The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

Kacy Madsen


The parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus appears only in the Gospel of Luke and is located within the travel narrative (roughly chapters 9--19). The major contextual consideration addressed by scholars has revolved around the idea of the nameless rich man. This parable is unique in that it is the only parable throughout the gospels in which a name is given to one of the players. In this case, the name is "Lazarus" (a form of the Hebrew name Eliezar) which means “God has helped.” In contrast to Lazarus, the rich man was not given a name. In order to alleviate this seeming oversight several names have been assigned to him. Most commonly the name attached to him is “Dives,” derived from the Latin translation of “rich man.” For this reason the parable has sometimes been named the Parable of Dives and Lazarus (Hultgren 111).

Directly following the parable of the Unjust Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus continues Luke’s motif on the dangers arising from love of wealth. This parable was spoken primarily to the Pharisees who were traditionally infamous for their love of money, thus Jesus’ choice to relay this parable proved appropriate to the crowd He was addressing.

The Rich Man and Lazarus has been grouped among the “double-edged” parables, signifying that it addresses two moral lessons. The first of these lessons concentrated on the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife for the rich and the poor (Hultgren 112). This idea of reversal was derived from a rich tradition of folk-material. According to Jeremias:

This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Si-Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world, which concludes with the words: ‘He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.’ Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan. …[In a dream] the fate of these two men in the next world was seen: ‘A few days [after both men were buried the poor scholar was seen] in gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams. Bar Ma’jan the publican was seen standing on the bank of a stream and trying to reach the water, but unable to do so (183).

Both Jesus and the Pharisees would have been familiar with this folklore. The second moral relayed through this parable deals with repentance.

Exegetical Analysis:

An exegetical analysis of the syntax employed by Luke aids in the understanding of this parable:

Feasted extravagantly: Luke used this language to emphasize the frivolous lifestyle of the rich man. The adverb lapros signifies brilliance while the term euphraino denotes “feast” or “celebration,” suggesting a special occasion. Luke heightened the juxtaposition between the rich man and Lazarus by describing the rich man engaging in this lifestyle of lapros euphrain on a daily basis- not restricting such celebration to special occasions as would be traditional (Johnson 252). Similarly, Luke’s description of the rich man as wearing purple and fine linen, which historically denote wealth and royalty, places the man within a socially elite context, further intensifying the contrast between this man’s wealth and Lazarus’ poverty (Scott 148).

Poor man named Lazarus: Luke’s use of ptochos (“poor”) to describe Lazarus and plousios (“rich”) to describe the rich man allude to his use of similar terms in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”…. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:20; 24). Lazarus, whose name is the Greek form of Eliezer, “My God helps” greatly contrasts the image of the rich man (Johnson 252). He was crippled, begging for scraps from the rich man’s table, and helpless to prevent the wild dogs from licking his sores as they awaited his death.“According to the outlook of late Judaism, his miserable condition would have indicated that he was a sinner being punished by God” (Jeremias 184); “poverty was viewed as a divine chastisement” (Scott 150). Thus Lazarus had literally no help but God.

By the angels to Abraham’s bosom: “Plumer says: ‘Lazarus in Sheol reposes with his head on Abraham’s breast, as a child in his father’s lap, and shares his happiness. The expression is not common in Jewish writings; but Abraham is sometimes represented as welcoming the penitent into paradise’” (Earle, et al 301). In the afterlife, Lazarus is portrayed in the intimate, secure bosom of Abraham, finally receiving consolation for the suffering of his life.

This place of Lazarus rest is contrasted against the final resting place of the rich man in Hades. “His modest request [for Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue] shows how terrible was his torture: a single drop of water on his tongue from the springs which flow through the abode of the righteous would be an alleviation of his suffering” (Jeremias 185). Thus in the afterlife the roles of Lazarus and the rich man have been reversed: “Said Abraham, ‘Child, remember that you received your good things in your life, and Lazarus likewise evil things. Now this one is comforted, and you are in torment’” (Luke 16:25). Abraham went on to say that there was a “great chasm” that could not be bridged, which separated the rich man from Lazarus and the righteous; indicating the finality of this reversal.

Can bear witness to them: Once the rich man realized that his position could not be altered he made a plea to Abraham for Lazarus to go to the man’s five brothers in order to warn them of their imminent future. Such a request served to incriminate the rich man, indicating that he realized that he had lived wrongly and that he wanted his brothers to not make the same mistake. He knew that they needed to repent of the sins they all shared in order to avoid his place of torment. Thus the idea of the role reversal in afterlife was revealed to be more than a punishment for simply having worldly wealth, it was revealed to be the product of wrong living (Jeremias 186).

Moses and the Prophets: “Moses and the Prophets” refers to the OT books, which clearly teach that people are supposed to help the poor and destitute (Hultgren 114). The rich man had this opportunity on a daily basis, yet instead of helping Lazarus the man erected a wall and a gate, which gave him access to the world while allowing him to prevent contact with what he did not want to face, namely the crippled beggar outside his door. The rich man saw his brothers making these same mistakes and wanted to warn them by having Lazarus appear to them, but Abraham told him that “persons who will not repent on the basis of the teachings of the Scriptures will not repent just because a resurrection from the dead takes place” (Hultgren 114).

Interestingly, a parallel is drawn here between the futility of resurrecting Lazarus for the unbelieving brothers and the unbelief of the Pharisees upon Jesus’ resurrection. In v. 31 “the verb “rise” (anistemi) is one used frequently by Luke for the resurrection of Jesus” (Johnson, 253). Hence the point about the brothers’ failure to believe Moses and the Prophets can be superimposed upon all those persons who “if not converted to belief in Jesus as the Messiah on the basis of Moses and the prophets, will neither be so on the basis of the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus” (Hultgren 115).


Thus the message of this parable appears to be two-fold. First, the parable exemplifies the words of the Magnificat (1:52, God puts down the mighty and exalts those of low degree) and the Beatitudes (5:20, 24, the poor are declared blessed, and woe is pronounced upon the rich) (Hultgren 115). Second, the parable serves to “warn and direct the rich about the peril of neglecting the needs of the poor” (115). In effect, the purpose of this parable is to exhort all persons to obey and respect the Word of God.


Three billion people (half the world’s population) live on less than $2/day. In 1997, 20% of the world’s people in the richest countries had 74 times the income of the poorest 20%. The world’s poorest 48 nations combined are equivalent to the three richest people in the world (

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in the United States it is estimated that 760,000 people are homeless on any given night and 2 million are homeless per year. Ten million Americans, including almost four million children don’t get enough to eat. In 1999 there were about 43,000 homeless in Idaho (

This week in baseball Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) signed with the Texas Rangers. He signed for $252 million for ten years. For $252 million A-Rod could buy 112 million hotdogs at The Ballpark. If Alex Rodriguez wanted to spend all of his $252 million in the next ten years, he'd have to spend $2, 877 per hour – around the clock. It would take 23,525 years for a worker earning minimum wage to earn $252 million (

It is not my intention to judge the wealthy. By the world's standards, I am one of them, although my wealth may look insignificant as compared to those of top professional athletes. Nonetheless, these statistics bring to stark reality the potential for the all too common human failure to uphold the command of “Moses and the Prophets” to help assist poor and is far too easy to compare ourselves with the super-rich and imagine that we should be on the receiving, rather than the giving end of the equation.

Sometimes, when I consider the extreme poverty of the greater part of the world, I wonder how it can be fair that I was born into a family where I have always had a home, a bed, clothing, food, the opportunity to realize my ambitions -- the security of money and material items. I wonder how it is fair that God has poured these bountiful blessings upon my humble life when the world is full of homeless and starving people. I especially question the logic of 3 billion people living on less than $2/day when one man makes so much money that he could not spend it in ten years unless he spent $2,877/hour around the clock. An easy answer eludes me. At times I question why God allows things to be this way … or if He allows things to be this way. I have struggled to reconcile this great chasm that exists between the wealthy and the poor. Why must it exist? Why must poverty exist?

I have found no answer to this question, but I have discovered that God calls His believers to reach across this earthly chasm in order to help those less fortunate. And while it doesn’t make sense that there exists such a gulf between the bountifully blessed and the totally deprived, I have discovered God’s calling of his followers to strive to bridge this gap. In Luke 12:48 Jesus says, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” God has blessed us with much and, therefore, He expects us to give to others out of our wealth.

Before we accusingly ask God, "Why don't You do something about this injustice?" we need to be prepared for His question to us, "What are YOU doing about this? I blessed you abundantly so that you could be a part of the solution. But at times you seem to imagine that I blessed you so that you could join the self-indulgent. With poor Lazarus on your doorstep and the Old Testament (and New Testament) readily available, shouldn't you know better?"