What Is the Meaning of Lazarus and the Rich Man?

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man continues Jesus’ teaching that God’s values are the opposite of the world’s values. God does not reward those who seek their own gain, but those who seek the gain of others.

Lucas Hagen
two men standing on islands one with a lush tree and a barren tree

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16 can be quite confusing, and even troubling for modern readers. While it is a parable and is meant to teach and illustrate a larger point, Jesus is very specific in detail.

What does this parable even mean, and why is it important for Christians to understand today? Let’s explore this passage verse-by-verse in order to understand exactly what Jesus is teaching, and why it is still important today.

Bible Meaning of Lazarus and the Rich Man

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores (Luke 16:19-21).

For the Pharisees whom Jesus was teaching, the images Jesus portrays at the beginning of His parable would immediately evoke certain emotions. They would have had great respect for the rich man Jesus describes.

They viewed wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Although Jesus mentions nothing at this point about the rich man’s character, they would have assumed that he is a righteous man, who has gained his wealth by God’s very provision.

In contrast, they would have viewed the beggar as one who, not only is sick but must be despised by God. They viewed poverty and illness as condemnation from God. The beggar must have some sort of sin that has caused him to end up the way he is.

Note that this is the only time in any of Jesus’ parables in which a character is given a name. This places special emphasis on Lazarus in this parable and suggests to some that this situation actually happened.

Jesus clearly conveys the desperate situation of Lazarus. He simply begged for food and would accept any scraps that he could get from the rich man’s table, of which he probably never got any.

The dogs Jesus refers to here are not friendly household pets licking Lazarus out of affection, but dangerous, dirty wild animals savagely harassing his mangled body. This is an image of complete and utter destitution.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side (Luke 16:22-23).

Lazarus and the rich man both die. Note the contrast in detail. Lazarus’ body is never buried. No one was willing to shell out any money for his burial. However, despite his pitiful condition, he is brought to Abraham’s side, confirming that he is in heaven, in the presence of God.

On the other hand, the rich man was buried, likely implying a lavish funeral attended by many people. However, he is not brought to Abraham’s side. He finds himself in Hades, looking over a chasm to see Lazarus sitting with Abraham, wondering why he is so far away.

So, he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24).

The merciless rich man cries out for mercy from Abraham. However, his unrepentance is clear. He knows Lazarus’ name. He knew who the beggar was while he was on Earth, yet never did anything to help him or care for him.

He still thinks that he is better than Lazarus. Even in the afterlife, he goes on a power trip and tries to boss Lazarus around, telling Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his pain. He has earned his spot in Hades, and his temperament has not changed despite his cry for mercy.

Heavenly Riches vs. Worldly Riches

But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:25-26).

The great reversal is a common theme in the gospels. Jesus continually teaches that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16; Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25).

Abraham explains that the rich man received many rewards on earth, whereas Lazarus received torment and suffering. But now, Lazarus is rewarded with comfort and peace, whereas the rich man has received agony and despair.

Jesus describes a chasm between those in the presence of God and those condemned to separation from God and everything that is good and holy.

Those who rejected God on Earth now can see what they have rejected and are in constant torment over their wasted opportunities on Earth. The fates of those in heaven and hell are irreversible.

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).

The rich man continues to try and boss Lazarus around, telling Abraham to send Lazarus to his family. The rich man believes that if Lazarus were to be resurrected, then he could serve as a sign to the rich man’s family so that they do not suffer the same fate.

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them” (Luke 16:29).

Moses and the Prophets refer to the Old Testament. The New Testament is clear in its teaching that the entire Old Testament testifies of Jesus.

The rich man’s family does not need Lazarus to rise from the dead in order to know about Christ, they only need the Old Testament texts, which they already have.

“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent” (Luke 16:30).

The rich man complains, saying that God’s Word is not enough. He really thinks that Lazarus coming alive will somehow spark faith in his family.

However, the lack of faith for both the rich man and his family is not due to a lack of sufficient evidence but is rather due to their hardness of heart as a result of unrepentance.

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

Abraham concludes with confirmation that Moses and the Prophets are all that they need in order to come to saving faith. Their repentance will not be the result of a miraculous resurrection or more information. Their hearts are hardened, just like the rich man.

Why Is the Story of Lazarus Important for Christians Today?

This parable continues Jesus’ teaching that God’s values are the opposite of the world’s values. God does not merit salvation to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and humble. God does not reward those who seek their own gain, but those who seek the gain of others.

This parable is a call to Jesus’ listeners to repent. Jesus uses this teaching to show the “upside-down” values of the Kingdom of God and to call his listeners to abandon their worldly way of thinking and judging.

Wealth does not indicate that one is saved and blessed by God. Suffering does not indicate that one is condemned by God. He rewards humility and repentance.

This is a message that Christians in the 21st century need to hear. We often see people who are successful, healthy, or wealthy and think, “Wow they are so blessed.” However, Jesus teaches just the opposite.

Shortly after this parable, Luke records Jesus saying,

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

Jesus does not value material wealth. Rather, he consistently teaches that wealth is a hindrance to salvation and holiness.

This directly contradicts what many Christians hear and believe today. Wealth is not a sign of God’s blessing; in fact, it may be just the opposite.

What God valued before, and what He still values are humility, repentance, and righteousness.

This is what Christians need to be seeking and is why Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is still relevant today.

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headshot of author Lucas HagenLucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.

Originally published November 24, 2020.