Lazarus and the Rich Man is the final parable of five that Jesus told in response to a group of Pharisees and scribes who were unhappy over the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them (Luke 15:1 and 16:14). Just before this parable, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for loving money, exalting themselves in self-justification, and ignoring the Old Testament’s authority, which testified about the Messiah (Luke 16:14–18). All three themes are woven into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Starting from Luke 16:19, Jesus begins the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. What can we learn from this parable?
Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day (Luke 16:19 NASB 1995)
Now there was a rich man. This is similar to the way Luke introduces the four parables that precede this. Parables are introduced with the generalizing formula such as “there was a man” (Luke 15:3, 15:8, 15:11; 16:1). The rich man is the first character in this story, and he represents the Pharisees and anyone who loves money more than God.
He habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. Purple color was expensive as well as splendid, and was chiefly worn by nobles, and the very wealthy. Fine linen was chiefly produced of the flax that grew on the banks of the Nile and it was also very expensive. So, we are told that this rich man feasted and lived selfishly in a splendid manner not just occasionally, but constantly, ignoring God’s commandments to help the poor. “You shall fully open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores (Luke 16:20)
And a poor man named Lazarus. This is the second character in this story, representing a class of people despised by the Pharisees. Jesus named the poor man in this story, and not the rich man, which was countercultural in that society and it would have felt really wrong to the Pharisees. The name Lazarus means “The one whom God helps”. God’s help was much more evident after Lazarus’ death as the parable goes on to show.
Now some say that this story is not a parable, but a real event since it mentions historical figures such as Lazarus, Abraham, Moses—something no parable has. This observation is right, but it’s hard to miss the fact that Luke introduces this story the same way he does the previous parables such as “there was a man”. Further, there are no known rules that prohibit parables to include actual names.
Was laid at his gate, covered with sores. He was laid at the door of the rich man probably by some man in order that he might obtain help. We are told he was afflicted not only with poverty but loathsome and offensive ulcers.
And longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. (Luke 16:21)
And longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table. It was common in that day for dogs to eat the food spilled from the table of their masters. Lazarus was so hungry that he longed to be treated as well as the rich man’s dogs.
Even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. The picture is not that the dogs came to befriend Lazarus, but they come to humiliate and irritate his condition more by licking his sores and possibly infecting them even more. The dogs in this culture were considered ceremonially unclean, and to be licked by an unclean creature magnified his humiliation.
Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried (Luke 16:22)
Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The poor man Lazarus died, but Jesus surprises the listeners by saying that “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” and not the rich man. Pharisees would have expected the rich man to be favored by God, and that people like Lazarus were poor and diseased because they were under God’s judgement; hence, it was people like Lazarus who should have been tormented in Hades when they died. Jews also held to the belief that the spirits of the righteous were carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom or side in heaven at their death. Jesus mentions these facts based on the prevailing view at this time. In The Testament of Abraham, a Jewish apocryphal text, it is written in 20:11-12 about Abraham’ s death as follows: “And they buried him in the promised land at the oak of Mamre, while the angels escorted his precious soul and ascended into heaven singing the thrice-holy hymn to God, the master of all”.
A question arises though. Should this parable of the rich man and Lazarus be used as a definitive statement about the afterlife? Since parables were told to illustrate a point, not to give a systematic account of any doctrine, we must be careful to use it as a definitive statement about after life. However, the Scriptures do teach that, at death, “the dust [body] will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God” (Ecclesiastes 12:7), and the body will “sleep” in the grave till the resurrection of the body at Christ’s second coming. See our study on The state of the dead. While the Bible do not mention angels carrying spirits to heaven elsewhere (besides in this parable), the Bible is clear angels are “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14) doing God’s work, and it may not be surprising for angels to be involved in this work.
“Abraham’s bosom” was a term equivalent to being with Abraham’s side in Paradise or heaven similar to when Jesus says, “Many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven: (Matthew 8:11). Generally, all parables have an earthly setting, but not this one, again, compelling some to interpret this not as a parable, but a real historical event.
And the rich man also died and was buried. Burial was thought to be an honor, and funerals were often expensive. This is said of the rich man to show that he had “every” earthly honor unlike the poor man.
In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom (Luke 16:23)
In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment. Jesus completes the surprise by telling them that the rich man also died and was buried, but he is the one who found himself being conscious and tormented in Hades. From this, some conclude that the parable teaches that the poor go to heaven and the rich to hell at death. The problem with such a view, as Augustine noted long ago, is that poor Lazarus is carried to the side of wealthy Abraham. If wealth alone determines our fate, then Abraham, Job, among many others should not be in heaven along with the rich man.2
Further, it is noteworthy that the parable nowhere states that both Lazarus and the rich man were in Hades; Lazarus appears to be placed in Abraham’s Bosom, a place far off (Luke 16:23) from Hades and separated from it by a great chasm. (Luke 16:26). Again, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus should not be used as a definitive statement about the afterlife, or the nature of Hades. Thus, Jesus intended not to fully describe Hades, but to warn His listeners about their hardheartedness, and love of money.
Sheol/Hades: In the Old Testament Scriptures, the Hebrew word generally used to describe the realm of the dead is SHEOL. It simply means “the place of the dead” or “the place of departed souls/spirits” (Genesis 37:35), or sometimes the “grave” (Psalm 141:7), with context determining the meaning. Sometimes the Old Testament present those who go down to sheol as silent, and another time, they are conscious as we find in Isaiah 14:9, which says that “Sheol below is excited about you, to meet you when you come; It stirs the spirits of the dead for you” .The New Testament Greek equivalent to SHEOL is HADES, which is also a general reference to “the place of the dead”.
– Jehovah’s Witness’ and Seventh-day Adventists, among others interpret SHEOL and HADES, simply to be the grave (nothing more), where both righteous and wicked go at death until the final resurrection and judgement. In their theology, generally the soul/spirit do not exist apart from the body after death. In this view, soul is the whole person, and their view is generally known as “soul sleep”, where the whole person sleeps (or is not conscious) until the resurrection.
– While other Christians see sheol/hades to be more than just the grave. In this view, “bodies” of the dead sleep at death, but the “spirit/soul” is to some degree conscious and go to the following destinations. In this view, some believe that during the Old Testament time period, the “spirits” of the righteous went to a part of Sheol/Hades called “Paradise/Abraham’s Bosom”, not heaven, and the “spirits” of the wicked went to a part of Sheol/Hades where they were tormented, similar to parable of the rich man and Lazarus . After Jesus rose from the dead, it is interpreted (I Peter 3:19; Ephesians 4:8-10) to mean that He cleared out the side called Paradise (where the Old testament righteous saints have gone at death), and took all of them with Him in His ascension to heaven (where all “the spirits” of all post-resurrection saints now go at death). Hades is now exclusively a temporary place of torment for the wicked. And that may or may not be true. Christians do not agree on these specifics. [Others feel that paradise, Abraham’s bosom, and heaven are three different descriptions of the same place, where all the “spirits” of righteous saints (before and after the cross) have gone (Hebrews 11:10,16)].
Not HADES, but the Greek word GEHENNA is used in the New Testament for “hell” or “lake of fire”, the final place of punishment for the wicked after the “bodily” resurrection at the final judgement (Revelation 20:14).
Saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. This appears to aggravate his misery and suffering, to see the poor man that lay at his gate completely happy with Abraham.
And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ (Luke 16:24)
And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me’. The Jews believed that departed spirits might know and converse with each other. Jesus speaks in conformity with such opinions. Now, remember that this man is a Jew and his Jewishness has not saved him. He bore no fruit that befits repentance, he shared no food, no clothes, and now he’s condemned. Interestingly, the rich man is not represented as calling on “God.” The Jews considered a proud honor that Abraham was their “father” and they were “descendants” from him, yet having Abraham as father was not enough to escape.
And send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.
The rich man knew Lazarus by name, so he clearly was aware of the impoverished poor man at his gate. The rich man, even in his torment, remained self-centered, viewing Lazarus as a servant. He showed no sense of remorse for how he failed to help Lazarus during their time on earth. A drop of water on the tongue would not stop his agony in the flame yet he was desperate to have even a drop of water. This again shows that we need not take everything in this parable literally.
You received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony (Luke 16:25)
“Your good things” refers to the wealth and riches that the rich man valued most during his life. But they were of no value to him after death.
And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ (Luke 16:26)
It was also commonly understood in the teaching of the ancient Jewish writings, that the righteous and the unrighteous were separated after death, and although they can see each other, they cannot cross the unfathomable, uncrossable, unbridgeable chasm that God has fixed in his sovereign judgment. There is also no indication in the Bible or in this parable that there’s a purgatory because “those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us”.
But the underlying revelation in this story is that, in fact, there is one who crosses chasms for the sake of sinners, that is Jesus. God gave his eternal Son for all sinners, not just for sinners like Lazarus, but for sinners like the rich man, too (John 3:16-17). But the rich man, a symbol of the Pharisees and the scribes, who gathered to condemn Jesus, didn’t want the God who became flesh.
And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ (Luke 16:27-28)
The rich man continues to be self-absorbed, concerned only about those in his immediate family. He again views Lazarus as a mere servant.
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ (Luke 16:29)
“Moses and the Prophets,” that’s a way of saying what we call the Old Testament, which was the extent of the Bible at that time, which was sufficient revelation about the necessity of love and the danger of judgment, until Jesus came. Jesus had already told them that the Law and Prophets testify about Him (John 5:39), a testimony they had rejected. How much more so does the entire Bible today, by detailing the fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic prophecies, and in the New Testament, clearly laying out God’s offer of grace through Jesus’ atoning death on the cross?
But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ (Luke 16:30)
Once again, the rich man shows his pride and arrogance by arguing with Abraham. But the rich man knows that his brothers do not listen to the Old Testament Scriptures. They may have devotions in the morning for a few minutes and they attend synagogues once a week, but he knows that their whole mindset about money is shaped by the world not God. And so the rich man knows it is not going to do any good for Abraham just to say to them: read Moses, read the prophets! If someone could go from among the dead—something really startling, some miracle—then they would wake up and repent. They would forsake their selfish luxury and start to live for others to the glory of God.
But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:31)
Jesus is foretelling the resurrection of his close friend Lazarus (John 11) as well as His own. In both cases, some believed, but many did not. Moreover, in both resurrections, many actively resisted the outcome and plotted against the characters involved. If a person is so in love with money that he is deaf to the commands and warnings and promises of Moses and the prophets, then even a resurrection from the dead will not bring about repentance. Jesus’ friend Lazarus (John 11) and Jesus rose from the dead. Yet the Jews weren’t convinced; the Pharisees, scribes and chief priests who conspired to have Jesus crucified also conspired to have soldiers lie about his resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66) and proceeded to persecute and kill those who became believers.
By the first century two conflicting schools of thought were prevailing, represented by the Saducees and the Pharisees respectively. Whereas the Saduccees dismissed any idea of disembodied spirits/angels or the resurrection of the dead, the Pharisees — as well as the Jewish populace at large (see: Matt 14:26; Luke 24:37–39; John 11:24; Acts 12:15) — embraced both these concepts (Acts 23:8–9).
- In Luke 16, Jesus offers the most graphic New Testament depiction of ongoing conscious existence beyond death. Some first-century Jews had ideas about the afterlife that included such concepts as Abraham’s bosom and consciousness in sheol. Jesus used these ideas as the setting for the story, without attempting to correct those ideas. Neither Jesus nor Luke felt any compulsion to correct the popular beliefs about the afterlife. Would Jesus use a pagan error to illustrate his parable of Lazarus and the rich man? Would one use error to illustrate truth? This is a valid question.
- While the lesson of the parable is very clear, it is difficult to conclude that Jesus’ audience (the Pharisees for instance) were not expected to draw relevant inferences from it regarding life after death. Thus, whilst one should be cautious about pressing all the details in this parable to be literal (e.g., the rich man and Lazarus are both depicted in a corporeal manner, having a finger and tongue respectively, and can communicate with one another, among other things), Jesus appears to be giving at least tacit endorsement to the idea of after death, but pre-resurrection, state of being. Thus, the scenario portrayed in this parable seems to correlate in some measure with the idea of an intermediate state for both the righteous and the unrighteous, before the final resurrection and judgement.
- However, this is the only biblical text that lends any support to such an interim conscious punishment for the wicked (perhaps a case could be made in Jude 1:6-7 too). As such, it is also arguably mistaken to build such a doctrine on the basis of such a debatable passage. While there may be little or no definitive biblical support for the conscious intermediate state of the wicked, there is much clearer evidence with respect to the righteous after Christ’s resurrection.1
- See our study on The state of the dead and Hell – what about its duration.
Adapted & Referenced:
- Death and the Afterlife – Paul R. Williamson
- Is the Rich Man and Lazarus a Parable? Peter Gurry
- Lecture on the Rich man and Lazarus by D. A Carson.
See also our chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, commentaries on the book of Daniel, Revelation & Genesis for a deeper understanding of the Sabbath.
- God’s Great Moral Law Is Unchangeable
- Ten Commandments – Are They Complete?
- Catholic Church Changed The Sabbath?
- What Law Are Christians Under?
- Christ Did Not Come To Abolish the Law?
- Do You Only Keep 9 Commandments?
- Sunday Worship Is Not Pagan
- No Sabbath Keeping in Acts
- Sabbath Is A Ritual Law, Not Moral
- New & Old Covenant Examined
- Does Sabbath Require Worship Attendance?
- Does Isaiah 66 Support Sabbath?
- Creation Seventh Day is Sanctified
- God’s Rest is not the Jewish Sabbath
- History of First Day
- Why the First Day or Lord’s day?
- SANCTUARY TRUTH
- Origins of Futurism and Preterism
- Truth about the Year-Day Principle
- This Generation will not pass away – Matt 24
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Zipper Matthew and Mark into Luke, and you will discover it’s not a parable. Zippering takes time. Remember, they are Witness accounts. Luke leaves out info that Matthew and/or Mark picks up on. And so forth.
Parables are told to the unbelievers.
You assume, based on Luke, that the audience was the pharisees.
Now zipper. It wasn’t.