prepared by Fr. Abraham Mutholath
From the genius teachings of Jesus came the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was a representative of the Pharisees and other elite groups of the Jews. They enjoyed life like the rich man in this parable without any care for the poor people like Lazarus. Jesus supported the weak in his words and deeds. The elite group belittled Jesus for that. So, he presented the reversal of the destiny of the non-caring rich and the God-loving poor in the life after death. The final message points to the five brothers of the rich man who represent the rich class who were alive so that they make a change in their life learning from the fate of the deceased rich man. Are we also in the shoes of those five rich brothers?
The Bible Text
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
(19) “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. (20) And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, (21) who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. (22) 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, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (24) And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ (25) Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. (26) Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ (27) He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, (28) for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ (29) But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ (30) He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ (31) Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”
This parable has two parts. The first part gives a setting of the story and conveys the reversal of fate in the afterlife for the religiously irresponsible people. The second part gives a stronger message to make a change in the life in favor of helping others for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
(19) “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus was the continuation of Jesus’ discourse to the Pharisees. “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him.” (Luke 16:14-15a). Jesus noticed how much the Pharisees loved wealth and the enjoyments it could provide. They did not consider their good fortune and resources as talents entrusted to them by God to share with the poor people like Lazarus. Their selfishness and disregard toward the poor were illustrated in the lifestyle of the rich man and Lazarus.
Purple color is a combination of blue and red like violet but visibly better than violet. Garments made of natural dyewas traditionally associated with royalty or piety and was worn by emperors of Rome, Byzantium and Japanor by highly rich and prominent people. The purple garments and fine linen were also the official dress of the high priest. The purple dye was the mucus secretion of predatory sea snails of Murex family found in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It had to be extracted from thousands of snails involving extensive human labor. So, purple garments were of high value and only rich and royal people could afford to buy them. Thus, garments made of natural dye became a status symbol.
Dress made of fine linen (byssus) was another expensive and prestigious clothing of the past. This silk dress originated in Egypt was worn by Egyptian priests. Egyptians got the material for this fine linen from India. When Pharaoh shared his power with Joseph, he dressed Joseph in robes of fine linen clothes (Genesis 41:42). When the prodigal son returned after repentance, his father dressed him with finest linen (Luke 15:22). It had double the price of gold and could stand for luxury (Luke 16:19) or moral purity (Rev. 15:6). The rich man in this parable enjoyed being dressed in fine linen like the prominent Jews who also preferred to dress well in public. The purple garments and fine linen of the rich man were highlighted to show their contrast with the dirty and torn clothes of Lazarus.
Dined sumptuously each day
The rich man had banquets with costly dishes daily with his family and friends. It was symbolic of his self-indulgence and worldly enjoyment in contrast to the hungry beggar Lazarus who was at the rich man’s gate. The elite Jews enjoyed banquets since they were living in Canaan, a fertile land. Jesus also compared the Kingdom of God to such banquets to illustrate the joy in heaven.
(20) And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
Jesus usually did not give names to characters in his parables. Lazarus was an exception. While, the beggar was named, the rich man’s name was not mentioned though he was later known as “Dives” which means rich in Latin. For God, Lazarus was more valuable, and his name was already in the Book of Life. The name Lazarus is a Latinized version of Eleazar that means “God is my helper.” Jesus gave him that name because he had no one else to help him and he trusted in God. According to Jewish tradition, name of a person was suggestive of that person’s character.
The Evangelist Luke who reported this story was a physician and was aware of the medical conditions. The body of Lazarus covered with sores could mean that he was a leper in acute stage. Leprosy produces skin sores, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. Such people were declared unclean (Leviticus 13:3). The popular belief of the past on leprosy was that it was the result of sins committed by the leper or his ancestors. Some other beggars who had pity on him because of his lack of mobility might have brought him at the location where food waste was dumped from the rich man’s table.
(21) who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
In the past, people did not use knives, forks, or napkins and were eating with bare hands. They used to wash hands in between the courses of meals. The scraps were believed to be the piecesof soft bread, instead of water, used to clean the hands in between different courses of meals. The Syrophoenician woman mentioned about this to Jesus: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” (Mark 7:28). Lazarus resolved his hunger by eating the scraps like a dog.
Dogs were unclean animals for Jews. The dogs that licked the sores of Lazarus were not the pet dogs of the rich man, but wild dogs on the street that were also there searching for food leftovers from the rich man’s table thrown in the trash. Probably, the dogs would have taken a good portion of the leftovers. Lazarus had to compete with them for food and he was one among the wild dogs. The dogs were adding to his pain because they were licking his open sores. The dogs in the parable add to the pathetic situation of Lazarus.
(22) When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,
The parable takes its turn with the death of Lazarus and the rich man. When the setting of the parablemoved to the second part of death and afterlife, the poor man was given priority. There is no mention of his burial. His body might have been dumped into the fire were all the dead bodies of animals and poor people were burnt with waste. However, what happened to his body was insignificant. What mattered was that the angels carried him to the bosom of Abraham. In contrast, when the rich man died he had a solemn and expensive burial. But, angles did not show up to take him to the glorious place.
He was carried away by angels
According to Jewish and Christianbeliefs, the angels carry the holy people to God. Angles came to carry the poor man but not the rich man.
Bosom of Abraham
The Jews who believed in the afterlife considered three terms to express the place of blessedness where the righteous would go: The Garden of Eden, the Throne of Glory, and the Bosom of Abraham. “Abraham’s bosom” was a well-known expression for the banquet of the righteous souls who were eligible to enter the Paradise. Abraham, the father of the faith, was believed to be hosting banquet for the righteous believers who reach to him. To be at the bosom of the host was the most privileged position as it was in the case of John who was reclining at Jesus’s side during the last supper (John 13:23). Lazarus reached Abraham’s bosom not because of his less fortune situation in the world, but that he kept up his faith in God during the test of poverty and sickness in his life with patience. His name “God is my helper” was expressive of his reliance on God like Job of the Old Testament.
Some Bible scholars and interpreters try to illustrate the afterlife, and the nature of heaven and hell based on this parable. That was not the intention of Jesus in teaching this parable. A parable might use popular beliefs and social settings of the time to teach a spiritual message. In this parable, Jesus affirmedthat there is life after death. It was presented as it was believed to be before Jesus ascended into heaven. However, we will understand well about the life after death only when we experience it in the life to come. Before we make a first-time travel to a foreign country, we will have only a vague idea of that nation from others or from our readings. A clear understanding will be gained only from personal experience.
(23) and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
The ancient belief was that all people who died before the coming of the Messiah would go to Hades that had two distinct compartments. The good people would go to the right side called “Abraham bosom” and others to the compartment of torment called netherworld. Those in Abraham’s bosom were waiting for the redemption to be accomplished by Jesus so that they could enter the lost paradise. After the burial of Jesus, “he also descended to the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9) which was “Abraham’s bosom” to proclaim to them good news of his accomplishment on the evil and opening of the gates of heaven (1 Peter 3: 19). Jesus did not descend to the netherworld.
Abraham’s bosom was a place of comfort and joy; whereas netherworld was a place of torment for the sinners. The rich man ended up there. From there he could see the joy of Lazarus as opposed to his torment. The rich man, from the netherworld, called Abraham who was far off from him.
Though the body of Lazarus was dumped into the fire of waist, the angels of God and Abraham received him at Hades with honor. The rich man who had an honorable and expensive funeral found that his soul was dumped into the fire of the netherworld. He was punished not because of the sins he had committed but because of his omissions. He was aware of the presence of Lazarus at his gate. Though he did not remove Lazarus from his gate, he did not take initiative to provide him a better life. The rich man’s situation is reflective of the words of Jesus on the final judgement: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” (Matthew 25: 41-43).
(24) And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
The rich man used “Father” to address Abraham showing that he was a child of Abraham, a Jew. The Jews considered Abraham as their Father. By addressing Abraham as his father, the rich man was trying to get the attention and sympathy of Abraham. According to Jewish belief, he was eligible to be at the bosom of Abraham because he had done nothing wrong, though according to Jesus he failed to consider the upliftment of Lazarus.
Have pity on me
The rich man who never showed any pity to Lazarus was seeking the permission of Father Abraham to show pity on him and send Lazarus to help him. He could find no one else to offer him any help.
Cool my tongue
The rich man had been enjoying sumptuous banquet every day. When he went to the netherworld, his most suffering was on his tongue that was used for his enjoyment of food and drinks.
(25) Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
The rich man had addressed “Father” Abraham. In reply, Abraham responded, “My Child” recognizing that the rich man was a child of Abraham. However, Abraham was helpless to rescue the rich man from his desperate situation in the afterlife. Though the rich man was born in the family of Abraham, he turned out not to be a spiritual son of Abraham. Jesus was warning the Jews, who claimed salvation because of their birthright that without their conscious effort to be in the spirit of Abraham and following the laws of Moses, they could not attain the Kingdom of God. The same is applicable to Christians who became children of God through baptism. The sacraments of Initiation are needed for salvation, but they alone cannot make us inheritors of the Kingdom of God unless we live according to Christ’s teachings.
You received what was good during your lifetime
The rich man was rewarded for all the good he had done with the temporal goods during his life on the earth. He did not save it for the afterlife by being altruistic.
Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here
The bad things that Lazarus faced during his lifetime was not punishment for his sins. Rather, he successfully overcame the test in life by keeping up his trust in God. It also communicated the message for those who had bad situations in life to keep their trust in God believing in the reward to come in the afterlife. Above all, those who were suffering because of their faith or because of their missionary work of Jesus had better life waiting for them. Jesus promised to those who became poor for the sake of the Kingdom of God: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29).
You are tormented
There was reversal of life experience in the afterlife between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man who had an enjoyable life on earth was tormented; whereas Lazarus who had sufferings in life was comforted at Abraham’s bosom. This was an indication of what would happen to Pharisees and the elite group who call Abraham as their Father and involved in extravaganza ignoring the helpless people like Lazarus. “Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”(Matthew 19:23-24).
(26) Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’
The rich man was a son of Abraham. However, even Abraham, the father of faith could not save him from his condemned state. Abraham could not bring the rich man to his bosom, nor send Lazarus to the rich man to comfort him with water as he had requested. After our death, there cannot be any transfer of people from hell to heaven or from heaven to hell. So, we need to do the good we can to reach heaven while we are alive in this world.
Comparison of the rich man and Lazarus
- The rich man’s name is not given in the parable symbolizing that his name was not in the Book of Life. The name of the poor man is in God’s book of life and is given as Lazarus which means “God is my helper.”
- The rich man relied on his wealth; whereas Lazarus trusted in God as his name indicates.
- The rich man had costly dress including purple garments and fine linen clothes; whereas Lazarus was half naked with dirty and torn clothes.
- The rich man was selfish and led a luxurious life; whereas Lazarus lived as a beggar and even lived among the dogs searching for leftovers from the trash.
- The rich man had a solemn burial; whereas Lazarus’ body was abandoned and dumped into fire.
- Angels ignored the rich man’s soul; whereas the they took Lazarus to the bosom of Abraham.
- Lazarus had joyful life at Abraham’s bosom; whereas the rich man was tormented in the netherworld.
- Lazarus had no vision of hell to witness any suffering; whereas the rich man was tormented when he saw the joy of Lazarus and thought about the fate of his five brothers who were still alive leading a selfish life.
(27) He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house,
A double-edged parable
This parable, like the parable of the prodigal son, is considered as a double-edged parable because it has two parts with double message. The message of the first part was that people involved in luxury without concern for others would be tormented in the afterlife, whereas people who trust in God amid suffering or take up suffering for the Kingdom of God would be comforted in the afterlife. The second part of this parable deals with the five brothers of the rich man who were also self-centered and representatives of the Pharisees during Jesus’ public ministry. Their fate, if they did not repent, was the main emphasis of the parable. For a double-edged parable, the message of the second part has precedence over the first.
I beg you, father
The rich man accepted the fact that he could not find any relief in the afterlife and that his punishment was everlasting. He then began to be concerned about his five brothers who were still alive enjoying worldly life as he had done in the past. He wanted to warn them from his experience so that they could be saved from coming to that place of torment.
The rich man was sure that he would not be sent back to the world to communicate the message on afterlife experience. He thought Father Abraham might consider sending Lazarus with the message of salvation. Thus, though too late, the rich man began to respect Lazarus and began to be altruistic towards his brothers.
(28) for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’
Why did Jesus pick number five for the brothers? It is a matter of uncertainty among scholars. It is interpreted as the five senses that were misused by men, or the five books of Torah that were violated by the brothers. The five brothers plus the rich man when alive constituted six which was an imperfect number. They could become perfect only by honoring the gifts of five senses and five books of Moses by sharing their resources with the spiritually perfect and physically imperfect people like Lazarus. The six brothers plus Lazarus would have become the perfect number seven. But they did not make Lazarus one among them.
(29) But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’
The laws of Moses in the Pentateuch and the teaching of the prophets were the major teachings of the Old Testament. According to Abraham, they were sufficient message for the five brothers and those who like them were leading life contrary to God’s commandments. That was also the message of Jesus to his listeners.
(30) He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ (31) Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”
The rich man thought that if Lazarus went back from the dead and warned his brothers who represent the Pharisees, they might change their lives. In fact, Jesus had raised another Lazarus from the dead after four days of his burial (John 11:38-44). His life story did not change the lives of Pharisees and their colleagues. Though many believed in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests were ignited to kill Jesus and Lazarus (John 12:9-11). Jesus himself rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. The soldiers who guarded the tomb of Jesus had shared their experience of the resurrection of Jesus. Still the chief priests and elders bribed the soldiers to tell lie rather than believing in Jesus (Matthew 28:11-15). Thus, Father Abraham was right in his answer to the rich man. Those who had rejected Jesus, would reject Lazarus, if he was sent from the dead.
- The rich man in the parable was a righteous one in the eyes of Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed this parable. His only negativity was that he ignored Lazarus and enjoyed life in luxury. The Pharisees never considered it as a sin. Theybelieved that their comfort in lifewasgift from God for their “righteousness” and descendance from Abraham. Like the Pharisees, we also would be tempted to be self-centered. Jesus said: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.” (Luke 6: 24-25). We need to be altruistic and share our resources, including our wealth, health, time and talents, for the wellbeing of others.
- Lazarus was a man with no hope and full of suffering. He did not complain but was patient and relied on God. God’s angles were guarding him during his test and took him to Abraham’s bosom immediately after his life on earth. Regardless of how insignificant or wretched we are in this world, we are under God’s eye viewand guards of His angels. God will reward us for our faithfulness to him. “And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry,for you will be satisfied.Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6: 20-21)
- When working hard for the Kingdom of God, we might be persecuted or become poor, sick, or dependent on others. Jesus said: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:10-12).
- Like the rich man in this parable, a Christian has the privilege to call God “The Father” by baptism. However, the reversal of life situation of rich man and Lazarus can happen also for us Christians. Unless we practice the Christian faith and charity, we cannot be among the chosen people in heaven. We need to remember the yardstick of final judgement in Matthew 25:31-46.
- The five brothers, who lived like the rich man when he was alive in the world, represent us. We need a constant review of our lives and assure that we are faithful followers of Jesus practicing the virtue of charity based on our faith and hope in God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.