Luke 16:19–31 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Why do many people care nothing about their eternal destiny? Possibly, they get so caught up with the good things of life that they neglect thinking about the life to come. The great deceiver, Satan, has them focus on the here and now. Every once in a while — when a friend dies or when a major catastrophe claims many lives — they think briefly about death. But they figure, "I'm a basically good person; God is loving; he wouldn't condemn a decent person like me." And, they put it out of their minds and get on with pursuing the good life.

Jesus directed the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to the Pharisees, who thought that they'd get into heaven because they were good religious leaders. They were at the synagogue every time the doors opened; they studied the Law and the Prophets and could quote lengthy sections of it; they participated in all of the annual feasts and holy days of the Jewish faith; they gave ten percent or more of their income to the temple; they called Abraham their father.

Unfortunately for the Pharisees, their religion was outward. They did what they did to impress others. But God wasn't impressed, because their hearts were full of pride and hypocrisy (v. 15, shown below). They would have protested that they kept the Law, but they weren't concerned about inner, heart righteousness in God's eyes. Like the rich man in the parable, they were living the good life, assuming that they'd go to heaven. But their love of money had blinded them to God's perspective. They were in for a rude awakening if they didn't repent and take heed of the true message of the Law and the Prophets before they died.

Heaven or Hell?

Jesus makes it plain that there are two eternal destinies: heaven and hell. Heaven is pictured in the parable using common Jewish symbolism as in the Messianic banquet (see our summary of 13:28–29). At a banquet in that culture, the guests reclined at the table in such a manner that you could lean back upon the breast of the one near you to engage in intimate conversation. Lazarus is pictured at the banquet next to Abraham, the father of the faith, enjoying rest, comfort, and fellowship, delivered from the trials he'd known in his life; it's the picture of a place of eternal rest and enjoyment. Heaven will be infinitely better than the best life that you can imagine on earth!

However, the Bible (and especially Jesus) makes it plain that there's also a place of eternal torment called hell. Here Jesus uses the Greek word, Hades, which is a place where you won't want to spend eternity. The flames of hell, like the golden streets of heaven, may be symbolic. But if so, they're a frightening symbol warning us that hell will be a place of awful torment. The rich man in the parable says, "I am in agony in this fire" (v. 24). If it were a fun place, he'd want his brothers to join him for the party; but he doesn't want them to "come to this place of torment" (v. 28).

Two Charges Against the Pharisees (vv. 19–21)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus graphically illustrates two important charges laid down against the scoffing Pharisees that we covered in last week's summary: (1) They'd sought the approval of men (based upon appearances) rather than of God (based upon the heart) and (2) they'd set aside the revelation of God, which exposes the heart.

Failing to name the rich man is typical of parables, and the naming of Lazarus is unique. This name means "the one God helps." While alive, both the rich man and Lazarus had unique and opposing characteristics. The rich man "had it made," enjoying all the benefits of his wealth, including a magnificent wardrobe. Life was good to this man. From all appearances, this man, the Pharisees would have supposed, was a righteous man. Surely he'd go to heaven when he died.

Lazarus was the exact opposite. He was a poor man, a virtual beggar. His food was whatever scraps he might get from the rich man's garbage, fighting off the dogs to beat them to the food. He had sores that these the dogs licked. He was precisely the kind of person that the Pharisees would brand a "sinner," a man whom, in their minds, was worthy of hell.

These two men lived in close proximity to each other. Quite possibly, Lazarus was in close enough proximity to this rich man's living quarters that he could see the entourage of people coming and going; he could hear their laughter; he could smell the aroma of the sumptuous meals being prepared in the kitchen; he knew what he was missing. And if Lazarus was painfully aware of the bounty and blessings of the rich man, but evidently not a sharer in them, so, too, the rich man had to have been aware of the pathetic plight of Lazarus. He'd have had to walk past Lazarus every time he left or entered his house, meaning that he'd have had to have consciously chosen to ignore his needs. The rich man thus used his wealth to indulge himself instead of ministering to the needy, which was a clear violation of the Old Testament standard of righteousness.

Based upon appearance alone, one could see how the Pharisees would have judged these two men: They'd have justified the rich man and condemned Lazarus. The fate of these two men after their deaths shows man's judgment to be wrong. Thus, their destiny after death illustrates our Lord's indictment against the Pharisees, namely that they sought to be justified before men, according to appearances, rather than before God, based upon the heart.

Eternal Destiny (vv. 22–23)

It was only after both men died that God's judgment was evident. Jesus pictures angels carrying Lazarus to Abraham's "side" (or "bosom" in the NKJ). The ancient banqueting practice of reclining at the table would have one's head on someone's breast. So this puts Lazarus in the place of honor at the right hand of Abraham at the banquet in the next world. Here, the roles of the two men are almost exactly reversed. Now, it's the rich man who's in torment, and Lazarus who's blessed. The identification of Lazarus being "by Abraham's side" is significant. In our parable, Lazarus isn't said to be in the presence of God, but at Abraham's side. We must remember that this parable was told to an Israelite, for an Old Testament point of view. The rich man and Lazarus are thus each in their own place.

The circumstances of the rich man and Lazarus are thus almost exactly reversed after death. The rich man, who lived in luxury, now lived in agony at a distance from Abraham, but was aware of what was taking place there. Lazarus, who'd suffered greatly in his life now was in bliss. While he had struggled to eat the fallen scraps from the rich man's table, now he reclined at Abraham's table, leaning on him. Previously, Lazarus, who looked upon the bounty of the rich man, but did not share in it; now it's the rich man who beholds Lazarus in bounty and blessing.

Two Last Requests (vv. 24–31)

Make note of the fact that the larger portion of this parable is devoted to two requests that the rich man made to Abraham. The rich man's first request was the result of his suffering and torment: Flames were causing him great discomfort. He pled for mercy, asking that Lazarus be sent to him with the smallest quantity of water, to cool his tongue. Interestingly, the rich man still looks down upon Lazarus, viewing him as a kind of servant, not as a superior. The rich man's first petition was denied because the rich man's fate was a just one. Hell and heaven are divided by a significant fixed chasm, with no access between the two. The wicked could not cross over to the place of blessing, and the righteous couldn't mercifully cross over to the place of the wicked.

The rich man's second request again involves the service of Lazarus. This time, instead of requesting that Lazarus ease his suffering, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to earth to warn his five brothers not to come to this place. The rich man now understands that man's choices must be made before dying. Abraham responded negatively to the second request, as well as to the first. There was no need for someone to be sent from the grave to warn the lost; Moses and the Prophets served this purpose well. Let the lost listen to the Old Testament revelation. That, Abraham maintained, should serve as a sufficient warning.

The rich man protested, however, insisting that while men may not heed Old Testament Scriptures, they couldn't ignore the message of a man who'd returned from death, thinking that "signs and wonders" could do more than the God's Word. Abraham's answer was short and pointed. He said that if the rich man's brothers refused to listen to Moses and the Prophets, they wouldn't be convinced by a spectacular appearance from the grave. Man's failure to believe is not due to any lack of evidence. It's due to having a closed heart, determined to disbelieve any amount of evidence. The hearts of this man and his five brothers were unbelieving. Such unbelief wasn't corrected by a preponderance of the evidence, but only by a change in heart. Once again, the outward appearances aren't the issue, but the heart is.

Concluding Thoughts

Jesus makes at least two obvious points in this parable: (1) Wealth without actively being merciful to the poor is great wickedness; (2) if we close our eyes to the truth we're given and refuse to believe that truth, we're doomed.

This parable condemns the Pharisees for their love of money and neglect of showing compassion for the poor. It concludes in such a way as to indicate what really justifies man. The rich man wasn't condemned because he was rich, any more than the poor man was justified for being poor. These outward conditions (riches and poverty) were fundamentally irrelevant to the eternal destiny of both men. A godly rich man would have used his wealth differently, though it wouldn't be his works that would have saved him. The real basis for justification or condemnation is to be found in the context of the rich man's concern for his lost brothers. The issue wasn't whether or not these men were rich or poor, but whether or not they believed the Scriptures, Moses, and the Prophets. It's not riches or poverty that determines one's destiny. It's our belief or unbelief.

[You can see in Warren's commentary on Jesus' Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus how Jesus teaches that heaven and hell are both real, literal places; once we cross their eternal horizon, that’s it; there’ll be no more opportunities to choose.]

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  How would you answer a person who says, "I think that God is cruel if he torments people for eternity in hell"?
  • Q. 2  At what point does the rich man show genuine concern for others?
  • Q. 3  Is Jesus teaching "justification by works" in this parable? If not, what is he teaching?

This Week's Passage
Luke 16:19–31 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 16]

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So 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.'

25"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. 26And 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.'

27"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

30"'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

31"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.'"