Luke 16:19-31 (NASB)
19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 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. 22 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. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 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.’25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And [a]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.’ 27 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.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 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.’”
To understand the parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man” as told in Luke 16:19-31 we need to ask a couple of important questions. For one, we need to ask who the parable was originally taught to and why was it given to them? To find the answer of who was the original audience we need to look back at the first verse of chapter sixteen as well as verse fourteen. The first verse in the chapter tells us that Christ’s disciples were in the audience and the fourteenth verse tells us that the Pharisees were also present and “scoffing” at the teaching of Jesus. While the parable is certainly for all people, as it has been preserved in scripture, I think the primary audience of this parable are the Pharisees. I say this for this reason. In verse fourteen the Pharisees are not described by their status nor function. Nor are they described by their physical appearance (people in the Gospels rarely are). Rather, they are described as “Lovers of money”. It is not a coincidence that the parable the Lord is about to share has to do with a very rich man, which is what the Pharisees were or at least greatly desired to be, and a poor man, which they greatly desired not to be!
This parable is also chock full of references that any Jew would understand. Which leads us to the second question that we need to ask. What cultural details are contained in the parable? For one, it is certainly interesting that Jesus calls heaven “Abraham’s bosom” in verses twenty-two and twenty-three. Every Jew would have understood this because in their culture there was no question as to whether Abraham upon death was ushered into God’s presence and the text states emphatically that the poor man named Lazarus was ushered into the intimate embrace and presence of Father Abraham and God himself. The very meaning of Lazarus deserves discussion as well. William Barclay notes that “The name is the Latinized version of Eleazer which means God is my help”[i] Barclay also notes that it is very interesting that Jesus names this character at all because in no other parable is any character given a personal name like this. I do not think it is a stretch to argue that this name has significance. By giving the poor man the name of Lazarus Jesus is making a point about his character. This man enjoyed God’s help and was totally reliant on it while the Rich Man was not even interested in the things of God. Finally, it should be noted that Jesus’ reference to Moses and the Prophets is none other than a direct reference to the Holy Scriptures contained in the Old Testament.
I think the point of this parable is twofold. The love of money and luxury will warp your sense of morality and make you insensitive to the needs of others. Lazarus dwelt at the door of the Rich Man but was never noticed by him. The text makes it abundantly clear that Lazarus was desperately and obviously in need of medical care and food and yet the Rich Man did nothing. By having the opportunity to help Lazarus and yet failing to do anything about it was a sin on the Rich Man’s part. Also, the point is that riches cannot save or even necessarily extend your life as it seems that Lazarus and this rich man died at about the same time. Laurence Porter makes these points particularly well in his commentary on Luke in the New International Bible Commentary.[ii] This parable must have stung the Pharisees right in the heart as the text makes it clear that these men were obsessed with material gain. Finally, Jesus closes the parable by saying that those who find themselves in hell due to their sin (which is all of us unless we are redeemed by God’s grace) are there justly because they have the scriptures.
Jesus’ teachings always beg for a decisive response. Jesus never taught something to simply be novel or clever. Rather, his words are packed with truth and we all have a responsibility to examine our lives in light of what the Lord says. To know how Jesus’ wants us to respond to this parable is not incredibly easy as the parable ends with little explanation and the text moves in another direction in chapter seventeen. To properly understand what our response to this parable should be I think it is helpful to look at other passages which showcase God’s attitude towards sinners. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that it is not God’s will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. Jesus does not take any delight in consigning anyone to hell but he will do it if our hearts are so hardened that we reject his help and grace. Essentially, this parable is a grave warning to those who trust in their own merits to gain eternal life and an encouragement to those who find their help in God.
[i] Barclay, William. “The Punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed.” InThe Gospel of Luke, 213. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1956.
[ii] “Luke.” In New International Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce, by Laurence Porter, 1216. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan