Luke 16: The Rich Man and Lazarus
The Rich Man Feasting Daily
I remember one Christmas when it seemed the celebrations and rich foods were present for a solid two weeks. Gathering for parties and celebrations before Christmas through New Years, there was so much rich, sweet, sumptuous food. Day after day, those rich foods became less and less inviting and more and more it seemed them were making me feel run down, sick even.
Now imagine a time when you had too much food like that and hear the opening words of the parable about “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” The rich man ate sumptuous food daily. He dressed in the bling of his day, described by the clothes he wore, purple and linen.
Lazarus Suffering Daily
By contrast, in direct side-by-side imagery, we learn of a poor man named Lazarus who lays at the gate of the rich man, dogs licking his sores, and Lazarus longed to satisfy his gnawing hunger not with rich foods but just some scraps that carelessly fall from the table.
Scene Shift to Afterlife
With that set up, the scene immediately changes. Both men die and we’re in the life to come. The rich man is in torment by fire, suffering in agony. Lazarus is carried away by angels to a comforting place, with Abraham.
Interestingly, all the dialogue and attention is now fixed on a conversation between the rich man, who incidentally is never named. Some people have called him “Dives,” because that’s the Latin for rich, but the point is that a poor man has a name and the rich man does not.
Conversation: Abraham and Rich Man
Back to the conversation between Abraham and the rich man, there are two big concerns the rich man has. It’s suffering and wants Lazarus to go and get him a drink, just a drop on the finger of Lazarus brought to the rich man will do! Abraham points out that he had good things in his lifetime and Lazarus had bad things. Things are reversed now, and the implication is that he didn’t help Lazarus at the gate, so there will be no drops of water for the rich man.
Abraham tells the rich man about a chasm between the tormented and those in the bosom of Abraham, and that no one can travel that chasm.
Shifting focus from his own suffering, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his family—“for I have five brothers”—that they may be warned and not come to this place of torment.
Abraham: They have Moses and the prophets.
Rich man: No, they will listen to someone risen from the dead.
Abraham: No they won’t, not if they’ve ignored Moses and the prophets, they won’t pay an attention to a dead man come to life.
What is the story really about?
The story is a tragic cautionary tale, but what did it really say to the original hearers? What does it say to us today? Parables are not literal, nor are they totally allegorical. There is in them some truth to be found, and it may not be singular or pithy or easy to find that truth. Parables by nature spark conversation, and we ought to enter parables like this with that same mindset to read it for conversation, not definite answers to every question we might have about rich and poor and the afterlife.
Is the story about economic justice? Lots of stories in Jesus day concerned economic justice and reversal, so what is new about the story of Jesus?
Is the story about the afterlife?
Is the story about salvation and what we do in order to receive happiness in the life to come, salvation and not torment in the life to come, damnation?
To answer that question, here are some great sources I’m researching as I prepare to preach on this text. The first is by one of my favorite theologians, Scot McKnight, who I’ve known since the early 2000s when I read and was moved by his book, The Jesus Creed, and he came to some conferences I helped plan.
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, has some important reflections on the parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”
According to John Dominic Crossan, “We are not told that the rich man did anything wrong or the poor man did anything right. Yet their roles in this world are reversed in the next world. . . . What if, in the next life, this life’s nonsuffering haves will become suffering have-nots and this life’s suffering have-nots will become nonsuffering haves? A simple reversal of fortune?” Richard Bauckham asks whether “the rich man suffers in the next life just because he was rich in this life, while the poor man is blessed in the next life just because he was poor in this life.” Whatever answer we choose to give these queries, the very point that we can ask them should challenge our views of justice, economics, and soteriology.
Neither Torah nor Prophets condemns wealth qua wealth or commends poverty qua poverty. Yet voluntary poverty was a viable option in a first-century Jewish context, just as it is in Buddhist culture today, just as it is for Catholics who take vows of poverty along with those of chastity and obedience. The parable speaks to the dangers of wealth. Can a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven? The question remains open.
Given the enormous wealth of our rich man—a wealth so extreme that we cannot identify with him—the parable also asks about what the average person should do. Where is the artisan, the peasant, the elementary-school teacher, or the carpenter in this tale? Are we, we average people, separated from the wealthy man and Lazarus? Do we dream of the rich man’s clothes and food? Do we fear becoming destitute? The parable interrogates our priorities as well.
For many readers, the judgment of the parable is emotionally satisfying. The salvation of the sick, suffering, and destitute and the damnation of the obscenely wealthy would likely have appealed to Jesus’s audience, as it continues to have an appeal today. Yet once we judge the rich man as deserving of his fate—eternal torment—we condemn ourselves as barbaric. Once we envy Lazarus for his eternal reward and forget or, worse, romanticize his poverty, we again condemn ourselves.
The parable suggests that the gift of eternal life in paradise is possible. “Heaven,” however understood, is ours, but it is also ours to lose. The point is not that we have to “earn” it. The point is that we uphold our part of the covenant by behaving as human beings should behave: we care for the poor; we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. If we expend everything on ourselves, then there is nothing left in our heavenly treasury.
When asked why he became a doctor and went to what was then French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), Albert Schweitzer cited this parable. He recognized that although the rich man, representing Europe, had access to medical care, Lazarus, representing Africa, did not. In a 2006 article, Olubiyi Adeniyi Adewale, of Benson Idahosa University in Benin City, Nigeria, makes a similar argument: the parable “gives a veiled warning to the Western Church, which appears complacent and unruffled about the plight of their covenant brethren in Africa.”
The parable tells us that we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate—on the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers—then we are lost. Ironically, what the rich man asked Lazarus to do—to warn his brothers of the threat of hell—the parable does for readers.42 Will the five brothers, who may hear Torah’s insistence that they “love the neighbor” and “love the stranger,” listen? We do not know. Will we?
Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus (pp. 295-296). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
References within the quote: John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 67; developed by Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 142–46. 35. Cicero, On Divination 27; Homer, Iliad 23.65; Ovid, Fasti 2.503. For handy summaries, see Bauckham, “Rich Man and Lazarus,” 108–14; Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 422–23. 36. Bauckham, “Rich Man and Lazarus,” 115. 37. Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 155. 38. John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012), 94. 39. Bauckham, “Rich Man and Lazarus,” 104. 40. James Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, 2nd ed. (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2000), 347.
Greg Taylor, M.Div.
Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.