By: A.D. Roberson
The tale of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 is one Jesus’s many parables. Through it, Jesus communicates several important points. The parable urges the wealthy to refrain from callously ignoring the poor, and to instead be compassionate and generous. It warns that callous self-indulgence in this life leads to judgment and eternal suffering in the afterlife. And the parable teaches that Scripture is sufficient to produce repentance and obedience in people with receptive hearts. These points can be restated in a single sentence: God’s Word is sufficient to lead people in lives of repentance and obedience, whereby they obey His commands to love God and others, and are delivered from judgment and eternal damnation.
Although Luke’s Gospel is a historical narrative or ancient biography of Jesus written for first-century believers, this passage within Luke’s Gospel is a parable that Jesus primarily directed to the Pharisees (Lk 16:14-15). Some people believe the tale of Lazarus and the rich man is literally true, but a review of the broader context shows that the story is included among multiple other parables that Jesus told from Luke 14:7 to 17:10. Moreover, the opening line, “There was a rich man . . .” (Lk 16:19), is not only an initial marker introducing a character in a different time, it indicates the beginning of a parable. The parable has three main characters: Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham. And the rich man is the focus. Although cohesively held together by its characters and plot, the parable can be divided into three parts that take place in two settings: 1) Lazarus’s and the rich man’s situations in life (vv. 19-21); 2) their situations in the afterlife (vv. 22-23); and 3) the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham (vv. 24-31).
Jesus portrays a stark contrast between Lazarus and the rich man. Verse 19 states that the “rich man” would “dress in purple and fine linen,” and that he was “feasting lavishly every day.” “But” the “poor man named Lazarus” was “covered in sores” and “longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table.” (vv. 20-21). The contraction, “but,” signals the use of antithetical parallelism to emphasize the contrast between Lazarus and the rich man; one is rich, covered in luxury, and feasts, while the other is poor, covered in sores, and starves. In a further point of contrast that foreshadows the ironic turn of events that is to come, Jesus names the poor man and leaves the rich man nameless, suggesting Lazarus, not the rich man, is known by God.
In verses 22-23, Jesus states: “One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And [was] in torment in Hades.” Here, Jesus employs temporal and spatial markers to indicate a change in time, setting, and situation within the parable. The shift marks a hinge in the story, where it takes and ironic turn and the roles of the two men are dramatically reversed. During their lives, Lazarus “was lying” at the rich man’s gate, longing for scraps that fell down from the rich man’s table, but instead dogs “licked his sores”; now, it is the rich man who “looked up” and saw Lazarus and begged for a drop of water from the tip of Lazarus’s finger as the rich man was licked by flames—the irony is striking (compare vv. 20-21 with vv. 23-24). Abraham responds by reiterating the contrast and role-reversal, “remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony.” (v. 25).
Notice that Jesus does not say the rich man was punished because he was rich or specify any grave wrong that he committed. It appears that the rich man suffers because of how he used his riches for only his self-indulgence while callously neglecting Lazarus. The rich man easily could have extended generosity toward poor Lazarus; he must have noticed this poor man at his gate, and it becomes apparent in verse 24 that the rich man even knew Lazarus’s name. The unavoidable implication that becomes evident as the parable progresses is that the rich man’s refusal to help Lazarus resulted from a failure to hear and obey the Scriptures. The rich man, who did not show mercy in life, receives none in the afterlife.
Abraham explains that “a great chasm [that cannot be traversed] has been fixed between” them (v. 26). This being a parable, there is no need to interpret this “great chasm,” or “Abraham’s side” and “Hades” for that matter, literally. Rather, the “great chasm” is figurative language that symbolizes the total and permanent separation between heaven and hell. Whereas an easy-to-open gate separated Lazarus and the rich man in life, an unbridgeable and eternally fixed chasm that neither man can cross separates them in the afterlife. And the passive tense—that the great chasm “has been fixed”—indicates that God purposefully set in place this eternal separation between heaven and hell. Jesus’s terrible and vivid description of hell—an inescapable place of “flame,” “agony,” and “torment,” as repeated in verses 24, 25, and 27—stresses the urgency of immediate repentance before it is too late.
Apparently accepting his fate, the rich man continues begging, this time that Abraham send Lazarus to warn the rich man’s brothers so that they may avoid his fate (v. 27-28). “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’” (v. 29). “Moses and the prophets” is a theologically profound term that Jesus’s audience (and Luke’s) would have understood as referring to the Old Testament Scriptures. The rich man, however, believes instead that “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” The interchangeable use of “listen to Moses and the prophets,” in verse 29 (and later in verse 31), with “repent” in verse 30 indicates that to listen to the Scriptures is synonymous with repentance. Verse 31 records Abraham’s final response, and again begins with the conjunction, “But,” emphasizing that his answer will contradict the rich man’s mistaken belief: “But [Abraham] told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” (v. 31). By employing rhetorical devices such as a conditional statement, repetition of “Moses and the prophets,” and escalation of the situation to speak of resurrection from the dead, Jesus apparently intends to give this final statement added prominence in the story. And although Jesus’s audience would have understood this final statement about someone being resurrected from the dead to refer to Lazarus in the parable, Luke’s audience would almost assuredly understand it as a reference to Jesus’s own resurrection.
The conclusion emphasizes the sufficiency of Scripture. The problem is not a lack of evidence, scriptural or otherwise; the problem is a heart that refuses to hear and heed God’s Word. Stated differently, only a person that hears God’s voice through His Word will see His hands at work. And the parable indicates that listening to Scripture should result in avoiding callous self-indulgence and instead giving generously to the impoverished. Jesus uses this parable not only to encourage people to listen to and believe the Scriptures, but also to instruct people what they ought do and not do. This point about compassionate generosity, especially toward the poor, is not separate from the issue of observing the Law; it is part of it, a common refrain of the Torah and the prophets. And although Jesus challenged the Pharisees with this parable, and Luke retells it to enlighten his audience, the principles it espouses transcend cultures and apply to modern audiences as well. Modern readers of Luke also have Moses and the prophets, plus the rest of Scripture. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man poses a choice to every reader: be loving and generous, as God’s Word demands; or be self-indulgent and callous toward others. The rich man may be the main character of this parable, but Christians should not emulate him. Rather, Christians should always listen to and believe in the Scriptures, which should produce the fruit of doing good works of loving, selfless service to those in need.
Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man contains timeless truths. Christians should consider it carefully and apply its truths to their lives. Among other results, obedience to God’s Word, including this parable, will result in comfort to the poor in this life, eternal rewards in the afterlife, and most importantly, Glory to God.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke: Volume 2: 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Carroll, John T. Luke: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
The Christian Standard Bible, (CSB). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017.
Fuhr Jr., Richard Alan and Andreas J. Köstenberger. Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lens of History, Literature, and Theology. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016.
Green, Joel B., Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013.
Just, Jr., Arthur A., and Thomas C. Oden, eds. Luke. Ancient Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomoberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.
Kreitzer, Beth, Timothy George, and Scott M. Manetsch, eds. Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
MacArthur, John. Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed through the Stories Jesus Told. Nelson Books, 2015.
Morris, Leon. Luke. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Nottingham: IVP Academic, 2008.
Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006.
Darrell L. Bock, Luke: Volume 2: 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1361, 1377-78.
Ibid.; John MacArthur, Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed through the Stories Jesus Told (Nelson Books, 2015), 172.
See Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 338-39, 542, 549-50.
 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017).
Bock, 1365. Bock argues that it is not entirely correct to call this passage a parable, but instead, it is better identified as an “example story,” a subclass of parables (Ibid.).
Ibid., 1365, 1378.
Because the production of purple cloth required a very costly dye made from shellfish, meaning purple clothes were extremely expensive, the rich man’s clothing symbolized luxury (Leon Morris, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: IVP Academic, 2008), 276; Bock, 1365).
Ibid., 1365; Arthur A. Just, Jr. and Thomas C. Oden, eds., Luke, Ancient Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 260; Beth Kreitzer, Timothy George, and Scott M. Manetsch, eds., Luke, Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 326, 327; MacArthur, 169. In fact, Lazarus is the only character Jesus names in any of His parables (Bock, 1366; Morris, 276).
See Bock, 1360, 1364, 1368-70, 1372; John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 337.
See Bock, 1368-70, 1371, 1372; Carroll, 337; MacArthur, 168-69.
See Just, Jr., 260; MacArthur, 169; Morris, 276.
See Bock, 1361, 1372; Just, Jr., 262; Kreitzer, 326, 330; Morris, 276, 277.
Bock; 1366, 1371; Carroll, 336-37; Just, Jr., 261; Kreitzer, 327-28.
Carroll, 338; Morris, 278.
Bock, 1371, 1372; Just, Jr., 260, 263.
See Bock, 1363, 1368-69; MacArthur, 166-67.
See Carroll, 337; Just, Jr., 260, 261; see also Morris, 277.
Carroll, 337-38; see also Bock, 1364
Bock, 1373; Carroll, 338.
Kreitzer, 326; MacArthur, 162-63, 167; see also Bock, 1377.
See Bock, 1377.
Morris, 278-79; see also Bock, 1374, 1377.
Kreitzer, 326; MacArthur, 171; see also Bock, 1360, 1376.
Bock, 1376; MacArthur, 171.
Ibid., 1360, 1364.
See Ibid., 1363.
See Ibid., 1364, 1375 (citing verses); Carroll, 335.