Luke 16: 19-31: A Concise Exegesis

“O how this world has deceived me!” cried out the rich man.

“Its pleasures have passed like a dream, now hell torments me

I am denied water in this sea of fire

Woe to me, I do not repent!”

~ Tuesday Vespers

The narrative of the Rich man and Lazarus is quite revealing. It clearly exemplifies the promise Christ makes through his beatitude; “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:21). It also epitomizes the foretold agony of the rich; “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6: 24). In the earthly life when the rich man feasted not occasionally but daily (εὐφραινόμενος καθ᾽ ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς), the poor Lazarus was not only consumed by sores (ἡλκωμένος) but also longed to be satiated (ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι) at least through the crumbs that fell from the table of the rich man.[1] But now after their departure the roles are reversed. Lazarus is consoled and nourished in the bosom of Abraham (v.22) while the rich man torments in Hades (v.23). It is also fascinating to notice that the rich man is not named. He has no identity beside his wealth. On the other hand Lazarus although he was poor, is named. Thus Origen remarks;

“What seemed better to him was not really better. According to Solomon’s words, ‘a good name is better than much wealth.’ The opposite seemed better to him: great wealth rather than a good name. So, he is named by what he loved; he is called ‘rich’, not ‘holy’ or ‘just’. But the poor man, who had nothing in this world, is called by the simple name of ‘Lazarus’.”[2]

The phrase that really struck me while reading this passage was “Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο” (v.20). NRSV translates this verse as “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” But ἐβέβλητο is pluperfect indicative middle voice which implies that a better translation would be ‘Lazarus had been laid at the gate.’ This semantic is intrinsically challenging to me. I would take the liberty to interpret this as an opportunity provided by Christ to the rich man to serve Christ himself in the form of Lazarus; for Christ himself says; “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Matt. 25: 40). Christ does not say that serving my brothers is “like” serving me but it is precisely ‘me whom you are serving’; as simple as that.

As the narrative progresses we find out that not only was the rich man aware of a destitute been laid at his gate but he also knew him by name. (v.24) yet she showed no compassion towards him. To add to the agony we see that even the dogs licked the sores of Lazarus (v.21) as they would their own and showed more mercy and concern for the poor man than the rich man.[3] Praying for the poor is not an abstract emotion but mandates a concrete action. Thus in West Syrian Great Lent Thursday Ninth hour we pray; “When the poor knock, do not tell them, “The Lord will give.” Those words are vain and they bring no reward to you. Instead, give and then you may say, “The Lord provides,” for the poor know better than you that God provides. (Bo’utho Mor Jacob).”

The rich man had to torment in Hades because of his choices he made in the earthly life. Every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire and is not plunged into some fire which has already been kindled. Isaiah says; “Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled.” (Isaiah 50:11). We think we are punished for our sins but in fact we are punished by our sins. The food and material for this fire are our sins which Paul calls wood, hay and straw. This is why Abraham tells the rich man concerning his brothers that “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them hear (ἀκουσάτωσαν) them.” (v.29). ἀκούω does not mean mere listening but ‘to pay attention and obey.’ Even Jesus’ resurrection “will not induce them to repent (vv.30-31) and thus find salvation, unless they understand and accept that resurrection as the fulfillment of scripture, as Paul made clear in Rom. 1:1-4 and 1Cor. 15:4.”[4]    

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] John T Caroll, Luke: A Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2012), 336.

[2] Joseph T. Lienhard, trans. Origen: Homilies on Luke (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 216.

[3] Richard C. Bright, An Exegetical Summary of Luke 12-24 (Dallas: SIL International, 2008), 191.

[4] Paul Nadim Tarazi, The New Testament Introduction: Luke and Acts (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2001), 135.


  1. The poor man’s name Lazarus in the Greek translation of the gospel, is not original. His actual name was El` azar (Anglicised in the OT to ‘Eleazar’, see e.g. Exodus 6v25). This is a Hebrew name meaning ‘God helps’. It is always better to be one whom God helps, than one who is rich in this world’s gifts who thinks he or she needs no help from anyone.


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