It’s been used to rebuke the rich, defend salvation by poverty, teach about the afterlife, condemn antebellum slavery, even promote women’s suffrage. Jesus’s story in Luke 16:19–31 certainly raises a series of questions. Can heaven be seen from hell? Does wealth make the difference between the two? Are those in heaven aware of (and indifferent to) the suffering of those in hell? Is this a parable or a true story?
The account is unique to Luke’s Gospel and has several other exclusive features besides. How should we interpret it and what can it teach us today?
Parable or Not?
First, is it a parable or a tale of historical figures? Some in the medieval church and the Reformation believed it was an account of actual people rather than a parable. Calvin, for example, thought this because it has a named character (Lazarus)—something no parable has.
Calvin’s observation is right, but it’s hard to miss the fact that Luke introduces the story the same way he does the four parables that precede it, including the famed prodigal son. All are introduced with the generalizing formula “a certain (wo)man . . . ” (Luke 15:3, 15:8, 15:11; 16:1). Further, there’s a good reason why the poor man is named and why it’s Lazarus.
But does it matter whether or not this is a parable? I don’t think so and neither did Calvin. We agree that the main issue is comprehending “the doctrine which it contains.” The difficulty, of course, as Klyne Snodgrass points out, is that “no formula exists for determining whether an element [of the parable] is theologically significant.” The best approach is to use the immediate context of the parable and a theology derived from the whole Bible as our guide. The church father Tertullian wrote:
We, however, do not take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting the parables. Therefore, we make no effort to twist everything so that it fits our own explanation, striving to avoid every discrepancy. Why a “hundred” sheep? and why, indeed, “ten” drachmas? and what does that “broom” stand for? Well, when he [Jesus] wanted to show how pleased God is at the salvation of one sinner, he had to mention some numerical quantity from which one could be described as “lost.”
This parable ends without any summary explanation from Jesus like we find in, say, the Good Samaritan. But help is not far away. Just before this parable, Jesus tells another parable about wealth (Luke 16:1–13)—and the passage in between (16:14–18) finds Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for loving money, exalting themselves in self-justification, and ignoring the Old Testament’s authority. All three themes are woven into the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. We have the rich man’s love of money, his self-importance even in Hades, and his rejection of divine revelation. Other themes emerge in contrast to these.
The angels, five brothers, and Moses and the prophets play supporting roles, as does Abraham. The main characters, of course, are Lazarus and the rich man. Although tradition has called this man “Dives” (the Latin word for “rich man”), he has no name in the original. He’s introduced as one who literally wears his wealth on his sleeve (“clothed in purple and fine linen”) and feels not the least pain of hunger (he “feasted sumptuously every day”).
Next there is poor Lazarus, a man covered with sores who sits at the rich man’s gate, apparently close enough for him to see the food he can’t have but far enough that the rich man can safely ignore him.
The rich man clearly ignores the need on his doorstep. Only the dogs see the need. Their licks, which seem to provide relief, serve as a bitter contrast with the rich man whose own tongue will soon enough be the site of great need. Calvin asks:
What could be more monstrous than to see the dogs taking charge of a man, to whom his neighbor is paying no attention; and, what is more, to see the very crumbs of bread refused to a man perishing of hunger, while the dogs are giving him the service of their tongues for the purpose of healing his sores?
The contrasts don’t end there. Upon death, Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s “bosom,” which is probably a reference to the heavenly banquet (cf. John 13:23). For any Jew at the time, this seating arrangement would have been a mark of the highest honor. And what about the rich man? Despite the blessing of his great wealth, he ends up in Hades where he’s in torment. It’s hard to tell whether this Hades is intended to be different from hell (or Gehenna). It’s certainly not where he wants to be.
From this surprising turn of events, some conclude the parable teaches that the poor go to heaven and the rich to hell. The problem with such a view, as Augustine noted long ago, is that poor Lazarus is carried to the side of wealthy Abraham. If wealth alone determines our fate, then Abraham should be in Hades right along with the rich man.
Instead, the reason for their fate is found elsewhere. The name “Lazarus” is probably the Hellenized version of an abbreviated form of Eliezer, which means “God helps” (cf. Gen. 15:2). The point is that Lazarus’s deep physical need made him much more sensitive to his deeper spiritual need. Meanwhile, the rich man unwittingly condemns himself to Hades by using Lazarus’s personal name (Luke 16:24). If he knows him now, he must have known him then.
Worse still, he continues to treat Lazarus as beneath him, refusing to address him directly and having the gall to ask that Lazarus quench his thirst—the very thing he wouldn’t do for Lazarus. Abraham’s response in Luke 16:25 mimics Jesus’s teaching elsewhere: the measure we use to judge others will be used on us (Matt. 7:2). Here, the first two themes converge: The rich man’s love of money has bloomed into a callous, self-justifying negligence of others’ needs. His lack of mercy finds its miserable echo in mercy not received.
But the story doesn’t end there. If the rich man won’t be relieved, perhaps his family can be spared. This seems altruistic, but the rich man is still asking for Lazarus to be sent. What’s more, he insists on determining the terms by which they are warned. Moses and the prophets aren’t enough; only a resurrection will do.
Abraham’s response only adds to his indictment. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to anything. This is the third theme, which connects back to Luke 16:16. God has given men the law and the prophets and these have more than testified to what God expects. The problem isn’t with the message; it’s with the audience.
This helps explain the reason for the fixed chasm (Luke 16:26). That gulf is not fixed because God is nursing a cosmic grudge; it’s fixed by the justice of God and the obstinacy of the ungraced human heart. The rich man is all too aware of his own suffering. What he cannot see—because he will not see it—is that he is the cause of it. He won’t admit that all his wealthy opulence brings him no closer to heaven’s doorstep than it brought him to his own doorstep to help poor Lazarus. His great need is to recognize his greatest need—and that he will not do. The suffering of Hades has done nothing to dull his sense of self-importance. In this profound sense we can speak of God’s divine judgment as self-imposed. Not because God is ashamed of it, but because we utterly deserve it.
God Who Helps
The most important lesson this parable teaches is a warning about money. Wealth calcified the rich man’s heart. Though wealth doesn’t always have this effect, who can deny that it often does? As many have realized, either we will own our money, or it will own us. You cannot serve God and money, as Jesus said a few verses before (Luke 16:13).
So the true test can never be a simple dollar amount. It must be our sensitivity to the poverty and pain we find around us. A heart unwilling to help others—because it might be risky, or they might not deserve it, or it might cost us too much—is a heart unwilling to recognize the desperate help we ourselves need from God. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, since heaven and hell hang in the balance. As Ephrem the Syrian comments on this parable, “We cannot hope for pardon at the end unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us.”
The only answer, then, is to help others out of a sense of our own desperate need before God. Bank balances aside, none of us is above helping others; we are all beggars helping beggars. When I see the homeless, the helpless, or the hurting, I should see myself, because this is what I am like before God. The good news is that God is “Lazarus,” the God who helps. And because he has so helped us, we are freed and fueled to help others.