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Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Or “Dives” and Lazarus) - Luke 16

Updated on March 17, 2017
japtaker profile image

Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

Lazarus at the Rich Man's Gate, by Gustave Dor
Lazarus at the Rich Man's Gate, by Gustave Dor | Source

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke16:19-31) is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables, but is also one of the most difficult to interpret. For example, what does “Abraham’s Bosom” really represent, besides it’s varying connotations within myths of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism? Why is the rich man in torment? Is this a polemic against worldly wealth in general, or against something else entirely?

I believe that Jesus spoke this parable against the sort of religious pride by which some people set themselves apart from others, as separate from or better than them. If we set ourselves apart as better than others, we are not loving them. So this parable presents a teaching that is still very relevant today. But before I discuss the meaning of the parable in more detail, I must address those who don’t perceive this to be a parable at all, but some kind of historical account of a thing that actually happened.

I’m not sure where the idea came from, or how many people think it: that by telling this story, Jesus was intending to give a literal history of something that happened. It seems that many people almost use this parable as a way to get some kind of picture of the “afterlife” for good people vs. bad people. But since this is a parable, I don’t think we can get any picture of the afterlife from it at all. The physical environment in the parable is symbolic. This is not unusual in parables. Consider the parables in the chapter right before the chapter with the rich man and Lazarus. In Luke, chapter fifteen, there is first a story about a lost sheep, and then about a lost coin. The physical elements of these stories (sheep/coin), however, were symbolic of people. They weren’t literal.

Some Evidence it is a Parable

That this is a parable, not a historical account, seems unavoidable to me. Here is a list of a few reasons:

1. I can think of no other place in the New Testament where Christ gives such an extensive narrative of anything, in the past tense, and it is not a story/parable. If you know of an example to the contrary, please leave me a comment, so I may correct this.

2. This parable begins exactly the same way as the parable immediately before it, at the beginning of Luke 16: "there was a certain rich man".

3. The name "Lazarus" seems to be allegorical. Lazarus means "God is my help". The beggar was not helped by people in his lifetime, but in the end, God helped him and gave him comfort. So it seems more likely that Jesus included a name for this character, not to suggest that he was a historical figure, but to enrich the symbolism of the parable. There are other places in the scriptures where people are given names in parables. Turn to Ezekiel 23:1-4 for an example.

Phlegethon (a river in Hades), by Gustave Dor
Phlegethon (a river in Hades), by Gustave Dor

4. The word sometimes translated "hell" in this passage is the Greek word "Hades", which was the Hellenic (that is, "pagan") conception of the underworld, where all souls went after they died, regardless of whether they were good or bad. Are we to assume that Jesus actually believed in the "pagan" view of the afterlife, seeing as how the word "Hades" is used here? Most likely, Jesus used a word in his own language comparable to "Hades". This would have been "Sheol", which simply refers to the grave, or the shadowy abode of all the dead, regardless of whether they were good or bad.

5. The parable ends with the words, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” This seems to be an obvious reference to the fact that the Jewish religious leaders would not believe in Jesus even after he rose from the dead, seeing that they didn’t believe in Him from reading the Jewish scriptures. In John 5:39, Jesus tells these same people that they search the scriptures--the Jewish scriptures, that is, Moses and the prophets--thinking they will find in them eternal life, when all along Moses and the prophets point to Him, and they refuse to come to Him and have life.

The Rich Man

So what is symbolized by the things in this parable? Let’s begin with the rich man, who is sometimes called Dives, because “dives” is the Latin word for “rich man”. He is described as being clothed in “purple and fine linen”. In that culture, purple clothing was a symbol of royalty, and linen was to be worn by the priests. 1 Peter 2:9 refers to those who believe in Jesus as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” This echoes the perception the Jews had of themselves. They saw themselves as the chosen people of earth, destined both to rule and to mediate as priests between God and man. When Jesus tells this parable, he is telling it to Pharisees, who were among the most devout of all Jews. They certainly would have seen themselves in this light. So I think the rich man symbolized both certain Jews in Christ's time, and, in our time, would symbolize certain Christians, who are inheritors of the Judaic traditions, and also claim exclusive access to God and his blessings.

By Fyodor Bronnikov
By Fyodor Bronnikov | Source


Lazarus, on the other hand, represents those whom the religious people exclude or do not wish to associate with, lest they be corrupted by their impurities. The Pharisees, to whom Jesus directly spoke this parable, were so devout that they would not even eat with or spend time in the house of someone who was not also a Pharisee. While the rest of the Jews generally just shut themselves off from “Gentiles” (anyone not a Jew), the Pharisees even set themselves apart from the rest of the Jews. This would be like if Baptists (just for example) refused to eat with or befriend not just non-Christians, but anyone who was not a Baptist. In fact, in the previous chapter (Luke 15:2), the Pharisees were judging Jesus for eating with “sinners”.

It is in this atmosphere of exclusion and distinction and judgmental attitudes that Jesus tells this story. Appropriately, Lazarus is described as having to sit outside the rich man’s gate, hoping for the leftovers from his table. He does not get to eat at the table with the rich man. He is outside. Excluded. And tellingly, dogs attend to him, “licking his sores”. Jews in that day commonly referred to Gentiles as dogs. In Matthew 15:26, for example, Jesus at first refuses to help a Gentile woman because “it isn’t right to throw the children’s (Jew’s) bread to the dogs (Gentiles)”. The woman responds that “even the dogs eat the leftovers from their master’s table.” Recall that Lazarus also only hoped for leftovers from the table from which he wasn’t allowed to eat directly. The Gentile “dogs” were not fit for the things of God, for the promises, for the covenant. They were excluded outsiders.

David Roberts, The Destruction of Jerusalem
David Roberts, The Destruction of Jerusalem | Source

An Elemental Change

When Lazarus (symbolizing the Gentiles) and the rich man (symbolizing the Jews) both die, I concur with Bryan Huie’s article at that this symbolizes “an elemental change in the status and position of the two groups”. The Jewish nation, according to this parable, would have their privileged status as a “royal priesthood” to the world taken away, and they would suffer a period of tribulation (symbolized by the fire that the rich man finds himself in). The Gentiles, in turn, would begin to receive direct access to the promises and blessings of God (symbolized by being carried to Abraham’s Bosom), as they began to believe in Jesus. In fact, Luke was probably written relatively soon after the horrific destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans, the massacre of countless Jews in Jerusalem, and the scattering of many Jews from their homeland in Palestine. This effectively put an end to Second Temple Judaism (royal priesthood taken) and certainly counted as a horrible trial by fire. Titus, the Roman conqueror who destroyed Jerusalem, supposedly said that there was "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God". It was common among the Christians at that time to blame the Jews’ troubles on their rejection of Christ. So it would make sense for a story like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to be circulating among Christians at the time Luke was written.

The Moral of the Story

I will now end my discussion of the symbolism of the parable. There is a much more thorough examination of this symbolism here: I’ll conclude by saying that I don’t believe the larger message of this parable is directed alone at certain Jews in Jesus' time. I think it is a highly appropriate message to Christians today, who claim exclusive access to God’s covenant and blessings, and see themselves as the mediators of these blessings to other people. The message is this: you are to love all people, and not exclude anyone or set yourselves up as better than they are. Do not keep people of other beliefs (or lack of beliefs) at “arm’s length”, afraid of getting their “impurities” on you. It is God who purifies you. Your position is to love and serve all, not to sit around the table together while the rest of the world sits outside at the gate.

In His Love.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      life is just going on like cloud 9

    • profile image

      Mark Mountjoy 

      8 years ago

      I'm trying to learn. I have what I was taught it meant and then I see what you say. My site is

    • searchinsany profile image

      Alexander Gibb 

      9 years ago from UK

      A well written and interesting article. I agree with the view that this is a Parable, however my Study on the subject reaches a different conclusion.

      For the sake of brevity, may I suggest a visit to:



    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      9 years ago from United States

      Ah, yes. You've gotta love the perils of written communication :-)

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 

      9 years ago from the Rocky Mountains


      If you knew me personally, when I say Hogwash, you would laugh. Written communication often leaves much to be assumed, which is, I think partly what started this whole exchange. Ha ha.

      Peace brother,

      - In Christ

      - Harlan

    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      9 years ago from United States

      In response to Harlan:

      "I know I come across sometimes a little rough or hard line, but we are not talking about which shirt shall I wear, red or blue."

      It's ok. It's only right to be passionate about such important matters. I'm passionate about these things myself, so I have also sometimes come across as rough.

      "I believe if Jesus returned tomorrow he would be just as angry with some of the modern churches as he was when to chased out the money changes in the temple."

      I couldn't agree with you more. The church, by and large, is apostate. It is antichrist. It seems to me that history moves in cycles, and so, sadly, much of the Christian church now constitutes the same sort of towering edifice of error and foolishness (insanity, really) that the Jewish religion had become when Christ lived. Throughout his ministry, he unflinchingly criticized the religious institution, which is actually what I think he was doing by telling the story or Lazarus and the rich man.

      In any case, I don't want to engage in a debate on the matter of Lazarus and the rich man. I think such a debate would prove to be less than satisfying for either of us, and would do nothing to build us up. Ultimately, I think it is a matter of personal conviction, as to whether this is a parable or a literal story. We each have our own way of looking at it, and I, for my part, will not be easily moved (as I doubt you will be). So I am willing to agree to disagree.

      Thank you for your kind remarks about my writing. I too, am glad to see your heart and passion for Christ. I am not offended by your disagreement, although I must admit I was put-off by the WAY you introduced your disagreement, with the word "Hogwash". But no worries. I'm glad that you do not wish to let such an issue divide us, as it shouldn't. If we were to always divide over such things, there could be no body of Christ at all. But as it is, you and I are of one body.

      In His Love,


    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 

      9 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      I know I come across sometimes a little rough or hard line, but we are not talking about which shirt shall I wear, red or blue. We are talking about faith and the strength of that faith and about souls and eternal salvation which the Son of God came and gave his innocent and precious blood to buy back from sin. Satan has one goal, to rob you of your faith, or keep you from walking at the level of faith God intends us to walk in.

      Jesus said he is the same today tomorrow and forever, that he changes not. He also said the faithful shall do greater works than he. But he also said in the last days the church would grow weak. The church is weak. Instead of going to church to hear the foolishness of preaching from a humble pulpit, today we go and hear the latest Christian Rock Concert for 2 hours and about 10 minutes of watered down preaching in a super church with a cafe and a bookstore full of water-down warm fuzzy Jesus-Junk.

      I cannot remember the last time I saw a preacher call out for anyone who wanted to come and get saved. Or when someone was so moved by the spirit that they could not sit still in their chair and a brother or sister grabbed their hand and said, "It's ok, I am with you, let's take care of your salvation." Then kneel down and show them in scripture where you can know right now today that you are saved and you can claim it and walk in it. But the new bibles have deleted much of that, its not there anymore. Jesus' soul saving blood has been deleted from the NIV over 44 times. The NIV is the most used Bible in the churches today and its missing the blood of Jesus - and we wonder why the church is weak? Give me a break.

      I believe if Jesus returned tomorrow he would be just as angry with some of the modern churches as he was when to chased out the money changes in the temple.

      I don't believe its a parable given that 100% of the whole story fits like a glove with basic christian doctrine. What about the verse that says, "As Jonah was in the belly of the whale for 3 days and 3 nights, so must the Son of God be in the heart of the earth for 3 days and 3 nights." ?

      Its simple Jesus was intended to be the first fruit of the dead. That is why all the Saints who died believing in the prophecy of Jesus - even before he came - were saved in Abraham's Bosom. When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, they followed him. But of that has probably been deleted from the new Bibles, I'll have to look.

      You are a good writer and I love that you have a heart for God and for Christ. I hope you are not offended in my disagreement with you. And whether you agree or not with some of my points, let us not be so divided we forget we are on the same team. Peace , love and His Grace is my prayer for you. Keep writing, I'll keep reading.

      - Harlan

    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      9 years ago from United States

      In response to Harlan Colt:

      "In every instance where Jesus speaks of a parable, he says, I tell you a parable."

      That's an interesting idea, which I'd never heard before until quite recently. However, I personally do not see any reason to agree with it. It seems to me that Jesus tells plenty of parables that are not always clearly "marked" as such. In the parable of the lost sheep, for example, in Matthew 18:12, there is no explicit mention of "parable", yet this is certainly a parable. Luke 15:3 identifies the very same story as a "parable", although Matthew does not. But there is no reason to think that Matthew, because he did not say, "this is a parable", did not recognize that it was in fact a parable. This is only one of many, many such examples.

      "But this is the goal of the NIV and other translations - to undermine the WORD of GOD."

      I agree with you that translations, to varying degrees, alter the original sense of the text. In many ways this is unavoidable and unintentional, but in other ways it reflects the theological biases of the translators. I've actually written an entire hub on the subject. Here is the URL:

      "I shall preserve my word and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

      Are you quoting scripture here? I'm not familiar with a verse like that, nor could I find it online. Could you give the reference?

      Personally, I am undecided on the matter of scriptural inerrency. It seems most likely to me at the moment that there are human errors, not only in the transcription and translation of the biblical texts, but in their very authorship. To me, this neither would render God a liar nor diminish the importance and basic meaning of the gospel. But that's just me, and as I said, I'm not fully decided on these matters, as I hardly consider myself knowledgeable enough to be fully decided on such a complex issue as biblical inerrancy. I am, however, still searching into it.

      Thank you for contributing your perspective on this hub.

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 

      9 years ago from the Rocky Mountains


      This is not a parable at all. It is an actual account.

      In every instance where Jesus speaks of a parable, he says, I tell you a parable. But with this story, he does not say that at all. It is an actual account; to conclude anything less, is to deny many truths. But this is the goal of the NIV and other translations - to undermine the WORD of GOD. The Lord hath said, "I shall preserve my word and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

      What does it mean to preserve something?

      I think it reasonable that to preserve something means to keep in 100%, otherwise it is not preserved... is it?

      God promised to preserve his word - either he did or he didn't and if he did not then he is a liar and we have no business following a liar. All is lost. Let us go and drink, be merry and gain what we shall gain in this life for there is no hope thereafter.

      But if God did preserve his word, then it is not possible that modern translations of the Bible preserved his word because there are over 40,000 missing words and 17 complete verses - missing. If God cannot preserve 40k missing words and 17 complete verses of his Holy, Preserved Word, then how can he save you?

      Remember Satan said, " I shall appear LIKE the most high..." The most subtle beast of the field... hmmm change the bible with new versions to deceive people... really? interesting... surely the most subtle beast of the field would never stoop to such low-life levels....

    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Kathryn :-)

    • kathryn1000 profile image


      9 years ago from London

      I really enjoyed that and found it iluminating.I may even orint it out.Thanks

    • japtaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin Aptaker 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thank you very much Sembj, and Lady Guinevere.

    • Sembj profile image


      9 years ago

      After reading the article, I've voted along with Lady Guinevere. I've just finished my third Hub on Christianity looking at The New Testament in particular and find it interesting reading how others have dealt with some of the same topics. In any event, I thought the article well written, well argued and I liked your final position - thanks.

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 

      10 years ago from West By God

      Voted up and useful.


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