Sometimes referred to as “Dives and Lazarus,” on account of a Latin epithet for wealth, Jesus’s story of the rich man and poor man just outside the gate from Luke 16 is one of the most familiar texts in the Gospels. You, no doubt, already know all the beats of the story: once there were two men, one incredibly rich and the other incredibly poor. One day, they both succumb to death and enter into eternity, except the rich man is tormented while the poor man is comforted. The tormented man proceeds to have a back-and-forth with Father Abraham, who denies him any relief. The story ends on an ominous note that the brothers of the rich-now-tormented man wouldn’t believe, even “if someone should rise from the dead.” Thus their tormented fate is all but certain. So goes the story of “Dives and Lazarus.”
Most interpretations of this story fall into one-of-two camps. Some choose to interpret it historically as if Jesus is telling a story about two men who actually existed. Others understand this story metaphorically as if it is just another in Jesus’s long list of New Testament parables. I don’t think it ultimately matters whether you view this as history or as a parable. In either case, Jesus’s point remains the same.
To reiterate the story’s bare bones, there once were two men who had two entirely different experiences in life: one rich, one poor. However, both end up succumbing to the same fate, death. Their experience of death, though, is as different as their experiences in life. The rich man is made to suffer torment and anguish, while the poor man is consoled and relieved. And the reason for that different experience is the reason this story exists.
The context of “Dives and Lazarus” is telling. After relaying the parable of the dishonest businessman, Jesus concludes, “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13), a searing remark aimed at the Pharisees who were apparently still hanging around after the trilogy of parables about lost things (Luke 15). Luke is quick to comment that the Pharisees “were lovers of money,” which no doubt led them to openly “ridicule” Jesus (Luke 16:14). But while they attempt to downplay their guilt by mocking and laughing at the Teacher from Nazareth, they are promptly silenced when Jesus addresses them directly:
You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:15–18).
The words of Jesus put the Pharisees on blast for their blatant hypocrisy. While they might never admit that they were “lovers of money,” their hearts would say something else. Outwardly, the Pharisees had carefully crafted a reputation as those who were the authorities on all matters of religion and morality. They were God’s elite followers. Inwardly, the Pharisees were beset by excess, greed, and “all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27–28). The point is, for as clean and polished as the Pharisees might have appeared in the eyes of men, God knew their hearts, which means Jesus did, too. Their external self-justification schemes did little to address their internal wasteland of irreligion and unfaith. And to further explain what he means by this, Jesus proceeds to tell them a story.
There once was a “rich man” who had everything anyone could ever want. He wore the finest imported clothes; he ate the finest meals; his daily life was never not lavish. Jesus, notably, never editorializes on the rich man’s wealth. He never says that he got his wealth through an immoral avenue. Instead, we are greeted with the plain fact that a man was rich. Just outside the rich man’s mansion, another man named Lazarus was barely existing. His haggard frame was covered with ulcers and his diet was nothing but the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus’s only companions were the raggedy dogs who lived in the streets. No matter how you cut it, he was pitiful, penniless, and poor.
Eventually, Lazarus’s atrocious health gets the better of him; his lifeless body lies sprawled out in the gutter with passersby barely acknowledging that his fetid fingers are no longer begging for alms. It just so happens that the rich man’s lungs give out, too. He breathes his last and a guest list of who’s-who from all over town descend to pay their respects (or to see if they made it into the will). While the lives of these two men couldn’t have looked more different, in the end, they both passed away, leaving this world behind and entering into eternity. Once in eternity, though, their fortunes get reversed. The poor man is ushered into an eternity of relief and comfort as he is made to stand side-by-side with Father Abraham and the saints of old. The rich man, however, faces an eternity full of misery and anguish. As lavish as his life here on earth might have been, his afterlife was full of excruciating pain and affliction. “He whose tongue daily tasted the finest wines and the most delectable cooling drinks now burns with ceaseless flame,” notes R. C. H. Lenski (855).
As he looked around his new home in the “place of the dead,” the rich man happened to spot Abraham and Lazarus at a distance. Calling out to them, he desperately shrieks for a drop of water to soothe his tongue. He has become the beggar whose hope was for nothing more than a crumb of kindness. “I’m sorry but you had your chance,” Father Abraham refuses, “you enjoyed your relief and your comfort during your life, while Lazarus had nothing.” The rich man had already made his choice about eternity before entering eternity. You cannot renegotiate your eternal standing once you’re in eternity. By then, it’s too late. “There is a time and a place,” Dale Ralph Davis comments, “where nothing can be changed, nothing can be reversed” (52).
The rich man’s entitlement and unbelief are on full display as he insists that his way of telling others about eternity is better than God’s way.
Feeling the weight of his unalterable fate, the rich man pivots and pleads for Abraham to do something for his brothers. “Please, I beg you, resurrect Lazarus and send him back to warn my brothers!” What sounds like an altruistic request is actually revealed to be a sneaky accusation of God himself. Abraham denies him, bluntly reminding him, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” Still feeling entitled, even in death, after a life of always getting what he wanted, the rich man insists that wasn’t enough.
The rich man’s entitlement and unbelief are on full display as he insists that his way of telling others about eternity is better than God’s way. Even while he is burning in anguish he dismisses the words of Abraham and defiantly contends that God’s Word was not enough. By insisting that his brothers needed a supernatural messenger, the rich man was, likewise, saying that God’s divine message of redemption as revealed in God’s divine Word was inadequate. The ultimate meaning of this story is concerned with the sufficiency of the Word of God more than anything else.
That the rich man calls Abraham “Father Abraham” is, as I take it, an allusion to the fact that he had heard the Scriptures before. He was not unfamiliar with what was said in the Law and the Prophets; he just refused to believe it for himself. His heart was too set on what he had and what he thought he was entitled to. The rich man’s biggest problem was deeper than simply having a seven-figure bank account. His biggest problem was that he found his sufficiency in his wealth, in something other than what is revealed in the Word of the Living God. He was secure in and of himself, or so he thought. The point is, for men like the Pharisees, this story was unfolding right in front of their very eyes.
Even though they had pored over the words of Moses and the Prophets countless times, putting the majority of Old Testament Scripture to memory, they were still, like this rich man, clinging to their sense of security and entitlement. They were still sufficient in and of themselves. Little did they know that they were talking with one who was about to “rise from the dead” as the ultimate revelation of God’s power to save sinners from eternal death. Little did they realize that they were mocking the one who was the living, breathing fulfillment of all the things contained in “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 24:44–48). Only in the Word made flesh is found everlasting comfort for restless souls.
The story of “Dives and Lazarus” is one which is primarily concerned with the devastating effects of unfaith. “The primary intention of the parable,” Richard Trench attests, “is not to teach the dreadful consequences which follow on the abuse of wealth and on the hard-hearted contempt of the poor — this only subordinately— but the fearful consequences of unbelief” (445). As the rest of Scripture reveals at length, Jesus’s story in Luke 16 draws definitive attention to whom God helps — namely, God always comes close in order to help those who cannot help themselves. He comes close to Lazaruses.
Notwithstanding what you believe you’re entitled to, your only hope for an eternity of comfort and rest is the realization that you deserve nothing. “In the mystery of the kingdom,” writes Robert Capon, “it is precisely living badly — being poor and hungry and covered with repulsive sores — that turns out to be the true vehicle of saving grace” (154). As much as we might live like Dives, in reality, we are all Lazaruses. We are those who can’t for the life of us do anything to help ourselves. And yet, by faith in the incarnate Word, we are welcomed into the eternal comfort of the Christ of God.