Culpepper well describes this parable as a drama in three acts (Luke, 316):
- Act 1 – a tableau during which the characters are introduced and their way of life is described, but nothing happens
- Act 2 – the rich become poor and the poor become rich as each character has died and received their eternal reward
- Act 3 – narration give way to dialogue, but between the rich man and Abraham, in three exchanges:
- about the finality of judgment
- about the witness of Moses and the prophets
- about the blindness that prevents even the Resurrection from leading to conversion
Act 1 – The Tableau. The first three verses contain a sharp contrast in description between Lazarus and the unnamed “lover of money.”
- The rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen where Lazarus is covered with sores or ulcers
- The rich man “dined sumptuously each day” while Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the table, but can’t.
- The rich man lives a privileged life while Lazarus ebeblêto pros ton pulôna, literally, “had been thrown before the gate” of the rich man’s house.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the first word in a Greek phrase is a position of stress, as is the last word in a phrase. Even the Lucan grammar seems to stress the contrast between the two men:
- The first word in v. 19 is anthropos = “a person” and the last word in the phrase is plousios = “rich”
- where the first word in v. 20 is ptochos = “poor,” the last word in the phrase is “Lazarus,” a name meaning “God helps”
Perhaps Luke is making the point that “the poor” were not considered “people;” as well the rich depend upon themselves whereas the poor depend on God.
The rich man is splendidly robed and feasts on the finest foods (see Note below re: v.19) – a clear echo of the parable of the Rich Fool who is well satisfied: “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” (12:19). As the parable makes clear the flash and pomp of the rich man’s life in no way reflects the eternal glory that awaits the faithful.
Lazarus is the only character ever named in a parable. As mentioned above, the name means “God helps” and thus foreshadows Lazarus’ liberation even as its ironically contrasts his life – no one in this life helps Lazarus. He has been cast away at the rich man’s gate. He is a cripple beggar covered with sores and in the end dies. Green  comments about names:
… the fact that this poor, crippled man has a name at all is highly significant. The poor man’s only claim to status is that he is named in the story; this alone raises the hope that there is more to his story than that of being subhuman. The wealthy man, on the other hand, has no name; perhaps this is Jesus’ way of inviting his money-loving listeners to provide their own!
In our tableau the two characters live with a “stone’s throw” of each other and yet they never meet, never speak, nor are in any way neighbors. One is reminded of Jesus’ question to scribe (scholar of the law) in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which of these three [priest, Levite, Samaritan], in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?’ He answered, ‘The one who treated him with mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Our two main characters loved entirely separate lives, divided at table and divided by a gate.
Act 2 – The Rich Become Poor and the Poor Become Rich. The Act is briefly told and simply describes the fate of our two characters. “When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and from the netherworld, where he was in torment…” (vv.22-23a). We are not told how Lazarus died. Was it starvation? Again we are reminded of Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees. “Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (14:12-14). Was it exposure and hypothermia while the rich man slept nearby? Infected sores while the rich enjoyed baths and healing ointments? Perhaps weakened and unable to defend himself, the dogs took his life.
However his life ended, Lazarus is taken by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. Nothing is said of a burial which brings to mind the bodily translations of Enoch (Gen 5:24), Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Moses (Jewish legends) to their eternal rewards. Neglected by others, Lazarus is prized in the sight of God.
The rich man also died – again we are left to speculate by what cause – but notably, he is buried, perhaps “thrown” into his grave as was Lazarus at the gate.
Luke 16:19 rich man: The oldest Greek manuscript of Luke dating from ca. A.D. 175–225 records the name of the rich man as an abbreviated form of “Nineveh,” but there is very little textual support in other manuscripts for this reading. The rich man is popularly known as “Dives” which is the Latin Vulgate’s translation for “rich man.”
purple garments and fine linen: Cloth dyed purple was costly and made from the extract of shellfish murex. So prized was murex purple dye for its commercial value that the Hebrew term ˒argāmān acquired the sense of “tribute” in both Ugaritic and Hittite. Hittite sources reveal that such payment was made in the form of purple garments for the king, queen, crown prince, and ministers of the court. Purple cloth would be used for the outer garment. The use of fine linen for the other garments indicates that the rich man enjoyed the ultimate in luxury. The phrase is reminiscent of Prov. 31:22, suggesting that he lived like a king
dined sumptuously each day: “Dining sumptuously” is not necessarily bad. The same word, euphraino, is used four times of the “celebration” the waiting father hosted for his prodigal son (15:23, 24, 29, 32). The emphasis in the phrase is its combination with “each day” and echoes Amos 6:4-7.
Luke 16:20 lying at his door: The Greek is ebeblêto pros ton pulôna, literally, “had been thrown before the gate.” The verb is passive, thus others (unnamed) dumped Lazarus at the rich man’s gate – perhaps other rich people who did want Lazarus at their gate? friends of Lazarus?
poor man: the use of word ptōchós (poor, destitute) in such close conjunction with ploúsios (wealthy, rich) gives us the suggestion that this parable is a narrative rendering of the first Beatitude and woe of Luke 6:20-24.
Lazarus: The name of Lazarus, an abbreviated transcription of El-azar (“God helps”), appears in the NT only in the gospel of John and this parable. It is the only proper name to appear in a NT parable attributed to Jesus.
Luke 16:21 would gladly have eaten his fill: epithymōn chortasthēnai (literally, desired/lusted to be filled). Luke poignantly describes the poor man’s condition with graphic, illustrative terms. The root verb chortazō is derived from chortos, a Greek word for “grass, green crops, hay.” Normally chortazō is used to describe animals eating. It is used of people in case instances: (a) to describe Jesus’ miraculous feeding (Matt 14:20; 15:37; Mark 6:42; similarly 8:8; Luke 9:17; John 6:26) and (b) figuratively of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6; cf. also Ps 17:15). Elsewhere the word brōsis (to eat, eat a meal) is used.
Dogs evenused…lick his sores: This reference echoes OT passages in which dogs consume the dead (cf. 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:24; Ps. 22:15–16; Jer. 15:3)
Luke 16:22 he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham: The traditional translation takes kólpos (bosom, lap) to mean “bosom” although elsewhere (6:34) the term is translated as “lap.” The expression “bosom of Abraham” is found only in Luke and may derive from the ancient Biblical idea of being gathered to one’s people at death (cf. Gen 49:3; Num 27:13; Judges 2:10) – especially pointing to Abraham the Father of the faithful.
In Jewish legends regarding the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons (2 Maccabees 7), the martyrs were brought to the bosom of Abraham, a place the legends regard as the place of highest bliss.
Luke 16:23 the netherworld: hádēs is normally a colorless term, signifying the abode of all the departed whether good or bad – most often used to translate the Hebrew Sheol, the realm of the dead. In the OT this term came to denote the place of temporary sojourn prior to resurrection (cf. Is. 26:19). In later Judaism, hádēs is the place the good were separated from the bad (Eth. En. 22) and where the good were finally thought to be comforted and content.
In the New Testament era the associations of hádēs with dead the continues but begins to be understood differently in the light of the Resurrection – the term is never used of the saved. Here it seems to be equivalent to Gehenna, the place of punishment, for the rich man was in torment. Nonetheless, one goes down into Hades (Mt. 11:23; 12:40), but stay is limited (Rev. 20:13). Sometimes all the dead seem to be in Hades (Acts 2:27), but elsewhere believers are in paradise, or with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), or under the altar (Rev. 7:9); hádēs is sometimes just the abode of the wicked (Rev. 20:13-14). Scripture is clear that Jesus is the Lord of Hades (Mt. 16:18; Acts 2:31). Distinctive here is that Christ preaches in Hades (1 Pet. 3: 19ff.) and that he has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18).
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 314-20
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 598-610
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 249-53
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985).
- Jeremias, hádēs, Vol. I:146-49
- Hauck, ebeblêto pros ton pulôna, Vol. I:526-29
- Meyer, kólpos, Vol. III:824-26
- Hauck, ptōchós, Vol. VI:885-87
Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993) – chortazō, Vol. 3:470
David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992) – Frederick W. Danker, ˒argāmān, Vol. 5:557
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989) – chásma, Vol. 1:11.
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm