The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Please read Luke 16:19-31.

THE CONTEXT. Jesus was in the middle of a conversation with an audience that included some of his disciples and some Pharisees and Sadducees. Among other things, Jesus told them all that one could not serve both God and money. He said that they each required a measure of single-minded devotion, that they involved a conflict of values, and that you had to choose one master or the other. You couldn’t be devoted to both. The Pharisees, who are on record as loving money, proceeded to literally turn up their noses at Jesus’ words. Various translations of the Bible state that the Pharisees sneered, ridiculed, scoffed, mocked, jeered, rolled their eyes, and looked at Jesus with disdain. The Pharisees apparently didn’t need words as they looked at Jesus with self-righteous condescension. Their obvious personal contempt for Jesus’ comments about money could easily have gotten Jesus a little upset, or at least stuck in his craw to some degree. So, in response to the Pharisees’ mockery, Jesus decided to tell a little story about a rich man and a poor man. The fact that the parable also included a peek at an after-life scene may have been a good-humored challenge to the Sadducees in the crowd, since they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

THE RICH MAN. a. It would be hard to find a more self-indulgent person. Each day he wore purple clothes, fit for a king. Purple is the most expensive clothing available, due to the costly dyes used. He also wore fine linen, which was used in those days for a wealthy person’s undergarments. They were the highest quality underwear, made in Egypt. Jesus must have smiled when he said this. And the rich man wore this luxurious outfit everyday. He wanted to remind everyone in viewing distance that he was rich and had nothing but the best. He also feasted daily, with fine foods, in splendor and luxury. He made merry indulgently, every day, and wanted everyone to know.

b. Like most wealthy men, his house no doubt had a courtyard, a walled garden, with an outer gate that opened to the street. The rich man would have to walk through that gate many times a day in order to enter and exit his house.

LAZARUS. a. This destitute beggar couldn’t have been more of an opposite extreme to the rich man. He was too sick to walk and too weak to stand, so he had friends who carried him every day to lay him at the rich man’s gate.

b. This is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables that was actually named. Lazarus literally means “God is my helper,” and comes from a root word that means “God help him!” This name is significant to the story. Jesus named him for a reason.

c. The fact that dogs came to lick his ulcerated sores added to his pitiful state. Dogs were seen as unclean animals, almost as impure as pigs. Dogs licked as a sign of affection, and it appears that Lazarus was too weak to even shoo them away when they licked his open sores. Apparently, his only friends during the day were dogs, unclean as they were.

d. Lazarus was always hungry, as beggars tend to be. He longed for just the table scraps from the rich man’s table. “We are not to think of ‘that which fell from the rich man’s table’ as mere crumbs, but as pieces of bread which the guests dipped in the dish, wiped their hands with, and then threw under the table.” (J. Jeremias). Lazarus was so desperate that he would have been happy to eat dirty, partially eaten food! It’s not even clear if he was able to do that, since he may not have gotten what he longed for.

RICH MAN. The clueless, hard-hearted rich man would literally have had to walk over Lazarus every day at the gate. It’s clear he never offered to help or care for Lazarus in any way. The rich man was habitually ignorant and blind to the needs of Lazarus, and daily went his own sweet way in luxury.

LAZARUS. a. He never uttered a word of complaint. He never shouted out in agony or frustration. He never accosted passersby for alms. One gets the picture of Lazarus as a patient, longsuffering beggar who is quietly and humbly thankful for whatever he gets.

b. So Lazarus dies, and there is no mention of a burial. Since there were no families members or money to proceed with a proper burial, most beggars at that time were taken to a rubbish fire outside of town and thrown onto the fire, a poor man’s cremation. And then, angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom. That is seen in Jewish circles as the place of honor at a heavenly banquet. It’s clear that the great patriarch Abraham is hosting a feast in Lazarus’ honor, and has put Lazarus in the seat of honor.

RICH MAN. a. He also dies, but is given a proper burial. He then goes in a different direction altogether. He is in hopeless torment, hot and thirsty, and asks for mercy. It’s interesting that that is the traditional cry of the beggar. The roles are reversed with both main characters in the after life.

b. “The rich man is in the very definition of hell… to be forced to see the glory of God and have no access to it.” (Thielicke).

c. The rich man predictably starts giving orders. He demands of Abraham that he send Lazarus, like a servant, to help him in the fire. Now, somehow, the rich man recognizes Lazarus and knows his  name. That suggests that the rich man has known of Lazarus all along while at his gate, yet he didn’t do a thing to ease his misery.

d. The rich man called Abraham “father,” so he seems to be claiming Jewish identity. He’s playing what Bailey calls “the race card.” It doesn’t matter. Being of the right race is no help in this situation, or in salvation.

e. Then the rich man demands, always the boss, that Abraham and Lazarus go to the rich man’s brothers who haven’t died yet. “Warn them,” he says. The rich man never offered repentance, or even an apology to Lazarus.

LAZARUS. Once again, he isn’t angry or vengeful. He doesn’t yell back to the rich man, doesn’t trash talk, doesn’t say anything in response to the rich man’s demands. Lazarus is at peace with himself and the world.

ABRAHAM. He calmly explains to the rich man that nothing can be done to help either the rich man or his brothers. He tells the rich man that the scriptures offer clear guidance as to man’s destiny. If people don’t listen to scripture, they are beyond help and won’t find their way to paradise. They won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead, he says. Interesting.

FINAL THOUGHTS. a. Jesus certainly is making an obvious statement regarding the social inequities of the time. Our society is unjust, he is saying, to allow situations like this to develop. It’s plain wrong. Wake up to the social injustice that is around you. Don’t be blind or ignorant to the needs of the poor. Be compassionate, be good stewards of what you have received from a very generous God. Jesus is saying all these things by drawing such a stark contrast between the rich man and Lazarus. Be humble, “associate with the lowly,” (Romans 12:16), and care for them as you are able.

b. We don’t know how the Pharisees responded to this story. Maybe it awakened their conscience in the midst of their love of money.

c. “The rich man didn’t go to hell because of his wealth, but because he was hard-hearted; Lazarus didn’t go to heaven because of his poverty, but because of his humble faith.” (Orthodox Study Bible).

d. We are to identify as one of the rich man’s brothers. We haven’t died yet, and we have the scriptures to point the way, to guide us on our way to our destiny with God.

e. The last line of Jesus’ story is telling. He is revealing a little of what is to come, that there will indeed be someone, himself, who will rise from the dead, and yet there will be many who remain unconvinced of the need for salvation through him.


  1. Jesus responds to sneers, jeers and mockery with an engaging story. He kept his cool, he didn’t offer trash talk. He didn’t continue their stare-downs. He told a story instead. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” (Emily Dickenson). Do you think Jesus’ parable defused the conflict, or did it fan the flames?
  2. Will the character we develop here on earth be so fixed that it will follow us into the after life? Will we be the same basic person in the after life, no matter where we end up? To what degree does character determine destiny?
  3. Jesus loved to “associate with the lowly” and see to their needs. What service ministry do you have a heart for? Usually, just open your eyes and notice what’s right in front of you, unlike the rich man in the story who lived with his eyes closed. Who do you feel burdened for? What’s keeping you from showing mercy to them?
  4. Many in Judaism of that day would have assumed that Lazarus, in his desperate straits, was a sinner being punished by God. Surprise, surprise! He is taken straight to Paradise after his death! Lazarus went from being a dead beggar thrown onto a rubbish fire to  a resurrected beggar in a place of honor at the heavenly banquet. Is there any doubt about God’s grace and mercy? Wouldn’t you want to place your destiny in the hands of a God who does something like that?
  5. For Jesus, the Jewish Scriptures were evidently enough to guide and convince a person to believe in God. Even though Jesus came to complete the Law and the Prophets, do we nonetheless respect enough the power and inspiration of the Old Testament? Can the Jewish Bible (the OT) guide a person to Christ? Have you seen it happen?
  6. The rich man basically tripped over Lazarus when leaving or returning to his home. The needy person was close to home on a daily basis. One wonders of missionaries boldly going to the ends of the earth only to forget their children, the Lazarus in their midst. Are missionary parents guilty of neglecting their Lazarus, of not caring for their needy ones closest to home? Are pastors guilty of the same?

Resources: Helmut Thielicke, The Waiting Father; Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus; Henry Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible.