Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is remarkable for several reasons. It is the only Gospel parable in which a character is named. It seemingly has no parallel in the other Synoptics. It is often thought to be based on a pagan folktale. And it presents a view of the afterlife that is utterly unique in the Bible.
Figuring out the author’s intent with this parable has been a challenge, and many differing opinions have been offered. I’d like to look at some of the sources Luke may have drawn upon, and what message I think the parable is intended to convey. There are also some connections with the other Gospels that might get overlooked by most readers.
The parable can be found in Luke 16:19–31. The context is somewhat vague, and the story is told by Jesus in response to ridicule by some Pharisees, whom the narrator tells us were “lovers of money”.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus in his bosom. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
Several items of interest stand out. The poor man is named, but the rich man is not. The two men are described in brief but colourful detail. Lazarus is borne by angels upon his death. The Greek netherworld of Hades is mentioned, as well as “Abraham’s bosom” — an expression not known from any earlier text. The two men each receive a reversal of fortunes in the afterlife — comfort for the poor man, and torment for the rich man. Though they are separated by a chasm, they are close enough to communicate. The rich man suffers from fire and thirst. Returning from the dead to warn the living is a request that Abraham refuses, but does not reject as impossible.
(Also, having dogs lick your sores sounds totally gross. Thanks for including that detail in your story, Jesus.)
The Story of Setme and Si-Osiris and the Reversal of Fortunes in the Afterlife
In terms of plot, Luke’s parable is similar to an Egyptian story known from a document that dates to the first century CE. In this story, an Egyptian in Amente, the realm of the dead, is permitted to return to life in order to defeat a powerful magician. He is reborn as a child named Si-Osiris to a man named Setme and his wife. On one occasion, he and his father observe the funerals of two people — a rich man buried in sumptuous clothing with much mourning, and a poor man buried without ceremony or mourning. Si-Osiris then takes his father on a tour of Amante to show him how the fortunes of the dead are reversed. They see the rich man being tormented, for his bad deeds outweighed the good ones; but the pauper is elevated to high rank near Osiris, because his good deeds outnumbered his bad deeds.
The German scholar Gressmann drew attention to the parallels in a book published in 1918, and also noted several Jewish versions of the story. One appears in the Palestinian Talmud, and tells of a rich tax collector and a poor Torah scholar who die the same day. In a dream to the poor man’s friend, it is revealed that the rich man is tormented by thirst in the afterlife, while the poor scholar enjoys the gardens of paradise. These stories share at least three elements with Luke’s: (1) the deaths of a rich man and a poor man; (2) the reversal of their fortunes in the afterlife; and (3) the possibility of returning from the netherworld to reveal this truth to the living.¹
It is very possible that the author of Luke knew either the Egyptian story or one of the Jewish versions. If so, the reversal motif is probably what drew him to it. This is a theme that is specifically focused on by Luke throughout his Gospel:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Lk 6:20–21, 24–25)
Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (Lk 13:30)
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Lk 14:11 and 18:14b)
The Parable’s Moral Problem
Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is missing a crucial feature that its Egyptian and rabbinical parallels have: a moral justification for the reversal. In the story of Setme and Si-Osiris, the rich man is punished for his wickedness, and the poor man is rewarded for his righteousness. It is the same in the Talmudic tale. The moral of both stories seems to be, “Pursue goodness rather than riches, for only the former carries eternal value.”
But in Luke’s story, nothing is said of the rich man’s evil deeds or the poor man’s piety that earn them their respective rewards. In fact, it seems to be the rich man’s wealth itself that damns him, and Lazarus’s poverty that earns him comfort. That is certainly the rationale given by Abraham in verse 25. Nevertheless, this reasoning is so hard to accept for some readers that they look for an implicit crime that the rich man has committed. Richard Bauckham cites examples of scholars who insist that the rich man must have misused his wealth, acquired it wrongly, or neglected to give Lazarus charity; and that Lazarus must have been pious in addition to poor.
But the claim that the parable does not explain the reversal of fortunes is untrue. The reason is clearly stated in verse 25, where Abraham justifies the reversal to the rich man. …What has to be put right is the fact that one man lived in luxury while another was destitute. The next world compensates for this inequality by replacing it with a reverse inequality.…In effect, therefore, it is true that 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. (See Bauckham, 232–233, for the quote and aforementioned citations.)
It is hard to imagine today’s Prosperity Gospel churches acknowledging the fairly obvious implications of this parable, let alone agreeing with them. Indeed, even scholars shy away from the moral conclusions of the parable, and Ronald Hock chides them for letting “their own moral sensitivities, not to mention their own tacit approval of wealth” affect their exegesis (Hock, pp. 452-454).
Admittedly, the topic of repentance is raised in verse 30, but only long after the reason for the rich man’s misfortune has already been explained. I think that if Luke wanted to emphasize repentance and ethical behaviour through this parable, he should have brought them up sooner.
So what is the point of the parable, then? Is it simply to tell the reader about the reversal of fortunes after death?
That would seem to be at odds with the normal parabolic method used in the Gospels, which is to allegorize a message using an unrelated setting. The Parable of the Sower is not about agriculture, so we should not assume Lazarus and the Rich Man is about the afterlife. (It might be consistent with the author’s beliefs about the afterlife, but that’s not quite the same thing.) Is it meant to warn against accruing wealth, or to encourage faithfulness to “Moses and the Prophets”? Maybe there’s more to it than that.
Luke’s Afterlife Imagery
Before I go into other interpretations, I’d like to look at Luke’s unique portrayal of the afterlife.
Ancient Israelite religion had no concept of a conscious afterlife where the immortal souls of the deceased were punished or rewarded. On the whole, the Hebrew Bible shows a near-complete lack of interest in what happens after death.
During the Persian and Hellenistic periods, however, new ideas from Greece and Persia influenced the way Judeans thought about death. In the Greek-speaking world, Plato’s story of Er in Republic was particularly influential in convincing people that the spirits of the dead would be judged according to their earthly lives and earn either bliss in Elysium or punishment in the netherworld. Many other Greek philosophers taught similar views.
For Luke, however, we’re looking specifically for a source in which departed souls go to the same place but are divided by the wicked and righteous, with some receiving comfort and others torment. It turns out we have just a text: our old friend 1 Enoch, which I have already written about as a source for the Catholic epistles.
In 1 Enoch 22, Enoch is given a tour of a mountain in the West where the spirits of the dead go to await judgment. This mountain has four caverns by which the dead are separated into groups. One cavern is for the spirits of the righteous, and it contains a bright fountain of water. Another is for sinners who were not punished during their lives; they are to suffer torment until the Judgment.
Not only is this a reasonable match for Luke’s description, but it also explains some other curious details. For example, we may speculate that when the rich man asks for Lazarus to bring him a drop of water, he is referring to the fountain that the righteous enjoy.² And though these abodes are not separated by a chasm in En 22, the phrase “great chasm” (χάσμα μέγα) does appear in nearby chapter 18, in a similar context. En 22 (in Greek) also has parallels to some of the terminology used in Luke that is otherwise rare in the New Testament, like the use of the word zoe (ζωῇ) to mean “lifetime”, the word basanois (βασάνοις, “torment”), and the mention of the rich man’s burial. (Grensted, p. 334) The Enochic model confirms that “Abraham’s bosom” is not a separate location as some Christian interpreters think, for Lazarus and the rich man are both in different compartments of Hades — used here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, as an equivalent to the Old Testament (and Enochic) Sheol.
The term “bosom” (κόλπος) was sometimes used in Greek and Latin epitaphs to describe something like Gaia’s embrace of the departed, and had little to do with postmortem life (Lehtipuu, p. 216). It is hard to say if this is significant to Luke’s usage. Where the term is used in the New Testament (mainly John’s Gospel), it suggests a position of intimacy or honour with respect to someone else.
Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. (John 13:23, KJV)
Luke frequently depicts the kingdom of God as an eschatological banquet in which God’s chosen people feast with the Jewish patriarchs — particularly in the Great Supper parable — and scholars generally think this image is what Luke has in mind with the reference to “Abraham’s bosom”.³
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come…and will eat in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:28–29)
Lazarus and Abraham
One element has yet to be explained: the insertion of a named character into a parable. This is the only place in the Gospels where this occurs. After all, parables function as allegories; the reader (or listener) is not supposed to think that Jesus is talking about a real event and real individuals, so there is no reason to give the stereotyped characters names. Most of the explanations I have seen strike me as half-hearted and unconvincing. For example, Bauckham suggests that the “poor man” had to be called something else since he was not poor in the afterlife — though the rich man does fine without a name (p. 244).
There’s one generally overlooked⁴ explanation that I do find compelling, however, and it was proposed in 1969 by C.H. Cave (see bibliography). Lazarus is the Latin/Greek equivalent of Eliezer, and we must remember that stories in the Gospels are frequently derived from or allusive to the Hebrew Bible. There is, in fact, a significant character in the Pentateuch named Eliezer: Eliezer the Damascene, Abraham’s steward and heir prior to the birth of Isaac who appears in Genesis 15. If we have a unique parable with the named characters Abraham and Eliezer, surely it follows that the existence of two closely linked characters named Abraham and Eliezer in the Pentateuch might be of relevance.
An interesting thing about Luke’s parable is that the rich man is clearly depicted as a Jew (he calls Abraham “father”, and Abraham calls him “child”), but Lazarus is not. Is it possible that Luke is trying to convey the eschatological reversal of the Jewish and Christian (Gentile) communities? In the first century, the Israelites believed they were assured salvation as the heirs and children of Abraham (Forbes 191; Cave 322f); but here, the child of Abraham is damned, and the Gentile Eliezer — representing the Christian community — becomes the true heir of Abraham, the one who will feast with the patriarchs in God’s kingdom. Explaining how the Christians have become the true heirs of Abraham is a theme explored elsewhere in the New Testament, notably Galatians 4.
Jewish tradition has more to say about Eliezer. Though he was a Gentile, he was taken to paradise while still alive as a reward for his faithfulness to Abraham, according to the Palestinian Targum and Bereshith Rabba. Furthermore, Cave states that Genesis 15 was originally read in synagogues at Shavuot, which had the gathering in of Gentiles as one of its themes; and one of the Haphtaroth (prophetic readings) assigned to it was Isaiah 1, in which the prophet laments Israel’s rebellion against God. Considered in the context of these scriptures, the parable of Lazarus takes on new meaning.
It’s conceivable that the parable of Lazarus (Eliezer) and Abraham was intended as commentary on these same scriptures — perhaps even read on the same occasions by Gentile God-fearers who would eventually become known as Christians. As Cave explains:
If such was the original setting of the parable, based upon Gen. xv read with Isa. i, and read at Shabuoth, then it has…nothing to do with the reversal of fortune in the after life, but rather teaches of the severity of the judgement that threatens Israel if she persists in her unrepentant state. ‘Gentiles putting Israel to shame… the unconceivable thing will come to pass… Israel will undergo the bitter experience of seeing Gentiles find mercy.’
I would go further and say that, based on this parable and the Great Supper — in which the guests who refuse the host’s invitation clearly represent the Judeans — Luke’s Jesus sees this reversal as inevitable. Israel has rejected Moses and the prophets, and now the blessings intended for her will be inherited by another community.
If this interpretation is correct, then the opportunity for the rich man’s brothers (Israel) to repent probably passed when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and when Jesus says they wouldn’t even listen to someone raised from the dead, my hunch is he means himself.
Relationship with the Other Synoptics
Neither Mark nor Matthew contains this parable, and it was probably absent from Q, if such a document existed. But there is in fact a parallel passage in Mark (and Matthew): the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, which Luke omits. Compare the following verses:
[Lazarus] longs to satisfy his hunger with [things that] fall from the table of the rich man; even the dogs come and lick his sores. (Lk 16:21)
But she answered him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs of the children.”(Mk 7:28)
But she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.” (Mt 15:27)
Though Luke’s story is completely different, we have references to dogs, food falling from the table, and satisfying hunger in all three verses, with a few identical or near-identical phrases. Luke clearly has the episode about the Syro-Phoenician woman in mind as he writes, yet he chooses not to include it. Possibly, he rejects its premise — that Jesus came primarily for the Jews, and only secondarily for believing Gentiles — because it is incompatible with his own view that the Gentile God-fearing community is the primary audience of Jesus, having replaced Israel as the heirs of God’s kingdom.
The fact that this pericope in Mark and Matthew is connected to, and replaced by, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man would suggest that the purpose of the latter is to communicate the eschatological reversal of Israel and the Gentile church. Luke provides a lens through which his audience can understand both the Roman destruction of Israel — Abraham’s original heirs — and the special purpose his own community must now fulfill.
- Communication of the dead with the living, urging them to repent, also occurs in the Jewish Book of Jannes and Jambres. According to Jewish tradition, “Jannes” and “Jambres” were the names given to the Egyptian magicians who competed with Moses in Exodus. (We see them mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:8, for example) In the aforementioned story, which survives only in fragments, Jambres uses magic to conjure the spirit of his dead brother from Hades. His brother tells him of the terrible underworld and urges Jambres to lead a good life to avoid such a fate.
- The idea of a spring of water in the otherworld does not originate with 1 Enoch, but is common in Greek depictions of the afterlife, including that given by Plato in Republic. (Lehtipuu, p. 218) A similar idea is found in Revelation 22:1. The “great chasm” of 1 Enoch 18:10 and Luke’s parable also find their origins in Greek descriptions of Hades. (Lehtipuu p. 222)
- The idea of feasting with the gods after death was also commonplace in pagan beliefs and is described in Plato’s Republic. (Lehtipuu p. 217) Luke’s eschatological banquet motif may be rooted in this Greek view of the afterlife.
- Not only overlooked, but also misunderstood. Thomas E. Phillips states (in Reading Issues of Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts, p. 156 n. 261) that Cave argues for Deuteronomy as the source of the parable. In fact, that is the very opposite of what Cave argues.
H. Gressmann, Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus: eine literargeschicktliche Studie, 1918.
Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels”, New Testament Studies 37, pp 225-246.
Ronald F. Hock, “Lazarus and Micyllus”, JBL 106/3 (1987)
C. H. Cave, “Lazarus and the Lukan Deuteronomy”, New Testament Studies 15, pp 319-325.
Grensted, “The Use of Enoch in St. Luke xvi. 19–31,” Expository Times 26 (1915) 333–34.
Greg W. Forbes, The God of Old: The Role of the Lukan Parables in the Purpose of Luke’s Gospel, 2000.
Outi Lehtipuu, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 2007.