Jesus never published a book or released a DVD curriculum during His ministry. He traveled from town to town teaching about the kingdom of God on mountainsides, in public squares, and in synagogues. Most of His teaching was in the form of parables—which some found challenging and difficult to understand.
Even today, people struggle to illuminate certain parables, often getting lost in the details. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is an excellent example of a teaching that has generated a lot of discussions, head-scratching, and interpretations.
Let's take a look at this challenging parable.
Setting the stage for this teaching
Luke 15 begins with some Pharisees and lawyers mingling into the crowd where Jesus has been teaching. They instantly start criticizing Him over the fact that He is known to spend time with sinners.
Jesus responds by launching into a number of parables:
- The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–7)
- The parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8–10)
- The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32)
- The parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1–13)
When He gets to the last parable which touches on how we use our money and resources, Luke tells us that the "The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus" (Luke 16:14).
It’s this tense exchange that sets the stage for Jesus' story about Lazarus and the rich man.
Introducing the characters
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores" (Luke 16:19–21).
Jesus begins by introducing us to two characters: an extremely wealthy man and a beggar named Lazarus. Interpreters have often gotten caught up in the fact that this is the only parable where Jesus names any of the central characters. Because of this, there's a tendency to attach greater significance and meaning to this parable than to others.
It's likely that Jesus named the beggar to make a specific point. First of all, He calls the man Lazarus—the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar—a name which means "God supports" or "God helps." Throughout this beggar's life, he has received no care or support from anyone else. It has only been God who has supported and cared for him.
To the rich man, Lazarus is just another face in the crowd, an invisible poor person that disappears into the background of his comfortable, lavish life. But in the afterlife, the first has become last. Jesus wants to give us a solid understanding of the great reversal. When all is said and done, this rich man is nameless, and it's Lazarus whose name is remembered.
The setting of the drama
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."
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. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us."
He answered, "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment" (Luke 16:22–28).
Now we're introduced to the conflict in this story. But we have to be very careful—it's incredibly easy to get lost in the details. The point of this story isn't necessarily to describe particulars about the afterlife. If it were, we'd have to assume that those in heaven can watch and interact with sufferers in Hades—which doesn't make it sound much like paradise.
The New International Version (NIV) tells us that the beggar was carried to Abraham's side. Some others say "the bosom of Abraham." As the patriarch of Israel, the Jews saw Abraham as the gatekeeper to the afterlife. First-century Hebrews thought of him in the same way we talk about Peter being heaven’s sentry. It makes sense that Jesus would invoke this imagery for His listeners.
It's essential that we draw our attention to a couple of elements of this story:
- The rich man's sin: There's never any indication of any abuse or mistreatment aimed at Lazarus. Abraham merely points out that the rich man lived in comfort while Lazarus was tormented and now the roles are reversed. If there is any sin here, it’s the fact that the rich man ignored Lazarus. He wasn't wicked to Lazarus; he was indifferent.
- The rich man's hubris: It's almost comical that in this new situation, the rich man ignores Lazarus to address Abraham. In fact, as far as the rich man is concerned, Lazarus is still a prop—someone with no agency of his own. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to quench his thirst. And when Abraham declines, he asks for Lazarus to be sent to warn his family.
The moral of the story
Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them."
"No, father Abraham," he said, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent."
He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:29–31).
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers, so they won't suffer the same fate, but Abraham refuses. He tells the rich man that they have the testimony of Moses and the Prophets to warn them.
The words of the prophets
The fact that the wealthy man calls him "Father Abraham" is a sign that this man was a Jew. His parents raised him and his brothers to go to synagogue every week. They would have heard the words of the Moses and the prophets saying things like:
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need (Deuteronomy 15:7–8).
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always; He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:6–11).
But what if someone comes back from the dead?
The rich man ignores Abraham's words and points out that if someone were to come back from the dead, his brothers would pay attention. Abraham tells the man that if his brothers aren't going to listen to Moses and the prophets, they're not going to pay attention to someone who has been resurrected.
Jesus is clearly alluding to the fact that He will rise from the dead. And it will be a confirmation of everything He taught and said—but not for most of the chief priests and Pharisees.
As soon as His body shows up missing, the chief priests will pay off the guards, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble" (Matthew 28:13–14).
We see a similar scene occur when Jesus raises Lazarus (don't get him confused with this parable’s namesake) from the dead. Instead of seeing the miracle of someone being brought back from the dead as a confirmation of Christ's teachings, the Pharisees planned to have Lazarus killed to stop people from believing in Jesus.
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him (John 12:9–11).
Abraham is making the point that Jews who ignore Moses and the prophets aren't going to be swayed by a miraculous messenger. After all, the whole Law is built on amazing messages from miraculous messengers.
What's Jesus saying to the Pharisees?
When we're looking at a parable, the first question we need to ask is, "What was Jesus saying to the original listeners?" In this case, we have to consider what the message was to the Pharisees.
On the surface, Jesus is addressing their love of money. No one knew the Law and the prophets like the Pharisees, but it hadn't rectified the way they thought about money. To them, money bought influence, power, and comfort. They didn't consider it a resource that God intended them to share with those in need—even though Scripture told them otherwise.
But Jesus is making a broader point about the nature of spiritual blindness. The rich man's brothers won't believe because they’re unwilling to believe. It doesn't matter who delivers the message. Their hearts are committed to disobedience. They have found ways of justifying their lifestyle and rebelliousness.
Jesus is making a pointed accusation that the Pharisees are doing the same with Him. The Jewish Scriptures point to Him as the Messiah, but they refuse to see it. He tells the Pharisees elsewhere "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39–40).
Eventually, Jesus will rise from the grave, and they will still choose not to believe.
What can we learn from this parable?
Obviously, the surface level point about not ignoring those who are suffering while we live in luxury is apt. Most folks in the West live lavish lifestyles that would surprise first-century rich people. Those who follow Jesus and consider Scripture to be an authority in their life need to be serious about sacrificial and generous giving.
On top of that, we need to wrestle with this parable's larger point, which is that it's critical that we act on the truth that we know. There are many scriptural teachings that we excuse ourselves from taking seriously. Maybe it's because we pretend not to really understand them or we tell ourselves that we need just a little more information and clarification before we obey. It could be that we know it's something we need to work on—and we promise ourselves that we will do so later.
A lot of that self-talk is merely a means of avoiding what we know we should do. But there's coming a time when we’ll be accountable for what we did with the information we had. We won't be able to plead ignorance or claim not to have understood the expectations.
Jesus is encouraging His listeners to do some self-examination. And as James reminds us, we can't "merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves." We have to "do what it says" (James 1:22).
Learn more about the parables!
Parables were one of Jesus's favorite methods for delivering some of His most profound teachings. While they can be confusing, Jesus's parables are all packed with meaning. If you're interested in learning more about these insightful messages, check out "Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?"
All Scripture references quote the New International Version unless otherwise noted.