Luke 16:19-31
George Lyons


In the parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus taught the positive truth: "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations" (16:9). Possessions should serve an eternal purpose. Use them wisely that you may have treasure in heaven (Mt 6:19-21) and favor with God. God can trust no one who squanders earthly wealth with the true wealth that never fails, i.e., eternal life (Lk 16:10-12). Use money to serve God's purposes. Don't serve money (Lk 16:13).

But the Pharisees in his audience were unimpressed. They espoused the classic Deuteronomic view that wealth was a divine reward for obedience. How ridiculous of Jesus to say that one could not serve God and wealth! Were they not living proof to the contrary? The lust for possessions (see 1 Tim 6:10) had blinded them to eternal truths (16:14). They justified their selfish use of material possessions (16:15; cf. Mk 7:9-13). While they tried to appear righteous before men, the hypocrisy of their hearts was known to God (16:15; cf. Mt 23:25-28). The earthly things they so valued were loathsome in the estimation of God (16:15).

Jesus found their legalistic understanding of the Old Testament nearly impenetrable to the message of the gospel (16:17). "That way of life must be a thing of the past for you. I bring the Kingdom of God! And this is what Moses and the prophets are all about. The Old Testament predicted it, John prepared the way for it, but I proclaim it — it's here, in the midst of you (17:21). Before it was only a hope, a dream, an expectation, but now one can seize it, gain it, take it by force" (Geldenhuys 422 — 16:16, 17). Jesus did not question the continuing validity of the law. He unqualifiedly accepted it as God's word. But he did attempt to give it new vitality by revealing its original intent (Jn 5:39-47).

Exegetical Analysis

Dives, the Latin term for "rich man" (Buttrick 137), is often used as his name. The name Lazarus, from the Hebrew Eleazar, means "God helps" (Jeremias 183). This is the only parable in which a character is named. The poor beggar, Lazarus, is a stark contrast to well dressed and fed Dives (16:19). That there was a high ornamented portico (pulw'na) in front of his luxurious, palatial home (Geldenhuys 428; Buttrick 138) indicates the extent of his wealth. On the doorstep of affluence sat a cripple (indicated by passive ejbevblhto), who suffered from a skin disease (16:20-21) similar to that of Job of old (Job 2:7). With luxury in sight, Lazarus eked out a meager existence by begging from the people of means entering and leaving the rich man's house.

For table napkins the wealthy customarily used pieces of bread, which were then discarded (Jeremias 184) for the dogs (Lk 7:28). Lazarus would have happily feasted on these, but even they were refused him ("jEpiqumei'n with the infinitive, in Luke always indicates an unfulfilled desire. . . ." — ibid.). The presence of plenty in the nearby house of Dives only made the poor man's misery more intolerable. Even the "wild, roaming street dogs" (considered unclean by the Jews), better fed than he, could not "refrain from nosing the helpless, scantily clad cripple" (ibid.).

Broken, diseased, and malnourished, the poor man died, apparently as he had lived — unnoticed. Nothing is said of his funeral — perhaps the dogs cleaned his bones (see 1 Ki 14:11; 21:23; Jer 15:2-3). But Jesus' concern is with his spirit — which "was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom" (16:22). In a religious setting that equated riches with righteousness, and considered misery a recompense for sin (Jn 9:1-2), complete reversal of fortune was undoubtedly alarming to Jesus' audience. Though not stated, we may assume his piety (Buttrick 141), for he moved from intolerable torment to unwonted joy, from desperate want to the highest "place of honour at the heavenly banquet at the right hand of Father Abraham" (Jeremias 184).

In time "the rich man also died and was buried" (16:22b) — everyone does eventually. Undoubtedly his passing was marked with elaborate ritual and display (Buttrick 139). For such is characteristic of those who even while professing a faith in life after death, treat the body with greater care than the soul. But even while heartless relatives and friends inspect the undertaker's masterpiece, "Dives lifts up his eyes, not to look for help, but to learn the nature of his changed condition" (Buttrick 140, citing Plummer in loc.). The torment of hades is accentuated by the sight of Paradise in the distance, and Lazarus there (16:23-24). But purposely separating (suggested by o{pw" — Bruce 377) them was a great uncrossable chasm (cavsma) — a reminder of "the irrevocability of God's judgement" (Jeremias 186), despite Dives' acknowledged kinship (tevknon, "son") with Abraham (Jeremias 185). He shared the race but not the grace of his ancestor (cf. Lk 3:7ff).

Abraham, acting as "heaven's advocate" (Buttrick 141), addresses Dives: "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things" (Lk 16:25a). jApevlabe" suggests that Dives received in full the things he valued during his lifetime (Lk 6:21-25 — Farrar 319; Arndt 366). Riches did a not keep him out of Paradise. Abraham himself had been rich (Gen 13:2). "It was not a life of vice or crime which the rich man was asked to remember. It was only a life of selfish indulgence, a life so crowded with self-centered concerns that there was no room and no time for others or for God" (Childers 567). Had Dives used his wealth wisely — in love and compassion — upon his death, Lazarus may have been the friend to receive him into "eternal habitations" (16:9). But, it was too late now (Bruce 391). He who denied Lazarus crumbs is now denied Lazarus' comfort (16:20, 24-25).

Jesus' parable adopted current Jewish imagery for the future life (Arndt 365), in much the same way that our heavenly humor almost uniformly places St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Jesus apparently makes no attempt to give first-hand information on existence beyond the grave (Hunter 84). "Abraham's bosom" (kovlpon, "bosom," literally refers to the folds of a robe) was one popular designation for Paradise (cf. Lk 23:43), the temporary resting place of the pious dead. Hell (a{/dh" as the Hebrew sheol) or Hades, sometimes understood as the intermediate state of all the dead, is here reserved exclusively for the wicked. The mention of fiery torment (16:23-24) makes it nearly equivalent to Gehenna (geevnna — Buttrick 140).

Though it may readily be admitted that Jesus is using symbols without intentional reference to the "temperature of Hell" (Hunter 84), let no one say: "It is only symbolical and therefore not so terrible. By mere inversion one could say: if the symbol, the mere picture, is how already awe-inspiring, how horrible must the original (the actual) be!" (Geldenhuys 430, quoting Schilder). "Symbols are the flung shadows of realities" (Buttrick 141).

Still unrepentant, yet sensing the hopelessness of his plea for comfort, Dives attempts to justify his inhumanitv on the basis of ignorance. Like his five brothers, he hints that he needed a startling "warning from the unseen world to believe. Perhaps a visionary appearance (suggested by pevmyh/") of dead Lazarus, or even a bodily resurrection (ajnasth'/ — Jeremias 186) would have convinced him (Farrar 319) of the need to repent (16:30). But Jesus has Abraham refuse even this request (16:31). "If a man . . . 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" (Hunter 84).

Statement of Teaching

The Parable does not even imply that the rich man was dishonest, unscrupulous, penurious, or miserly. In fact, it implies that he was little different from most people (16:27-28), so wrapped up in self-concern that they never see beyond their own needs, who daily pass by "rags and ulcers . . . unmoved, . . . carefree, . . . selfish and essentially heartless." Wealth was not his crime but his opportunity for the exercise of humanity (Buttrick 138). But he failed to put love into action. Jesus teaches that such inhumanity, in the face of the clear revelation of God's will in the Old Testament (16:16, 31) 1588 an inexcusable, damning sin (Bruce 384).

The parable is not intended as a teaching about the afterlife (Jeremias 186). "It is doubtful if we have faculties to understand a true portrayal of the realm that lies beyond" (Buttrick 139). But some truths about Jesus' portrayal of the world beyond do stand out. There self-consciousness, memory, responsibility, and moral decision remain (Buttrick 141). "The character established during a lifetime leaves the man with no power or inclination "to repent" (Buttrick 146). For one who cared nothing for the soul while he was alive, soul-winning suddenly became a major concern to Dives (16:27-28). Or did he only use the unrepentance of others to excuse his own (Bruce 397)?

Jesus does not make heaven a "second-rate projection . . . of this world" (Buttrick 139). In fact he says that the things men hold precious are utterly insignificant to God (16:15). Imagine, a place where gold is so despised that they pave the streets with it (Rev 21:21), where righteousness is at home (2 Pet 3:13), where Christ reigns unchallenged (Rev 22:1-5), where the redeemed of all ages are comforted together (Lk 16:25; cf. Rev 21:4) — and that would be Paradise.

But the message of the parable is not to inform people about Heaven. It is instead to warn those "who resemble the brothers of the rich man of the impending danger" (Jeremias 186). While the petition on Dives that Abraham would send Lazarus to his five brothers is denied, the one telling the parable, a visitor from the eternal world, is being rejected (16:15). Even a resurrection of another man named Lazarus would be in vain (Jn 11:46ff).

The Pharisees, in spite of avowals to the contrary, live in denial of eternity. Like the surviving brothers, who have their counterpart in the men of the flood (Mt. 24:37 - 39 11), (they) are men of this world, like their dead brother (who) believe that death ends all (16:28)...... (Their) demand for a sign is an evasion and a sign of impenitence (see Mk 8:12), .....(But) the parousia is the only sign that God will give, too late, however for repentance; he gives no other sign (Lk 11:29-30 Jeremias 187)


"Do you think that he was a worse sinner than all the other Jews, because he suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (paraphrase of Lk 13:2-3). One has risen from a the dead! You have not only the Old, but the New, Testament. You need no further signs — You must repent! "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal habitations" (Lk 16:9).