The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Ethics of Jesus

Darrell L. Bock  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 40 - Fall 1997

One of the distinctive features of the Gospel of Luke is the amount of parabolic material that appears in it.[1]Estimates of how much of the Jesus material is parabolic run as high as thirty-five percent. Such calculations depend on what counts as parabolic, but there is no doubt that a substantial portion of what Scripture reports about Jesus’ teaching comes to us as parable. Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. Revised ed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 33. A common discussion has been what the parables tell us about Jesus’ view of the kingdom of God, since many parables treat this theme.[2]See the cluster of kingdom parables in Mark 4. But the parables of Jesus cover far more than the kingdom and eschatology, though these are certainly among their main concerns. Also common has been the argument whether the parables of Jesus have only one point. As we shall see, this view, which has possessed almost dogmatic status until recently, robs the parables of much of their richness.[3]For a work correctly challenging this one point thesis, see Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990). In particular, what is often less appreciated about the parables is their ethical dimension. I recently discussed a classification of Luke’s parables and suggested that out of twenty-nine parabolic units in Luke, seventeen of which are unique to him, nineteen of them touched on themes related to the spiritual life.[4]Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 3a (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 948-49. Twelve of the seventeen uniquely Lukan parables have this dimension. A particularly striking example of a parable with a spiritual life and ethical thrust is the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Its teaching illustrates what Jesus taught as maxim elsewhere – that the one who loves God will love his neighbor.

This parable deserves special attention, because a “one point” reading often makes its theme resurrection and repentance about Jesus, a reading that really misses the parable’s point. Such a reading emphasizes the end of the parable with its remark that “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). The parable is seen to predict that even a resurrection will not convince the hard-hearted that Jesus is one sent from God. No doubt-here is an allusion to that central event of Christian hope, but much gets lost in this reading. Over what should the rich man and his brothers repent?

What issue was it that the now condemned rich man wanted his brothers to become sensitive to so that they would not end up judged as well?

The ethical dimension of this parable needs emphasis, because it is so central to what Jesus taught his disciples. I examine the parable by considering: (1) is it a parable?; (2) the background of expectation that makes the parable shocking; (3) its ethical dimension; and (4) how that emphasis fits within New Testament teaching.


Is this a Parable?

This question needs brief treatment because some argue that the account is not parabolic.[5]See, for example, David Gooding, According to Luke (Leichester: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 227, and Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 527. There is some reason for arguing Jesus is not in a parabolic mode in this account. A few of the account’s characteristics are unusual for parables. For example, it is one of the few parables to discuss the world to come and afterlife in some detail beyond a mere reference to future judgment. It is also the only parable to have any of its characters named.

However, the unique naming of Lazarus (and not the rich man) adds important detail to the account which explains the exceptional nature of the reference. His name, which in Hebrew is a contraction of the name Eleazar means “God helps.” So the name shows a point of the story.[6]R. Dunkerley, “Lazarus,” NTS 5 (1958-59): 321-27. The naming may also suggest that though the man and his plight made him seem irrelevant to those around him in this life, God knew who he was. The rich man is generalized, so that the application to the rich can be rhetorically maintained. In addition, the fact that the rich man knows Lazarus’s name in addressing him in the afterlife (v. 24) shows the rich man knew who he was on earth. This detail makes the rich man’s ignoring of Lazarus’s plight even more explicit. If Lazarus was of no use to him, then Lazarus was of no usefulness. He knew the man and his plight, even down to his name, but did nothing. Finally, the account reflects parallel themes in the larger culture, both in Egypt and in Judaism. This background suggests that aspects of the story were a part of popular reflection.[7]1 Enoch 95:3-5; 96:4-8; 98:1-9; 97:8-10, 104:5; 103:3-7; George W. E. Nickelsburg, “Riches, the Rich and God’s.Judgment in 1Enoch 92-105 and the Gospel according to Luke, NTS 25 (1978-79): 324-44. For the Egyptian parallel, see Bernard Scott, Hear then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis Fortress Press, 1989), 156-57. A later Jewish version of the theme noted here appears in y. Hag. 77d [2.2].

The fear of some is that if the account is parabolic, then what is said about the afterlife becomes symbolic as well, robbing us of an important text on the separation of the righteous from the lost. However, such concerns are misguided. First, as a matter of method, one should determine genre and then doctrine, while recognizing that doctrine can be taught, even in highly symbolic texts, as apocalyptic genre shows. So one need not make such a skeptical conclusion about a loss of teaching on the afterlife simply because the account could be parabolic. Jesus’ fundamental point about the afterlife is just as real, even if it appears in a parable and is couched in some more rhetorical expression. Second, vividness of everyday detail, even down to the unique naming of Lazarus, does not prove a parable is not present.

Parables, even though they are stories with a point, are often built upon observations grounded in normal activities of life. A parable’s “everyday life” feel gives it its vividness. So the everyday feel of the story need not automatically lead to the conclusion that a parable is not present. In fact, most importantly, one could argue that the account’s internal dynamics reveal its parabolic character, since the dialogue between the rich man in Hades and Abraham in blessing seems inherently unlikely as a more literal event, given the mention of the great and unpassable chasm in v 26. How in the world could such a conversation take place, or the rich man see Lazarus, if they are so separated in distance? The suggestion of a vision or some such proposal to sustain a “real” event shows that the account has some unusual features in it.

Making a distinction between genre form and the representation of reality means that though the text has rhetorical features, its teaching point   about the saved and the lost still is grounded in reality, even though aspects of it are presented in representational form. One of the ways of spotting the presence of a literary feature like a parable is to look for such rhetorical incongruences as this account possesses. It is no violation of good interpretive method to recognize representational language when it appears. Nor does the presence of representational language mean that doctrine cannot be taught.

Other points add weight to the belief that this account is a parable. First, this account begins as other clear parables do, “a certain man was …” (e.g., Luke 14:16; 16:1).[8]Translations are those of the author. This style has parallels in Jewish rabbinic parabolic form, indicating the introduction is a pointer to the kind of account pre­sent.[9]Blomberg, 205. Second, Blomberg also notes that the structure of this passage parallels nine other character parables of Jesus.[10]Ibid., 171-21. Thus, it seems very likely, given these two considerations and the presence of the incongruity within the account noted already, that a parable is present.[11]It should be noted as well that the ethical point remains about the account’s teaching, regardless of whether or not one sees the account as parabolic.


Cultural Expectation and Jesus’ Twist for Reflection

Jesus’ parables often contain a surprise, and this one is no exception. What appears to be the case with these two men regarding which one is the most blessed is decidedly not the reality.

This rich man gives all the signs of having been greatly blessed (v. 19). He has a house with a gate.[12]On how this meets cultural expectations and reflects the residence of one among the elite of the city, see Bruce J. Malina, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 377-78. He wears clothes made of purple dye, an expensive coloring derived from snails. He has undergarments of fine linen.[13]For discussion of the dye and the undergarments, see the BAGD, 148, 694 and Simon Kistemaker, Tbe Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 236-37. Robert Stein, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 423, notes the associations of purple with royalty (1 Maccabees 8:14). Its asso­ ciation with blessing can be seen in Proverbs 31:22. He eats sumptuously each day. In the common view, to possess such wealth was an indication of blessing. The rich man apparently lacks nothing of this life.

In contrast sat a suffering, wanting Lazarus. Everything the rich man had, Lazarus lacked. The fact that he sits in public begging makes him among the poor of the poor. The text in v. 20 describes him as “lying” at the gate with a passive verb form, which suggests he may well be crippled, unable to move on his own. At the least he seems too ill to move on his own. Others apparently placed him at the gate and left him to fend for him- self. The wild dogs lick his sores, making him unclean.

Later rabbis in the fifth century Talmud had a saying that three situations indicated an absence of life for the living. They were when one depended on food from another’s table, when one was ruled by his wife, and when one’s body was covered with sores (b. Besa 32b). Culturally, Lazarus’s situation was desperate and one would not have expected that he would be among the blessed. There was no way to see it from the outside.

Here Jesus’ surprise springs into the account. For when death strikes both the parable’s main figures, it is Lazarus who resides in blessing and the rich man who suffers the torment of Hades. To underscore Lazarus’s position, he is said to be escorted by angels and placed at Abraham’s side.

Angelic escort for the righteous is a theme in Jewish extra-biblical material (T. Job 47:11; 52:2; T. Abr. (A) 20:11-12).[14]The use of extra-biblical themes in Jesus’ stories should not surprise us, as he seeks to communicate with his Jewish contemporaries in categories to which they could relate. The presence of such background and the under­ standing of these kinds of motifs help us to appreciate how these accounts were seen in their first century context. One must never forget that most extra-biblical literature was viewed with respect as religious writing, even though the Jews did not regard works that expressed such ideas as part of Scripture. To be with Abraham was “to be gathered with the fathers” in blessing, while Hades was a Greek expression equivalent to being left in Sheol. The indication of torment shows that the rich man now resides among the rejected.[15]1 Enoch 22 shows a similar theme in first century Note also 1 Enoch 103:5-8.

Though the account seems surprising in light of the circumstances of each man on earth, the passage’s point underscores a theme Luke has made about the poor and their potential to know God throughout his gospel (Luke 4:18; 6:20; 7:22; 14:13, 21). The reversal, though at one level a surprise, is actually not such a shock for one sensitive to Jesus’ teaching in Luke. This reversal sets the stage for the parable’s major point, which does not come at the story’s end, but in the exchange between the rich man and Abraham, when the parable temporarily pulls back the shades on the afterlife and gives a representational sneak preview of what judgment looks like.

Another interesting feature of the parable emerges here. Lazarus’s vindication is taken up by heaven’s actions for and discussion of him. The poor man says not a single word in the parable, though he is the focal figure. The poor like Lazarus may seem silent, almost anonymous figure to us, but God sees and speaks about and for them. People who may be inconsequential to us and our society matter to God.


The Call to Hear What God Is Teaching

With the reversal comes a new beggar. The rich man calls out to Abraham. His request possesses three interesting elements. First, the rich man’s suffering is evident from the “anguish” he is experiencing from the heat of judgment (v. 24). The imagery of heat and fire in Hades here is probably representational as well, picturing the reality of unending anguish in judgment. There was no greater image of torment for a human than the pain associated with a fire consuming its mortal, fleshly prey. The incongruity of the biblical representation of the afterlife is the fact that while the fire rages, the judged are not consumed. The suffering rages on endlessly. The image serves to picture the pain and disco1:1fort of experiencing judgment before God, a judgment that cannot and will not be reversed as the rich man is about to discover.

Second he knows his situation is desperate, but erroneously believes it can be reversed. The request that Abraham have mercy him, indicates a belief that despite the fact that he has died and met rejection, he can still experience hope of comfort later.

Third he still views Lazarus as a servant, since he believes that Abraham should send the poor man to do his bidding. The “utilitarian” and “social class” view of Lazarus and the fact that the rich man knows the poor man’s name reveal why the rich man never helped Lazarus on earth. The rich man only saw the poor man as an inferior and interpreted his condition as unworthy of help. The only thing Lazarus was good for was to be of service to him. If the poor man was of no use, he could be ignored, treated as if he were not there at all. The rich man had possessed no need of Lazarus on earth, but now he does, since he is suffering in Hades. Now Lazarus should be pressed into the rich man’s service. Even as he sits in judgment, nothing has changed in the rich man’s view about how he saw others less fortunate than himself.

Abraham’s reply reveals that heaven sees things quite differently. Two elements dominate the reply. First, Abraham reminds the rich man of the former life. The reply is full of implication. By contrasting where the two men had been, Abraham reminds the rich man of the fact, without saying a word about it, that when the tables were reversed, nothing had been done to ease Lazarus’s anguish. In effect, Abraham says that the rich man is now receiving judgment by the measure with which he measured (Luke 6:38).[16]Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 3b (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 137I-72. Note also “received in full” in the former life in v. 25, which is like remarks in Luke 6:24. Second, there is now no possibility of reversing the present situation. There is no crossing of the chasm between the two permanent worlds in the afterlife. The traffic between blessing and judgment is nil. As Fred Danker observes, there is no bridge over this chasm.[17]Fred Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel. Revised ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 285. The failure of the rich man to have compassion in this life has been judged. No love for the needy neighbor v met with God’s disapproval for reasons Abraham also made clear. The note fits what Jesus has taught elsewhere in Luke’s account, where Zacchaeus stands as a counter example in 19:7-10 and where the point is made more directly in 6:20-23; 12:33-34; 14:1213; and 18:22.

Realizing it is too late for him, the rich man tries a new angle. Here the parable takes its most powerful literary twist. The rich man still wants Lazarus to be pressed into what the judged man hopes will be a powerful role as servant messenger. Maybe a heavenly emissary can instruct his siblings on how they should act. Lazarus can still be sent like a good servant   to his brothers. He can urgently and dramatically warn them not to do what will land them in torment. With this point the ethical dimension of the parable becomes so evident. For of what would the brothers be warned if Lazarus were sent? The only contextual topic at issue in the parable to this point is to treat others with the compassion that the rich man had failed to exercise toward Lazarus. The warning must be to treat those in need with compassion that which the now condemned rich man failed to   exercise. Surely Abraham would see the importance of such a message and grant the request.

The rich man’s request is also refused with a curt reminder that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, so let them listen to them. Abraham’s point is that God has revealed His call for compassion in the sacred text already. There is no need to repeat what God has already made clear. The sacred scripture of Israel was full of ethical calls to show compassion to the needy: Deut. 14:28-29; 15:1-3, 7-12; 22:1-2; 23:19 [=23:20 Heb. text]; 24:7-15, 19-21; 25:13-14; Isa. 3:14-14; 5:7-8; 10:1-3;   32:6-7; 58:3, 6-7, 10; Jer. 5:26-28; 7:5-6; Ezek. 18:12-18; 33:15; Amos 2:6-8; 5:11-12; 8:4-6; Mic. 2:1-2; 3:1-3; 6;10-11; Zech. 7:9-10; Mal. 3:5. In effect, the message had already been given repeatedly from above about   how one should respond to the neighbor in need. Anyone with a sensitive heart inclined toward what God desired could understand what He had said about how others, especially the poor, should be treated. They needed no messenger from the dead. So Abraham refused the request.

One should note the ironic literary twist that the parable possesses. For this twist reveals that the heart of the parable’s teaching is here. What Abraham refused to permit for the rich man’s brothers, the parable does literarily for the parable’s readers. For in this exchange, the reader hears from beyond the grave a warning, even the painful cry of an eternally judged man. This cry is the plea that God desires compassion from and for those He creates. This is one way to show love for a neighbor. The irony is that what is not permitted in the story, the story does, in fact, provide. Here lies one of the more subtle and enjoyable features of this account. Yet we often move right by it, missing both the parable’s ethical teaching and the warning it has.

One suspects we ignore this dimension because it shows how easy it is for us to sin on our own. The warning confronts us with our failure to be compassionate. The warning suggests how worthy we are to be judged, if we are not transformed and responsive to God.

The rich man does not give up. He insists that if someone is sent to warn them from the dead, then repentance will come. So Abraham offers the climactic line that if Moses and the prophets are not heard, then neither will a resurrection be convincing. Note that resurrection here refers to someone who is sent from the dead to give a message, doing precisely what the rich man has requested. Only the messenger is different. He is not a poor beg­ gar, but the divinely appointed messenger who the gospel will later tell us is now seated at God’s right hand (Luke 22:69). Of course, the allusion here also plays into the readers’ knowledge, for Jesus is the messenger sent from the dead to plea with humanity to hear what God is teaching through his message. Again, the irony plays itself out a second time, for what Abraham refuses to do, God did in Jesus; but with much the same result as Abraham predicts.

Many upon hearing that Jesus is raised refuse to repent, because they were not open to the revelation of God that proclaimed these things before the sent one came. But notice that part of the message to be heard is Jesus’ ethical call that we should show compassion to those in need. Here is the parable’s topic. Do not let wealth and blessing harden you into viewing the less fortunate as judged, irrelevant, or as objects only to be used when the occasion permits. Do not let your fortune close you off from seeing and reaching out to meet the needs of others. Do not learn the name of the poor only to ignore their need.

There is one final clue that this is the parable’s main concern. This clue comes in that the entirety of Luke 16 deals with the handling of mammon. A check will show that the parable of Luke 16:1-13 deals with this theme, which in turn leads Jesus to rebuke the Jewish leadership as those who were “lovers of money” (16:14).[18]Robert C. Tannehill, Luke. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 251. He highlights the contrasting connection to 16:9. Thus, this parable (possesses an ethical call for compassion) warns through its picture of judgment that God looks for com­ passion. The account fits into the movement of Luke’s gospel and adds to the theme of this particular chapter.


Jesus’ Parable and New Testament Teaching

The ethical dimension of this parable sometimes makes us nervous, since it contains so little of what we call the gospel message about faith in Jesus. This fear is shortsighted, however, as it treats the gospel as if it included only the call to faith and not the walk that follows. This fear suggests that the gospel does not address the standards of our life as disciples. We should be those who are learning to please God more and more by a life that honors his gift of grace with the response of living as he would call us to live. This fear also ignores the fact that to respond with trust in Jesus means the embracing of His message. Part of the good news of God is that He not only redeems us, but transforms us by His Spirit as well to make us responsive. God is interested in the product of the gospel, not just its beginning in new life. One of the reasons God saves us is so that we can be enabled to live in a way that is now pleasing to him. The values of such an ethically driven life are a major concern of this parable.

Not surprisingly, the exercise of compassion to the needy is also a topic of concern for the epistles. For example, in Romans 12, Paul is expressing what the Spirit, given as a result of responding to the gospel, leads us to do. In v. 16, he expressly call on the church to associate with the lowly. He exhorts them to brotherly love in 13:8-10. In 15:22-33, he also tells them that he is coming to them to take a collection that will meet the needs of poor saints in Jerusalem. All of this is seen as part of the outworking of the presence of the Spirit in their lives, a theme whose theological groundwork is laid so wonderfully in Romans 6-8.

Paul also notes how it is the poor who often are chosen to be a part of the church family in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. Here is a primary audience for the gospel, as Jesus himself suggested in Luke 4:18 and 7:22. Too often the church only targets wealthier areas, and risks ignoring the very part of the community Scripture suggests might be the most responsive to the gospel.

Part of what compassion to the poor expresses concretely is the love of God for all of us who stand in need. Part of the way we testify to God’s unconditional love in forgiving sin is by offering love concretely to those who cannot pay us back in kind. Paul repeats his point about ministry to the poor within the family of God in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

Paul is not alone. James makes a similar point through his famous   example of dead faith in James 2:14-17. The rich man was very much like the person who says that the one in need should simply go and “be warmed and filled.” James would call this a dead, useless faith, a belief that has not had an impact upon behavior. The remarks in James come after 2:1-13 where favoritism toward the rich is explicitly condemned. James is teaching that there is no social class when it comes to the faith. The poor should get as much attention as the rich.

John also makes this point about faith and compassion in 1 John 3:17, where the example follows very much along the lines of James. John considers the topic of love and how we know that God’s Spirit abides in us. The apostle then asks how one who closes his heart after seeing a brother in need can evidence that the love of God abides in Him. Paul, James, and John, all disciples of Jesus, understood the ethical point made in this parable. They heard the teaching of God and appreciated the fact that the gospel changes people. Faith brings the Spirit, and the Spirit sent by Christ abides in us and shows His presence through the compassion we show to those in need, whether they be in the family of God as John notes or outside of it as James suggests.



The parable of the rich man and Lazarus deals with fundamental ethical themes of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ message calls on people to hear God’s exhortation to show compass10n to the poor. The parable vividly illustrates just how serious God is about this message. The New Testament as a whole reflects a concern to live differently from the condemned rich man of this parable. There may be a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus at   the end of this parable, but there is no such chasm between Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. Neither should the church of our Lord  reflect a great chasm between them and the Lazarus’s of our world.

Ultimately the ethical teaching of this parable calls us individually and corporately as church communities to act with compassion to those in need. More energy needs to be given in the church to ministries that reach out to those in need. Those in small church groups could orient their fellowship around ministry projects that testify to the love of God for those in need. There is something alive about a faith that will reach out in this selfless way and seek to please God by carrying out what Moses and the prophets said the child of God should do.

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus reminds us that it is all too easy for us to live as the rich man did, knowing Lazarus’s name and not lifting a finger to help him. God judged the rich man for failing to respond. Those who know the Lord and have graciously been spared judgment   should do better than the one who was condemned. If we are listening to Moses, the prophets, and now Jesus himself, we will respond to the ethical call of a parable with compassion. After all, this is one reason Jesus saved us, so we could love our neighbor in need.


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