The Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus

By Peter J. Williams

The story of the two sons in Luke 15 contains various layers of allusions to the Old Testament. The story was obviously composed by someone who knew the Old Testament well, and it fits exactly with the context claimed in Luke 15:1–2. But if it is true that Jesus told this story with numerous allusions to the Old Testament, we would expect this pattern to be replicated elsewhere in parables attributed to Jesus.

I want to show that we do indeed find a pattern of Old Testament allusions in other stories and parables of Jesus. These are all shorter than the story of the two sons, and my analysis is likewise much briefer. So, let’s consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus in more detail.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31 is arguably presented to the same audience as the stories of Luke 15. After 15:1–2 introduces Jesus’s mixed audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes, 16:1 presents him as addressing just his disciples. Yet the Pharisees are clearly still listening (16:14–15). As a hard-hitting parable against wealthy people who think they can invoke Abraham as their father, the story of the rich man and Lazarus has many thematic and verbal connections both with Luke 15 and the first part of Luke 16 (the parable of the unjust manager), so it is appropriate to see the audience as continuing from Luke 15.

This story shows various connections with the Old Testament. Initially, we are told just two things about the rich man: he wore fabulous clothes, specifically purple and linen, and he feasted luxuriously every day (16:19). Thinking as a scribe who has spent years copying and attending to the exact wording of the Bible, we may note that the only other text that mentions daily feasting with purple and linen together is in the book of Esther, in which Ahasuerus (Xerxes) the Persian king holds a celebration lasting 180 days with a seven-day feast at the end, and it is specifically said that the decor includes purple and linen (Est. 1:6 ESV).

So the rich man seems to be treating himself like royalty. We see the same pattern of using Scripture here as in Luke 15 because this use also involves contrast and moral challenge: whereas the Persian king invites great and small to his feast (Est. 1:5), the rich man does not. Lazarus remains outside at the gate, the very place that the book of Esther associates ten times with the hero Mordecai (Est. 2:19, 21; 3:2, 3; 4:2, 6; 5:9, 13; 6:10, 12). Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the book of Esther shows us that it does not end well for the rich man (Haman), who despises the man at the gate, whereas the man at the gate is honored by the king himself and ends up wearing linen and purple (Est. 8:15).

The story of the rich man and Lazarus also links with the only time in the Old Testament when someone has a different feast each day (rather than a continuous multiday feast), namely, the feasts of Job’s children:

His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. (Job 1:4 ESV)

We note that the word used for the rich man’s daily feast is the word “celebrate,” which is also used in the story of the two sons both when the father celebrates the return of the younger son and when the older son wishes he could “celebrate” with his friends (Luke 15:24, 29).

With admirable economy of words, the storyteller says that the poor man is laid at the gate of the rich man, thus indicating that he is not merely poor but also suffers from a mobility disability.

He has been brought by others to what seems like a strategic spot from which to get help.

The rich man, whose name must have been known to many, is unnamed in the story, whereas Lazarus is named, indicating his greater importance to the storyteller and thus to God himself. We are then informed that Lazarus was covered with sores. Having just evoked the feasting of Job’s children, a scribe should know that the only other biblical character covered with sores was Job himself (Job 2:7). In this we see reversal relative to the Old Testament, which is characteristic of other stories attributed to Jesus. Job was covered with sores like Lazarus but differed dramatically from him by being wealthy. We also have a moral challenge combined with a reversal since rich Job could claim that he had always helped the poor (Job 31:16–22). Thus, Job was different from the rich man.

We then read that Lazarus was “longing to be filled with the things that fell from the rich man’s table. But even the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:21). The wording matches the immediately preceding chapter, in which the younger son “was longing to be filled with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one was giving him anything” (15:16). The sequence “longing to be filled” followed by the name of a proverbially unclean animal (pig or dog) shows a link between pigs and dogs similar to the one we see on Jesus’s lips exclusively in Matthew’s Gospel:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matt. 7:6 ESV)

Since these parallels between pigs and dogs are attributed to Jesus in completely different contexts in two different Gospels, it makes most sense if they go back to Jesus himself.

In the story, the poor man dies first, as poor people typically do. Nothing is noted about his burial, and we are thus left wondering whether he is actually buried. Then the rich man dies, and his burial is noted (Luke 16:22). But whereas the rich man’s death is publicly marked, it is the poor man who receives VIP treatment and is carried by angels to Abraham’s side, or what older English translations call “Abraham’s bosom.”

Since there is no reason to suppose that Abraham in his post-mortem existence has anything other than a normal-sized body, we must assume that his side is where the most privileged person is placed in the heavenly feast, not a superlarge heavenly area where many people could fit.[1] The word “side,” or “bosom,” expresses where a close dining companion might lean (see John 1:18; 13:23). Thus, in line with Jesus’s saying that the first will be last and the last first, Lazarus, who is last in this life, gets the top place at the heavenly feast at which Abraham presides (Luke 13:28–30).

The rich man, meanwhile, is in Hades—a word that does not here convey all the complex geography of Greek mythology but does at least designate a place where people are paid back for what they have done in this life. Just as Lazarus’s sores had burned him and had been licked by the tongues of dogs, so now the rich man’s tongue is on fire, and he yearns for relief.

Then the story says that the rich man “lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham from afar” (Luke 16:23). For Bible experts, there are only two places in the Old Testament where the combination of “lift up eyes” and “from afar” occurs, both in stories about rich men. The first is about Abraham and the second about Job:

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. (Gen. 22:4 ESV)

And when they [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes from afar, they did not recognize him [Job]. And they lifted up their voices and wept. (Job 2:12)

We have already been contextually reminded of Job by the daily feasting and the body covered with sores. We here have the combination of lifting up the eyes and seeing a particular person from afar. Even Job’s rather useless friends are moved with compassion when they see Job covered with sores. At least they try to help since they travel considerable distances to see Job. This echo makes a moral point by highlighting how the rich man had done absolutely nothing when he saw Lazarus up close daily, covered with sores.

But the story here has an even closer connection to the account of Abraham, with which it shares four features: “lift up,” “eyes,” “saw from afar,” and Abraham himself. The connection with Abraham is reinforced because he is the Old Testament character who is most often said to lift up his eyes (Gen. 18:2; 22:4, 13).[2]The connection with Abraham also makes a moral point: Abraham, like Job, was rich. Job had always helped the poor, and Abraham was hospitable to strangers. But the rich man had done neither.

The rich man now addresses Abraham three times as “Father” (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), just as three times in the previous chapter the younger son had mentally or actually addressed his father as “Father” (15:12, 18, 21). The rich man in addressing Abraham as his father wants to stress his close connection with Abraham. He also reveals in his address to Abraham that, despite having ignored him daily, he knew Lazarus’s name:

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 flame. (16:24)

Just as the father of Luke 15 addressed the older son as “child,” so we find that Abraham addresses the rich man as “child” (15:31; 16:25).

The rich man pleads with Abraham that he would send Lazarus to warn his “five brothers.” Why five? One reason more obvious to scribes that the storyteller would use the number five here is that there were five books of the law of Moses. Say the number “five” to a scribe, and it is hard for him not to think about his main job of copying out five particular books. This is not to say that the five brothers in the story stand for the five books of the law. It is rather that the number five may mentally trigger among scribes thoughts of the five books of the law. Further evidence that this link is not alien to the context is that according to Luke 16:16–17, Jesus has explicitly mentioned the law of Moses in two of the three verses that immediately precede this story. In 16:17 he even refers to the small pen strokes that scribes had to make on many letters as they copied the law. And in Abraham’s response to the rich man, he mentions Moses as a stand-in for the Pentateuch twice, further supporting the link (16:29, 31).

Now let us consider the rich man’s statement that he has “five brothers” while thinking at the same time of the five books of the law. In doing so, we realize that the rich man has made a mathematical mistake. If Abraham really is his father, he does not have only five brothers. After all, in the law God promised to Abraham that his descendants would be uncountable, like the stars and like the sand (Gen. 22:17). It therefore follows that if the rich man really is a child of Abraham, he must have vast numbers of brothers. Most awkwardly, Lazarus would be his brother too. Sadly, this man has been ignoring the five books of the law and so has missed this basic fact. The older son had wanted a feast without his father. Similarly, in his own lifetime the rich man had feasts excluding Lazarus, who would have been his brother if he could truly claim that Abraham was his father.

The older son and the rich man have in common that they want to reject as brother someone accepted by that brother’s father. This packs a rhetorical punch for an audience of Pharisees and scribes who likewise do not relish the prospect of accepting tax collectors and “sinners” as their own spiritual family yet want to claim God as their Father.

Thus we have another story attributed to Jesus that is powerful at the surface level even if one does not notice any of the echoes to earlier parts of the Bible. But especially for the learned hearer, it also works at a deeper level through a range of clever references to the Jewish Scriptures. The combination of simplicity and depth makes it a work of great artistry and genius.

Content taken from The Surprising Genius of Jesus by Peter J. Williams, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.


[1] In the book of Jubilees, a piece of apocryphal literature probably well known at the time of Jesus, the “bosom” of Abraham was clearly a normal physical space since it is where the young Jacob slept when Abraham died (Jub. 23).

[2] The expression is used once each for Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and Joseph (Gen. 13:10; 24:63; 33:1, 5; 43:29), only counting instances of third-person masculine singular verbs in the past tense. Whereas there are eight of these in Genesis, there are only six other instances in the rest of the Old Testament (Num. 24:2; Josh. 5:13; Judg. 19:17; 2 Sam. 18:24; 1 Chron. 21:16; Ezek. 18:12). The case of Job 2:12 is counted separately here because it has a plural verb.


Published November 20, 2023

Peter J. Williams

Peter J. Williams is the author of Can We Trust the Gospels? and principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge.