Luke 16:19-31 “The Rich Man and Lazarus”: What It Does and Does Not Teach Us

In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable commonly known as The Rich Man and Lazarus.  It reads:   

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (ESV)    

The first thing we need to realize before we attempt to understand the message of this passage is that Jesus is telling a parable.  This is not a report of a historical event.  It is a story that Jesus is using to teach a lesson.  This means that we need to focus on the main point (or points) and not the details of the story that are there to make the story work as a story.    

Some will argue that this passage is not a parable because it does not begin with the phrase “And he told them a parable…” as other passages do (e.g. Luke 18:1).  The argument is that since the text does not say this is a parable, we should not assume it is.  The reply to this argument is that you do not have to look far to find other parables that are not explicitly called parables in the text.  Just look at The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13) as examples.  Neither of these two parables are identified as such in the text, but everyone accepts that they are, indeed, parables.   

Another clue that our passage is a parable is that it begins with very similar wording as the parables appearing just before it in Luke.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son begins with the phrase “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11).  The Dishonest Manager begins with “There was a rich man who had a manager” (Luke 16:1).  And The Rich Man and Lazarus begins with “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple”.  The fact that it follows the same pattern as the parables before it, indicates that we are still dealing with a parable.  

So, since we are dealing with a parable, let us first begin by saying what this parable does teach us: 

  1.  The rich man finds himself in Hades because he failed to show mercy towards Lazarus.
  2. While the rich man ironically asks for mercy while in Hades, he is told that he will not receive any and that his situation is permanent.  The mention of a “great chasm” that cannot be crossed indicates the permanency of the situation.
  3. The primary issue that results in a person ending up in Hades is a lack of repentance.  This is indicated by the rich man’s desire for his brothers to repent in verse 30.
  4. True repentance results in a changed life.  In this case, it results in showing compassion for others in need.  The rich man had a need to repent as indicated by his lack of compassion towards Lazarus.
  5. There is no excuse for those who refuse to hear God’s word (“Moses and the Prophets”).
And, what we do not learn from this parable: 
  1.  This parable does not teach us that those in heaven and those in hell can communicate with one another.  This is a detail to make the story work as a story.  There is no other place in Scripture that indicates that there is any communication between those in heaven and hell or any ability to see into one place from the other.
  2. This parable does not teach that there is a place known as “Abraham’s bosom” where the dead go.  The ESV translates the phrase as “Abraham’s side.”  The phrase is not meant to teach us that there is another place outside of heaven and hell.  Jesus’ hearers would have understood that anyone who went to be with Abraham was in the place where those favored by God went.  If anyone was with God, it was Abraham.  To be at his side was to be with God also.  In short, he was in heaven.
  3. We do not learn that the righteous dead are carried to heaven by angels.  This point was to develop the contrast in the story between Lazarus, who found favor with God, and the rich man who did not.

So, while there are important things to learn in this passage, we should not develop our understanding of what heaven and hell are like from this parable.  We must look at other texts to find that information.

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4 Responses to Luke 16:19-31 “The Rich Man and Lazarus”: What It Does and Does Not Teach Us

  1. Jim says:

    The Rich Man and Lazarus presents a brief study on this topic that you may enjoy, especially since you are thinking on this topic. Hope it helps.

  2. Tim Farley says:

    Jim:

    Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your comment. I have been a bit short on time the past couple of days. Is the study you reference your own or one you came across belonging to someone else? The website does not really tell me who is behind the articles found there.

    I would recommend an article by Hobert Farrell found in Trinity Journal from Fall of 1986 titled “The Structure and Theology of Luke’s Central Section”. In the article, Farrell does an excellent job of showing how chapters 13-19 fit together thematically and how reading this particular passage as a parable makes the most sense.

  3. Rich says:

    Hi Tim,
    I don’t normally participate in forums but when I stumbled across this fairly recent post, I felt compelled to offer my response since this is a topic that I have studied in depth. If I sound harsh, please don’t be offended, that’s not my intent.
    Firstly, I agree completely with regard to the story of the rich man and Lazarus being a parable, for the very reasons that you stated and others. However, you have missed the point of the parable in part. I’ll respond to each item in which you indicate what the parable does and does not teach.
    1. Be careful not to forget what Jesus says and does not say in the parable. Jesus does not tell us that the rich man failed to show mercy toward Lazarus. We could assume as much, but we could also assume that Lazarus was there at his gate for the very reason of receiving mercy, however little it may be. Regardless, the rich man’s behavior toward Lazarus is not relevant to the story; otherwise Jesus would have provided some detail.
    2. The rich man in Hades is not shown mercy, but there is no indication that this situation is permanent. Heaven and earth will pass away at some point, I suspect the “great chasm” may pass away as well.
    3. No argument here.
    4. Again, see 1 above.
    5. You could say it that way.

    What the parable doesn’t teach:
    1. You are correct, sort of. Jesus needs no details “to make the story work”. There is no Scripture that indicates those in Heaven communicate with those in hell, as you say, but this is irrelevant. In fact, Jesus does not indicate that the rich man is in hell or that Lazarus is in Heaven, they are not.
    2. What Jesus’ hearers would have understood is not relevant. Jesus would not need to be teaching if those who heard him already understood correctly. Perhaps if anyone was with God, it was Abraham, but Scripture tells us that Abraham was not in with God in Heaven, nor was anyone else including Lazarus. The bosom of Abraham is symbolic, as is the entirety of this parable.
    3. The angels do provide some contrast between Lazarus and the rich man, but that is not their purpose in the story. In fact, the angels are the key to understanding the parable. If you search the Scriptures (starting with the New Testament) for the appearance of the angels, perhaps you may begin to piece together the true meaning of this parable.

    I believe this parable was not intended to be understood by everyone. Few if any fully understand it, myself included. However, I have been blessed with some knowledge on this subject, which I will share with you if you’re interested. Sorry for the lengthy repsonse, you need not post it.

    God bless…

  4. Pingback: Lent Bible Study – 40 Days in the Gospels – Day 31 « Walking in the Wilderness

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