Everybody’s heard of Lazarus. You know the one—the brother of Mary and Martha who died and was left in his tomb for four days, even until he smelled bad, and was then miraculously raised from the dead by Jesus. He’s at the center of one of the most stunning and jaw-dropping of Jesus’s miracles.
Well, this isn’t that Lazarus.
But here’s something you should know: this Lazarus is the only person in any of Jesus’s parables ever to have a name. All the rest of them had only labels: the sower, the father, the prodigal son, the debtor, the master, the Pharisee, the virgins. This guy, on the other hand, got a legitimate name. And because Jesus never did things like that unintentionally, I’m thinking there was a very good reason why this “certain beggar” was given a name.
The name—Lazarus—is a Greek variant of Eleazar, which means “God is my help.” Elder Talmage had an interesting take on the whole thing: the fact that the beggar got a name but the rich man didn’t may mean that the Savior would have found the name of the poor man, but not the rich man, written in the book of life.1
Uh-oh. You know what that means. According to the Bible Dictionary, the book of life is “a heavenly record” that is “kept of the faithful, whose names are recorded, as well as an account of their righteous deeds.”2 It looks like the fact that our beggar has a name indicates right up front that maybe, despite his impoverished condition, he’s going to fare better than the “certain rich man” in the eternal scheme of things. In fact, the Savior says exactly that as the parable unfolds. You’ll see.
Consider this, too: Jesus did just the opposite of what most of us would expect. Whose name are you most likely to know—the rich man in the news every day or the homeless guy who hangs out on the corner outside the local gas station? Sure. You’d probably recognize Bill Gates or LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey, even though you’ve never met them or had dinner at their house. You could tell me their names right off. But the homeless guy? No way.
Look at what Jesus is saying with this parable. If you’re walking down the street with Jesus and you see a rich man across the street, you might ask Jesus who it is. “Oh, that’s a rich man,” Jesus might reply. But if you ask about a homeless man perched on the edge of the curb with a dog licking his sores, Jesus might tell you, “That’s Lazarus.” Saying the name of the beggar and not mentioning the name of the rich man is the exact opposite of what we’d expect. The irony in this parable doesn’t stop there.
In addition to giving us the beggar’s name, Jesus started right out providing a very colorful description of the two characters in this parable:
"There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: "And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, "And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores" (Luke 16:19–21).
Okay. The rich man was clothed in purple—a color worn by the royal and wealthy. He also wore “fine linen.” In the first century, poor people wore clothing made of wool, hemp, or cotton; rich folks paraded around in silk and linen. Clearly, the rich man’s clothes set him apart from the crowd. He was doing really well.
The Savior goes a step further just in case someone missed that particular detail: he “fared sumptuously every day.” He doesn’t order from the dollar menu. It’s tough to find enough adjectives to describe the way the rich man was eating—not just once in a while, but every day. Webster’s Dictionary tells us that sumptuous means costly, lavish, expensive, extravagant, magnificent, entailing great expense—in essence, “luxuriously fine or large.” And remember, that was every day. Imagine eating whatever you wanted at the finest restaurants every day.
What about Lazarus, the beggar? He just wanted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table—you know, the unwanted scraps, the stuff the man would never even notice was gone. You don’t get the feeling Lazarus feels entitled to the rich man’s food. He wants what the man is going to throw away. It seems he didn’t even get that. We do know he was never invited in and given a place at the table.
While the rich man was wearing the finest clothes of the day, the beggar . . . well, he was “full of sores.” You got it—covered with sores. Jesus doesn’t explain precisely why he had this condition, but that doesn’t matter. He paints a vivid enough picture that we can appreciate it for what it was. And don’t forget—as Lazarus “laid at the gate” (in other words, the rich man’s front door), the dogs came and licked his sores. If Lazarus wanted the dogs to stop, it seems as though he didn’t have the strength to get them to leave or to get himself away from them, meaning we can assume he was in really bad shape.
As you are listening to Jesus tell this story, you might be thinking, The dogs were at least trying to help! Where are the people?! Maybe Jesus used this descriptive visual to help us understand that the beggar had been discarded by society. No one came to his aid. No friends or family attended to him, at least none we’re told about. The dogs who licked his sores were his only companions, and perhaps that’s how people saw him—as a stray animal.
Considering it all—fine purple linens and sumptuous feasts, cast-off crumbs and dogs licking sores—comparing the two characters in this parable was a very effective way for Jesus to draw a stunning contrast between rich and poor, privileged and destitute. It’s hard to imagine that anyone hearing the parable couldn’t understand just what the situation was and how different these two people were. They were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Jesus next simply says:
"The beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; "And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom" (Luke 16:22–23).
As Elder Talmage wrote, “Lazarus died; no mention is made of his funeral; his festering body was probably thrown into a pauper’s grave; but angels bore his immortal spirit into Paradise, the resting place of the blessed and commonly known in the figurative lore of the rabbis as Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died; his burial was doubtless an elaborate affair, but we read not of any angelic escort receiving his spirit. In hell he lifted up his eyes and saw, afar, Lazarus at peace in the abode of Abraham.”3
Whoa. I’m thinking that might have been a bit of a wake-up call for the rich man. What happened here? He ended up being tormented in hell, while the derelict, sore-infested beggar who loitered at the gate every day was in the bosom of Abraham? This wasn’t just anyone. This was Abraham, the Jew of all Jews. The father of the religion. For the crowd He was addressing, Jesus couldn’t have picked a more impressive person for Lazarus to be with. That would be like one of us hanging out with Joseph and Emma Smith.
What is meant by the phrase “the bosom of Abraham”? Many scholars believe this is referring to Lazarus having a meal with Abraham. Because the Jews ate close to the floor, those at the meal would usually lie on their left hip and elbow and eat with their right hand. At the last supper, John is said to be leaning on Jesus’s bosom, meaning he was eating right next to Jesus. If this is the case, Lazarus’s position has been entirely reversed. How ironic! He couldn’t get a single crumb of food from the rich man’s table, and now he is having a meal and sitting right next to Abraham.
As Jesus told it, suddenly old Lazarus wasn’t looking so bad to the rich man. In fact, the rich man “cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:24). So he does know the beggar’s name. He did know who Lazarus was when they were on earth. He didn’t consider Lazarus good enough to toss even a few crumbs at before the two of them died, but now? Oh, please. Now, he wanted Lazarus to serve him. He still doesn’t see Lazarus as anything more than a beggar.
Notice, by the way, the rich man asks for drops of water—not a cup of water, not a pitcher of water, just drops of water. Their situations have been entirely reversed, Lazarus wanted only crumbs of food, now the rich man asks for only drops of water.
Let’s see how Abraham responded: “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented” (Luke 16:25). In other words, in life you wouldn’t even give a crumb. Now you’re not going to receive so much as a drop of water.
Talk about a major flip of circumstances. They completely swapped places. We know about the tender mercies of the Lord. For the rich man, this just might be a great example of the bitter ironies of the Lord.
But that’s not all: it would have been impossible for Abraham to grant what Elder Talmage called the rich man’s “pitiful request.” Here’s what else Jesus was telling the Pharisees:
“That righteous and unrighteous dwell apart during the interval between death and resurrection is clear.” And here’s why: “between the abode of the righteous where Lazarus rested and that of the wicked where [the rich man] suffered ‘there is a great gulf fixed,’ and passage between the two is interdicted”4—which means it’s forbidden, prohibited, cut off. This is important to us because Latter-day Saints believe that before the Savior’s Resurrection, there was no interaction between spirit paradise and spirit prison, and D&C 138 teaches that the Savior Himself organized that mission while His body lay in the tomb.
Before you get too hung up on money—you know, the rich man versus the beggar—that wasn’t the point. Remember, the good Samaritan used money to bless lives. According to The New Testament Student Manual,
"The Savior did not say that the rich man was an evil man—only that with all the blessings he had been given, he did not give from his great wealth to someone in need. It may have surprised the Pharisees to hear that the rich man went to hell, while Lazarus went to paradise. In this parable, the Savior taught all of us to be wise in how we use the temporal and spiritual blessings given to us."
King Benjamin summed it up beautifully:
"For the sake of retaining a remission of your sins . . . I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants" (Mosiah 4:26).
And this parable? This parable teaches us that what happens to us after death depends very much on what we decide here: the life we lead in mortality will determine the state that awaits us in the life beyond this one.5 What if the only things you get to have in heaven are the things you give away on the earth? What would you have right now? Probably 10 percent of your income, cookies, pencils, sticks of gum, old clothes, and a lot of stuffed animals. Anything else?
We can all learn from the example of Larry Stewart. In the late 1960s, Larry lost his job and his home. Hungry and cold, he went inside the Dixie Diner in Houston, Mississippi, and ordered a breakfast he knew he couldn’t pay for. He was planning on slipping out before he was asked to pay.
The owner of the diner, Ted Horn, had his eye on the young man and could see what was about to happen. Walking over to Larry’s table, he held out a $20 bill and said, “Excuse me, sir, I think you dropped this.” Larry paid for his breakfast and made a vow. He promised God that if he ever made money, he would devote it to helping people the way Ted Horn helped him.
He followed through on his promise.
After making millions of dollars in the cable television and long-distance calling business, Larry returned to Ted Horn and gave him $10,000. He also became the Secret Santa of the South. He spent the holidays traveling around at Christmastime and handing out $5, $10, $20, and $100 bills for more than 26 years. He stopped only because cancer took him in 2006. I’m sure he is in the bosom of Abraham today.
Here’s the best part: you don’t have to be rich—not in material wealth, anyway—to qualify. You do have to be aware, to notice, to give what you can, to reach out—even (and maybe especially) to the beggar at the gate who is covered with sores and hoping for just a crumb. A crumb can be given in many forms–money, food, service, eye contact, a smile, a compliment. Our challenge is a simple yet profound one, according to Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf:
"When I think of the Savior, I often picture Him with hands outstretched, reaching out to comfort, heal, bless, and love. . . . He loved the humble and the meek and walked among them, ministering to them and offering hope and salvation. "That is what He did during His mortal life; it is what He would be doing if He were living among us today; and it is what we should be doing as His disciples and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."6
Lead image from Getty Images
1. See Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 483.
2. Bible Dictionary, 627.
3. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 466.
4. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 467.
5. See Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 469.
6. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “You Are My Hands,” Ensign, May 2010.
As the world’s greatest teacher, Jesus Christ used His skills as a storyteller to teach and inspire His followers. The parables of Christ contain a wealth of guidance, but the deeper meaning of His words can sometimes be difficult to decipher. Now, best-selling authors Hank Smith and Kathryn Jenkins—known and loved for their ability to approach gospel topics in a clear, light, and understandable way—take a careful look at the finer points of the Savior’s stories.