#71. The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 16:19-31

[19] "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. [20] At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores [21] and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

[22] "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. [23] In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. [24] 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.'

[25] "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. [26] And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

[27] "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, [28] for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

[29] "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

[30] " 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

[31] "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.' "


Exposition

Jesus has been teaching about materialism and money -- the unjust steward, serving Mammon, and stewardship. His audience includes his disciples (16:1) as well as "the Pharisees who loved money" and ridiculed his stand on money (16:14). Jesus affirms the validity of the Law, rightly interpreted (16:16-18) -- important to the Pharisees. The parable we are studying this week condemns the Pharisees for their love of money and neglect of showing compassion for the poor (16:19-31).

Portrayal or Parable?

Characteristically, Jesus conveys spiritual truth by means of a parable. But is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus a parable?

A parable is a story intended to convey a spiritual truth. The story doesn't have to be about real people or even real situations (such as a camel passing through the eye of a needle). But to achieve its teaching goal, a parable must be striking and memorable, so that as the story is retold and remembered, the spiritual truth is reinforced again and again. The hearers must be able to imagine the situation.

I say that because I think it's important to distinguish the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from a divinely inspired portrayal of heaven. If you compare, for example, the portrayal of heaven presented by the lush word pictures in the Book of Revelation, it seems much different than the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Many scholars believe that Jesus is drawing upon a popular Jewish folk tale that had roots in Egypt about a rich man and poor man whose lots after death are completely reversed.[1] The story doesn't have to be true in all its particulars, but the popular mind can relate to its stereotyped characters -- rich man, poor man, and Father Abraham.

Let me tell you a story about a preacher and a New York taxi driver who arrived at the pearly gates and were greeted by St. Peter. To cut it short, the taxi driver is richly rewarded while the preacher just squeaks in. Why? When the preacher prayed, the people slept. But when the taxi driver drove, people prayed. Ha-ha!

You've probably heard dozens of pointed jokes that began with popular mythology (loosely based on selected scriptures) that included the pearly gates (Revelation 21:21) and St. Peter who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). Lawyers, especially, don't do well in this genre of jokes. You don't stop the joke teller because his portrayal is inadequate, or leaves out the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11). You accept the semi-mythical props of the story and listen for the punch line.

No, Jesus isn't trying to make a joke here -- the subject is deadly serious. Nor do I think Jesus is trying to teach his disciples the details of the after-life in this parable. I believe he is using a popular story genre to make a spiritual point.

Profile of the Rich Man (16:19-20)

"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" (16:19-20)

First, Jesus paints a quick portrait of the rich man, a very, very rich man. Purple dye was extremely expensive, obtained from the shellfish murex. A purple wool mantle was costly. A finely-woven linen tunic was considered the height of luxury. The phrase in the NIV translated "lived in luxury" comes from two words, the Greek verb euphraino, "be glad, enjoy oneself, rejoice, celebrate,"[2] and the adverb lampros, "splendidly, sumptuously."[3] Jesus mentions the gate to the rich man's mansion, Greek pulon, " 'gateway, entrance, gate,' especially of the large, impressive gateways at the entrance of temples and places."[4] The rich man doesn't need to work so he feasts like this every day. Jesus pictures a rich man living opulently. The rich man is not named, though he is sometimes called Dives, the Latin word for "rich man."

Profile of the Poor Man (16:20-21)

"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." (16:20-21)

Jesus contrasts the rich man with a beggar, the poorest of the poor. The beggar's name is Lazarus, the only character in any of Jesus' parables who is given a name. Lazarus is short for Eleazar, which means "He (whom) God helps," perhaps hinting at the man's piety. He is lying at a suitable place for begging, next to the rich man's gate, probably placed there by friends. He is sick, as evidenced by his numerous ulcerated sores. And he is hungry, longing to eat the scraps from the rich man's table, usually reserved for the dogs. Jeremias informs us, "We are not to think of 'that which fell from the rich man's table' as 'crumbs,' but as pieces of bread which the guests dipped in the dish, wiped their hands with, and then threw under the table."[5]

The dogs that lick his sores are not pets. In the First Century Middle East, dogs are considered unclean, wild street dogs that scavenge the garbage, and then nose around the poor man's sores. It is not a picture of comfort but of abject misery.

Abraham's Bosom (16:22)

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried." (16:22)

Jesus pictures angels carrying Lazarus to Abraham. NIV "side" and KJV "bosom" is Greek kolpos, "bosom, breast, chest." The ancient banqueting practice of recling at the table would have one's head on someone's breast. So this puts Lazarus in the place of honor at the right hand of Abraham at the banquet in the next world.[6] The poor man's fortunes are reversed.

The Rich Man in Torment (16:23-24)

The rich man, too, experiences a reversal.

"In hell, 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.' " (16:23-24)

He is in "hell." The Greek word used here is Hades, the place of the dead, and in Jewish thought, the intermediate place of the dead prior to the final judgment.[7] Though Greek gehenna is usually used to refer to the place of final punishment, in Jewish literature torment can be a feature of the intermediate state as well as of the final state of the wicked.[8]

He is in torment, Greek basanos, "severe pain occasioned by punitive torture, 'torture, torment.' "[9] He is parched with thirst, his tongue is hot and dry, and he is suffering. The Greek verb used here is odunao, "to undergo physical torment, 'suffer pain.' "[10] The source of the suffering is fire.

The rich man asks Abraham to order Lazarus to relieve his suffering (16:24), and later to send a message to his brothers (16:27). He still views Lazarus as a slave who can be ordered around at his whim.

A Great Chasm (16:25-26)

"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 fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." (16:25-26)

Abraham explains the situation and describes a great, impassable chasm (Greek chasma) that prevents anyone from passing from either side to the other. In other words, there is no hope of moving from torment to the blessings of Abraham's bosom, or of Lazarus helping the rich man. The die has been cast; the outcome is irreversible.

God's Word Is Sufficient Warning (16:27-31)

"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
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.' " (16:27-31)

Jesus concludes the parable in a curious way. The rich man wants Lazarus to warn his brothers of the dangers of hell. But Abraham says that if they won't heed the truth that they have -- Moses and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament revelation), then they wouldn't believe even if someone rises from the dead. In the context, the rich man proposes that Lazarus rise from the dead to warn his brothers. But Luke's readers will immediately think of Jesus, and how even his manifest resurrection was not enough to sway the Pharisees from their hardened opposition to the truth that was clearly before them.

As Marshall puts it, "The rich man knows from personal experience that his family do not take seriously what the law and the prophets say. Something more is needed."[10]

What's the Point?

Of course, Jesus is saying that riches don't count for anything after we die, but that isn't the thrust of this parable. I think he is making two points.

  1. Wealth without active mercy for the poor is great wickedness.
  2. If we close our eyes to the truth we are given, then we are doomed.

In the context, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for their love of money but lack of mercy for the poor. Remember his comment about their scrupulous tithing? "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone" (Luke 11:42). It isn't their piety that he is condemning, but what they AREN'T doing -- showing mercy to the poor, seeking justice for the downtrodden. It is ironic that the Pharisees who prided themselves on being such Bible scholars largely missed the spirit of the Old Testament -- mercy and justice.

What Are We Doing for the Poor?

As disciples we are asking: What should we learn from this? Jesus, what are you saying to us today?

In a sense, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches a similar lesson to that of the Unjust Steward (16:1-9). We can use our money in a way that secures for us secure eternal damnation, or in a way that secures us friends in eternal habitations who will welcome us. But there's more.

William Barclay titles this passage, "The Punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed." Lazarus was at his door and he didn't notice. Who is at our door that we don't notice?

  • Needy illegal aliens who avoid the social welfare system for fear of being deported?
  • Divorced moms with kids who are living below the poverty level but are too proud to ask for help?
  • Families where the breadwinner is sick or shiftless or missing?
  • The poor in third world countries who are out of sight and out of mind?

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats teaches a similar lessons.

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:41-46)

Wealth is not bad. After all, Abraham was wealthy. But wealth brings with it certain responsibilities, a certain stewardship. We will give an accounting for how we handle the wealth God has given us. Of course, in the USA, even the poorest enjoys a lifestyle far above a huge slice of the world's population. We have relative wealth. Perhaps not relative to our own culture, but relative to the global village that we can affect with our giving. We will give an accounting. Archibald Hunter writes:

"If a man (says Jesus) cannot be humane with the Old Testament in his hand and Lazarus on his doorstep, nothing -- neither a visitant from the other world nor a revelation of the horrors of Hell -- will teach him otherwise. Such requests for signs are pure evasions."[11]

We are Bible-toting Christians who have the benefit of the Old Testament AND the New. If we don't notice and minister to the poor, what excuse will we have? In the final analysis, the rich man's punishment is not for riches, but for neglect of the scriptures and what they teach.

That doesn't mean we should give out of guilt or give unwisely or give to whoever cries the loudest. Instead, we are to give out of the love of God within us. Not selfishly to assuage our guilt, but selflessly to care for someone else's need.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is about money, all right. Money and wealth and self-centeredness. And mercy. It is especially a parable about mercy -- mercy now!


Prayer

Father, thank you for your blessings. Give me a heart for the poor and suffering. Please strip away the calluses that I build up to protect myself from their pain. Please let me love the poor as Jesus loved them and loves them now. Please let my Bible knowledge be a blessing for me, not a curse. Let me be Jesus' disciple in deeds. In his righteous name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. Jesus has been teaching about money in chapter 16. What has been the essence of his teaching up to this point in the chapter?
  2. What word brush strokes tell us that the rich man was rich? Which tell us of Lazarus' poverty?
  3. In this parable, why was the rich man punished?
  4. What does the Old Testament teach about helping the poor that the rich man was responsible for knowing and obeying? (See these scriptures online at www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/poor_duty.htm Exodus 22:25-27; Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:25-28; Leviticus 25:35-37; Leviticus 25:39-43; Deut. 14:28-29; Deut. 15:2-14; Deut. 24:12-21; Deut. 26:12-13; Neh. 8:10; Psalm 37:21; Psalm 37:26; Psalm 41:1-3; Psalm 112:4-5; Psalm 112:9; Proverbs 28:27; Proverbs 29:7; Proverbs 31:9; Proverbs 31:20; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 16:3-4; Isaiah 58:7; Isaiah 58:10; Ezekiel 18:1-32; Daniel 4:27; Zech. 7:10)
  5. Is Jesus teaching justification by works in this parable? If not, what IS he teaching?
  6. Why do some people have struggles being around poor people? What are the difficulties we face in giving to the poor?
  7. What ministries and agencies in your community could you give to that directly aid the poor?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. Marshall, Luke, pp. 633-634. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (Second revised edition; Scribners, 1972), p. 183.
  2. BDAG 414-415.
  3. BDAG 585.
  4. BDAG 897.
  5. Jeremias, p. 184.
  6. BDAG 556-557.
  7. BDAG 19; Jeremias, p. 185.
  8. Marshall, p. 637, cites 1 Enoch 22; Wisdom 3:1; 4 Macabees 13:15; 2 Clement 17:7; 10:4.
  9. BDAG 168.
  10. Marshall, p. 639.
  11. Archibald M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (Westminster Press, 1960), p. 84.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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