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Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Reversals of Fortune, and the Eternal Banquet

100-Word Summary

The afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is much debated. Is it merely incidental to the story, or a description of what the afterlife is really like, or not like? To answer these questions, this article examines how the scene squares with the rest of the Gospel of Luke. The finding is that the parable's afterlife scene is very much at home in Luke, both in its use of a reversal of fortunes motif and in its implicit reference to an eschatological banquet. Thus the scene does form part of Luke's eschatological teaching.

A Much-Debated Afterlife Scene

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31 (hover to read),1 is one of the most fascinating, but also most disputed, parables of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. The story depicts a scene from the afterlife, and there are three main views on what the story teaches about the afterlife. The first view is that the story conveys an accurate idea of what happens after death. The second view is that the story's message is entirely a moral one, about the use of money and obedience to God's Word; the afterlife scene is just a setting for this message. Thus, the parable teaches nothing about life after death, just as the Parable of the Sower teaches nothing about agriculture. The third view is that the parable parodies popular ideas about the afterlife from Jesus' day and is thus intended to subvert belief in the kind of afterlife depicted in the story. Observe that these three interpretations are as different as they could possibly be! Jesus is either telling us what the afterlife is like, or what it is not like, or is telling us nothing about the afterlife. We will refer to these three interpretations of the parable's afterlife scene as the face value view, the parody view, and the incidental view, respectively.

Before trying to decide between these three alternatives, a couple of preliminary observations. (i) The parody view must shoulder the heaviest burden of proof. Luke certainly does not say that the afterlife story is a parody, intended to subvert popular ideas. At least on the surface, the story makes sense when taken at face value. Occam's Razor dictates that this simplest solution is most likely the right one. The parody interpretation is the most complicated, requiring us to see a subtle irony in Luke's construction that has escaped most readers, ancient and modern. In my estimation, the evidence advanced in support of the parody view is very flimsy indeed.2 (ii) The parody view is antithetical to both of the other two views, whereas the first two views lie on a continuum. Obviously the face value view and the parody view contradict each other. The parody view also contradicts the incidental view, because it is implausible that the parable's primary purpose is to convey a moral message about the use of wealth and obedience to the law and prophets, and yet at the same time to use subtle irony to subvert certain ideas about the nature of the afterlife. By contrast, the face value view and the incidental view are not contradictory. If present moral obligations have eternal consequences, then there is a fundamental consistency between a moral message and an afterlife scene. The difference is mainly a matter of emphasis.3

How then are we to judge between the three interpretations? The answer lies in content and context. Historical context is important: an understanding of ancient Jewish ideas about the afterlife would enable us to receive the parable's afterlife imagery as its original hearers and readers would have received it. As I have written previously, Outi Lehtipuu has done a lot of this historical legwork for us in her book, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After a thorough survey of Second Temple Jewish literature, Lehtipuu concludes that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."4 In this article, however, I want to consider another level of context: the Lukan literary context. If it can be shown that the afterlife scene in this parable is consistent with wider Lukan teaching, the logical conclusion will be that Luke wants his readers to take the parable's afterlife imagery seriously. There are two major themes or motifs from the Gospel of Luke that are reflected in the afterlife scene in this parable. One is the reversal of fortunes motif and the other is the eschatological5 banquet or eternal banquet motif.

Reversal of Fortunes in the Gospel of Luke

A major theme in Luke is that of reversal of fortunes.6 People's fates in this life will be reversed in the next. Perhaps the most succinct statements of this idea are in Luke 13:30 ("For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last") and Luke 17:33 ("Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it"; cf. 9:24). However, the classic Lukan statement of the reversal of fortunes is found in Luke 6:20-26, the Lukan version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain:
20 And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. 21 Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
This passage differs from the more famous Matthaean Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) in three significant ways. First, and most obviously, Matthew's text has only beatitudes (blessings), whereas Luke's also has woes that are the exact opposite of the corresponding beatitudes. Second, Luke's criteria for blessedness are physical (e.g., poor, hungry), while Matthew overtly spiritualises the criteria (e.g., poor in spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness). Third, in Luke's case the relationship between the present state and future result is primarily that of reversal: the hungry will be filled (and vice versa), the weeping will laugh (and vice versa); in Matthew the reversal pattern is less obvious.7 Thus, a distinctive feature of Luke's moral and eschatological teaching is that those who enjoy the good life now will later have their fortunes reversed, and vice versa.8 If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find numerous examples of this motif;9 but nowhere is it put more vividly on display than in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The rich man is the quintessential addressee of the Four Woes of Luke 6:24-26. He was rich, wore expensive clothing, and "dined sumptuously every day." This statement implies the other three attributes: the rich man is "filled," "laughs," and "all speak well of him." Here I would refer the reader to my previous article which gave background on dining in the Roman world. The Roman banquet was indeed an opulent affair, as firsthand accounts such as those of Horace and Plutarch illustrate. There was course after course of fine food, wine aplenty, laughter and entertainment. The host was honoured and flattered by his guests and could expect an invitation to the next fine banquet (cf. Luke 14:12). The parable implies that the rich man moved in a social circle where he hosted or was hosted at such banquets daily. In the afterlife, however, the reversal of his fortune is complete. He who had it all has lost it all. His sensual pleasure has been traded for fiery torment, and he who banqueted daily now pleads, unsuccessfully, for a single drop of water!

Lazarus is, by contrast, the quintessential addressee of the Four Beatitudes of Luke 6:20-23. He is poor, lying homeless at the rich man's door. He is hungry, longing to eat scraps from the rich man's table (like a dog; cf. Matt. 15:26-27). He is despised and excluded; the only attention he gets is from dogs (an unclean animal) that come and lick his sores. It goes without saying that he is miserable to the point of weeping. Yet, when he dies, he is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom (the meaning of this expression will be discussed below). Luke has Abraham explicitly justify the afterlife situation of the two men in terms of a reversal of fortunes: "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" (Luke 16:25). It is evident, then, that the afterlife scene in this parable is a vivid illustration of the reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. The afterlife scene thus accurately reflects Lukan ideas about individual eschatology; consequently it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the parable's meaning, much less viewed as an afterlife concept that Luke seeks to discredit.

The Eternal Banquet in the Gospel of Luke

All four canonical Gospels show interest in banquets and dining—both in the narratives and in the teachings of Jesus—but above all Luke. Jesus is a frequent guest at banquets in Luke. Levi the tax collector throws him a "great banquet" (Luke 5:29-30). He is invited to dine with a Pharisee named Simon (7:37-50), and later with another unnamed Pharisee (11:37-54), and still later with yet another (14:1-24). In the Roman world, as today, dining was not just about the food, but the socialising. To share table fellowship with someone was understood as accepting them socially; hence the offence Jesus caused by dining with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-32). As discussed in the previous article, the dining room setup was not of sitting in chairs around a large table, but reclining on three couches (a triclinium) around a small table.10 Strict rules of social hierarchy determined the reclining positions on the couches, with positions near the host being the most coveted. This social dynamic is often apparent in Luke. At the Sabbath-day banquet of Luke 14:1-24, Jesus notices how the other guests "were choosing the places of honour" and uses this as the occasion for a parable about humility (one that reflects the reversal of fortunes motif; Luke 14:7-11). Jesus' denunciation of the scribes mentions their love of places of honour at banquets (Luke 20:46). At the Passover meal (Last Supper) of Luke 22, an argument about social precedence breaks out among the apostles, which Jesus again uses as a teaching moment (Luke 22:24-27).

A banquet is one of the most prominent images used in Luke to describe the afterlife rewards of the blessed. The image comes up in parables, such as that of Luke 12:36-37 (which depicts a master waiting tables on his slaves—a stunning reversal of social custom), 14:16-23 (the Parable of the Great Feast), 15:1-31 (the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son).11 It is also present in more literal sayings, such as Luke 13:28-29,12 Luke 14:12-15,13 and Luke 22:16, 18, 30.14 Finally, anticipations of the eternal banquet can also be seen in Jesus' remarks about his eating and drinking as bridegroom (Luke 5:34; 7:34), in the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:11-17), in the Last Supper (particularly the institution of the Eucharist, Luke 22:14-20; cf. 24:30-35).

What does all of the above have to do with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? The answer is that we should probably see in the phrase "the bosom of Abraham" (to which Lazarus is carried by angels) an allusion to the place of honour at the eternal banquet. Because of the way diners reclined diagonally on the triclinium couches, the head of the person to one's right was adjacent to one's chest, and so that person could be said to be "in his bosom" (en tois kolpois autou).15 The same expression is used to describe the position of the Beloved Disciple relative to Jesus at the Last Supper in John 13:23-25. Notice also that Luke has earlier described the kingdom of God in terms of a banquet where people recline at table in the presence of Abraham, within sight of those who previously banqueted but are now excluded (13:28-29).16  Moreover, in view of the reversal of fortunes motif, Lazarus being escorted by angels to the place of honour at the eternal banquet is a fitting reversal of his earlier predicament of lying among dogs longing for table scraps.

A possible objection is that the rich man sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom; how could he see inside a dining room from a great distance? A plausible answer is that the eternal banquet takes place outdoors. Dunbabin notes that first-century stone triclinia and tables are preserved in Pompeii in gardens and in half-enclosed rooms.17 In this respect it is noteworthy that Luke elsewhere describes the setting of the eschatological kingdom as "Paradise," a word meaning garden (Luke 23:43).18 Biblical scholars have probably been correct, therefore, in regarding the phrase "in the bosom of Abraham" in Luke 16:22, 24 as a reference to a place of honour at the eternal banquet.19


In this article, we have sought to situate the afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in relation to wider Lukan ideas about people's ultimate destiny. We have seen that in two important respects, the parable's afterlife scene exemplifies Luke's eschatology. First, this scene is the Gospel's most vivid depiction of the prominent reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. Second, the scene depicts Lazarus' reward in terms of a place of honour at a banquet hosted by Abraham, which the excluded rich man watches from afar. This places the scene in continuity with the banquet image that dominates this Gospel's concept of what the consummated kingdom of God will be like. The parallel between Luke 16:22-24 and 13:24-30 is particularly striking.

Given the cohesion between the parable's afterlife scene and wider Lukan eschatology, it is implausible to regard the afterlife scene as irrelevant to the meaning of the parable as intended by Luke. Yes, the parable's primary purpose is to warn of the dangers of wealth and the culpability of those who have the law and the prophets, but the afterlife consequences are an essential part of that warning. It is still less plausible to regard Luke as trying to subvert the afterlife concept used in the story. Is the parable providing us with a literal snapshot of exactly what the afterlife will be like? No. All biblical language about the transcendent only gestures toward what is admittedly beyond our ability to comprehend.20 However, the afterlife scene in the parable, including its indication that personal existence continues after death,21 is an indispensable part of divine revelation concerning "the last things." It is not an outlier that can be set aside.

  • 1 19 “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. 20 And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 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. 22 When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 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.’” (NABRE)
  • 2 The most common argument concerns the rich man's request that Lazarus be sent to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue due to his fiery torment. This detail is said to be absurd, since the amount of water that can be borne on a fingertip could never cool the tongue of one who is tormented by fire. However, the description is not intended to render the story ridiculous; it is hyperbole, emphasising the extent of the rich man's predicament in that even such a meagre request is denied. This ties in with the Lukan reversal of fortunes motif to be discussed below.
  • 3 Hence, in my previous article on this parable, I referred to four views, the fourth being essentially a compromise between the face value and incidental views: the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked, but its afterlife scene cannot be pressed too far as a precise, literal description of that fate.
  • 4 The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 299. My previous article on this parable refers to other academic literature representing various viewpoints on the parable's interpretation.
  • 5 The word "eschatology" comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning "last," and is a technical term for Christian doctrine pertaining to the last things, including the afterlife.
  • 6 This theme also occurs in Matthew and Mark, too, but our focus here is on Luke since it is only Luke who gives us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
  • 7 Matthew does have some reversal, e.g., those that mourn will be comforted.
  • 8 Luke's negative view of wealth is, it must be noted, more nuanced than simply condemning the rich per se. For instance, the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) is "to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions," and that a bad end awaits "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." Similarly, after recounting the story of the rich young man who declined to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23), Luke records Jesus' saying, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). This elicits the audience's question, "Then who can be saved?" to which Jesus responds, "What is impossible for humans is possible for God." Thus, Luke does not write off the rich, but he does make it clear that their standing before God is precarious.
  • 9 The earliest instance in the Gospel occurs in Mary's Magnificat prayer in Luke 1:53: "The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
  • 10 Luke never explicitly mentions triclinia or dining couches (Mark probably does, in 7:4), but this dining setting and style is implied by the use of verbs meaning "to recline," such as anakeimai (Luke 22:27), katakeimai (Luke 5:29; 7:37), anapiptō (Luke 11:37; 14:10; 17:7; 22:14), anaklinō (Luke 12:37; 13:29), and kataklinō (Luke 7:36; 9:14-15; 14:8; 24:30). The last two words verbalise the word klinē, meaning "couch" or "bed."
  • 11 The first two parables end with the finder calling together friends and neighbours to rejoice with her/him, a probable reference to a banquet; the third explicitly results in the father declaring, "Let us celebrate with a feast".
  • 12 "And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God."
  • 13 "Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”" The implication here is that you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous by being invited into the eternal banquet. One of the guests correctly makes this inference and says, "Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God" (v. 15).
  • 14 "for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God... for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes... I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
  • 15 This expression is used in the Septuagint more generically of any intimate embrace, such as that between a husband and wife (Gen. 16:5; Deut. 13:7(13:6), 28:54, 28:56, 2 Kgdms 12:8, Sir. 9:1), or between a parent and child (Ruth 4:16; 3 Kgdms 3:20, 17:19; cf. 2 Kgdms 12:3). The expression is used in this latter sense to describe the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in John 1:18. Since Abraham is a patriarchal figure and is explicitly addressed as "Father Abraham" by the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), it is possible that "in Abraham's bosom" has this sense of parent/child intimacy. However, this does not conflict with the notion that Lazarus is in this intimate position next to Abraham at the eternal banquet.
  • 16 This passage is itself a good example of the reversal of fortunes motif, since it envisions people who have previously dined with the Lord (and thus consider themselves entitled to a place at the eternal banquet) thrown out into a place of "wailing" while others enter into the banquet. The pericope ends with the reversal saying par excellence, "For, behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
  • 17 Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38.
  • 18 We should probably see in this an allusion to the Garden of Eden; cf. Rev. 2:7.
  • 19 "Lazarus, who hungered in earthly life, now rests on 'Abraham's bosom' in the afterlife. Clearly this is a reference to a banquet scene in which the banqueters recline and thus rest on the bosom of the diner to their left. Lazarus is said to be on the bosom of Abraham in order to indicate that he is to the right of the host, Abraham, and therefore in a position of honor. The image is that of a sumptuous banquet, a potent image for the joys of heaven. The rich man, meanwhile, in a true reversal of situations, begs for a single drop of water" (Dennis E. Smith, "Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke," Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987]: 625-26). Similarly, "[B]eing in Abraham’s bosom should be taken as a metaphor that plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31. In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position. The metaphor being in Abraham’s bosom includes both the components 'place of honor' and 'banquet.' This makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable." (Alexey Somov and Vitaly Voinov, "'Abraham's Bosom' (Luke 16:22-23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79 [2017]: 633).
  • 20 Paul stresses that no eye has seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9) and that "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror" (1 Cor. 13:12).
  • 21 This idea is also implicit elsewhere in Luke-Acts, such as in Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59 (of reward after death) and Luke 12:4-5 and Acts 1:25 (of punishment after death).


Anonymous said...

Some say that it is not a parable at all, but an account of an actual occurrence.

Tom said...

Hello Anonymous. It is true that the parable is not formally introduced as a parable. However, that is also true of the parable of the dishonest manager earlier in the chapter, the parable of the lost son in the previous chapter, and several other parables in Luke. I think the story bears the stylistic marks of being designed to convey a particular message. It is odd and atypical that the beggar in the story is named (the name, an Aramaic equivalent of Eleazar, means 'God is my help'). Perhaps this is intended to signal that the poor and destitute are nameless in this world but not before God (whereas the rich man, so privileged in worldly things, remains nameless in before God).