Lazarus and the Rich Man

Ordinary 26C

Luke 16: 19 31


Luke 16 opened with the parable of the shrewd manager. It was followed by a number of sayings of Jesus Luke had gathered, and brought to an emphatic ending with "You cannot serve both God and Money". Verse 14 says " The Pharisees who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus". These were a specific section of the Pharisees — who were scribes and had attached themselves to the Court of Herod Antipas — the Herodians — and reproduced (and went to any means to protect) their own privileged mode of life.

This separatist attitude had developed from a distorted application of the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy 28. Here, they saw material prosperity as the promised sign of God's friendship. Jesus explained that the Law will stand but it must be understood correctly. Riches were a sign of God's favour to the nation; these Pharisees (pro Herodians) applied it to individuals, especially themselves. Both in the Law (Deut 24: 9 — 13) and the Prophets (Isaiah 58: 6 — 8) charity to the poor was taught. Now in the new Kingdom, the plight of the poor was being brought anew to the attention of those who could effect change.

Again we see Jesus go out of his way to paint a very clear picture before their eyes, to show them where they were heading. He therefore told them the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The writer of Luke does not refer to the story as a parable, but it has always been taken as such.

The parable is not told to insult them or even to "give them a taste of their own medicine." Rather Jesus seeks to bring them to their senses. There were after all, many distinguished and devout members of the Pharisees they could emulate without aligning themselves with Herod, of all people!

Some Notes On Our Text

(We base this account on the text of the Jerusalem Bible and include notes from various sources).

Verse 19

There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen, and feast magnificently every day. (Our Lord has the pro-Herodians appropriately defined).

Verses 20 and 21

And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus (a Greek form of the Hebrew El Azar, "God has helped".) The gate was high and ornamented, indicating the luxury of the rich man's dwelling. Lazarus was placed there each day, as he could not move himself. He was covered with sores which were obvious evidence of hopelessly inadequate nutrition, and the need for extensive treatment, both of which were beyond families in Palestine who could not get work.

The rich man would have seen Lazarus; who could miss such a sight! But obviously, he never saw the poor man's dreadful plight. One's attitudes can so easily dull one's sensitivity and ability to perceive the obvious. This man was totally unmoved by the sight of Lazarus.

Lazarus would have been grateful to receive any bits of food tossed to him; but he received nothing to eat, nor anyone's help to cope with the pain of his wretched skin condition. The only soothing he received was from the dogs, which came and licked his sores. Since the dog was in the East an unclean animal it is clear that the kindest attention the poor man received was from a source the self-righteous despised.

This situation continued over a long period, but Lazarus was never heard to complain. He was a true son of Abraham.

Verse 22

Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. This is a Jewish figure of speech, the equivalent of the old biblical phrase 'gathered to his fathers', i.e. to the Patriarchs (Judg 2: 10). The rich man also died and was buried.

(We need to take note that our Lord does not teach here the true nature of life after death; he accommodates his story to the restricted Jewish ideas of that time.)

Verses 23 and 24

In his torment in Hades (Sheol the abode of the dead) he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his bosom. So he cried out, "Father Abraham, pity 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".

The extent of this man's horrific pain is reflected in the intimation that even a single drop of water from the finger of Lazarus would bring incalculable relief. Isn't it interesting that at last he notices Lazarus and expects him to come to his aid upon request.

Verses 25 and 26

"My son", Abraham replied, "remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus". You chose, he implies, to strive exclusively after worldly things and amass nothing for heaven. That was your choice, and you received everything you wanted, but even in great hardship, he chose not to complain of any injustice, or even make demands of anyone else. He just sat at your gate daily and hoped for alms from any kind person.

Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone crossing from either side" (implying destiny of the saved and lost is unalterable. Remember, this is Abraham the great Patriarch who is speaking.)

Verses 27 and 28

The rich man replied, "Father, I beg of you to send Lazarus to my father's house, since I have five brothers, to give them warning so that they do not come to this place of torment too." So, swallowing his pride, yet again he asks for the help of Lazarus, and even trusts him for the message he could give to his brothers, who obviously, carried on the way this man did. There is still no sign that he had any thought of alleviating the suffering of the needy; only the future which lay ahead for his brothers.

Verse 29

"They have Moses and the Prophets", said Abraham, "let them listen to them." By this he reminded him that the Law and the Prophets are read daily in the Temple and synagogues. In these Holy Scriptures are taught the way of salvation. If they would but listen to these they would not end up where this rich man is. There is no excuse for losing the chance to be saved, but it must be taken in the moments God offers it throughout life on earth.

Verse 30

"Ah no, Father Abraham", said the rich man (meaning, they know all that - but that won't make any difference). "But if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent." In other words, they wouldn't be satisfied listening to the Holy Scriptures chanted during the Divine Worship and meditating on the meaning so that they could be put into practice as God intended. Oh no, they wanted to see miracles happen before their eyes, and feel compelled to take notice. People with this mindset will never hear the quiet voice of God within. They need their senses to be overwhelmed before they will follow.

Verse 31

But Abraham reflects a different set of values, which are imbedded in the very Scriptures he extols. He said to him:

"If they will not listen within to Moses or to the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead!"

The abruptness of the end of the parable is part of our Lord's therapy. He leaves them, hoping they, and indeed his own disciples, would continue to reflect on the message contained in his lesson.


If this parable had been meant only for one small (though powerful) offshoot group of selfish and elitist religious authorities, it may never have been selected from all the accounts and stories St Luke had to draw from. Clearly, the early Church kept the parable constantly before them, because they realised they would go down the same path unless they listened to its inner message.

There are two main conclusions for our on-going reflection:

1. the misuse of whatever wealth we are given;

2. the need for daily meditation on the Word of God in preference to seeking signs and wonders.


1. Misuse of Wealth.

If we were to, even indirectly, attribute the need for the parable only to the attitudes of some or all of the Pharisees, we would miss the point. It is too convenient to make them into a scapegoat — or even to transfer the focus to "the rich" (the rich perhaps never being us, but only those who posses more than us).

Nowhere in this parable does Abraham say it was wrong for the man to wealthy. After all, Abraham was one of the wealthiest people ever to live. It is the abuse of riches and the neglect of the needy neighbour that is here condemned so unconditionally. It would not have mattered whose gate Lazarus lay beside; the giving of alms to the needy is something Jesus stressed for all his disciples to be most vigilant about.


2. Meditation on the Word of God

Finally, there is a second major lesson within this amazing story: a spectacular miracle will not penetrate the soul like daily meditation on the Word of God.

In our parable, Jesus links seeing Lazarus daily but not seeing his needs, to hearing the Scriptures read out daily but not hearing the message. The small band Jesus is directing his parable towards were very clever at quoting Scripture from rote memory but had never begun to learn the meaning let alone apply it.

In our Lord's time people did not have Bibles at home. The last sentence of his parable refers to hearing Moses and the Prophets proclaimed, in fact chanted during the dignified worship daily in the synagogues in an atmosphere of reverence and focussed attention. At such times the devout would listen, take to heart, and continue through the day to "digest spiritually". This tradition has carried over into the Christian Church, where passages from the Old Testament, the Epistles and Gospels are read or chanted daily with great solemnity. Those fortunate enough to have copies can read them again later and allow God's Word to echo within them.

Jesus calls for reverent listening to the Scriptures at the depths of our being so that we are nourished and enabled to hear the true message. This must be one of the clearest warnings ever given by Jesus. Failure to heed it will see countless people trying to demand miracles which will titillate the senses and compel them to believe. Inherent in the ending of this parable is the warning that people who constantly crave signs and wonders will never be satisfied listening for the "still small voice" within, and they will continue to hold a distorted view of Biblical teaching and priorities. Even our Lord did not know how to sound the warning any more forcefully, as he tried to steer his followers away from false religion. It is something we all have to take notice of. Let's allow Psalm 119 to steer us towards true religion.

From Psalm 119

1. How blessed are those whose way is blameless
Who walk in the Law of the Lord.

2. How blessed are those who observe his testimonies
Who seek him with all their hearts.

62. At midnight I shall rise to give thanks to thee
Because of thy righteous ordinances.

97. How I love thy Law!
It is my meditation all the day

105. Thy Word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.

147. I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I wait for thy words.

163. I hate and despise falsehood,
But I love thy Law.


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