Lazarus was a begger who ate from the rich man’s leftovers. Lazarus has the distinction of being the only person to be named in any of Jesus’ parables. Most likely a fictional character invented to illustrate a point, Lazarus nonetheless represents the plight of many.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a story of contrasts. In the first scene, the rich man puts on a very public display of opulence.
Lazarus, whom the rich man ignores, lies just beyond the gate—close enough to salivate over the excess from the rich man’s table. Jesus raises the odds against Lazarus by adding that he is covered in sores—making him ritually unclean in the eyes of the religious establishment (Leviticus 13).
When both men die in the following scene, however, Lazarus ends up in paradise while the rich man is subjected to torment. Once again, a barrier separates them—although this time it is a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26). In pleading with Abraham, the rich man lets slip that he knows Lazarus’s name (Luke 16:24, 27)—making his prior apathy toward the poor beggar even more appalling. Abraham rebuffs each of the rich man’s protests, noting that since he did not see fit to reverse Lazarus’s fortunes in life, God has seen fit to reverse both men’s fortunes in the afterlife.
Lazarus does not speak once during the entire episode. His name—a shortened form of Eleazar, which is Hebrew for “God has helped”—is a fitting choice for this parable. Jesus used Lazarus’s story to teach the importance of caring for the poor and providing justice—and as a reminder that any injustices left unsettled in this life will be settled by God in the next.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not a condemnation of wealth. After all, the real-life Lazarus (Jesus’ friend in John 11) was likely well-to-do. What Jesus condemned was the rich man’s failure to use his wealth to help Lazarus the beggar. As Jesus taught elsewhere, “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).