The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a fascinating story told by Jesus that packs a punch. If you haven’t read it you should, you can read it here: Luke 16:19-31
While this parable is well-known, it’s start caused many to question what it really means. This confusion has led this parable to be one of the most misunderstood parables in the Bible.
I think if we spend a little time diving into the parable of the rich man and Lazarus we can come away with a powerful and applicable teaching for us. So let’s dive in and see what we can learn.
The Setting Of The Story Of Lazarus And The Rich Man
Before we can look at the actual parable we need to understand the context and setting. If we ignore the context we are liable to misread and misunderstand how this passage actually applies to our life.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is found in the middle of a section of Scripture in which Jesus is teaching the disciples. But we know that it’s not just the disciples listening. Luke 16:14-15 tells us the Pharisees were also listening and not liking what they heard.
The Pharisees are still ticked off about what happened in Luke 15. Jesus told a series of parables commuting with the Prodigal Son. I’ve written on that, and you can read it here: What The Parable Of The Prodigal Son Really Means
This helps us understand the meaning of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. These aren’t two separate parables; they are tied together. Jesus used both of these parables to warn of the pitfalls and dangers of living a self-centered life driven by greed instead of love.
The context of this parable gives us the first clue that the application really isn’t about life after death, a common misinterpretation. Instead, it’s about the dangers of living selfishly in this life.
Ok let’s jump into the actual teaching found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The Parable Of The Rich Man And Lazarus
This story is all about the contrast between the two characters in this story, the rich man and the poor beggar.
The first contrast is seen from the very first verse found in Luke 16:19.
First, you have the rich man. He is not given a name. Dresses in fine linen. Lives in luxury every day. Has a table full of food. He had all the good things life had to offer. (Luke 16:19, 20)
In contrast we find Lazarus. He’s given a name. Covered in sores and begs at the rich man’s gate. Eats scraps off the rich man’s table. And if that weren’t enough, dogs licked or snipped at his sores. This detail is significant as it would have made him unclean, unable to worship properly. This was the ultimate degradation. (Luke 16:20-21)
One guy had it all and the other had nothing. Two totally different lives. Jesus makes it clear that the rich man isn’t just living a lavish lifestyle. He’s living it at the extent of others.
The only thing that Lazarus had that the rich man didn’t was a name. Jesus personalizes his concern for the poor man with a name. (Luke 16:20-21)
If you’ve read many of Jesus’ parables you know what’s about to happen next. There’s a twist coming, a reversal of fortunes. Jesus is famous for these. And a big one is about to happen.
Both men eventually die. And even in their death there is considerable contrast. The rich man is buried, undoubtedly anointed with oil, wrapped, and carefully placed in a tomb. And Lazarus’ body was tossed aside; a fair assumption is that he was thrown into the city dump, Gehenna. Jesus offers detail after detail to show just how different these guys’ life, and death, really was. (Luke 16:22)
But this is where things change. Lazarus is carried off to the bosom of Abraham. And the rich man wakes up in Hades.
Now we get a glimpse of the rich man and Lazarus on the other side.
New Place, Same Man
This is where Jesus’ story now gets really interesting.
Even in the after life they still live in contrast to each other. But now the roles have reversed.
Lazarus is now living in luxury by Abraham’s side (some translations say Abraham’s bosom). Separated by a great gulf the rich man is living in torment. Gone are all his earthly possessions, he has nothing. Ironically he’s still called the rich man.
The rich man is now in torment. It’s important to note he is not being tortured as many picture hell but rather torment, and we will see that this is a self-inflicted torment not one brought on by an outside force.
While in torment there seems to be a moment of regret, a time where the rich man seeks forgiveness. Luke 16:24 tells us that he calls out for mercy. And we might feel bad for him… but we just need to read to the end of the verse to see he hasn’t changed a bit.
The rich man asks for mercy, but not mercy to be saved from his current circumstances. Rather he asks for Lazarus to be sent to Hades so that he can dip the end of his finger in water and cool his tongue.
That might seem like a rather strange request, but his intent is crystal clear. The rich man wants Lazarus to once again be in a place of servitude of him. In other words, he still thinks he’s more important, and he wants to be the top dog. He hasn’t changed one bit. (Luke 16:25-31)
Even in his judgement and torment he refused to repent. He was selfish even in death, not a hint of remorse.
The Hell He Chose
What’s clear in this passage is that the rich man chose this. In Luke 16:25-26 Father Abraham responds to the rich man with the title “son” or “child” (greek word: teknon). This title is tender and expressed compassion for his misery.
We often think of hell as a place God casts people because he’s angry with them. But this parable shows a different story. Jesus is expressing a desire for a different outcome, but the rich man was unwilling to take the steps to place his life in subservience to Jesus.
He chose the hell he lived in, and he refused to leave. The great chasm was self-imposed.
Many people reading this story of the rich man and Lazarus assume the picture Jesus is painting is hell. But this parable isn’t primarily a teaching on hell, but rather a teaching on the consequences of our actions towards others.
In Jesus’ story the rich man wasn’t thrown into hell because he didn’t believe. He found himself in a place of torment because of the way he treated others, specifically Lazarus.
But God isn’t the one locking the rich man away. The rich man locked himself away; he chose to go there. Even when there seemed to be an opportunity to repent and change his ways he didn’t. Instead, he demanded that Lazarus come and serve him again.
Jesus ends his story with a rather sad statement, but one that will prove true. Even if someone were to raise from the dead they would not be convinced to change their ways (Luke 16:31). In a short time Jesus Christ will do just that, but still that won’t be enough for some to change their ways.
In this story Jesus makes clear that the man is locked up in his place of torment. But the lock is on the inside. The man refuses to come out. He wanted to be a king not subordinate. He would rather reign in torment than be a servant in God’s kingdom.
What The Rich Man and Lazarus Means For Us Today
This parable is both a jab at the religious leaders and hope for those oppressed. The rich man and Lazarus meaning is a warning to those that aren’t paying any attention to the needs of others.
That attitude has no place in the kingdom of God. Until they repent and change their ways they live in a place of self-torment. That’s the way it has to be; true happiness is not found at the expense of others. Jesus is warning his audience, the religious leaders, that their treatment of others does not lead to where they think it does.
While a jab for some, there is hope in this story for many as well. Many listening were the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the taken advantage of. For them, this story is one of hope. That one day their pain, the bad things that have marked their life, will end and they will find the life they truly desire with God. An eternal life in the father’s house that will not end.
This parable is designed to force us, the readers, to reflect on how we treat Lazarus-like people. The rich man remains nameless so that we can place ourselves in his shoes. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we probably see a little of him in our lives, don’t we?
Where Do You Fall?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus should lead us to the question: Are we like him?
He clearly knew Lazarus, he asked for him by name. He knew he was in need, but he refused to even give him the scraps from his table. Lazarus was forced to gather only what fell. The rich man saw the need and ignored it. He had no compassion. Even in death he still saw Lazarus as beneath him.
This story asks the question, is that you? Do you treat people like that? Do you have the resources but refuse to give them? Is your heart hardened towards those in need?
This parable shows us that we get what we ultimately want; we get what our lives were truly about. We can either reign in torment, be a god in our own hell. Or we can be a servant of the Lord Jesus and be in paradise with Him. It’s up to us.
The way we treat others shows us which direction we will take. But it’s not too late for us if we find ourselves on the wrong side of the equation. Unlike the rich man who refused to repent, we can find the life that we were meant to have.
Thanks for reading this blog post! I hope that you enjoyed it and that it helped you better understand the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If you found this post helpful would you share it with a friend or on social media? That way more people can benefit from it as you have.