The Rich Man and Lazarus

God values people. Much of Luke’s material highlights human worth. Luke chapter 14 looks at human value from different angles, including: human indifference to suffering people on the sabbath, vv. 1-6; human ambition and the Master inviting one to greater honour, vv. 7-11; the Lord’s instruction to invite those who cannot repay (He values the needy), vv. 12-14; human disinterest in the king’s banquet, vv. 15-24; and, finally, the priority of valuing the Lord above all other relationships, vv. 25-35. Chapter 15 similarly emphasizes the value of the sheep, the coin - and especially - the younger son through its famous ‘lost’ parables. Sadly, this last tale relates the elder brother’s devaluing of his sibling and his father in favour of the family estate.

The opening parable of chapter 16 teaches the importance of material stewardship in light of eternity. The Lord’s teaching on financial stewardship elicited the ire of some greedy religious people, v. 14; Christ responded, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God’, v. 15 NKJV. They imagined that they were serious-minded and righteous in their pursuit of God, but in fact they were violators of the law, which forbids covetousness. Their behaviour consistently put material things ahead of people. But the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus demonstrates that one’s attitude toward material things reveals one’s true spiritual state, vv. 19-31.1 The rich man was not condemned because of his wealth, but his attitude towards material things demonstrated his lost condition. Coming after the Lord’s condemnation of Pharisaical materialism, vv. 14-17, this passage highlights covetousness’ true nature as idolatry, Col. 3. 5.

Love your neighbour

The Israelite law contained numerous provisions for weak and vulnerable groups like widows, orphans, and strangers. The book of Ruth presents an excellent account of various of these ordinances carried out on behalf of the widows Naomi and Ruth - the latter also being a foreigner.

The 613 commandments of the law were synthesized as loving God with the entirety of one’s being, and loving one’s neighbour as oneself, Matt. 22. 37-40. The rich man seemed too self-absorbed to put these commandments into action. He ‘was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day’, Luke 16. 19. In his translation, Wuest gives the flavour of his opulent lifestyle, ‘he was in the habit of clothing himself in purple and fine linen, living luxuriously and in magnificent style every day’. The note in the New English Translation calls him the ‘original conspicuous consumer’. Clad in purple like royalty, as well as fine linen, his wardrobe was immaculate. Although scripture uses fine linen as a picture of righteousness, Rev. 19. 8, in this man’s case, it was merely superficial self-adornment.

As for the indigent man outside, Wuest offers that he was ‘a certain beggar … [who] had been flung down carelessly at his gateway and was still there, full of ulcerated sores and eagerly desiring to be fed with those things which fell from time to time from the table of the rich man’, vv. 20, 21. The contrasting picture could not be starker. Whereas the rich man was comfortably feasting in glittering circumstances, the poor man wanted the barest sustenance and life’s basic necessities. The phrase used to describe his earnest longing for crumbs is the same term used in chapter 15 verse 16 to express the prodigal’s desperate desire for the husks.

Lazarus’ body was racked with pain from ulcerated sores, and his clothing was likely of the poorest quality. Someone apparently placed him at this ornate gateway in hopes that the wealthy man would share his largesse; nevertheless, no aid was forthcoming from the affluent homeowner.2 Only the neighbourhood curs took any interest in Lazarus, and their ministrations rendered him ceremonially unclean and only augmented his physical distress. In Jewish thought dogs were filthy, and provided an apt description of the unclean Gentiles.3In short, his outward circumstances were miserable.

Rich man, poor man

The rich man’s disinterest in his poor countryman’s plight offers a telling indictment of his heart condition. As Proverbs chapter 29 verse 7 explains, ‘The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern’ NIV 2011. He squandered his resources on himself - not necessarily in flagrant gluttony and perverse appetites, but rather in routine selfindulgence. Yet his means, which could have been such a help to many, were not even used to ameliorate his impoverished neighbour’s condition.

Verses 22 and 23 show the sudden reversal of their outward circumstances with the corresponding revelation of their characters, ‘And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom’. The Lord’s words must have startled his Jewish audience, who had traditionally thought of material possessions as an outward sign of God’s favour; however, books like Job relate that life is more nuanced. Sometimes, despite their integrity, the righteous are poor; conversely, wealth may be gained illicitly, or at least grossly misused. It is not a safe indicator of divine approval.

The rich man was a member of his culture’s elite circle - one of the so-called ‘beautiful people’. His name was probably familiar in the halls of wealth and power, yet in our Lord’s telling, he was quite anonymous. As Stuart remarked, ‘The rich man, whose name in life must have been in many mouths, is nameless. How fitting, all will own, was this. Who cares to know the name of the one who lived to himself? Better bury it in oblivion as regards any record on earth’.4 On the other hand, Lazarus was a nobody at the societal ladder’s bottom rung. But he was known to the Good Shepherd, who calls His own sheep by name, John 10. 3. In fact, the beggar’s name hinted at his faith, for Lazarus is a derivative of Eleazar, meaning ‘God is my help’.5 Faith in Christ is what saves, Acts 16. 31, rather than material poverty or wealth.6

The ultimate reversal

The rich man was buried, but the passage merely says that Lazarus died. The former may well have had a resplendent sendoff, befitting someone from the upper class. The poor man may not have even had a proper funeral. The key difference between them lay in what happened next. ‘The minute the beggar stepped through the doorway of death, angels became his pallbearers, and he was carried by them into Abraham’s Bosom’, said McGee.7 Conversely, the formerly rich man was revealed to be spiritually bankrupt. He was ‘in torments’ and could see the blessing that the formerly poor man now enjoyed. He could also remember that man’s name. Clearly, he was not ignorant of the identity of the beggar who daily lay at his gateway. He had every opportunity to show Lazarus mercy but was too busy lavishing care on himself. This unmerciful man now craved the mercy of a drop of water from Lazarus. He was still objectifying the poor man: treating him like a servant for gratifying his own needs. He showed no remorse and certainly no repentance.

The word or miraculous signs?

The rich man suddenly became interested in evangelism: specifically, he wanted his five brothers to be spared Hades’ torment. But his methodology reflected a darkened mind. Whereas God has set forth the scriptures as the means of giving the knowledge of salvation, Rom. 10. 17, the rich man desired a resurrected representative to bear witness from beyond the grave. He dictated his own terms for the conversion of his brothers. He obviously sought to spare them the consequences of unbelief. There is no mention of true repentance - a change of heart regarding obedience to the Almighty and deliverance from sin’s defiling effects.8 Sadly, Abraham assured him that if they disregarded God’s word, then there was nothing else that would change their minds. Despite the overwhelming evidence of Christ’s bodily resurrection, there are multitudes who refuse to submit to the Lord in faith. Some bypass the straightforward, yet powerfully saving, scriptures in a desire for miraculous revelation, as a clever cloak for their unbelief.

What can believers take away from this story?

  1. People are of eternal value, regardless of their physical or economic status.
  2. Material things are a stewardship to be used for God’s glory; we will give an account for how we employ them.
  3. Christians must show mercy to needy, suffering, and lost people.
  4. We must preach from the holy scriptures to the lost concerning the resurrected Christ.



The passage does not claim to be a parable, and multiple teachers affirm that it is historical, not parabolic, e.g., David Gooding, William MacDonald, and Randal Amos. Even those who see it as a parable aver that it is probably based on actual individuals.


Wuest’s translation says that he was ‘flung down carelessly’, implying that people callously cast him there. Others assert that the Greek can be rendered more neutrally, e.g., ‘And at his gate lay a poor man’, RSV. Either way, it is clear that the rich man was indifferent to his presence there.


Isa. 66. 3; Mark 7. 27, 28; Phil. 3. 2.


C. E. Stuart, From Advent to Advent, Galaxie Software, 2004, pg. 186.


One commentator eloquently writes, ‘As to Lazarus, the real cause of the welcome which he finds in the world to come is not his poverty, but that which is already pointed out by his name: God is my help’. FrEdEriC Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Vol. 2, Funk & Co., 1881, pg. 178. [Italics original].


Speaking of the rich man, ‘It is very important to see that he was not sent there because he was rich; he ended there because of his unbelief, as the end of the story makes abundantly clear. That unbelief manifested itself in the way he treated his poor neighbour. The Bible told him that he was to love his neighbour as himself. He made not the slightest attempt to do so’. David Gooding, Windows on Paradise, Myrtlefield Trust, 1998, pg. 110.


J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, Thomas Nelson, 1997, pg. 321.


‘His plea for his brothers is a veiled rejection of the will of God: “Moses and the Prophets” are not enough! His brothers need a miraculous tour de force to change. His outlook remains wholly utilitarian: he is concerned with avoidance of “this place of torment” (v. 28) rather than “producing fruit in keeping with repentance” (3. 8). What he wants from religion, for himself and his brothers, is not a religion that changes his actions, but one that spares him from the consequences of his actions. During his life he failed to heed the teachings of “Moses and the Prophets”, and in Hades it is too late to heed them. The results of his choices are final, for “a great chasm” (v. 26) prohibits altering his destiny’. James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, Eerdmans, 2015, pg. 473.


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