Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given'" (Matthew 13:10-11, emphasis added throughout). Jesus' parables contain moral lessons that most listeners can understand to a limited degree. However, they're not designed to make the deeper meaning clear to everyone. Spiritual comprehension is given only to those whom God has granted His gift of divine insight (Matthew 13:18-23).
Understanding the parable's context
An important principle to remember in studying the Bible is to always consider the context of any verse, chapter or book. In the case of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it's important to understand the historical and biblical context of this parable.
Jesus presents the following story: "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores" (Luke 16:19-21).
Here we learn about a rich man who had everything he needed and wanted. Outside the door of his home lay a poor, sick, starving beggar named Lazarus. The rich man wouldn't even lift a finger to help him. To grasp the spiritual significance of this story we need to understand the biblical context in which it was presented.
Just prior to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 is another parable about the "unjust steward," which begins with the phrase "there was a certain rich man." As Jesus relayed that parable to his disciples, the Jewish teachers, the Pharisees, were listening. "Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him" (Luke 16:14). These religious leaders sneered at Jesus because they knew they were the direct object of His words.
This was not the first time Jesus took these men to task for their self-absorbed greed, corruption and exploitation. For example in Matthew 23:14 Christ declared they were "devouring widow's houses." Also in Matthew 23:25 he declared they were "full of extortion and self-indulgence." So the context in which the parable of Lazarus and the rich man can be understood involves a person's responsibility to use money and wealth properly—which includes caring for the needs of other people.
Carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom
Let's now move on to the next verse in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. "So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried" (Luke 16:22).
We must be careful not to jump to conclusions as to what we just read. Let's pause to ask what may seem like an obvious question. What's the definition of "bosom?" Webster's New World Dictionary notes that the human bosom or breast is "the source of feelings or the seat of inmost thoughts." Being in a person's bosom can also mean that a person or thing is embraced or cherished. For example in Deuteronomy 13:6 a man's wife is spoken of as "the wife of your bosom," which signifies a close, intimate relationship.
Therefore, when Lazarus is carried "to Abraham's bosom" it indicates he has a deep, personal connection to that righteous man who "was called the friend of God" (James 2:23). The rich man, on the other hand, was too worried about himself and his possessions to have a relationship with God.
But where will Abraham be when Lazarus is carried to him? Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out" (Luke 13:28). So Abraham will be in God's Kingdom!
It's often believed the Kingdom of God refers to heaven. But the Bible explains that God's Kingdom will be established on earth at Jesus Christ's second coming: "Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever'" (Revelation 11:15, English Standard Version). Also, the resurrected saints (including Abraham) will reign with Christ as kings and priests "on the earth" (Revelation 5:10). For much more information on this important subject please read our free Bible study aid booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom.