ESSAY
Lazarus and the Rich Man
POSTED
July 4, 2019

The parable of Lazarus and the nameless rich man is not an independent story. It is part of a long context that begins in Luke 15:1, where Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and the scribes and Pharisees grumble. In response to their hardheartedness, Jesus tells a three-part parable about God rejoicing at the repentance of sinners — the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. 

We must note that in contrast to the first two parts of the parable, the final part of the trilogy has no ending. We are not told if the older son joins the party or is reconciled to his father or brother. Why this ending? It is meant to provoke thought. Even more, like the father’s words to the older son, it is an invitation for the scribes and Pharisees to rejoice with Jesus that the sinners have come home. 

Then, Jesus tells another parable, ostensibly directed to the disciples (Luke 16:1). This one is more difficult since it is about an unjust manager who is praised in spite of the fact that he misused his master’s funds. The paradoxical parable ends, however, with the lesson that one cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13)! The Pharisees apparently had been listening all along and since they were lovers of money, they were offended at the very un-paradoxical ending of the parable, so they ridiculed Jesus (Luke 16:14). 

Jesus rebuked them quite directly, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). The use of the word “justify” — the famous Pauline word (Rom 2:13; 3:4, 20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5; 5:1, 9; 6:7; 8:30, 33; etc.) — links this verse with a previous use in Luke: “And when all the people heardHim,even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John” (7:29). Those who received the baptism of John the Baptizer justified God; the Pharisees justified themselves (cf. Luke 18:4). 

This is the key for the logical connection with the next verse (16:16). Jesus immediately reminds them of the ministry of John the Baptizer, stating that he was the beginning of a new movement in the program of God. The law and prophets were till John, but now the kingdom is being preached and everyone is forcing his way in — another allusion to Luke 7:29. “All the people,” including the tax collectors, were baptized by John. Taking the arduous trip to the Jordan river to be baptized by John evidenced the extreme effort exhibited by the multitudes (Matthew 3:5; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:7) to enter the kingdom of God. 

Though Jesus reminded the Pharisees that a new age had dawned with John the Baptizer, He immediately affirmed the abiding authority of the law and prophets (16:17) and then gave direct instruction that applied the law and prophets to an issue that would have been embarrassing to the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke against divorce and remarriage, He was addressing a problem that had been central to Israel’s history since the return from the exile, as Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi and the fights among Rabbinic schools testify. 

Over and again, Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the question of who is really following the law and the prophets. 

At this point, Jesus offers another parable (the third for this audience): the parable about Lazarus. Some object that it is not a parable because Lazarus is named, but I understand the name to be symbolic. Jesus is not speaking of an historical individual, but of a type of person to be contrasted with the rich man, with whom the parable begins. 

The words “There was a certain rich man” echo the first words of the previous parable (Luke 16:1), indicating the connection between the two. But unlike the previous “vanilla” rich man, this rich man is special. 

First, his clothing is noted: “clothed in purple and fine linen.” We might read this and simply think Jesus is telling us that the man was extremely rich, and commentators regularly explain how expensive these clothes must have been. Indeed. But Jesus is saying much more. 

In fact, the Greek words (and the English) for “purple” and “fine linen” are paired relatively frequently in Scripture. We might not note the pair because we are not familiar enough with the Old Testament, but we have a similar phenomenon in modern America. If someone says “red, white, and blue,” we immediately picture the American flag and perhaps also “Uncle Sam.” The conceptual link is immediate and inescapable for most of us. 

For the ancient people of Israel, “purple and fine linen” are similarly powerful cultural symbols, for these two words are used first and most frequently to refer to the tabernacle and the clothing of the Aaronic priest — the high priest being a sort of walking, talking tabernacle (Exod 25:4; 26:1, 31, 36; 27:16; 28:5, 8, 15, 33; 31:4; 35:6, 25; 36:9-10, 12, 15, 31, 36; 37:3, 5, 16). The rich man in Jesus parable is dressed like the high priest and, rather less important, like royalty (Esther 8:15). This is the beginning of deep irony. 

After describing his clothing, Jesus tells of his daily diet: “he rejoiced in feasting” (Luke 16:19). My translation is intended to indicate that the Greek word used here is also intended by Jesus to be a link to the LXX, for like “purple and fine linen,” this is a term with background. In the law of Moses, this is used repeatedly for the rejoicing at the Jewish festivals (Lev 23:40; Deut 12:7, 12, 18; 14:26; 16:11, 14–15; 20:6; 24:5; 26:11; 27:7). In other words, this too is not “neutral” vocabulary. The rich man’s daily diet is described in language that intentionally calls to mind the Jewish festival calendar and the rejoicing at Yahweh’s feasts. 

So, in this parable, we are introduced to a man who, like the high priest, dressed like a walking tabernacle and feasted daily as if he were enjoying the celebration of Israel’s great feasts — symbols of God’s blessing on His people. He could be a hero of the Pharisees. 

The contrast with the next man, therefore, could hardly be greater. Lazarus was extremely poor, his body was full of sores, and he was so weak that someone had laid him at the gate of the rich man (Luke 16:20). In fact, he was so desperately hungry, he desired to eat the small crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table — linking his story to that of the prodigal son in his great distress (Luke 15:16). 

The Greek word for the “boils” on this man’s body is the same one used in the LXX for the plague of boils on Egypt. His poverty, weakness, and hunger — not to mention unclean dogs licking his wounds — all seem to point to a man cursed of God. No doubt the Pharisees would have thought so on the first impression. 

There is only one glitch here. His name is “Lazarus” — a shortened form of Eliezer or Eleazar, two forms of the same name. Eliezer and Eleazar mean something like “God helped.” It is the name of Aaron’s son, who became high priest after him (Numbers 20:25-26), and Moses’ son (Exodus 18:4). Why should a man who outwardly appears in every way to be cursed of God be named with such an exalted name? 

There was another man whose body was covered with boils who provides an answer: Job (Job 2:7). To the eyes of all the world, he was the man cursed of God, but in the end, Job was the one God helped. 

The introduction to the story is a trap. The Pharisees would automatically assume the rich man is the one approved of God, a man like themselves, and that the poor man, the unclean “dog-man,” was like the sinners and tax collectors eating with Jesus, men under God’s curse. Of course, they would be automatically making the right associations, but they misinterpret what is happening, as the reversal in the conclusion shows. 

The rich man ends in torment — a warning to the Pharisees. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom, meaning that now he is feasting with Abraham (cf. John 13:23). The rich man wants Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers, but that has already happened in the story of the prodigal son. The dead son returned, but the older Pharisaical brother did not repent. 

If men will not hear Moses and the prophets — twice alluded to, so that the Pharisees do not miss the message — even another Lazarus rising from the dead will not help (cf. John 11). Not even Jesus own unique and full resurrection from the dead will turn their hearts. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. 

There was no conclusion to the story of the prodigal son. The Pharisees, who are like the older brother, are left to contemplate what should be the outcome. Now, the story has a conclusion, but it is not that the Pharisees are doomed. It is another call for the Pharisees to repent, for they are the five brothers who still have a chance if they will only hear Moses and the prophets — not to mention Jesus! 

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

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