Puzzling over Lazarus

I thought I ought to look again at the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I said to myself, "Just look at what the text actually says and ask what it means to take this text seriously as a teaching of the Lord." So I have started to try doing that.

What is puzzling me (a little) is this:

the rich man suffers in Hades because he is rich. Not because he did bad things, but simply because he was rich in a world in which others were destitute. The poor man enjoys life at Abraham's side because he was poor. Not because he was good (or because he believed the gospel). Simply that his life was crap. God reverses the situations of the rich man and Lazarus.

Clearly the key point concerns the huge disparities in wealth and God's reversal of that.

But to send a man to Hades simply for being wealthy and another to Abraham's side simply because his life was crap seems odd. (Which presumably is why almost all commentators seem to suggest other reasons for the fates of the two men — e.g., the rich man was impious and Lazarus was pious. Perhaps so, but Jesus does not mention this — we have to read it into the text.)

But is Jesus really teaching that one's fate after death is determined by one's relative wealth? That is what this parable seems to suggest if we assume that Jesus is offering systematic teasching here. (But perhaps our error lies in assuming that Jesus is offering that kind of teaching here.)

So what is Jesus saying to us about disparities of wealth in this parable? How is it that many western Christians seem not to feel ill at ease with the great disparities of wealth in the world when we read this parable?


Anonymous said…
It may be directed at the Pharisees given that the comment about them being lovers of money comes right before it in Luke 16:14-15. Especially given the self reference to his resurrection.

There is also an echo of the judgement in scene from Matthew 25:31-36. If this can be related, then the issue for the rich man was not simply that he was rich, but that he over looked Lazarus who it was in his power to help.
RonH said…
Curiously, I'd just been thinking about this story today myself.

N. T. Wright claims (in Luke for Everyone) that Jesus was actually taking a well-known folktale and putting a twist on it. The story takes the obvious line about how wealth and poverty in this life can be inverted in the next. In the "usual" reading of the folktale however, the request to send someone back from the dead to warn the living is granted. According to Wright, Jesus is indirectly accusing the Pharisees of acting like the rich man by refusing to acknowledge the poor and oppressed around them and suggesting that (as the morality tale says) they should change their ways while they still can. Jesus adds the twist though that this is what they already would have been doing if they'd been heeding Moses and the prophets, and that if those aren't enough not even a man returning from the dead would be heeded -- which of course is prophetic. The parable is more about Jesus and his mission to be the Israel that the Pharisees had failed to be, rather than a discourse on the afterlife.

I have no idea if this interpretation really holds up... A lot seems to ride on the existence of this folktale and the extent to which Jesus' listeners
would've been thinking about it as he told the story. Still, it's not a take I'd ever heard before.
Robin Parry said…
RonH — Yes, there is an Egyptian parallel, seven Jewish ones, and one from Lucian (Greco-Roman). not so much the same story as the same motifs. So New Testament Wright is right.

Anonymous — yes, it may be directed at Pharisees. David Powys suggested as much and I am open to that suggestion (indeed, I floated that possibility in TEU). And perhaps the rich man's failure to help Lazarus is an issue. If it is, however, it is only implied (v. 21). The explicit reason given for the destinies is simply the wealth and poverty of the two characters (v. 25).

David Reimer said…
You've put your finger on something here (again), Robin.

Sometimes we really, really want to avoid Jesus' teaching. I ran across this before in studies on forgiveness, and commentary on Matt. 6:12, 14-15. We simply want Jesus to mean something else, and convince ourselves he did. It's the auditory version of "weasel words": "weasel ears", I guess.

Your observation packs an even greater punch when we notice that this (= Dives and Lazarus) is hardly an isolated moment in Jesus' teaching. There is plenty more that converges with it.

I found Piper's 2004 Pastor's Conference very helpful on this topic: "Money, Ministry, and the Magnificence of Christ".
Dr. Paul said…
Given the general economic assumption that resources were finite (wealth was not created but distributed) the only way one was rich was at the expense of someone else. We forget that our assumption that we can create wealth is a modern idea. Economics was once a sub-discipline of theology and the focus was on ethical distribution. I think Adam Smith was educated as a minister. The modern shift to wealth creation lead to split economics into an independent discipline.

Also, wealth was associated with acquiring by fraud or extortion. See Molina, Bruce, The New Testament World and his work with Rohrbaugh On the Synoptic Gospels. They suggest better translation "greedy " and "socially unfortunate."
Matt said…
Blomberg suggests that it was the fact that the rich man was in proximity to the poor man every day and did nothing about his state (dogs licking sores, begging for food, etc), when there are laws from the books of Moses that demand he help the poor man.
AllanS said…
The rich man is Israel. He refuses to give even a crumb of God's grace to the Gentiles, whose suffering is relieved only by the dogs of idolatry. But the old order passes away. The Gentiles find themselves heirs to the Kingdom while Israel languishes in torment. They have rejected the Messiah. Their unbelief bars entry into Paradise, and is so profound not even resurrection can shake it.

Can I suggest Paul was wrestling with this parable in Romans 9-11?
Robin Parry said…

That is fascinating. John Murray — eighteenth century universalist — argued for that interpretation. I was aware of nobody else in the history of the church who took that view (apart from some of his followers). So I am fascinated to discover someone else.

I have to confess, however, that I find Murray's interpretation implausible. It is an approach to parable interpretation which would find no supporters among NT scholars. I also see no obvious connections between the parable and Rom 9–11. I think it unlikely that Paul had it in mind.
TN said…
Thanks Robin, it's really good to visit this again, and it's always good to admit how little we really look at what the text actually says !!

It annoys me that Jesus (Luke?) uses the word hades and connects it with fire and suffering. I would have preferred the word gehennah for that, as hades is usually used in the sense of grave/place of the dead (cf Acts 2:27 & 31 quoting Ps 16:10).

But it's said that even the word hades is starting to take on a kind of Gehennah flavour in NT times. So it's difficult when words are getting so slippery!

ON THE OTHER HAND, what do we make of the fact that death & hades are thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death (Rev 20:14)?

And even more: the first printing of the KJV has an interesting muddle at the preceeding verse (Rev 20:13). The text says death and hades gave up the dead that were in them, while the margin comments on hades with the words "or hades".

Later printings change the margin to read "or grave". But we really do wonder if the first edition's mistake reflects indecision on the part of the translators. Were they in two minds about this? For surely they did not believe that their Hell could or would ever be destroyed?

We can easily see how such a muddle could develop, as they were so keen to translate hades as hell wherever possible -- which all modern translations avoid!

For a fine photo of that first printing muddle of Rev 20:13 see

Anonymous said…
Acts 2:44-47 et al gives a picture of how Jesus was understood by the early disciples and I don't mean to diminish that in any way.

But, could it be that the main point of the parable is to set up for the prophetic declaration at the end, Luke 16:30-31, which also includes another sting at the Pharisees in line with Jesus's ongoing theme towards them?

In that case, maybe the details of the parable are there to support the point in a familiar narrative(as noted) and not to be deeply instructive on every item. If the interpretation of a subelement doesn't follow from the overall point then maybe it isn't meant to. One likewise can't really learn farming or shepherding from the parables on those topics.

I am not fully comfortable with that though because it can make it too easy to toss away difficult texts. Still it seems that maybe the approach should be to work back from the point/message of the parable to the understanding of its components.
Roger Sacco said…
Roger S
If you go to "tentmaker" scholar"s
corner or "what the hell is hell"
the best word for word explanation
is there.It has nothing to do
with hell!
Derek Leman said…
Hey, Robin:

I enjoy your musings. I'm only a half-informed student of parables, so take my input lightly, but parables often narrow in on one point and are not required to be precise or well-rounded about things like theology. Thus, a parable about rich/poor-this world/world to come need not make definitive statements about theologies of judgment and salvation.

Derek Leman
Anonymous said…
I have just discoverd your blog and I already have a question.
Where can I find the egyptian, seven jewish ones, and the one from Lucian?
Thank you. Tim in Alaska
Robin Parry said…

Tere are various academic discussions of the parallels. Perhaps a good one to start with is

Richard Bauckham, "The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels." New Testament Studies 37 (1991) 225–46. You can read it online in google books if you look for Bauckham's book, "The Fate of the Dead."
You can find refs in that one to the sources and to other discussions of them.
Anonymous said…
Without trying to shoehorn Isreal into the interpretation, I'd like to take a straightforward veiw of the text.

I'm more in line with what Matt posted:

"Blomberg suggests that it was the fact that the rich man was in proximity to the poor man every day and did nothing about his state (dogs licking sores, begging for food, etc), when there are laws from the books of Moses that demand he help the poor man."

The way Jesus sets up the parable, one immediately gets an uneasy impression of the rich man: "There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:"

This is someone who enjoyed all the pleasures life had to offer. He probably spared no expense in furnishing his house or buying the latest model camel. The clothing he wore suggested a high social status. He hung out with the best.

Conversly, we have Lazarus, who is at the lowest end of the spectrum:

"And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,

And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores."

How he came to this state, the passage doesn't say. We may infer that whatever disease he contracted may have contributed to his status. Someone with leprosy, for example, are viewed as outcasts. Maybe he couldn't find employment because of his sondition. So he has to resort to begging.

I believe that the most important point parable is in Jesus placing Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. One can imagine the rich man coming to and fro from his house and passing the beggar in the streets. The beggar and the rich man know each other's presence.

Moreover, it is implied that the rich man doesn't give much thought to Lazarus in passing, for the latter would even DESIRE the crumbs from the rich man's table, apparently not even being granted that. Which leads me to believe that the rich man was very callous toward Lazarus, even though he begged for food everyday. Nor would he offer any medical attention to the poor lad.

It is this attitude, then, that is the rich man's fall. Just as when the young rich ruler in Matthew 19 held on to his riches, so did this rich man. It isn't the fact that he was rich that kept him from eternal life, it was his attitude about his riches. Conversely, in Luke 19, Zacchaeus was commended by Jesus after he gave half his goods to the poor and repaid fourfold whom he owed, with Jesus saying, "This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham." One wonders if Zacchaeus didn't take heed to the parable three chapters prior.

Assofaras Lazarus is concern, James tells us, "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?" The Lord was apparently all Lazarus had.

"Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.

Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh." - Luke 6:20-21

Love & Peace,

JordanFurlan said…
The parable is not about wealth getting either man sent to hell or to heaven. According to Jesus Christ himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the father but through me." Christ always said that His true followers were those who would take up their cross and follow Him, leaving everything else behind. In the gospel of Matthew, we can also find Jesus essentially saying that "Anyone who tries to save his own life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for me and for the gospel with find it." In other words, the poor man is not in heaven because he was poor; he is in heaven because he surrendered his life to Christ. Conversely, the rich man is not in hell because he was rich; he is in hell because he chose to try to "save his own life" by clinging to his wealth, and in doing so, rejected Christ's calling. Through his greed and self-centered actions, he chose to hold his wealth in higher esteem in his life than he held others and even God himself. His selfish rejection of Christ in order to hold onto his wealth was his true undoing.
Alex Smith said…
Here's a different angle which I didn't know about:

"Lazarus means "God's help". It's the Greek version of the name Eleazar.

Eleazar was Abraham's Gentile steward and heir to his fortune. But when Isaac arrived, Eleazar got nothing. Even so, he remained faithful.

To me, this is conclusive. The rich man is Abraham's son, the nation of Israel. He wears purple, the symbol of royalty and priesthood. He is rich, possessing the Law and the Prophets. Lazarus is the Gentiles. He is sick and poor, hungering for God's word. He is comforted only by the dogs of idolatry. But Christ has come. The day of judgment. Israel is rejected and find themselves in torment. The Gentiles rest in Abraham's embrace.

The first shall be last. The last shall be first."

What do you think Robin?
Robin Parry said…

John Murray (eighteenth century) proposed such an interpretation.

It strikes me as highly implausible (if our question is, "What was Jesus talking about?" or "What was Luke talking about?").


AllanS said…
Luke 13: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” ...

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate..."

Here's the parable in plain language.
Keith DeRose said…
I'm pretty late to this party, but it's interesting...
Robin: I'm just going by the English translations here, but I don't read vs. 25 as stating that the rich man is in Hades because he is rich. That things were very different before is something that the rich man is told to remember, but that could be for various possible reasons.
Keith DeRose said…
I mean, suppose, for comparison, that we have a mutual friend who gets invited to great parties, and sometimes gets to take one friend. Suppose he decides whom to take with him by a coin flip. Last time, I won the flip, and I was pretty snotty to you. This time, you win the flip. I say, to our friend, "Well, at least have Robin step out of the party and bring me some of that great wine." Our friend might well respond in a way that follows the wording of the parable: "Keith, remember that last time you got to go to the party, and Robin did not; but now he is at the party and you are left out." In saying this, he isn't saying that I'm being left out *because* I go to go last time: He can say what he does even if we all realize the reason I'm left out this time is just the luck of the flip.
Robin Parry said…

Strictly speaking you are correct. V. 25 NEED not mean that the rich man is suffering "because" he is rich.

But it may imply as much. At least, it seems to me that Bauckham's reading is reasonable even if not coercive.

Popular Posts