The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is a parable. While Jesus’ parables have Jewish and Greco-Roman elements, they are unique in ancient literature. Characteristics of Jesus’ parables include:
- A startling outcome, one that would not be expected by the listeners in the 1st century.
- The worldview of 1st-century peasants.
- The assumption that listeners were familiar with Jewish Scripture.
Synopsis of the Text
In this parable, Jesus describes the relationship – or lack of one – between a rich man and a poor, sick man named Lazarus. The rich man ignores Lazarus during life, even though Lazarus lies at the rich man’s gate. In death, the rich man finds their roles reversed as he is tormented while Lazarus is comforted by Abraham, the founder of their Jewish faith.
Jesus tells this parable as part of a longer lesson. He is speaking to disciples, tax collectors and the Pharisees, a particular group of Jews who adhered to a strict and literal interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. During this extended teaching session, Jesus tells parables about the joy of finding lost things (Luke 15:1-32) and the use or misuse of money and material things (Luke 16:1-18).
This parable appears only in the Gospel According to Luke. Matthew, Mark and John do not mention it.
Dangers of Wealth: Poor and sick people are prominent in Luke’s gospel. (One out of every seven passages in Luke is about money and wealth.) Through the Beatitudes (Luke 6:15-25) and other teachings, Jesus taught that God vindicates and comforts the poor and judges the rich. This parable is a warning about the dangers of misused wealth. G. Penny Nixon writes in Feasting on the Word:
“Jesus did not espouse some pie-in-the-sky theology. He spoke out against the real inequities of his day by his stern and unrelenting admonition to the wealthy to share their earthly resources and to cease oppression wherever it existed.”
Seeing the Poor and Oppressed: What the rich man did wrong seems to be that he did not see and help Lazarus. His wealth and status might have blinded him to the plight of this man who lay at his gate, but riches alone were not his sin. Despite walking past Lazarus several times a day, the rich man did not see him – or at least did not see him well enough to care about him.
In Jesus’ Time
Wealth in the ancient world was seen as a sign of divine favor. Poverty and illness were seen as punishment for sin. The 1st-century listeners of this parable would not have expected the rich man to be depicted as evil; rather, they would have expected the poor man to have done something wrong to deserve his disease.
We know by Jesus’ short description that the rich man was indeed quite rich. The fine linen he wore was very expensive, as was the dye it took to color the fabric. In fact, the rich man might have been a high-ranking official or member of the royal family. The Romans had restrictions on who could wear purple and how much purple they could wear.
The food from the rich man’s table that Lazarus hungered for would have been the bread that the diners used to wipe the grease from their fingers and then threw to the floor.
The ancient Mediterranean world had a “limited goods perspective,” meaning that for one person to become rich, someone else had to be poor. The more one person had, the less someone else could have because there was not enough money or goods for everyone.
In Our Time
As in ancient times, most people today are one major accident or medical crisis away from destitution and bankruptcy. Lazarus was deathly sick, and yet the only response from his neighbors was to dump him at the gate of a rich man who might or might not take care of him. Today we have a tighter safety net for people who become ill or for some other reason lose everything, but the net does not catch everyone. This is proven by the thousands of homeless and hungry people in the United States as well as the many nations in which a majority of the population lives in extreme poverty.
The chasm between rich and poor continues to grow in the United States and worldwide. Workers are laid off as CEOs receive extravagant salaries and bonuses. Governments increasingly seem to watch out for the interests of the rich over the needs of the poor.
Scripture, reason and experience tells us that helping the poor is essential for the good of all of us and for God’s creation. Letting people fall through the cracks cheapens the meaning of all our lives. Yet, like the rich man and his brothers, we often do not hear the warnings or even see the people who most need our help.
Seeing the Story Through the Characters’ Eyes
Lazarus: Jesus tells us almost nothing about Lazarus other than he is sick, his skin is covered by sores, and he “lives” outside the gate of the rich man’s house. We do not know if he is a righteous man or an evil one or something in-between. We do not know if he was always poor or became poor because of his sickness. We do not know if he had family or friends. Lazarus is the sympathetic figure in this parable, but he never speaks a word. (Maybe that’s why!) Imagine all of this taking place around you – the rich man walking past you every day, the pain from the dogs licking your sores, the hunger pains in your gut, dying and being carried by angels to Abraham’s lap, being comforted by the founder of your faith, hearing the rich man who ignored you ask that you be ordered to tend to him and his family. How does it feel to be totally passive in all situations? What might Lazarus have to say to the rich man? What might he have to say to Abraham?
The rich man: Even after death, the rich man does not yet understand that he is not in control. He demands that Lazarus be sent to serve him. He demands that Lazarus be sent to save his brothers. Even in his torment, the rich man expects to snap his fingers and have others do his bidding. His life of luxury is turned upside down into one of pain and misery. Does the rich man have more compassion for himself than he did for Lazarus? Is he capable of seeing Lazarus’ need now that he also needs?
Abraham: He speaks firmly but gently to the rich man, even as he holds Lazarus close to him. He provides to comfort to one, but can offer little solace to the other. Abraham is the one who must tell the rich man that nothing can be done for him. Abraham has been tasked with telling the rich man that, likewise, nothing can be done for his brothers. Abraham calls the rich man his “child,” but then must watch as his child thirsts and burns. Feel his torment as a parent – the “father” of the Jews – who must watch helplessly as this child and many more suffer.
The five brothers: The rich man’s brothers have no idea of the scene taking place between Abraham and their sibling, and yet their fates are tangled up with what happens. Imagine that they do not change their ways and end up next to their brother after they die. How angry and regretful would they feel to know that there might have been a chance to save them had Abraham only allowed Lazarus to warn them? Would it even have mattered? Would they have believed the ghost of someone who meant nothing to them?
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Progressive Christianity
The way Progressive Christians behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what they believe. Judging by his behavior, what did the rich man believe? What did Lazarus believe? What did Abraham believe?
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Process Theology
God calls us to work toward the Kingdom of God – a place of justice, peace and love. Every action, every thought and every move we make either brings us a bit closer to that Kingdom or drops us back a step. When we see the “others” in our world and take the time to care about them, we come closer. When we step over those “others” and instead focus all of our energies on our own comforts and needs, we take a step back.
Seeing the Story Through the Lens of Liberation Theology
This parable’s message warns all of us to see the poor and oppressed around us and to do something to free them from the shackles of poverty and abuse of power. That is a strong theme in Liberation Theology. A caution: Scripture passages like this one have been used over the ages to try to make the poor and oppressed content with how they are treated. They have been told that their reward will come after this life, so just put up with their situation and don’t make trouble. As often happens, Holy Scripture is used as a weapon.
Seeing the Story Through the Visual Arts
Seeing the Story Through Film
In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko gives a succinct version of the world’s view (“Greed is good”). Juxtapose that against God’s view (“Love your neighbor as yourself”).
Hearing the Story Through Music
Take a moment to listen to Jackson Browne describe the genesis of his song, “The Pretender,” at the beginning of this video clip. He sings about what we lose inside ourselves when we succumb to the rule of money at the expense of our dreams and our compassion.
5 Questions To Consider
- How might we look at the rich man’s request for Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” to be a form of baptism, or asking for baptism?
- Over time, the Jewish religion had been heavily influenced by Greek ideas. The NRSV translation uses the Greek underworld “Hades” while some other versions call the place “hell.” Does this parable teach us that “bad” people suffer in an afterlife?
- Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables to be named. Why might that be?
- Read Deuteronomy 15:7-11. This is Scripture with which the rich man – and all other Jews – would have been familiar. And yet the prevailing view at the time was that wealth was a sign of God’s approval and poverty was a sign of God’s displeasure. What parallels can you see in modern society?
- If you were a lawyer representing the rich man before the court of heaven, what arguments would you make in his support?
“The Contexts of Jesus’ Parables,” Christian Reflection, a Series in Faith and Ethics, Roger B. Kruschwitz. Center for Christian Ethics (Waco, 2006).
From Literal to Literary, James Rowe Adams. Pilgrim Press (Cleveland, 2005).
“The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, R. Alan Culpepper. Abingdon Press (Nashville, 1995).
“The Gospel of Luke,” The Pastor’s Bible Study, Robert E. Van Voorst. Abingdon Press (Nashville, 2006).
Gospel Parallels, Burton H. Throckmorton. Thomas Nelson Publishers (Nashville, 1992).
“Luke 16:19-31,” Feasting on the Word, G. Penny Nixon. Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville, 2010).
“Luke 16:19-31,” WorkingPreacher.org, Greg Carey. Luther Seminary. Accessed on June 28, 2011. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=679
Provoking the Gospel of Luke, Richard W. Swanson. Pilgrim Press (Cleveland, 2006).
“To See or Not to See: Stepping Over Lazarus?” Faith Forward, Alyce McKenzie. Patheos. Accessed on June 28, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/community/mainlineportal/2010/09/19/to-see-or-not-to-see-stepping-over-lazarus-reflections-on-luke-1519-26/
Who’s Who in the Bible, Joan Comay and Ronald Brownrigg. Wings Books (New York, 1971).
© 2011, Gage Church