The Parable of Dives and Lazarus
(Amos 6:1a,4-7; 1Tim.6:11-16; Lk.16:19-31)
How many parables are there? Surprisingly, no-one’s quite sure. One scholar says there are 33, but other sources say there are 30, or 37, or 40, or 46, or even 60.
It all depends on how you count them, whether you include various proverbs and metaphors, and whether you group together parables like The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin.
Jesus’ parables occupy a third of the first three Gospels. He likes using them in his teaching, for he knows how much people love stories.
In Hebrew, the word for parable is mashal, which also means ‘riddle’. So, Jesus’ parables serve as riddles that make us think.
Harvey Cox says that one of the most surprising features of Jesus’ parables is that they are not about God. Rather, they are about ordinary things like weddings and banquets, family tensions, muggings, farmers sowing and reaping, and shrewd business dealings. Only one or two actually mention God.
Cox’s point is that Jesus wants us to look closely at this world we live in, and not somewhere else, for it’s in the here and now – all around us in the most ordinary things of life – that we find God’s divine presence. [i]
Parables always work at two levels. There’s the literal level with a very simple story, and then there’s a deeper level offering us profound lessons about life.
Today’s parable is The Rich Man and Lazarus. We don’t know the rich man’s name, but some call him Dives, which simply means ‘rich man’ in Latin. I’ll use that name for him today.
This Lazarus isn’t the brother of Martha and Mary. Lazarus was a common name back then; it means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly, this Lazarus is the only character that Jesus actually gives a name in any of his parables.
The first half of this story is set on earth. The rich man is enjoying life with fine food and clothes in his very expensive home, but he totally ignores poor Lazarus, who is sick and starving and waiting just outside his gate.
The story then switches to the afterlife as both men die. Their roles are reversed, and Dives finds himself trapped in hell, while Lazarus is delighted to find himself with Abraham in heaven. (And we recall Jesus’ promise that the last will be first, and the first will be last [Mt.20:16]).
We soon discover that Dives actually knew Lazarus all along, because he uses his name to demand a cooling drink. But he still hasn’t learnt anything, because he treats Lazarus dismissively, like a slave.
On the surface, this story is simple: Dives should have done something to help Lazarus. But like all parables, this one offers us plenty of food for thought.
Firstly, it reminds us that human suffering is everywhere, and it asks us to reflect on our own response to it. Dives had every comfort, while Lazarus suffered in misery, and we are reminded of Jesus’ words: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my people you do to me’ (Mt.25:40).
St Teresa of Kolkata built her life on these words. Whenever she found someone abandoned and suffering, she always saw them as ‘Jesus in disguise’.
Lazarus, covered in sores and licked by street dogs, was Jesus in disguise.
How do we respond to such suffering? There’s so much hardship and pain in our world today. Every family, community, school and workplace has people who struggle. They might need friendship, encouragement or some kind of practical support, but they are all Jesus Christ himself.
And secondly, this parable warns us that hell is real. Jesus often talks about hell in the Gospels (e.g., Mk.9:43, 48; Mt.10:28; 13:42; 25:30, 41). In fact, he talks more often about hell than about heaven.
Today, he’s telling us to choose, because once we cross over that threshold into eternal life, it will be too late to change our minds.
Dives wanted to escape from hell but knew he couldn’t. As Abraham says to him, ‘…between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and from your side to ours.’
Dives then asks if his brothers can be warned not to make the same mistake. But Abraham says, ‘if they won’t listen to Moses or the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’
He’s right, isn’t he? Jesus himself rose from the dead, and yet so many people today refuse to listen to him.
So often with parables, the real story begins when the storyteller ends.
What’s your response to the story of the Rich Man and
[i] Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 155, 159. Quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Reflection, the Parables of Jesus, August 2022.