In Luke 16, Jesus tells a fascinating story about two contrasting characters: one who lives in luxury, and the other who lives in extreme poverty and, unlike all the other parables Jesus tells, in this particular narrative, one of the characters is actually given a name. The poor man’s name is Lazarus and, as you make your way into the story, it almost appears as if the rich man ends up suffering in the afterlife because of his great wealth and that the poor man is comforted at Abraham’s side because of his poverty. For example, in verse 25, Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
The odd thing about this way of framing the story, however, is that, in Genesis 13, Abraham is described as a wealthy man. Verse 2 tells us that he was “very rich in livestock, silver, and gold” and that his possessions were so great, that “he wasn’t able to stay together with his cousin Lot as they entered the promised land because the land could not support both of them with all their flocks, herds and tents” (Gen 13:6). Indeed, as you make your way in to Genesis 14, you also discover that Abraham is not only wealthy, but he also happens to be the leader of a small army of 318 trained men. No wonder he was formally received by kings whenever he entered a new country.
If this is the case, however, how is it that the same Abraham can say to the rich man in this parable that, since he had received so many good things during his lifetime in contrast to Lazarus, that it is only fair for everything to be reversed in the afterlife? If Genesis 13:2 describes Abraham as “a very rich and wealthy man” during his lifetime, shouldn’t he also be forced to suffer with the rich man of Jesus’ parable?
There are other difficulties with this story as well. For example, according to Daniel 12, at the time of the end, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Yet, in Jesus’ parable, no one appears to be sleeping as they await the promise of a future resurrection. In fact, everyone seems to be fully conscious and awake already. Finally, the geography of the afterlife is rather strange as well. Heaven and hell appear to be in close proximity, separated only by an impenetrable chasm. They are so close in fact that Abraham and this rich man are able to carry on a lengthy conversation. As a result of all this, I am convinced with those who say that all these elements help us to understand that this is not a literal depiction of the afterlife, but is merely a story that Jesus tells in order to make a point. Further, if you know something about Jesus’ parables, often the point he ends up driving home ends up shocking his hearers.
The Parable In Its Broader Context
First of all, I think it is important to read Luke 16 in light of its own historical context. In other words, how would Jesus’ story be received by members of his original audience? According to Richard Bauckham, the tale Jesus tells was, in the first century, a familiar one.1 There are not only Jewish versions of this story, but also Egyptian and Greco-Roman versions as well. Across all the iterations, the general outline of the story is rather similar. A rich man and a poor man die (usually on the same day) and in the afterlife they experience a kind of reversal of fortune.
It is somewhat like the popular Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. Because of the popularity of this story, most of us are familiar with its characters and plot line. Now, imagine for a moment that you and your family decided to attend a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol, and that you quickly began to notice that this particular showing was in fact a very loose adaption that carried with it various political overtones. What would you think, for example, if Ebenezer Scrooge looked and sounded a lot like a famous contemporary politician? What if little catch phrases sprinkled in here and there began to make it clear that this version of the play was designed to make a political point? Well, in such a case, your reaction to the story would depend a lot on your political persuasion. If you found that your favorite politician was the one being criticized, you would likely be shocked, but if the one receiving the brunt of criticism ended up being your favorite political villain, it is quite possible that you would find yourself enjoying the play.
The Parable In Its Biblical Context
Though the analogy is far from perfect, I think it might actually give us a hint of what is happening in Luke 16. Jesus tells this well-known story about two characters whose fortunes are reversed in the afterlife, not in order to give us a literal description of heaven and hell, but in order to comment on the complete and utter blindness of Israel’s corrupt leadership. This could help to explain why the parable gives the impression that the rich man goes to Hades simply because he was wealthy. Jesus was not actually promoting that view of salvation, but was adapting a popular story which originally did promote that perspective. So then, how should we read and evaluate this parable? Well, if Jesus is retelling a well-known story, I suggest we look at the ways in which he adapts and changes the narrative for his own purposes.
In Luke 16:19, Jesus says, “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Because we live in a very affluent culture, I think we often miss the point of this verse. Though purple is relatively common in our own day, it was actually quite rare and hard to come by in first century Judea, which is why it is typically associated with royalty. For example, in the book of Esther, when Mordecai was elevated to the king’s right hand, we are told in chapter 8 that he was given “a robe of fine linen and purple.” We could also think of a text such as Lk 7:24–25 in which Jesus asked the crowd about John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in king’s courts!”
The rich man of Jesus’ parable is described in a similar way. According to Jesus, this points not only his great wealth, but also his power and prestige. This man is clothed in purple and fine linen, and feasts sumptuously every day. In other words, he might not only be rich, but more likely than not, he is a man of nobility as well. Yet there is another connection that we are likely to miss. In the first century, kings and emperors were also priests. In fact, one of the titles of the Roman Emperor was “Pontifex Maximus,” which means, “the highest priest.” In Judea, however, though the priesthood had always been kept distinct from the office of kingship, it was no less royal.2
Josephus indicates that, in the first century, it was actually common for the daughters of the high priests to be given in marriage to members of the Herodian dynasty.3 That is because both the Herodians and the high priests were considered to be royal office bearers. With this in mind, we should also recall that the garment of the high priest was to be made of “blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen” (Ex 28:8). Josephus describes a scene in which all the Levitical priests wore white garments made of “fine linen, while the high priest was arrayed in purple and scarlet clothing.”4 With all this background information, at the very least it seems possible that Jesus is not only describing a wealthy man, but perhaps even a royal office bearer, or the high priest himself.
In verses 20–21 of Luke 16, Jesus says, “At this man’s gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” As a rule, Jesus speaks in generalities in his parables, but here we find an exception to this rule as Jesus calls this poor man “Lazarus,” which is a short form of the name Eleazar, which means “God helps.” This was a very common name in first century Judea and it certainly appears to be an apt name for this particular character, who was not helped at all by the rich man, but who was finally helped by God in the afterlife. This may be one of those small differences that Jesus introduces in order contrast his version of the story with other popular versions. For example, in the Rabbinic version of this popular tale, what is often emphasized is the wickedness of the rich man in contrast to the righteousness of the poor man, but this kind of moralizing is completely absent from Jesus’ story. Perhaps by naming the poor man, Lazarus, Jesus is revealing to us that salvation is by grace. God does not help those who help themselves—no, God helps completely helpless people, like Lazarus.
Now, according to Jesus’ parable, Lazarus was comforted at Abraham’s side when he died, whereas the wealthy man clothed in purple and fine linen was tormented. It is interesting that in verse 24 the rich man calls out saying, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” particularly when contrasted with the meaning of Lazarus’ name. God has mercy on whom he will have mercy—he is the one who helps—and yet, what do we find the rich man doing? He is not asking God for help, but is found praying to a saint. In other words, even in the midst of his great turmoil, God remains far from his heart, and he clings to false religion. Many Jews of this period did in fact put their trust in Abraham, whose merit was viewed as the root and source of their salvation.5 But as you look closely at the promises revealed to this founding patriarch, it was not in Abraham himself, but in his seed, that the world would one day be blessed. 6
When the rich man is told that nothing can be done to change his fate, he says in verses 27–28, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” Here again, Jesus has added his own unique material to the popular morality tale. In particular, he says that this rich man has “a father and five brothers.” That is oddly specific language.
Part 2 (the link will be live when the article is posted).
1. Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. Supplements to Novum Testamentum, V. 93 (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 97–118.
2. See for example 1 Peter 2:9 in which refers to New Testament saints as “a royal priesthood.” In short, he’s using old covenant imagery to describe new covenant realities.
3. Josephus, Antiquities., 15.9.3, 17.1.2, 17.3.2, 18.5.1–4.
4. Ant. 11:331
5. See for example Targum Ps. Jonathan Gen 26:24, Dt 2:19; Targum Neofiti, Gen 26:24, Num 23:9, Est. 1:2, 5:1.
6. Gen 22:17–18, 26:4, Gal 3:15–18.
©Shane Rosenthal. All Rights Reserved.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to:
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Is Faith Irrational?
- Our Salvation Is By Grace Alone