Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31)

After a brief note about kingdom values, Jesus turns back to the use of resources. Raising a negative example, he discusses kingdom ethics and values in caring for others. God's concern for people also becomes evident. The disciple is to be giving and outward in orientation, as the rich man painfully discovers through his failure. As Jesus shows, wealth is not always what it is assumed to be.

Donald Trump, Aristotle Onassis, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller are among the extremely rich figures of history. Every generation has its very wealthy, those who live high. American culture calls this "the good life," "success," "making it," "reaching the top" or "living in the penthouse." In short, the very rich person "has arrived." For many, wealth is the essence of life. It means self-sufficiency, independence and plenty of opportunity to enjoy material pleasures. Though few people attain such wealth, many strive for it.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not really about money. It is about much more than the dollar, yen, mark or pound. There may not be many Donald Trumps in the world, but appeals to greed and the desire for self-indulgence abound, especially in advertising. Jesus wants disciples to see the great spiritual danger in that path.

The account is an example story, not a parable. It pictures reality through a two-character story that mirrors life. "The rich man" is never named. He is nameless because he represents the danger of wealth. He could be anyone. The name of the second character, Lazarus, is derived from Eleazar, which means "God helps." He is the only named character in any of Jesus' example stories or parables.

Two people and two contrasting sets of life circumstances drive this story. On the surface the rich man has all the cards and all life's blessings, while Lazarus has nothing. The rich man is "in" with style, while Lazarus is definitely "out." But often the way we read circumstances and the way God does are not the same.

The contrast is set up from the opening of the account. The rich man is finely clothed and eats well. Fresh linen and clothes of purple dye indicate his wealth, as do his daily feasts inside his mansion with its own gate. Clothes of purple dye (derived from a snail) were very expensive (Strack and Billerbeck 1926:2:20). Linen may allude to expensive undergarments; the two terms together suggest a "power dresser" (Fitzmyer 1985:1130-31). This man lives like a king (Prov 31:22; 1 Maccabees 8:14; 1QapGen 20:31).

While some people eat heartily and can afford expensive underwear, others have nothing. So we meet Lazarus. He is very poor and probably crippled, since he lies down at the gate. If he is not crippled, he is very sick. He is looking for food. Even crumbs will do. His hope of sustenance is alms, the offerings of those who have something. His skin is a snack to lick for the wild dogs that roam the streets. These dogs were considered unclean, because it was likely that they had previously licked animal corpses. The image is purposefully gruesome: they lick his sores and render him unclean (see 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24; 22:38; 1 Enoch 89:42-43, 47, 49, on dogs as a negative figure of those that devour; Michel 1965b:1103; Danker 1988:283). Lazarus wears his poverty's pain on his ulcerated skin—a graphic contrast to the rich man's soft clothes. If the panhandlers of our cities' streets look bad, Lazarus would serve as a worthy ancestor. Later rabbis would have seen Lazarus's life as no life at all, since they had a saying that three situations resulted in no life: depending on food from another, being ruled by one's wife and having a body covered with sores (t. Besa [Yom Tob] 32b). According to this saying, Lazarus is doubly deprived.

The story's initial impression is clear: the rich man has a great life, while the poor man does not. The rich man throws away food; the poor man must scrounge for it. Some people have nothing, while others have expensive underwear. Observing this scene, we might well conclude that God has blessed the rich man, while the poor man must be the object of God's judgment. Lazarus must be lazy or sinful, paying for his depravity with his destitution. But the parable will show that appearances can be deceiving. Jesus' parables often come with a twist.

In this parable Lazarus never speaks. His situation is so pathetic that no one would likely hear him if he did. Here is dire need that the rich man could easily meet, even with leftovers sticking to a discarded finger towel. The ancient finger towel was used to wipe up the last bites of bread and gravy. After use it was often thrown out or given to dogs. Lazarus would have regarded such a tossed-out napkin as a feast, a generous, life-comforting gift.

It is amazing what we take for granted when we have much. Right after the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, I had the chance to visit Romania within six weeks of the change of government there. We went in with supplies of food and clothes for believers. To go to Eastern Europe then was to enter a time machine and travel back in history and culture. In some cases the journey crossed several decades. The most precious food people had to offer us was eggs from their own chickens. For four days all we had was eggs. The people could not count on bread at the stores. The shock of seeing how people lived daily has never left me. But it did not take long to realize that we were receiving the best they had to offer and to appreciate the meals as a result. Often as we ate the hosts serenaded us with hymns in their own tongue to thank us for bringing them needed supplies. We slept in the beds of these generous hosts while they took the floor outside. For them life was simple, and they were rejoicing in their newfound freedom to worship God openly. So it did not matter what they lacked materially.

Others from the West who traveled into that region during the same period were similarly stunned by what they saw. Several marveled to me about what we take for granted and how frivolously we use resources. One Christian woman who lives in a very wealthy area of Dallas said her life—especially her shopping practices and her attitudes toward the needs of others—was changed permanently by her trip to Eastern Europe. Both she and I learned a lesson the rich man never did: we should never forget to look out our window and consider those less fortunate than ourselves. I pray that I never will.

If this parable were a television docudrama, it would take a commercial break here. Imagine how advertisers might flood images of their wares into the pause, entreating us to participate in the high life. Life often gets defined in terms of things or activities, as we ignore people and souls in need. Our advertising differs little from the rich man's attitude. Only the occasional public-service announcement is the exception.

Imagine you were a guest from another planet and television was your "eye" into this world. How selective is the eye of television? How much does it reflect real life and our world's pain? The news often does, but people do not enjoy watching that, nor do they often try to do much about the harsh realities that are portrayed. We feel helpless to do much to help, even if we want to. So documentaries that shed light on the hurting world are zapped away with the touch of a remote-control switch (no ratings, no TV time). Often people have to fall into totally desperate straits before others' concern translates into action—and for many the action never comes. So we hide behind our gates and hope the world's neediness will go away. Are we more like the rich man than we think?

This parable is not about money. It is about roots, the roots of our heart. Where do they reach? What nourishes them? Are our roots tied to earthly treasure? Are we looking to line the walls of our life with things and leisure? Are we too busy to notice the screams of human desperation? Or are the roots of our life drawing from the spiritual well of God's concern and compassion, which ministers comfort to a world in pain?

A film that stormed the evangelical world on the sensitive issue of abortion was called The Silent Scream. Yet some cultural critics have charged that Western Christians have great compassion about life while it is in the womb but could not care less about the lives of persons once they are born. Could that charge, though certainly overstated, be partially true? Is there another silent scream which we ignore, a scream that would assault our senses as a protest and an eyesore in every corner of our world, including the corners of our own inner cities? Is it possible that this parable addresses the pain of living in areas where human life itself is constantly at risk and where dogs live better than people? Could this parable be about us?

The parable exposes our values as it now considers Lazarus from an eternal perspective. Some time has passed—how much is not said. The rich man and Lazarus have both died. Each has a ticket for a permanent destination, one that money cannot buy. Who is "in" and who is "out" now, and why?

A remarkable reversal has taken place. Now Lazarus is in and the rich man is out. This is known as an eschatological reversal. It is a true rags-to-riches story, only eternal destinies are the prize. Lazarus is by Abraham's side, while the rich man is in dire need of relief, living in torment. The term for torment here, basanos, was often used for the kind of punishment meted out to a slave to elicit a confession of wrongdoing (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-10; 4 Maccabees 13:15; Schneider 1964a:563). The passage's mood is set by the distance and difference between the two figures. Everything is reversed, and the changes are all very permanent.

Lazarus is next to Abraham, the figure of promise, sharing in blessing (Schweizer 1974:647 n. 182). This is another way to say that he has been "gathered to the fathers" (Gen 15:15; 47:30; Deut 31:16). The angels carried him to Abraham's side, to heaven, in one of the greatest funeral processions of all time. Here as elsewhere, Luke emphasizes that sometimes the poor are headed for glory. One's social status on earth need not dictate one's spiritual status before God.

On the other hand, the rich man's new address reads "Hades" (Greek; NIV has hell). Mr. Deep Pockets has found the road to nowhere, the deep pocket of the universe. A selfish life is a rootless life, for everything it yields withers and fades. The rich man has joined a new kind of country club where the dues are permanent.

Interestingly, however, the rich man still sees Lazarus as his pawn, his social inferior. Having learned nothing in his new situation, he begins trying to negotiate his way to relief. There is now no drop of water for him, just as there had been no food for Lazarus before. The measure by which the rich man had lived was now being measured to him. Irony abounds. The wealthy man had not even acknowledged Lazarus in his earthly circumstances, but here he knows his name. Maybe he had seen the poor man all along and had ignored him. Lazarus had been good for nothing to him, only the object of a casual uncaring glance. God sees the potential of the poor very differently (Jas 2:5).

Divine riches do not take notice of earthly wealth or social status. The rich man's chance to use his wealth in a way that pleases God had passed. Now he is outside the gate of the mansion of eternal blessing (see 6:20-26; Jas 5:1-6).

I am reminded of a wealthy man whom God "blessed" with bankruptcy during the recession of the 1980s. Interpreting the experience positively, he said it made him reconsider his values. He called himself a "recovering materialist." Sometimes to lack is to realize what blessings one does possess.

Now Jesus is not against wealth. He is concerned with how it is used. The story of Zacchaeus shows Jesus commending a wealthy and formerly corrupt man who became generous with his resources (19:1-10). But Jesus wants to warn about the danger of abusing resources. This story of an unrepentant rich man reveals the tragedy of learning this lesson too late. His deep pockets had been sewn tight when it came to others, and thus he had sewn up his fate.

His personal appeal fails. Abraham tells him a grand "canyon" (chasma; NIV chasm) lies between them. No crossing is allowed. The distance he kept from others' needs in his earthly life has become a distance he cannot cross. The Greek term used for crossing here, diabaino, is often used of crossing a river that serves as a boundary between regions. There are no bridges between heaven and hell. When Abraham tells the rich man, "Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things," he is saying it is too late. Lazarus will be comforted, and the rich man is destined for anguish. Many today reason that a loving God will change his mind in heaven and grant eternal life to many who do not honor him now; they say there is no permanent judgment or condemnation from God. Abraham disagrees. The parable is a negative illustration of 16:9.

So the rich man gives up on himself and begins thinking of others. He has learned the lesson, but too late to help himself. Still, maybe he can help others avoid his error. There is irony here also, for what the rich man is denied the story's imagery supplies. No one will be sent to warn the rich man's brothers, not even Lazarus. Nevertheless, the rich man's plea provides the parable's lesson, a voice of one who has seen God's judgment: Be warned—wealth does not mean spiritual health. How exactly the rich man thinks the dead can contact his brothers is not clear—a resurrection, a vision? What is clear is that his brothers share the same philosophy of life that has condemned him. He knows they need to be warned. Many follow the same philosophy as he: to enjoy pleasures while ignoring the needs of others. Research shows that residents of the United States, for example, use a substantial amount of the earth's resources but give only a few percentage points of what they earn to charities of any type. What conclusion must we draw about our values? Even when the government extends aid to other nations in need, we often complain about the burden we bear to help.

The rich man now wants to warn others who are like him and let them know what God desires. But what would this warning be? In the parable's context it seems clear that the warning would center on values and lifestyle. The rich man's perspective on such questions had been his downfall. The call would be to repent before God and be more generous to others. Those who love God and wish to honor him will have compassion on those like Lazarus. They will not confuse material blessing with divine blessing.

The man's request that a messenger be sent to his brothers is denied for a crucial reason. Abraham simply declares that Moses and the Prophets are good enough. The Old Testament makes clear what God desires of those who know him. "Deep pockets" that are holy have holes. God wants us to love him and to love our fellow human beings. He wants generosity. A text like Deuteronomy 24:10-22 seems to be in view, with its call to be generous and remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. So God's people were to care for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, even leaving some of their own precious harvest for them. In fact, numerous Old Testament texts make the same point, with many prophets calling for compassion (Deut 15:1-3, 7-12; 22:1-2; 23:19; 24:7, 14-15, 19-21; 25:13-14; Is 3:14-15; 5:7-8; 10:1-3; 32:6-7; 58:3, 6-7, 10; Jer 5:26-28; 7:5-6; Ezek 18:12-18; 33:15; Amos 2:6-8; 5:11-12; 8:4-6; Mic 2:1-2; 3:1-3; 6:10-11; Zech 7:9-10; Mal 3:5). Just reading Moses and the Prophets should make it clear that those who hear God serve others, because they recognize that in ministering to others in need they show God's compassion. Love for God changes one's values, so that persons made in God's image become more valuable than things. Money is a resource, not a reward. It is to be used, not hoarded. It is to serve, not become master. Jesus said as much in his own ministry (Mt 6:24; Lk 10:25-28). To love God is to love and show compassion to the humanity he loves (Lk 6:26-36; Jn 3:16; Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:18).

The rich man does not give up. He suggests trying a sign. He seems to argue that the Word of God is not enough, but a message from the dead would be convincing. The reply is equally clear: revelation is better than a sign; besides, signs are ignored. Abraham insists, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Jesus has already warned that signs other than the call to repentance will not be given (11:29-32). If God's prophetic Word cannot convince and put a crack in a hard heart, neither will miracles. Jesus' own resurrection is testimony to the point: only an open heart sees the evidence for God's presence and hears his voice.

This parable is ultimately about the heart. Where our treasure is, there our heart is. Where is our treasure being stored? Jesus says, "Healthy seed reflecting God's desire is not planted in riches. Rather, it should penetrate the heart and be planted into people, especially people in need." Jesus warns that treasure invested for the self yields emptiness, while treasure invested for God yields compassion.

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