This parable of the rich man and Lazarus came from Jesus’ genius teachings. The rich man was a representative of the Pharisees and other Jewish elites. They enjoyed life like the rich man in this parable, with no care for the poor people like Lazarus. The elite group degraded Jesus for supporting the weak in his words and deeds. So, he presented the reversal of the destiny of the non-caring rich and the God-loving poor in the life after death. The crucial message points to the five brothers of the rich man who represent the rich who were alive, so they change their lives learning from the fate of the deceased rich man. Are we also in the shoes of those five rich brothers?
(Luke 16:19) Once there was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day. (20) At his gate lay Lazarus, a poor man covered with sores, (21) who longed to eat just the scraps falling from the rich man’s table. Dogs used to come and lick his sores. (22) Eventually the poor man died and angels carried him to take his place with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. (23) From hell where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham afar off, and with him Lazarus by his side. (24) He called out: ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue with it, for I suffer so much in this fire.’ (25) Abraham replied: ‘My son, remember that you enjoyed your good things in your lifetime, while Lazarus suffered misfortune. Now he is in comfort and you are in agony. (26) But that is not all. Between your place and ours a great chasm has been fixed, so that no one can cross over from here to you or from your side to us.’ (27) The rich man implored him once more: ‘Then I beg you, father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house (28) where my five brothers live. Let him warn them so that they may not end up in this place of torment.’ (29) Abraham replied: ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ (30) But the rich man said: ‘No, father Abraham. But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ (31) Abraham said: ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
This parable has two parts. The first part sets up the story and conveys the reversal of fate in the afterlife for the religiously irresponsible people. The second part gives a stronger message to change the life in favor of helping others for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
(Luke 16:19) Once there was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus was the continuation of Jesus’ discourse to the Pharisees. “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and scoffed at Jesus.” (Luke 16:14). Jesus noticed how much the Pharisees loved wealth and the enjoyments it could provide. They did not consider their resources as talents God entrusted to them to share with the poor people like Lazarus. The rich man’s lifestyle illustrates their selfishness and disregard toward the poor.
The purple is a combination of blue and red, identical to violet but visibly better than violet. Garments made of natural purple dye was a symbol of royalty or piety. The emperors of Rome, Byzantium, and Japan, and extraordinarily rich and prominent people worn the purple garments and fine linen. The Israelites made High Priest’s breast piece of judgment with “gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen.” (Exodus 28:15). The purple dye was the mucus secretion of predatory sea snails of Murex family found in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Skilled people extracted it from thousands of snails, and it involved extensive human labor. So, purple garments were costly and only rich people could afford to buy them. Thus, garments made of natural dye became a status symbol.
Dress made of fine linen (byssus) was another expensive and prestigious clothing of the past. Egyptian priests wore this silk dress originated in Egypt. The Egyptians got the material for this fine linen from India. When Pharaoh shared his power with Joseph, he dressed Joseph in robes of fine linen clothes (Genesis 41:42). The High Priest’s breast piece of judgment also had fine twined linen (Exodus 28:15). When the prodigal son returned after repentance, his father dressed him with finest linen (Luke 15:22). It had double the price of gold and could signify luxury (Luke 16:19) or moral purity (Rev. 15:6). The rich man in this parable enjoyed being dressed in fine linen like the prominent Jews who also preferred to dress well in public. Jesus highlighted the purple garments and fine linen of the rich man to show their contrast with the dirty and torn clothes of Lazarus.
Dined sumptuously each day
The rich man had banquets with costly dishes daily with his family and friends. It was symbolic of his self-indulgence and enjoyment in contrast to the starving beggar Lazarus who was at the rich man’s gate. The elite Jews enjoyed banquets since they were living in Canaan, a fertile land. Jesus also compared the Kingdom of God to such banquets to illustrate the joy in heaven.
(20) At his gate lay Lazarus, a poor man covered with sores.
Jesus rarely gave names to characters in his parables. Lazarus was an exception. While Jesus named the beggar, he did not give a name for the rich man. Later authors named him “Dives” which means rich in Latin. For God, Lazarus was valuable, and his name was already in the Book of Life. The name Lazarus is a Latinized version of Eleazar that means “God is my helper.” Jesus gave him that name because he had no one else to help him, and he trusted in God. According to the Jewish tradition, name of a person suggested that person’s character.
The Evangelist Luke, who recorded this story, was a physician and was aware of the medical conditions. Lazarus’ body covered with sores could mean that his leprosy was in acute stage. Leprosy produces skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. Priests declared such people unclean (Leviticus 13:3). The widespread belief of the past on leprosy was that it resulted from sins committed by the leper or his ancestors. Some other beggars who had pity on him because of his lack of mobility might have brought him at the location where the servants dumped the food waste from the rich man’s table.
(21) … who longed to eat just the scraps falling from the rich man’s table. Dogs used to come and lick his sores.
In the past, people were eating with bare hands. The rich people used to clean their hands in between the courses of meals with scraps or pieces of soft bread instead of washing with water. The Syrophoenician woman mentioned about this to Jesus: “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the crumbs from the children’s bread.” (Mark 7:28). Lazarus satisfied his hunger by eating the scraps like a dog.
Dogs were unclean animals for Jews. The dogs that licked the sores of Lazarus were not the pet dogs of the rich man, but wild dogs on the street that were searching for food leftovers from the rich man’s table thrown into the trash. They would have taken a good part of the leftovers. The disabled Lazarus had to compete with these dogs for food, and he became one among the street animals. The dogs added to his pain because they were licking his open sores.
(22) Eventually the poor man died and angels carried him to take his place with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
The parable takes its turn with the death of Lazarus and the rich man. When the parable’s setting moved to the second part of death and afterlife, Jesus gave importance to the poor man. There is no mention of his burial. The public dumped his body into the fire where they burned the dead bodies of animals and orphaned people along with waste. What happened to his body was insignificant. However, the angels carried him to Abraham’s bosom. In contrast, when the rich man died, he had a solemn and expensive burial. But angels did not show up to take him to the glorious place.
Angels carried him
According to the faith of Jews and Christians, the angels carry the holy people to God. They carried Lazarus but abandoned the rich man.
The Bosom of Abraham
The Jews who believed in the afterlife considered three terms to express the place of blessedness where the righteous would go: The Garden of Eden, the Throne of Glory, and Abraham’s Bosom. “Abraham’s bosom” was a well-known expression for the banquet of the righteous souls eligible to enter the Paradise. Abraham, the father of faith, was hosting a banquet for the righteous believers who reach to him. To be at the bosom of the host was the most privileged position as it was with John who was reclining at Jesus’s side during the Last Supper (John 13:23). Lazarus reached Abraham’s bosom not because of his unfortunate situation in the world, but that he kept up his faith in God with patience during the test of poverty and sickness in his life. His name “God is my helper” was expressive of his reliance on God like Job of the Old Testament.
Some Bible scholars and interpreters illustrate the afterlife, and the nature of heaven and hell based on this parable. That was not Jesus’ intention in teaching this parable. A parable might use popular beliefs and social settings of the time to teach a spiritual message. Jesus presented life after death according to the belief of the time when he told the parable.
In this parable, Jesus affirmed that there is life after death. However, we will understand well about it only when we experience it in the life to come. Before we make a first-time travel to a foreign country, we will have only a vague idea of that nation hearing from others or from our readings. We will gain a clear understanding later only from personal experience.
(23) From hell where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham afar off, and with him Lazarus by his side.
The ancient belief was that all people who died before the coming of the Messiah would go to Hades that had two distinct compartments. The righteous people would go to the right side called “Abraham’s bosom” and others to the compartment of torment called netherworld. Those in Abraham’s bosom were waiting for the Messiah to accomplish the redemption so they could enter the lost paradise. After the burial of Jesus, he “first descended to the dead in the lower parts of the world.” (Ephesians 4:9). It was “Abraham’s bosom” to proclaim to them the good news of his triumph over the evil and his opening of the gates of heaven (1 Peter 3: 19). Jesus did not descend to the netherworld.
Abraham’s bosom was a place of comfort and joy, whereas netherworld was a place of torment for the sinners. The rich man ended up there. From there he could see the joy of Lazarus as opposed to his misery. The rich man, from the netherworld, called Abraham, who was far off from him.
Though people dumped Lazarus’ body into the waist fire, the angels of God and Abraham received him at Hades with honor. The rich man who had an honorable and expensive funeral found that his soul got dumped into the fire of the netherworld. God punished him not because of the sins he had committed, but because of his sins of omission. He was aware of Lazarus’ presence at his gate. Though he did not remove Lazarus from his gate, he did not take initiative to provide him a better life. The rich man’s situation reflects the words of Jesus on the last judgement: “Then he will say to those on his left: ‘Go away from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels! For I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger and you did not welcome me into your house; I was naked and you did not clothe me; I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25: 41-43).
(24) He called out: ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue with it, for I suffer so much in this fire.’
The rich man used “Father” to address Abraham, showing that he was a child of Abraham, a Jew. The Jews considered Abraham as their father. By addressing Abraham as his father, the rich man was trying to get his attention and sympathy. According to the Jewish belief, he was eligible to be at the bosom of Abraham because he had done nothing wrong, though according to Jesus he was ineligible because he did not consider the upliftment of Lazarus.
Have pity on me.
The rich man who showed no pity to Lazarus sought Father Abraham’s permission to show pity on him and send Lazarus to help him. He could find no one else to offer him any help.
Cool my tongue.
The rich man had been enjoying sumptuous banquet every day. When he went to the netherworld, his most suffering was on his tongue used for his enjoyment of food and drinks.
(25) Abraham replied: ‘My son, remember that you enjoyed your good things in your lifetime, while Lazarus suffered misfortune. Now he is in comfort and you are in agony.’
The rich man had addressed “Father” Abraham. In reply, Abraham responded, “My son” recognizing that the rich man was a child of Abraham. However, Abraham was helpless to rescue the rich man from his desperate situation in the afterlife. Though the rich man was born in the family of Abraham, he turned out not to be a spiritual son of Abraham. Jesus was warning the Jews, who claimed salvation because of their birthright, that without their conscious effort to be in the spirit of Abraham and following the laws of Moses, they could not attain the Kingdom of God. The same applies to Christians who became children of God through baptism. We need the sacraments of initiation for salvation, but they alone cannot make us inheritors of the Kingdom of God unless we live according to Christ’s teachings.
Remember that you enjoyed your good things in your lifetime.
God rewarded the rich man with the temporal goods during his life on earth. He did not make use of it to support people like Lazarus so he could have savings for the afterlife.
Lazarus suffered misfortune. Now he is in comfort.
The unpleasant things that Lazarus faced during his lifetime were not God’s punishment for his sins. Rather, he overcame the test in life by keeping up his trust in God. It also communicated the message for those who had unpleasant situations in life to keep their trust in God, believing in the reward to come in the afterlife. Those who were suffering because of their faith or because of their missionary work of Jesus have a better life waiting for them. Jesus promised to those who became poor for the sake of the Kingdom of God: “And everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or property for my name’s sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).
You are in agony.
The rich man and Lazarus experienced a reversal of lifestyle in the afterlife. God tormented the rich man who enjoyed life on earth without concern for the poor. Whereas God comforted Lazarus at Abraham’s bosom because he kept up his fidelity to God amid his sufferings on earth. This showed what would happen to the Pharisees and the elite group who considered Abraham as their Father and involved in extravaganza ignoring the helpless people like Lazarus. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I say to you: it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yes, believe me: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 19:23-24).
(26) ‘But that is not all. Between your place and ours a great chasm has been fixed, so that no one can cross over from here to you or from your side to us.’
The rich man was a son of Abraham. However, even Abraham, the father of faith, could not save him from his doomed state. Abraham could not bring the rich man to his bosom, nor send Lazarus to the rich man to comfort him with water as he had asked. After our death, there cannot be any transfer of people from hell to heaven or from heaven to hell. So, to reach heaven, we need to do the good we can while we are alive in this world.
Comparison between the rich man and Lazarus
(27) The rich man implored him once more: ‘Then I beg you, father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house.’
A double-edged parable
Like the parable of the prodigal son, this is a double-edged parable because it has two parts with independent messages. The message of the first part is that people involved in luxury without concern for others would have torments in the afterlife, whereas God would comfort people who trust in Him amid suffering or take up suffering for the Kingdom of God in the afterlife. The second part of this parable deals with the five brothers of the rich man who were also self-centered and representatives of the Pharisees during Jesus’ public ministry. So, the primary emphasis of the parable is the urgency for repentance of the elite group. For a double-edged parable, the message of the second part has precedence over the first.
I beg you, father.
The rich man realized that he could not find any relief in the afterlife and that his punishment was everlasting. He then expressed concern for his five brothers who were still alive, enjoying worldly life as he had done in the past. He wanted to warn them from his experience so they could avoid coming to that place of torment.
The rich man was sure that God would not send him back to the world to communicate the message on afterlife experience. He thought Father Abraham might consider sending Lazarus with the message of salvation. Thus, though too late, the rich man respected Lazarus and was altruistic towards his brothers.
(28) … where my five brothers live. Let him warn them so that they may not end up in this place of torment.
My five brothers
Why did Jesus pick number five for the brothers? It is a matter of uncertainty among scholars. Some interpret it as the five senses that men misuse, or the five books of Torah that the brothers violated. The five brothers plus the rich man when alive made up six, which was an imperfect number. They could become perfect only by sharing their resources with the spiritually perfect and physically imperfect Lazarus. The six brothers plus Lazarus would have become the perfect number seven. But they did not make Lazarus one among them.
(29) Abraham replied: ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’
The Mosaic Laws in the Pentateuch and the prophets’ messages were the major teachings of the Old Testament. According to Abraham, they were enough for the five brothers and the people like them who were leading life contrary to God’s commandments. That was also the message of Jesus to his listeners.
(30) But the rich man said: ‘No, father Abraham. But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ (31) Abraham said: ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
The rich man thought if Lazarus went back from the dead and warned his brothers who represented the Pharisees, they might change their lives. Jesus had raised another Lazarus from the dead after four days of his burial (John 11:38-44). His life story did not change the lives of the Pharisees and their colleagues. Though many believed in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests aimed to kill Jesus and Lazarus (John 12:9-11). Jesus himself rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The soldiers who guarded the tomb of Jesus had shared their experience of Jesus’ resurrection. Still, the chief priests and elders bribed the soldiers to tell the lie rather than believing in Jesus (Matthew 28:11-15). Thus, Father Abraham was right in his answer to the rich man. Those who had rejected Jesus would reject Lazarus, if God sent him from the dead.