The Stories Jesus Told: The Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19–31

By Peter Amsterdam

July 22, 2014

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The story of the rich man and Lazarus is another of the stories Jesus told regarding the proper attitude toward wealth and its use. The parable of the rich fool (which I spoke about earlier) and the parable of the unjust steward (which is next in the series) also touch on the topic of wealth. This parable makes a comparison between the lives of two men—one rich, the other poor. As we’ll see, the comparison extends beyond this life and into the next. Let’s take a look at how Jesus described the rich man.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.[1]

Not a lot is said in this brief introductory description, but the original listeners would have drawn some definite impressions from it. This man was not only rich but he made a point of showing off his riches by the clothes he wore. He dressed daily in purple cloth, which was something only the very wealthy could afford. The process of extracting purple dye from a shellfish called murex was labor intensive, thus making purple cloth very expensive. Royalty and those of high rank wore purple robes.

The rich man also wore fine linen. The Greek word translated as “fine linen” means a delicate, soft, white, and very costly linen. Wearing white linen garments under purple robes was indicative of great affluence. On top of that, he feasted sumptuously every day, which might mean that he entertained guests on a daily or regular basis, which would be very costly. The point being made, both here and later in the story, is that the man was very rich and self-indulgent.

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.[2]

In keeping with the brevity of the parables, the information about Lazarus is also sparse. However, one outstanding point is that his name is given. This is the only one of Jesus’ parables in which people are named. Further on, Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, is also named. The name Lazarus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eliezer or Elazar, meaning the one who God helps.

Lazarus is so poor he must beg for food. He is also ill, covered with oozing sores, and cannot walk. Either his legs are paralyzed or he is so weak and ill that he isn’t able to walk. The wording “was laid” in the Greek is passive, meaning that he had to be laid at the rich man’s gate by others. In first-century Palestine, there were no governmental services that provided care for the poor, so such care had to be given by the community or individuals. Almsgiving, the giving of money or food to those in need, was the main way people like Lazarus survived. Lazarus depended on others to daily carry him to the rich man’s gate, where he could beg, and where he hoped that he would receive food which fell from the rich man’s table.

When guests ate at feasts, they would break off a piece of bread and use it to scoop food from the common dish. Throughout the meal, when they wanted to wipe their hands they would break off a bit of bread, use it to clean their hands, and then throw it under the table. It was this food that Lazarus would have been hoping to receive.

Every day Lazarus would sit at the gate of the rich man, knowing that daily feasts were being eaten there, knowing that his hunger could be satiated if he were just given some of the food being tossed on the floor. He desired that food, but did without, as it wasn’t given to him; or if it was from time to time, it wasn’t enough to assuage his hunger.

The dogs would come and lick Lazarus’ leaking sores. Most Bible commentators presume that the dogs were dirty, mangy street dogs. One commentator expresses the possibility that these are the guard dogs of the rich man’s house, and that their licking would help the sores.[3] In either case, having such sores and being licked by dogs made Lazarus ritually unclean. If in fact the rich man had guard dogs, we can assume that the dogs were the ones being fed the table scraps thrown on the floor, rather than Lazarus.

Lazarus was in a miserable state—unable to walk, covered with sores, always hungry, completely dependent on others for help to move from one place to another, and sitting day after day begging outside the gate of the rich man, who apparently ignored him. He was a ritually unclean social outcast.

The parable continues:

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.[4]

Being by Abraham’s side, or at Abraham’s bosom, as it’s sometimes translated, expressed the blessed state after death, and was compared to dining with the patriarchs, as seen in Matthew 8:11:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.[5]

Lazarus, who was never invited to the rich man’s feast, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table, is now reclining at a feast in the place of honor next to Abraham, the father of faith. The rich man, meanwhile, experiences a very different fate.

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.”[6]

The unnamed rich man has died and been buried, undoubtedly with an expensive funeral. However, his existence is now very different from what it was in his time on earth. He who feasted daily with copious food and wine is now the one in need and dependent on others for help.

He called out to Abraham, making sure to call him “father,” perhaps hoping that reminding Abraham of his Jewish descent would in some way obligate Abraham to help him.

At this point in the parable, the surprising discovery is made that the rich man knew Lazarus’ name. He was apparently well aware of Lazarus, who sat daily in front of his house in desperate need. However, he shows no remorse about his neglect of Lazarus; instead, he’s instructing Abraham to send Lazarus to perform a service for him.

Kenneth Bailey expressed the situation well when he wrote:

The rich man’s first demand is unbelievable. When Lazarus was in pain, he was ignored by the rich man. Now the rich man is in pain and something must be done about it—immediately! After all, he is unaccustomed to such things. Instead of [giving] an apology he demands services, and from the very man he refused to help in spite of his great wealth! He wouldn’t even give Lazarus some of his “dog food.” He might as well have said, “Now that Lazarus is feeling better and is on his feet, I would like a few services. Given who I am, and he, being of the servant class, such service is expected. Send him down, Abraham—and hurry up about it. Unlike Lazarus, I am not accustomed to discomfort!”[7]

There’s no sign of remorse, no asking for forgiveness, only continued self-concern and self-importance.

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.”[8]

Abraham doesn’t answer harshly; rather he calls him “child.” He then instructs the rich man to think back on the life he led and all of the good things he received, as opposed to the bad things Lazarus experienced. Abraham reminds him that what he possessed wasn’t truly his; it was on loan from God, and he was meant to use it wisely. Now his earthly life is finished, and due to his actions in that life he is in anguish.

Lazarus, on the other hand, is now comforted. Having lived a difficult life, he is no longer in pain and torment. He is no longer neglected. He has been comforted after his death.

Abraham then said:

“And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”[9]

Even if Lazarus compassionately wished to dip his finger in water and cool the rich man’s tongue, it would be impossible. Lazarus would have been well within his rights to point out how ridiculous it was for the rich man to ask that he be sent to help relieve his pain. Hadn’t Lazarus been in pain daily at the rich man’s doorstep and received nothing? Yet Lazarus says nothing, as is the case throughout the whole parable.

The rich man then comes up with a new task for Lazarus.

And he said, “Then 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.”[10]

Realizing that his predicament isn’t going to change, the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent on a mission to warn his brothers. He sees that the same fate awaits them, most likely because they live in the same manner as he did, pursuing their own selfish pleasure with no concern for those in need.

But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”[11]

Abraham states that they have the five books of Moses, known as the Torah, as well as the books of the prophets, called in Hebrew the Nevi’im, available to them. Abraham is saying that the Scriptures, God’s written Word, are sufficient to instruct his brothers in righteous living and faith. If they will hear those words, meaning to obey and follow them, they won’t end up as their dead brother has.

This answer doesn’t sit well with the rich man. He’s used to people doing what he says. His response is argumentative.

And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”[12]

This is ironic given that the rich man himself is at that moment seeing someone “from the dead,” Lazarus, who is reclining at the table with Abraham, and he hasn’t shown any sign of repentance. Yet he’s convinced that if Lazarus will appear to his brothers, they will repent. Abraham lets him know that’s not the case.

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.”[13]

The rich man is seeking to send his five brothers a sign. He assumes that if Lazarus, who is dead and who his brothers know is dead, goes to them, they will believe. The rich man’s brothers would recognize Lazarus, as for years they walked right past him as they entered the house for feasting. The rich man knows his brothers ignored Lazarus just as he did, and that their fate is going to be the same as his.

He also knows they either don’t read or don’t believe God’s words. The rich man is asking that a sign be given to his brothers. In Scripture a request for a sign indicates unbelief, as shown in John 6:30 and other verses.[14]

They said to Him, “Then what sign do You do, that we may see and believe You?”[15]

Although it isn’t specified, as parables don’t give a lot of details or historical facts, it’s possible that the rich man and his brothers were Sadducees. The Sadducees were the aristocracy of Israel and many were very wealthy. The high priests at that time came from the Sadducees. The rich man was clothed in purple, which could indicate he was a member of the aristocracy and therefore possibly a Sadducee, or at least Jesus may have been alluding to the Sadducees’ beliefs.

The Sadducees did not believe that life continued on after death. There was no expectation that there was any life beyond this one; as such, if a man lived prosperously and happily, died in peace, and was honorably buried, he had all that a man could ever expect.[16] However, Jesus’ parable shows that this is not the case. The rich man, contrary to the belief of the Sadducees, finds out that there is life beyond the grave and that our actions in our earthly life do in fact have something to do with life after death.[17]

T. W. Manson writes:

The rich man now thinks of his brothers, who are living as he had lived, believing what he had believed, and so dooming themselves to join him in torment. He asks that Lazarus may be sent to them to testify to them. Of what? Of the only thing to which one returned from the dead could bear witness; the fact that there is a life beyond the grave, and the nature of it is retribution. The five brothers are in danger of punishment after death precisely because they do not believe in it. … The creed of the five brothers is the Sadducean creed.[18]

Whether the brothers were Sadducees or not, what is clear is that the rich man knew they weren’t living in obedience to what God’s Word taught, and that they were going to end up in the same state he was in if they didn’t receive a sign. But Abraham says that no sign would be given to them, as they had God’s Word available to them and that was sufficient. They knew enough from the Torah, the Scriptures, to know what God says about how to live righteously and how to treat the poor.

So what was Jesus teaching with this parable?

Many of those Jesus was speaking to would have initially assumed that the rich man was blessed by God and that Lazarus was being judged, as they believed that prosperity was God’s blessing and the lack of it was God’s judgment. Jesus was expressing that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Being rich isn’t necessarily a sign that one has received God’s blessing or that they are righteous; nor are those who have less, or who suffer illness or poverty, being judged by God.

Another point Jesus was making was that being of the lineage of Abraham wasn’t enough to keep the rich man from torment. At a different time and place, Jesus expressed that being of the physical line of Abraham wasn’t sufficient, rather one had to live as Abraham lived.

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did …” [19]

The parable also shows the wealthy how not to act. The rich man was aware of Lazarus and his needs but was indifferent toward him. He took no action to help him, though he clearly had the means to do so. It’s so easy to look away when one sees a beggar, especially when they are unsightly, as in this graphic example Jesus uses of Lazarus’ oozing sores being licked by dogs. Instead of seeing a human being, one made in God’s image, one whom God loves, it’s easier to avoid them or to look away and not take notice, to be indifferent toward them. As Christians, as disciples, we are meant to respond with love and compassion when we see the condition of those in need.

While Jesus is using a wealthy man as a bad example in this parable, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being rich. Even Abraham was wealthy. There is, however, danger when riches wrongly affect one’s attitude. It has to do with the place of importance we give our possessions and how we use them. Are we like the rich fool in Luke chapter 12 who plans to store up his bumper crop and use it for himself? Do we serve our money and possessions, or do we use them for God’s glory? Do we live self-indulgent lives like the rich man in this parable, or do we help others? Even if we don't have enough to give much financially, do we do what we can to help those in need, perhaps by giving some of our time, attention, or in some way helping to meet their need? What is our attitude toward the poor and needy? Are we indifferent? Do we look down on them? Do we judge them because we feel they deserve to be in that situation? Or do we show compassion, care, and concern in our actions?

The parable also gives a warning about ignoring or rejecting God’s Word. The rich man either had no belief or wrong belief. He knew his brothers were in the same condition. He asked for a sign to be given to them, but Abraham said no sign would be given because they had God’s Word available. God held the rich man accountable because he had God’s Word available, yet didn’t live in alignment with it, as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t treat the poor in accordance with Scripture.

How we live our lives affects our eternal future. Our actions, or our lack of action, make a difference not only in our life today, but in our life forever. We should be mindful of the choices we make, how we live, how we use our money and possessions, and how we treat those in need. The sum of our decisions, choices, and actions not only make us who we are today, but affect our future in the life after this one.

As Christians, as disciples, an additional point we should take away from this parable is that we are surrounded by many who, like the rich man, either don’t believe or realize that there is life after this life. They may not understand that believing God’s Word and receiving salvation through His Son Jesus will change their lives now and for eternity. Our job is to share our riches of spiritual truth with them. We shouldn’t be like the rich man in the parable, content with our spiritual riches, with the wealth of heaven we possess, and pass by the “Lazaruses” of this world who are so in need, not just physically, but spiritually.

Whether or not we have much money or possessions to share with those in need, as Christians we each possess the most valuable thing anyone can have—eternal life and a personal relationship with the one who makes it possible, Jesus. There are multitudes from all walks of life around us who are in desperate need, and we have the spiritual riches of faith, of salvation, of God’s deep love to share with them. Let’s do the very best we can to bring them comfort and salvation, shall we?


The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1931)

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.The rich man also died and was buried,

23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

24 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.’

25 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.

26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—

28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’

29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’

30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

31 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.’”


Note

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] Luke 6:19.

[2] Luke 16:20–21.

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 385.

Dogs lick their own wounds. They lick people as a sign of affection. But more than this, recent scientific scholarship has identified that saliva contains “endogenous peptide antibiotics,” which facilitate healing. A dog’s saliva contains such peptide antibiotics, and the ancients somehow discovered that if a dog licked wounds, they would heal more rapidly. In 1994 Professor Lawrence Stager of Harvard University discovered more than 1,300 dogs buried in ancient Ashkelon. The graves dated from the fifth to the third centuries BC when Ashkelon was ruled by the Phoenicians. These animals were probably linked to a Phoenician healing cult. The dogs were in all likelihood trained to lick wounds or sores, whereupon a fee was paid to their owners. This may explain the background to Deuteronomy 23:18, which forbids the worshiper from bringing “the wages of a dog” into the house of the Lord.

[4] Luke 16:22.

[5] Matthew 8:11.

[6] Luke 16:22–24.

[7] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 388.

[8] Luke 16:25.

[9] Luke 16:26.

[10] Luke 16:27–28.

[11] Luke 16:29.

[12] Luke 16:30.

[13] Luke 16:31.

[14] “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So He left them and departed (Matthew 16:4).

The Pharisees came and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven to test Him (Mark 8:11).

While others, to test Him, kept seeking from Him a sign from heaven (Luke 11:16).

So the Jews said to Him, “What sign do You show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:18–19).

[15] John 6:30.

[16] T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 299.

[17] Manson, Sayings of Jesus, 300.

[18] Manson, Sayings of Jesus, 300–301.

[19] John 8:39.

 

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