“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”Luke 16:19-31
In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the rich man and Lazarus depart from life and find themselves on opposite sides of an uncrossable chasm. The kingdom of God cannot be judged by appearances. For the rich man’s royal purple hid an impoverished heart that nourished only itself day after day. But faith in God prevailed within the starving, cankerous pauper. In the only parable that names a character, Lazarus (from Hebrew Elazar) means “God has helped.”
When the trappings of life are stripped away, true wealth is revealed. The rich man, who failed to make friends with Lazarus, ends up thirsty in the flames of Hades (the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, the abode of the dead). “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). Following the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, the fate of the rich man illustrates Jesus’ warning.
Time and Eternity
By the time the rich man wakes up from his illusion of wealth, he is in spiritual starvation. Seeing Lazarus far off in the bosom of Abraham, he becomes the beggar. He beseeches Abraham to send Lazarus to relieve his parched tongue, but learns that none can cross over the chasm. The listener must weigh temporal against eternal ends. While the rich man received “the good” (ta agatha) during his lifetime, Lazarus received “the bad” (ta kaka). But temporal benefits vanish in the face of eternity. Human minds chained to earthly time find the notion of eternity unfathomable.
Moses and the Prophets
With anguish, the rich man implores Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the need for repentance. The suggestion, however, fails to account for the obstinacy of free, human hearts. Even in the time of Moses and the prophets, desert miracles, healings, and wonders effected short-lived conversions. A spectacle like the dead Lazarus returning to warn the living would have little impact. Abraham ends the conversation with the sober truth: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The enduring message of Moses and the prophets is simple and unspectacular: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).
On Dives and Abraham’s Bosom
In the poetic reflection below, “the rich man” is interchangeably referred to as “dives” (of popular English tradition) and “plousios” (the original Greek word in the text). The pronunciation of “plousios” can be heard by clicking the phonetics button here. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary recognizes that the Latin word dives, taken from the Vulgate, is “misunderstood as a proper name in Luke 16:19.” In carols and hymns, Dives appears as a named character opposite Lazarus. English lyricists pronounce the word dīvēs (die-vees), but in ecclesiastical Latin, the word is pronounced dēves (dee-ves). Since dives is not a proper name, it is not capitalized in this poem unless it begins a verse.
As for Abraham’s “bosom” or “side,” the Greek word appears twice: first in the singular (kolpos in Luke 16:22) and second in the plural (kolpois in Luke 16:23). The primary meaning of the word includes both “bosom” and the “overhanging fold of a garment.” Some translators also speak of the “lap of Abraham.” To be in Abraham’s bosom is to be enfolded in his garments. Although it is possible that the singular and plural forms of kolpos both refer to one “bosom,” the translation of “fold” and “folds” also suits the context well. In Jewish and New Testament writings, the “bosom of Abraham” refers to the abode of the righteous or paradise.
Purple-robed plousios feasted day by day.
Lean, loathsome Lazarus at dives’ door lay.
Oh, to eat the crumbs the rich man flung away!
Pined the pauper as his sores were licked by strays.
By and by, both died. Lo, the fruit of the soul:
Lazarus to bliss, the rich man to Sheol.
Angels took one to Father Abraham’s fold.
The other was able, the two to behold.
“Father Abraham, have mercy upon me!”
Cried the rich man in anguished extremity.
Imploring that Lazarus come cool his tongue,
Dives, despairingly, desperate pleas flung.
“My child, you received what was good during life,
And Lazarus received what was bad, with strife.
He is consoled now, while you are tormented.
Between us and you, crossing is prevented.”
“Father,” he begged, “send him to my father’s house.
Five brothers’ remorse, Lazarus might arouse.”
But Abraham declined, for they were forewarned.
Moses and the prophets, for sin deeply mourned.
Yet dives again to Abraham pleaded,
Sure that a dead man was just what was needed.
Nay, said the father, for if they rejected
Moses and the prophets, they’ll spurn the blessed.
For even if someone should rise from the dead,
A loveless will repudiates the Godhead.
Lazarus, in life, longed for leftovers.
Dives, dead, desired drops with dolors.