The Dives and Lazarus Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 September 2023

Luke 16.19-31.

This story is often called the Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or Lazarus and the Rich Man, depending on who oughta come first. Since it’s actually not about Lazarus, stands to reason the rich man should come first. Traditionally this man’s been called Dives (usually pronounced 'daɪ.viz instead of like the verb) ’cause that’s what he’s called in verse 19 in the Vulgate; dives is Latin for “rich.” So I’m gonna call him Dives; it saves time.

Every once in a while some literalist insists this story is not a parable. This is the only story where Jesus refers to someone by name—so they figure this must mean something, and claim Jesus is straight-up talking about a real-life guy named Lazarus, who lived in first-century Israel. Some of ’em even claim the Lazarus of this story is Lazarus of Bethany, Jesus’s personal friend whom he later raised from the dead, Jn 11.1-44 and this is how Lazarus died. Which makes no sense, because Lazarus’s family asked Jesus to come cure him; they didn’t just dump Lazarus at Dives’s door, hoping this idle rich guy might uncharacteristically do something charitable.

On the other extreme, we have people who insist this story is pure fiction. Primarily because they have very different beliefs about afterlife. Jesus, they insist, is not accurately describing what happens when people die. We go to heaven. Or hell. Some insist we’re immediately resurrected and live in New Jerusalem from now on; others claim we live in some glorified spiritual form while we await the Resurrection. Hindus and Buddhists believe we get reincarnated, and of course pagans and Mormons believe we become angels.

In some cases, the Christians who insist Jesus isn’t accurately describing afterlife are dispensationalists who believe this used to be the way afterlife worked—maybe—but not anymore. There’s a popular Christian myth called “the harrowing of hell,” which says before Jesus died to atone for our sins, God saved nobody by his grace—therefore nobody but the most saintly people ever, like Job or Abraham (and here, Lazarus), could make it to paradise. Nobody had the karma! So they were forced to wait in hell till Jesus died. Once he died, Jesus went to hell, same as them… but with keys! He unlocked the gates, stepped on gatekeeper devil Belial’s neck, freed all the Old Testament saints, and took ’em with him to heaven. And now, nobody experiences anything like Jesus describes in this story. Christians go to heaven.

Considering that God isn’t limited by time whatsoever, it makes no sense that he can’t apply Jesus’s then-future atonement to the sins of the people who existed before Jesus. In fact there’s every indication he did: Their sins, which were many, never hindered him with instigating relationships with them!

Nah, both the literalists and the myth-believers have it wrong. This story is a parable. Lazarus isn’t a literal guy. But this is, loosely, what the afterlife looks like. Then, and now. And it’s meant as a warning to those of us who are wealthy, but don’t bother to use our wealth to further God’s kingdom. If all we care about is our own comfort, we may not experience any such comfort in the afterlife. Billionaires beware.

Luke 16.19-31 KWL
19 “Somebody is wealthy.
He’s wearing purple and white linen, partying daily, in luxury.
20 Some pauper named Lazarus was thrown out by the plutocrat’s gate,
covered in open sores,
21 desiring to be fed with whatever fell from the plutocrat’s table,
but the dogs which came are licking his sores.
22 The pauper comes to die,
to be carried off by the angels to Abraham’s fold.
The plutocrat also dies and is entombed.
23 In the afterlife, the plutocrat lifts up his eyes—
he’s getting tortured in the pit—
and sees Abraham far away,
and Lazarus in his folds.
24 Calling out, the plutocrat says, ‘Father Abraham!
Have mercy on me and send Lazarus,
so he might dip his fingertip in water, and might cool my tongue,
because I suffer great pain in these flames!’
25 Abraham says, ‘Child, remember:
You received your good things in your life,
and Lazarus likewise received evil.
Now, here, he is assisted—
and you suffer.
26 In all this space between us and you, a large gap was fixed
so those who want to come to you from here, can’t.
Nor can they pass from there to us.’
27 The plutocrat says, ‘Then I ask you, father,
might you send Lazarus to my father’s house?
28 For I have five siblings—so Lazarus might urge them,
lest they also come to this place in the pit.’
29 Abraham says, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Heed them.’
30 The plutocrat says, ‘No, father Abraham!
But if anyone comes back from the dead to them, they’ll repent!’
31 Abraham tells him, ‘If they don’t heed Moses and the Prophets,
neither will they be convinced when someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Their earthly situation.

Jesus describes Dives and Lazarus pretty basically: Dives is rich. He has rich clothes; purple dye was crazy expensive back then, and βύσσον/výsson, “white linen” or “fine linen,” was an expensive high-threadcount linen fabric. Dives’s mom must’ve been a Proverbs 31 woman whose “clothing is silk and purple,” Pr 31.22 but unlike this woman who “stretcheth out her hand to the poor,” Pr 31.20 him not so much. His money was spent on making merry. Other bibles translate εὐφραινόμενος/effrenómenos, “cheering himself,” as “feasting”—which is I suppose one way you can cheer yourself—but Jesus’s general idea is this guy denied himself nothing. While denying others anything.

In contrast Lazarus was “laid at his gate,” says the KJV; dumped there, more likely, by people who didn’t care to care for him. He had open sores for some reason, which made him ritually unclean, so he couldn’t worship in temple nor synagogue. In Jesus’s culture dogs weren’t pets; they were scavengers, like raccoons, and the idea of them licking Lazarus’s sores would gross people out even more than it does us today. Preachers like to point out that dogs’ mouths are surprisingly clean, and might even have some curative properties, but a first-century Jew wouldn’t fathom such an idea. Dogs eat their own vomit, y’know. Pr 26.11 Yuck.

Not that Dives was any ritually cleaner. Abraham implied he (’cause his siblings) didn’t believe in Moses and the Prophets, i.e. the scriptures: He didn’t believe in the God they described, and had his own ideas. Or which is more likely, had no ideas, and didn’t care. Plenty of wealthy people have nothing for God but apathy, i.e. no love. We can tell this ’cause Dives wore purple. Purple dye back then was made from shellfish, and shellfish are ritually unclean. So was Dives ever planning to go to temple or synagogue? Unlikely.

True, ritual uncleanliness is not sin. But I point out that if you don’t remotely care whether you’re ritually clean or not, that’s a work of the flesh. Ga 5.19 You don’t care enough about God, nor others, to at least ask questions about whether ritual cleanliness is even a thing anymore. You’re not headed for the kingdom. Ep 5.5 You’re headed for Dives’s fate.

Okay. So Lazarus dies, likely of infection, and much later Dives dies, and off to the afterlife with both of them.

When Lazarus dies, Jesus states the angels carried him to Abraham. Lk 16.22 These’d be what popular culture calls the angels of death. Thing is, they get mixed up with an embodied Death, a grim reaper with a black robe and sickle; sometimes a skeleton, and sometimes a chalk-white guy like the Spectre in DC Comics. Plenty of people are terrified of death, but angels of death are nothing at all to fear: They mean we’re going to paradise! ’Cause you notice Dives isn’t described as being ferried to torment by angels.

Some Christians who’ve had near-death experiences claim to have seen the angels of death. Others claim they saw no such thing; others claim Jesus himself escorted them through the tunnel of light. I have serious doubts whether near-death experiences are even valid. I will say Jesus’s teaching is not necessarily a guarantee every Christian will be taken to paradise by angels, and I don’t rule out the possibility Jesus himself may show up; there’s no reason he can’t. But when we Christians die, I don’t think it’s unrealistic for us to expect an escort to paradise. It’s not like we’ll just magically know the way.

Their afterlife situation.

Jesus starts talking about the afterlife with ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ⸃/en to ádi, “in the afterlife.” The KJV translates this “in hell,” so obviously a lot of Christians think Dives is in hell. Hel is what Germanic-speaking medieval Europeans called the afterlife—whether you went to the good part of it, the bad part, or the meh part. Neither hel nor ádis means what we mean when we usually say “hell.”

The Pharisees imagined there were 10 heavens. The second heaven is that place of torment where Dives went. The third is paradise, where Lazarus went. In Jesus’s story, the people of these different heavens could see one another, from one heaven to the other. Kinda like we on earth can see into the first heaven, the sky. But the stars of heaven are awfully far away; there’s a χάσμα μέγα/hásma méga, “mega-chasm” (KJV “great gulf”) between us and them, so we can’t get to them without a fast rocket and a thousand years. Same with the space between Dives and Lazarus in the afterlife.

I’ve been asked more than once about how paradisiacal Lazarus’s third-heaven paradise actually is… considering Lazarus could see people weeping and teeth-grinding in torment while you’re trying to chill. I remind ’em of how we spend most of our time not paying attention to the stars at all. They’re awfully far away. Same with vast gap between Dives and Lazarus. The main problem with my theory is Abraham and Dives in Jesus’s parable could hear one another, and have a conversation. This may have been a one-time miraculous thing, but there’s no evidence that’s so. Still, I think it unlikely the folks in paradise are listening to the screams of those who aren’t in paradise.

I’ve checked with a number of other commentaries about what they think about the situation, but basically they dodge the idea. They’d rather not speculate. Kinda intellectually lazy of them.

Lazarus was deposited into Abraham’s κόλπον/kólpon, which can mean “womb” or “chest” or “side” or “fold [of one’s garment].” I’m going with the last one, since verse 23 uses the plural κόλποις/kólpis, and I’m pretty sure Abraham doesn’t have multiple wombs and chests. (Yes he has more than one side, but how would Lazarus be in more than one?) Seems Abraham threw his cloak, or shawl, or blanket, over Lazarus; in any case it’s not wrong to imagine Lazarus hugging him, as most Christians kinda imagine we’ll do when we first see Jesus.

Many a Christian has borrowed C.S. Lewis’s idea of hell being a place where all the doors are locked from the inside: Dives is where he is, with a vast gulf between him and Lazarus, because he voluntarily put himself there. Not because God placed him there as punishment. Jesus’s description kinda explodes Lewis’s idea: Dives wants Lazarus to join him there. Not permanently (well maybe permanently, if he’s bitter enough) but just to “dip his fingertip in water” and “cool my tongue.” Lk 16.24 Because Dives is no longer alive, and his human body was rotting in a sepulcher, he’s not physically thirsty, unlike Tántalos in that one Greek myth. But he is somehow experiencing a burning sensation and wants relief, and figures he can beg Abraham for the very bare minimum: Send him at the very least that scabby bum Lazarus, and grant him at the very least a drop of water.

Thing is, Dives asking for Lazarus exposes how he’s still kind of a dick. Dives requested Lazarus because he still thinks so very little of him. Dude’s finally getting the comfort he was deprived of on earth, Lk 16.25 but to Dives he’s still nothing but that icky beggar at his gate, whose body he probably had to send slaves out to bury before he stunk up the place further.

Abraham said it’s not happening. Dives then made a way bigger request: Send Lazarus to his family, to warn them like Jacob Marley warned Ebenezer Scrooge, lest they wind up in torment like he. Abraham said that wasn’t happening either. They have Moses and the Prophets, and if they can’t be bothered to believe the bible, they aren’t gonna believe Zombie Lazarus.

Notice how Abraham doesn’t suggest Lazarus’s ghost might appear to them: In order to visit Dives’s family, Lazarus would rise, ἀναστῇ/anastí, from the dead. He’d have to go back into a body—possibly his gross, decayed, oozing old one. That’d certainly get attention! But like Abraham said, they still wouldn’t believe him. “I don’t know how he’s alive, but he claims he went to paradise; he’s definitely mad.” People willingly believe all sorts of crazy things, and deny all sorts of rational things, so Lazarus’s trip back to the world of the living would be all for nothing—and no doubt he’d much prefer paradise.

Our own afterlife situation.

Other than these few little details which are incidental to this story, Jesus provides nothing else about the afterlife. The rest of the blanks have been filled in by Christian mythology.

And there‘s been a lot of Christian mythology! Ancient and medieval and present-day Christians wrote stories, if not whole novels, about what they imagine the afterlife to be. Some are thought-provoking, like C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce; some are silly, like Mark Twain’s Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. Sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not, they borrow images from pagan mythology—which is why the place of torment is now called “hell,” and has underground caverns of fire, red devils with pitchforks, ironic punishments, and Satan ruling over it instead of plaguing the earth like he actually is. Rv 12.12

As for paradise, it’s been mixed up with New Jerusalem: It’s got pearly gates, Rv 21.21 and St. Peter (who has its keys) guards one of them. It’s in the clouds like Mt. Olympos, and artists tend to draw it like it’s full of white marble Greek buildings, even though the ancient Greeks painted their buildings, same as we do. Or sometimes paradise looks like the garden of Eden… depending on what we imagine a garden to be; a botanical garden, or a public park, or an orchard of olive trees, or green forests. Others imagine mansions. Generally they’re whatever the individual Christian imagines as the place they’d like to be most. Someplace with green forests, or sandy beaches, or frozen yogurt shops on every corner.

And quite regularly, Christians prefer our ideas of the afterlife, to anything Jesus hints at in this parable.

Like I said, dispensationalists claim this afterlife has been abolished, and Christians go straight to heaven. But I remind you the bible says no such thing. The heavens won’t pass away till the very End. Rv 21.1 Meanwhile the Christian dead go to paradise to await our resurrection when Jesus returns.

Still, let’s not lose sight of what this story’s about: Jesus warns his hearers that life consists of far more than our personal comfort. Lazarus wasn’t dumped at Dives’s gate for no good reason: In God’s kingdom, those who have wealth are obligated to do something for those who don’t. The fact we do nothing, and claim we don’t need to ’cause they don’t deserve it—that they need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and stop depending on charity, and work for a living, and other such social Darwinist nonsense—is not an acceptable defense when we find ourselves judged by the Son of Man when he takes his throne. Nor when we die, and find ourselves on the wrong side of the afterlife.