The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of Jesus’ most intriguing illustrations (Luke 16:19-31). Appearing only in Luke’s gospel, the parable is directed at the Pharisees “who were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). The tale depicts a rich man and a beggar who are acquainted in life and whose fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Though the text recounts no action of either character, the beggar spends the afterlife at “Abraham’s bosom” while the rich man is relegated to Hades (Luke 16:22-23). Ultimately, the rich man asks that the beggar be sent with a message from beyond to his brothers on earth in hopes of producing their repentance (Luke 16:27-28). Being deemed futile, his request is denied (Luke 16:29-31).
The story is unique among Jesus’ parables as it is the only one to depict a scene in the afterlife. It is also the only parable in which a character is named. The poor beggar is called Lazarus (Luke 16:20).
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. (Luke 16:19-21 NASB)In Lazarus, Jesus paints a pathetic picture of abject poverty. Mark L. Strauss (b. 1959) describes:
The picture is one of absolute degradation. A later rabbinic proverb says, “There are three whose life is no life; he who depends on the table of another, he who is ruled by his wife, and he whose body is burdened with sufferings.” Lazarus has two out of three. From society’s perspective, he has “no life” at all. (Clinton E. Arnold [b. 1958], Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Volume 1: Matthew, Mark, Luke,136-37)The rich man and poor man are presented as polar opposites in every way; both representing extreme cases on the affluence spectrum. Their descriptions are carefully balanced and the multiple details serve to accentuate the contrast as strongly as possible. On the surface, the rich man is in a far superior position than poor Lazarus.
Joel B. Green (b. 1956) observes:
The stage of Jesus’ parable is set by the extravagant parallelism resident in the depictions of the two main characters. The social distance between the two is continued through to the end, symbolized first by the gate, then by the “distance” (“far away,” Luke 16:23) and the “great chasm” fixed between them (Luke 16:26). The rich man is depicted in excessive, even outrageous terms, while Lazarus is numbered among society’s “expendables,” a man who had fallen prey to the ease with which, even in an advanced agrarian society, persons without secure landholdings might experience devastating downward mobility. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 605)Bernard Brandon Scott (b. 1941) adds:
The introductions of the two men are closely parallel. The first man has his richness; the poor man has only his name, Lazarus. The introductions set in parallel rich and Lazarus...The introductory clauses are nicely balanced: the first man’s introduction ends with “rich,” and the second man’s begins with “poor.” Likewise, the first man’s introduction begins with the anonymous “man,” and the second ends with a proper name, Lazarus. Perhaps this may also indicate the purpose of naming the poor man, for the name means “he whom God helps.” The name Lazarus contrasts the two characters: one is full of possessions, and the other is empty except for a name, but the meaning of the name may well hold out a promise. (Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus,149)Michael Card (b. 1957) summarizes:
Two individuals could not be more different. One is fabulously wealthy, dressed in his finest clothes and eating the finest food every day...The other is pitifully poor, covered with festering sores, and left abandoned at the gate. (Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination), 194)Lazarus’ name is conspicuous. While it is not unheard to incorporate a proper name into a parable (Ezekiel 23:4), this marks the only time Jesus does so, not counting Abraham who appears in the same story (Luke 16:22, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30).
Because of the inclusion of the proper name, it has been argued that Jesus is recounting an historical event. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) explains:
The status of this narrative as a parable has sometimes been questioned. The objection attends to rhetorical framing of the story. Luke does not call it a parable, unusually, nor is it introduced with a comparative (“the kingdom of heaven is like unto...”); moreover this would be the only parable in which a character is given a name, Lazarus. (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 202)Though Jesus never categorizes this particular story as parabolic, presumably the descriptor from Luke 15:2 carries through chapter 16.
Klyne R. Snodgrass (b. 1944) refutes:
Preachers and certain people throughout church history sometimes have asserted that this story is not a parable but depicts reals people and the consequences of their lives. I am not aware of any modern scholar who would agree. Certainly Luke viewed this as a parable. It appears in a collection of parables, possibly stands chiastically parallel to the parable of the Rich Fool, and uses the exact same introductory words (anthrōpos tis) which Luke uses to introduce several other parables. This is without question a parable. (Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 426)As much of the story is a dialogue (Luke 16:24-31), it has been posed that Jesus names the beggar as a literary device for narrative convenience: the story flows better with a character named. Still, the choice of name is intentional and the question remains why this particular name is selected.
Lazarus was a common name. Géza Vermes (b. 1924) views it as a Galilean corruption, representative of Jesus’ distinctive dialect (Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 53). The name has entered the English language through the word “lazar” which means “a poor and diseased person, usually with a loathsome disease; especially a leper” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Among its effects, naming the beggar Lazarus undermines the potential assumption that his unenviable earthly condition correlates to punishment for sin. I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) assesses:
The rich man he is named...Λάζαρος, i.e. la‘zar, an abbreviation of ’el‘āzār, ‘He (whom) God helps’...Its significance may be that it hints at the piety of the poor man, although the general use of πτωχος in Luke (Luke 4:18, 6:20, 7:22, 21:3) already indicates that the poor are in general pious and the recipients of God’s grace (cf. Luke 14:13, 21). (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 635)Robert H. Stein (b. 1935) adds:
Jesus may have named the poor beggar intentionally as a pun in order to help his hearers understand that this poor man (“whom God has helped”) should be identified with such poor as referred to in Luke 4:18, 6:20, 7:22 and later in Luke 21:3, i.e., he was a poor believer...If Jesus intended this pun, there is still the question of whether Luke recognized the play on the name and whether Luke’s readers would have understood it. This is doubtful. Regardless, Luke did not call attention to the possible pun. Yet Luke continued the theme of reversal by giving the forgotten, poor man a name while the rich man went nameless. The plight of the poor man is...described by means of a fourfold contrast between the rich man and Lazarus...For similar contrasts and reversals, cf. Luke 1:51-53, 3:5, 6:20-26, etc. (Stein, Luke (The New American Commentary), 423)The name exonerates Lazarus and he becomes one of many examples of righteous poor people in Luke’s gospel. Still, it is doubtful that Luke’s Greek speaking audience would have gleaned the significance of Lazarus’ name.
The Greek name Lazarus is equivalent to the Hebrew Eliezer. Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) documents:
The name had numerous religious associations for the Jews. Among those who had the name were Aaron’s son and successor as high priest (Exodus 6:23), a priest who dedicated the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:42), a brother of the Jewish patriot Judas Maccabeus (I Maccabees 2:5), a respected martyr of the same period (II Maccabees 6:18-23), and Abraham’s chief trusted servant (Genesis 15:2). Many suggest that the latter figure is the source of the name because of Abraham’s presence in the story. (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 1364)As Bock notes, some have connected the character to Abraham’s loyal servant, Eliezer of Damascus (Genesis 15:2). The Septuagint even renders the name Eliezer as Lazaros (Genesis 15:2). In Jewish thought, Eliezer is an exemplar of loyalty and covenant service.
William R. Herzog II (b. 1944) relays:
J. Duncan M. Derrett (b. 1922) has proposed...that Lazarus is “none other than ‘Eliezer, Abraham’s steward,” mentioned in Genesis 15:2, who according to midrashic tradition, was sent by Abraham “to the land to observe how the ‘tenant’ [were] dealing with [their] property” and their obligation to show hospitality...Because Elizer became a well-known figure in Jewish Haggadah, the suggestion, though difficult to assess is not impossible. (Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed, 233)Despite sharing a common name and association with Abraham, Eliezer of Damascus was hardly a beggar.
Others have connected the story to the Lazarus famously raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11:1-44). Scholars have argued that one story has influenced the other and arguments go both ways as to which anecdote influenced the other.
Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) examines:
If there is a connection between the Lazarus of the Luke account and the Lazarus of John 11, what is the nature of this relationship? There are at least two possible explanations. First, it has been argued that the Johnannine account of the raising of Lazarus is in fact a fictional illustration based upon the Lukan story: Lazarus was indeed raised from the dead (as the rich man had requested) as a witness, yet even then Jesus’ opponents did not believe (as Abraham had predicted). A second explanation, and one that is preferred to the first, is that because of the rough similarity between the point of the Lukan story and the experience of Lazarus in John 11, early in the manuscript tradition a certain Christian scribe (or scribes) inserted the name Lazarus. Although this suggestion must remain speculative, since there is no early manuscript evidence of the story without the name, it provides a reasonable explanation to the...questions raised above, for it explains why a proper name has appeared and why this name was Lazarus of all names. (Evans, Matthew-Luke (Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 418)Despite the common name, Lazarus of Bethany, like Eliezer of Damascus, is a man of means, not a beggar. Also, if Luke was privy to the story of Lazarus’ resurrection and wished to reference it, it remains to be seen why he would not simply include it.
In life, Lazarus’s name, with its allusion to divine assistance, seemingly mocked him. Arland J. Hultgren (b. 1939) writes, “The choice of name cannot be accidental. The man’s only help is in God, rather than persons around him (Hutrgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 111).”
The name is also an indictment against his peers; incriminating those who did not help him. The fact that the rich man is well aware of Lazarus’ identity, calling him by name, further inculpates him (Luke 16:24).
Peter Rhea Jones (b. 1937) expounds:
The name Lazarus is clearly a Jewish name. The poor man, then, was Jewish. The rich man was Jewish. Thus, there is an incident of unbrotherliness, a denial of covenantal obligations, and a deep identification by the teller of the parable with the Jewish poor. The very person whom the rich man will not aid, God helps. Thus, the name is the exegetical clue correcting the one-dimensional idea of reversal and implying Lazarus’ trust in God’s grace, though this is not the primary thrust of the parable. If the parable were teaching that the poor were automatically blessed in the afterlife, there would be no need for the specific name Lazarus. (Jones Studying the Parables of Jesus, 173-74)
Since tragically no help came during his earthly life, Lazarus’ name may anticipate the afterlife, accurately predicting his fate: God would indeed help him.
Compare and contrast the rich man and Lazarus. Out of all of the characters in all of his parables, why does Jesus name Lazarus alone? Why does no one help Lazarus? Do you help the poor in your community?
It is significant that the beggar and not the rich man is named. To remedy this disproportionate situation, the rich man is often called “Dives”, Latin for “rich man”.
Justo L. González (b. 1937) relays:
In Luke 16:19, without further introduction, Jesus begins the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Traditionally, the rich man has been called “Dives” or “Divas”. The Vulgate says, “homo quida erat dives” (which simply means that a certain man was rich), and out of this the supposed name of the man has evolved. But the parable does not give the man’s name. This is significant as one more of Luke’s many examples of the great reversal. Normally, it is important people who have a name. They have recognition. They are somebody. But in the parable the rich and apparently important man has no name, and the poor and insignificant man does. From the very beginning of the parable, Jesus is illustrating what he has just said, that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God [Luke 16:15].” (González, Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 195)
Both God and the rich man know Lazarus’ name. He is the common bond, the figure everyone in the story knows. Frederick W. Danker (1920-2012) argues that naming Lazarus indicates that he enjoys true personhood, whereas the rich man, despite his worldly riches, lacks genuine identity (Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke's Gospel, 283).
David E. Garland (b. 1947) comments:
The name...gives Lazarus a measure of personhood. The rich man has no identity except as a rich man...Jesus may have chosen this name to hint at the contrast between the self-sufficient rich man, who helps himself (and helps himself too much), and the utterly dependent Lazarus, whom no one helps except God and whose angels whisk him away to a blessed afterlife. (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 669)
The world does not traditionally concern itself with the names of the poor. History may not have acknowledged the poor beggar, but God did. On the surface, the rich man has it all while Lazarus is of little importance. Yet, Lazarus is significant to God. As are we all.
Does calling the rich man “Dives” detract from Jesus’ intent? Who is truly the rich man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? What would you name this parable? How do you feel when someone calls you by name? Whose names do you know? Do you know your last waitress’ name? Do you know the name of anyone who is homeless like Lazarus? Where does your sense of self worth come from? Do you truly know that you matter to God?
“Lord, when I feel that what I’m doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it.” - Brennan Manning (b. 1934), Souvenirs of Solitude: Finding Rest in Abba’s Embrace, p. 73