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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Luke 16

Verse 1

This chapter relates Jesus' continued discourses to the disciples in the presence of the public and the Pharisees particularly. The great parables of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13) and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) are both related to the conflict with the Pharisees; but the connective teaching between them was abbreviated by the sacred author. However, the positive connection is still clearly discernible (Luke 16:14-18).

And he said also unto the disciples, There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he was wasting his goods. (Luke 16:1)


He said also unto his disciples ... These words do not remove the obvious fact that the unjust steward in view here represents the religious leaders of Israel. True, the parable was spoken "to" the disciples, but "about" the Pharisees, etc. "The rich man represents God";Luke 2p. 247.">[1] and among all classes of people in that ancient world, only the hierarchy of Israel would qualify as stewards of God's house. To them were committed the oracles of God (Romans 3:2); they alone sat "in Moses' seat" (Matthew 23:2); and they only were custodial heirs of the religious economy of Israel.

A certain rich man ... stands for God, as the vast majority of commentators agree; and despite the objection of Barclay that "The rich man himself was something of a rascal,"[2] and Plummer's opinion that "The rich man has no special significance,"[3] it is nevertheless the standing interpretation of the Coccian school,[4] stated by Vitringa, that "The rich man is God, and the steward the ecclesiatical leaders of Israel."[5] Albert Barnes stated that "By the rich man here is doubtless represented God."[6] Objections to this view derive from a failure to understand WHY the rich man commended the unjust steward. Only God has the power over men to dismiss them from life and custodianship of heavenly gifts, the very things clearly typified by the prerogatives enjoyed by this unjust steward.

Furthermore, the allegation against the rich man, to the effect that he was a rascal, or that he endorsed the steward's dishonesty, is not logically taken. "The Emperor Julian (the bitter apostate) said this parable proves Jesus a mere man, and hardly a worthy man";[7] but apostates are blind, by definition, and without any spiritual perception whatever. When it is clearly understood why the steward was commended, all difficulties disappear. In another parable, an unjust judge bore an analogy to the heavenly Father (Luke 18:1-6); and Christ himself likened his second coming to "the thief" (Matthew 24:43). This comparison did not embarrass the holy apostles; for Paul used it (1 Thessalonians 5:2); Peter used it (2 Peter 3:10); and Christ himself repeated it from glory (Revelation 16:15). In the light of this, the tender consciences of modern commentators who find something "amoral" in this parable's representation of God under the figure of this rich man are not at all convincing!

That he was wasting his goods ... As Trench said, "All attempts to explain away the dishonesty (of this steward) are hopeless."[8] His own behavior in context was a positive admission of guilt on his part.

Luke 2p. 247.">[1] George R. Bliss, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: The Judson Press,), Vol. II, Luke 2p. 247.

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), p. 216.

[3] Quoted by Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1951), p. 418.

[4] Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1953), p. 431.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1954), Luke, p. 109.

[7] S. MacLean Gilmour, The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), Vol. VIII, p. 280.

[8] Richard C. Trench, op. cit., p. 435.

Verse 2

And he called him, and said unto him, What is this that I hear of thee? render the account of thy stewardship; for thou canst be no longer steward.

This that I hear ... The accusers of the religious hierarchy were the prophets of God such as Ezekiel (Ezekiel 23:2) and Malachi (Malachi 2:8), and finally, Christ himself (Matthew 23:1-5).

Render the account ... Here is the positive indication that the rich man is a figure of Almighty God. He is the one who summons men to render the account of their earthly lives and possessions.

Verse 3

And the steward said within himself, What shall I do, seeing that my Lord taketh away the stewardship from me? I have not strength to dig; to beg I am ashamed.

Said within himself ... This was the first commendable thing the steward did. Like the prodigal who also said "to himself" that he would arise and go to the Father, this man also faced bitter, unwelcome truth about HIMSELF. He lied to the Lord and to the debtors, but he told himself the truth. Many a hapless soul today simply does not have the courage to face unwelcome truth. The lost soul will hardly admit it; the man on his deathbed speaks of what he will do when he gets well; and countless sinners tell themselves the falsehood that they are really all right, in no danger at all, or that they will turn and serve God at some future time. This steward was no such character. He laid it on the line with himself. "I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg!" Nor did he question the fact that he faced eviction from office.

The day of reckoning in view here, according to Tinsley, is an analogy of "God's summons to Israel through Jesus Christ."[9]

Regarding the alternatives open to the steward, "J. B. Chapman once wrote an article on it, entitled, `Dig, Beg, or Steal'."[10] Wesley noted that the steward had what men would call a "sense of honor! by men called `honor' but by angels, `pride',"[11] as evidenced by his being ashamed to beg. Ashamed to beg, sure! Ashamed to steal? No!

[9] E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel according to Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 159.

[10] Charles L. Childers, Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1964), p. 562.

[11] John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1950), p. 264.

Verse 4

I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

Hobbs said that this place might be rendered, "I've got it; I know what I will do!"[12] His dishonest purpose was soon revealed. He would involve all the debtors in defrauding the lord, and then presume upon their charity when he needed it. Human gratitude for past favors is a broken reed indeed; and that is possibly the reason why the parable allows the presumption that he received it to stand, without regard to what might really have happened afterward.

Verse 5

And calling to him each one of his lord' s debtors, he said to the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, A hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bond, and sit down quickly and write fifty. Then he said to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, A hundred measures of wheat. He saith unto him, Take thy bond, and write fourscore.

The size of this operation is evident in the large amounts owed. The measures used here for oil and wheat were "the bath, which was about 9 gallons, and the cor, which was about 11 bushels."[13] Thus, the transactions mentioned involved some 900 gallons of olive oil and about 1,100 bushels of wheat. Summers is doubtless correct in the view that "This was a business venture in which the steward helped several retailers cheat a wholesaler with whom they traded."[14] Certainly, these amounts are much greater than would have been expected of mere tenants on the lord's estate.

This lowering of the bills is the perfect analogy of the manner in which the scribes and Pharisees lowered the standards of righteousness as a device for keeping their hold upon the people: allowing divorce on any pretext (Luke 16:18), and by countless devices making void the law of God (Matthew 23:16). And, although the scribes and Pharisees were the deceitful stewards in view here the analogy may be extended throughout Christian history to include countless others who have marked down the gospel and perverted God's law.

This crooked device of the unjust steward was known to Pharaoh who proposed to Moses that God's command to go three days' journey into the wilderness might be honored by going "not very far away" (Exodus 8:28). It is, of course, a device of Satan; and it is still being employed against the truth. Jesus Christ commanded faith, repentance, confession, and baptism into Christ as preconditions of salvation; but the unjust steward still offers salvation to men for "faith only" or "confession only." The moral requirements of Christianity are still being marked down in the matter of easy divorce for any cause, or none at all, just as the Pharisees were doing. The worship of Jesus Christ is demanded of all who would be saved, in terms of a full hundred measures of oil, or of wheat. That worship requires that men sing, pray, study God's word, give their means to support the truth, and faithfully observe the Lord's supper. And, despite this, there are great systems of "Christian" religions that reduced the requirements in various particulars.

It should be noted that the unjust steward moved with all possible dispatch and diligence to put his evil plan in operation. That same line that records his resolution defines also his summary action to fulfill it. He acted then and there, not putting it off a single day.

Furthermore, he exhibited the most efficient thoroughness in the implementation of his scheme. "He called EVERY ONE of his lord's debtors." None was skipped, or overlooked.

Sit down quickly ... emphasizes the urgency of the steward's plans and the speed with which they were prosecuted.

Thus it is clear enough that in quite a number of the most important qualities, that unjust steward was fully entitled to commendation, not for his dishonesty, BUT FOR THOSE QUALITIES. And what were they?

1. He told himself the truth.

2. He took account of his own need which would not diminish merely because he had lost his job.

3. He accurately appraised the necessity to make some provision against that future need, even as Christ himself commanded (Revelation 3:18).

4. He used those things which he yet controlled in order to meet that inevitable future need.

5. He acted at once with all possible speed.

6. He acted with brilliant efficiency and thoroughness.

It is in these qualities that the steward provides an example of what all men should do with reference to the eternal needs of the soul; and, sadly enough, these are exactly the things that countless millions of men will not do with reference to those very needs.

[13] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 759.

[14] Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1973), p. 190.

Verse 8

And his lord commended the unjust steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.

Childer's comment that "Christians often use less prudence in handling money than do men of the world,"[15] while true enough, is not the point here. It is the Christian's imprudence in handling spiritual things which Jesus condemned. The teaching is not that owls can see better than eagles, but that "Owls see better than eagles, IN THE DARK"![16]

The Lord commended the unjust steward ... All of the tedious explanations insisting that it was not Jesus, but the lord in the parable, who commended the unjust steward, are completely frustrated by the fact of the lord in the parable being a representation of God. Certainly Jesus, who was one with the Father in all things, commended this rogue, not for his dishonesty, but for his prudent handling of his worldly interests; and if Jesus had not intended this to be understood, there is no way to believe he would have spoken the parable in the first place.

As Matthew Henry noted, "This unjust steward is to us an example, not in cheating his master, ... but as an example for our attention in spiritual things."[17] Jesus incurred no risk whatever in using such an example. Throughout the parable, and as always, Jesus unconditionally condemned in every action and every word, every suggestion of fraud and dishonesty, categorically calling the steward "unjust." As Geldenhuys said, "There was no danger that Jesus' hearers would interpret his words as a recommendation of dishonest methods."[18]

[15] Charles L. Childers, op. cit., p. 563.

[16] Richard C. Trench, op. cit., p. 439.

[17] Matthew Henry and Thomas Scott, Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1960), Matthew-Acts p. 284.

[18] Norval Geldenhuys, op. cit., p. 416.

Verse 9

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.

Mammon of unrighteousness ... This refers to wealth and all earthly treasures; but why is it called unrighteous? It would appear that they are in error who suppose that the implication requires us to believe that wealth may not be accumulated except through dishonesty, fraud, etc.; for, while it is true that much wealth is thus acquired, there are countless instances of persons acquiring wealth innocently. But all wealth of this world is unrighteous, however acquired; and by this the wealth itself, not the possessor, is meant.

1. Wealth deceives the owner into believing that it is his.

2. It strongly tempts him to trust in riches.

3. "In making a man depend on them for happiness, riches rob him of salvation and the glory of God."[19]

4. It estranges him from earthly friends.

5. It surrounds him with false friends.

6. Wealth promises much and delivers nothing.

7. It is a constant hazard to his spirituality.

The clear meaning here is that "mammon of unrighteousness does not mean wealth unrighteously acquired, but deceitful wealth."[20]

When it shall fail ... is a reference to the ultimate failure of all worldly assets, which under no circumstances can ever continue any longer than the lifetime of the holder; and it is the end of life in view here, because of the Savior's reference to being received into eternal tabernacles.

They may receive you ... Some have viewed these "friends" as poor people helped during the life of the one received; but this is a forced view, derived from the error of making this parable primarily a teaching on the Christian's responsibility for the proper use of his wealth; but, despite the fact of such teaching being included, the parable lays special stress on making the proper spiritual preparations prerequisite to being received into heaven.


The rich man in absentia = the heavenly Father.

The unrighteous steward = the scribes and Pharisees.

The accusations = the protestations of the prophets and last of all, of Christ.

The day of accounting = the first advent of Christ.

The lowering of the bills = the corruption of God's law by the religious leaders.

The impending eviction of the steward = the impending removal of Israel as a chosen nation.

The corruption of the debtors = the ruin of the vast majority of Israel by their leaders.

The lord's commendation = a tribute to the persistence and ability of the evil leaders.

On the last of these analogies, a further word is appropriate. The mystery of iniquity has always been an awesome wonder. When the apostle John saw the vision of the apostate church, he "wondered with a great wonder" (Revelation 17:6), the true meaning being "wondered with a great admiration."[21] It is the same wondering admiration which surfaces here. The steward's evil genius was so original, daring, and thoroughly crooked, yet serving his personal ends, that the lord in the parable, ignoring all loss to himself, commended the scoundrel. If there was ever a class of religious leaders entitled to the same kind of praise, the Pharisees and their crowd were that class. The satanic achievement of that class in engineering the rejection of the Messiah sent from God was truly a marvel of adroit cunning, deceit, and persistent energy.

Our Lord at once extended the analogies in the parable to encourage the same quality of skillful and persistent efforts on the part of all men who would attain spiritual values (though, of course, without the dishonesty and deceit).

In the comparisons pointed out by Jesus, the great lord in absentia is still the only God; every man, like the unjust steward, controls certain assets such as life, talents, and property; and like the case with the unjust steward, all must give an accounting of their use. Jesus admonished that all men, as the steward did, should use whatever is in their control now, and, unlike him, use it to receive approval from God, that is, make to themselves friends, by the wise and faithful administration of God's gifts.

Friends ... It was noted above that some have supposed these to be the recipients of the Christian's charity; but the fact of their preceding him to glory and being on hand to welcome the Christian's arrival compromises that view. As reasonable a view as any makes the friends envisaged here to be the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the angels of God.

[19] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1829), Vol. V, p. 462.

[20] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 760.

[21] Nestle Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959).

Verse 10

He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much.

Geldenhuys supposed that Christ included this verse in the parable in order "to prevent a possible misunderstanding owing to the commendation of the unjust steward. Here Christ insists upon the necessity of fidelity in dealing with earthly possessions."[22] A man's faithfulness is measured by what he does with whatever amount of it there may be. People who suppose that if they were rich they would give large sums to charity, and who yet give nothing from their meager possessions, are deceiving themselves. What a man does with a little is a fair measure of what he will do with much.

Verse 11

If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches.

Every man is but a steward of God's gifts, even including life; and if he should misuse these which, in a sense, are only loaned to him, how would God give to him, as his very own possession, such a thing as eternal life? On the "unrighteous mammon," see under Luke 16:9, above.

Verse 12

And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?

See under preceding verse, where the same thought is given a little differently.

This verse lays down, unqualifiedly, a law which makes the right use of one's possession a condition of eternal life, for giving unto a man of that "which is your own" can mean nothing if not eternal life. Concepts like "accepting Christ," "surrendering to Christ," and "taking up the cross," etc., are meaningless unless related to the use of one's material possessions.

Verse 13

No servant can serve two masters: either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

This contrasts God and Mammon (personified) as deities between whom every soul must choose. Any attempt to serve both is actually the service of Mammon. Summers pointed out that Luke here used a word for "servant" which actually means "house servant";[23] and this gives an equivalent meaning that "nobody can be a house boy in two different mansions at once!"

For the attention of some who always insist that a parable has only one point, it should be observed that Jesus made no less than four, basing them all upon this parable. Barclay summarized these thus: (1) children of this world are wiser than children of light (Luke 16:8); (2) material possessions should be used to cement ... eternal friendships (Luke 16:9); (3) a man's way of fulfilling a small task is proof of his fitness for a larger one (Luke 16:10-11); and (4) no slave can serve two masters.[24]

[23] Ray Summers, op. cit., p. 191.

[24] William Barclay, op. cit., pp. 216-217.

Verse 14

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at him.


Lovers of money ... One finds it simply impossible to understand why some commentators strive to question a statement of this kind. Ray Summers, for example, implied that the other synoptics do not fully support Luke's charge here that the Pharisees were lovers of money; but he neglected to explain why the sacred historian needed any such support. If there had not been another word in the whole New Testament regarding this, Luke's statement here is more than enough to guarantee the unqualified truth of it. Summers went on to remark concerning the passage in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), in which the Pharisees were charged with devouring "widow's houses," that "It is not in the best manuscripts, so it can be used only in a qualified support of Luke's statement."[25] He evidently overlooked the fact that in that same chapter (Matthew 23:26), Matthew quoted Jesus Christ as saying that the cup and platter of the Pharisees were "full of extortion," the same being a total endorsement of what Luke said about the Pharisees here. His error, however, is not in overlooking such a confirmation of Luke's words, but in supposing that the record of two or more Gospels is more authentic than the statement of only one of them. The thesis maintained in this commentary is that each of the Gospels is totally reliable in all that they contain.

Over and beyond Luke's statement here, however, is the total picture of the Pharisees that emerges from the New Testament record. Their devious handling of money by application of the device of "Corban," which Jesus so emphatically condemned, their making the temple itself a "den of thieves and robbers," and their merciless exploitation of the poor, and their having more regard for an animal than for a human being - all of these things demonstrate the indisputable fact that Luke's simple declaration here, to the effect that this class were "lovers of money," is in perfect harmony with all the word of God. As Frank L. Cox said, "No one scoffs at a scriptural lesson on giving but the lover of money."[26]

Scoffed at him ... "The term scoffed indicates to turn up the nose at a thing."[27]

[25] Ray Summers, op. cit., p. 192.

[26] Frank L. Cox, According to Luke (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1941), p. 50.

[27] Anthony Lee Ash, Living Word Commentary (Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1973), Vol. 4, p. 73.

Verse 15

And he said unto them, Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

The men Jesus addressed here "tended to connect earthly prosperity and goodness. Wealth was a sign that a man was a good man."[28] However, mere material prosperity, unsanctified by spiritual motivation and consciousness of stewardship under God, is here called an abomination in the sight of God.

Verse 16

The law and the prophets were until John: from that time the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached; and every man entereth violently into it.

It is a mistake to view Matthew 11:12,13 as a parallel with this.

Why could not Jesus on two occasions or still more have made statements about John as a transitional person and about the violent pressing into the kingdom?[29]

Whatever is meant by "violently," this must be viewed as improper and reprehensible on the part of those thus seeking to enter the kingdom. Some of the Ante-Nicene writers viewed the "violence" here in a favorable fashion as indicating the zeal with which men should seek to enter the kingdom; but the scholarly J. W. McGarvey, it appears, has a far better understanding of this admittedly difficult passage. He said:

The gates of Christ's kingdom were not opened until Pentecost (Acts 2); but men, hearing it was about to be opened, sought to enter it prematurely, not by the gates which God would open, but by such breaches as they themselves sought to make in its walls.[30]

The type of violence with which men sought to force the kingdom is illustrated by the multitude's action in trying to make him king by force; and the Pharisees, particularly, thought the kingdom would be a secular restoration of the old Solomonic throne; and they were at that very moment trying to force Jesus to conform to their secular and materialistic views of the kingdom, all of which is indicated by their scoffing at him. (See more elaborate discussion of this in my Commentary on Matthew, Matthew 11:12)

Geldenhuys also concurred in the view of McGarvey that the kingdom was not established. He said:

Although the kingdom has not yet come in final completeness, it nevertheless came into the world as a mighty actuality, already in and with Jesus' public appearances on earth.[31]

[29] Norval Geldenhuys, op. cit., p. 422.

[30] J. W. McGarvey, The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, Ohio: The Standard Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 283.

[31] Norval Geldenhuys, op. cit., p. 422.

Verse 17

But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tittle of the law to fail.

This statement of Jesus has in view the changing and perversion of God's law by the Pharisees, who had perverted the moral requirements of it (as in the case of easy divorce, mentioned a moment later) in many ways, even seeking to change the nature of the kingdom God had promised to set up. They wanted an earthly kingdom, a Messiah on a white horse who would throw out the Romans! Jesus here reminded them that not one of the tiniest provisions of God's law would be waived in favor of their materialistic views.

Tittle ... "The tittle, `little horn,' was a small projection, or hook, that distinguished one Hebrew letter from another similar letter."[32] Jesus was saying that even down to the smallest point, the law of God would be totally maintained.

The very close and logical connection of this whole paragraph between the two great parables of this chapter is quite obvious and enlightening; and it is safe to reject such a view as that of Gilmour who said "(These are) three scattered sayings that have little or no connection with one another or with the rest of the material in this chapter."[33]

[32] Everett F. Harrison, Wycliffe Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 246.

[33] S. MacLean Gilmour, op. cit., p. 287.

Verse 18

Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth one that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

Jesus' purpose in the introduction of this saying was clearly that of condemning the Pharisaical perversion of God's law; and, in context, there was no necessity for Jesus to note the exception, as in Matthew 19:9. This verse affords the most positive proof that one cannot ever know what Jesus taught unless he shall take into account ALL THAT JESUS SAID, whether reported by one evangelist or another. Geldenhuys spoke of the "absolute impossibility of basing detailed rules ... upon isolated sayings of Christ."[34] There can be no excuse for scholars and theologians premising whole systems of thought on portions of the Gospels, or upon one Gospel, as distinguished from other Gospels. One hardly enters the New Testament until the words of Jesus thunder from the sacred page: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by EVERY WORD that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). That principle, laid down by Jesus, is alone sufficient grounds for rejecting the basic assumption underlying a great deal of modern critical exegesis. God gave his people four Gospels; and in that gift is the certainty that one cannot understand the whole corpus of truth unless he shall take all of them into consideration.

Ryle caught the implication of Jesus' words in this verse, thus: "With all your boasted reverence for the law, you are yourselves breakers of it in the law of marriage. You have lowered the standard of the law of divorce."Luke 2p. 211.">[35] Barclay also discerned the connection between this and the preceding verse, saying that "As an illustration of the law that would never pass away, Jesus took the law of chastity."[36]

For further discussion of Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce, see my Commentary on Matthew, Matthew 19:1-10.

[34] Norval Geldenhuys, op. cit., p. 423.

Luke 2p. 211.">[35] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), Vol. Luke 2p. 211.

[36] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 219.

Verse 19

Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day.


The Latin word for "rich man" is dives, and this is sometimes used as a proper name; but Jesus left him nameless.

Clothed in purple ... Ancient craftsmen of Tyre discovered a process of making a very expensive and durable purple dye from the murex shell;[37] and, due to its cost, it could be afforded only by royalty and the very rich. From this, "royal purple" has entered into the vocabulary of all nations.

Fine linens ... faring sumptuously ... These are additional touches to show the extravagant luxury in which the rich man lived. It should be noted that there is no hint of any unrighteous acquisition of wealth, nor of any overt, sinful action against Lazarus, nor even any hint that he denied the crumbs desired by the beggar. It is his total indifference to human suffering at his very gate which looms so ominously in the parable.

And is this a parable? It would appear to be certain that it is; the placement of it alone is sufficient grounds for understanding it as a parable. Besides that, the element of Abraham presiding over Paradise forces one to seek an analogy. It is God, not Abraham, who has custody and control of the departed dead.

Verse 20

And a certain beggar named Lazarus was laid at his gate, full of sores.

Lazarus ... This is the only example of Jesus using a proper name to identify a character in one of his parables, and there must have been a good reason for this. It cannot be made the basis for advocating the parable as an historical event, as noted above; but there is quite possibly, in this, a prophecy of the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11). True, the Lazarus raised from the dead was presumably rich; this Lazarus was a beggar; but the use of a proper name for one who the rich man pleaded would be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers cannot fail of suggesting the fact that a Lazarus did rise from the dead, and true to the Lord's prophecy here, the Pharisees did not believe, but instead plotted to kill him!

The conviction expressed here is that by the use of this proper name, Jesus clearly hinted at what John recorded in that famed eleventh chapter. Nor is this the only hint of that "seventh sign" recorded by John. In his first open break with the Pharisees, after healing the man at Bethesda, Jesus promised the Pharisees "that greater works than these" the Father would show, that the Pharisees "may marvel" (John 5:20). By such a promise, Jesus meant that he would raise the dead; for he immediately foretold a time when all the dead on earth would "hear the voice of the Son of God, and COME FORTH" (John 5:29), those last two words being exactly the ones he cried in a loud voice over the grave of Lazarus (John 11:43); from this, it is mandatory to believe that Jesus had in mind to raise Lazarus at least three years before the event took place; and, knowing what he would do, and as the time for Lazarus' resurrection was then approaching, it was most significant that Jesus, contrary to all other usages in his parables, would throw in this word "Lazarus."

"That there is indeed here a suggestion of the great seventh miracle in John is implicit in the fact of the critical scholars' allegation that John's great miracle was only a drama invented to illustrate the point Jesus made here, a conceit that may be rejected out of hand (see comment on this in my Commentary on John, en loco). The exegesis here points out the true connection between this parable and the wonder of Lazarus' resurrection.

Verse 21

And desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table; yea, even the dogs came and licked his sores.

There is no word here that the rich man denied the small favor of the crumbs, there being, in fact, no hint that he even knew Lazarus was there. That he did know, however, appears later in the story.

Verse 22

And it came to pass that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels into Abraham's bosom: and the rich man also died, and was buried.

The two deaths here are distinguished by the fact that the rich man had a funeral, whereas none was mentioned in the case of Lazarus.

The universality and impartiality of death are shocking in a context like this. All of the rich man's wealth earned him no exemption from the final accounting which comes to all men. True, his friends might provide the pomp and circumstance by which the wealthy are usually accompanied to their tombs; but how vain and empty are such honors.

The angels ... This ministry of angels for them that shall be heirs of eternal life is a big subject in the New Testament; and for an essay on this the reader is referred to my Commentary on Hebrews, Hebrews 1:14. One of the seven services provided by angels to mortals is in view here, that of bearing their souls, after death, to the abode of the blessed.

Abraham's bosom ... The Hadean world, as understood by the Jews, had two distinct places, one for the righteous and another for the wicked. Jesus' use of those ideas here endows them with utmost significance; for there can be no doubt that this parable was intended to shed light upon the intermediate state between death and the eternal judgment. As Morgan declared, "This sheds clear light on the life beyond."[38]

Verse 23

And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Here Jesus departed from the Jewish views which reckoned the diverse places of the just and the wicked as separated by only a handbreadth. "Afar off," as here, and "a great gulf fixed" (Luke 16:26) show that the separation is extensive.

Being in torments ... Basic teachings from this parable include the state of felicity for the righteous and the state of torment for the wicked, with no time-lapse whatever between death and the entering of the soul into one or the other of the Hadean compartments. The wicked life will not wait one second after death to begin reaping the rewards of unrighteousness; and yet, the eternal reward for both classes will not actually begin until the judgment.

Verse 24

And he 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 in anguish in this flame.

Father Abraham ... Here is found the absolute necessity for seeing this as a parable; for Abraham himself, like all the saints in death, is in the place here called "Abraham's bosom." Abraham is therefore a type of God who presides over both Paradise and the place of the wicked in Hades. This, of course, negates any support that might be supposed in this connection for praying to departed saints. Besides that, as Wesley said:

It cannot be denied but here in Scripture is the precedent of praying to departed saints. But who is it that prays, and with what success? Will anyone who considers this be found copying after him?[39]

Send Lazarus ... Ah, so the rich man did know Lazarus, after all, apparently even fancying that Lazarus was under some obligation to him, perhaps for the crumbs!

This flame ... Jesus invariably used fire in his reference to eternal punishment, and he did not depart from the pattern here. It is no comfort to view this as merely a symbol of the real punishment; because what kind of punishment is that which would require so dreadful a symbol of it? The logic that suggests that this is symbolical language was thus stated by Dummelow: "The rich man was not in hell ([Greek: Gehenna]), for no one is sent there till after the last judgment."[40] In addition to this, Dives was at the time indicated here a disembodied spirit upon which actual flame would have no effect.

[39] John Wesley, op. cit., p. 267.

[40] J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 761.

Verse 25

But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now here he is comforted, and thou art in anguish.

Son ... A moment earlier, the rich man had addressed Abraham as "Father," and here Abraham did not deny the fact of the rich man's being one of the patriarch's fleshly descendants. This circumstance makes it easy to identify the class of men represented by the rich man. Who but the Pharisees were always proclaiming their rights as children of Abraham (see Matthew 3:8; John 8:37-44, etc.)? Mere fleshly descent was exposed in this parable as having no value in the sight of God.

Good things ... evil things ... They are wrong who try to make this parable teach that mere wealth is sinful and mere poverty righteous. As Trench noted:

The rebuke of unbelief is the main intention of this parable; for if we conceive its primary purpose to warn against the abuse of riches, it will neither satisfactorily cohere with the discourse in which it is found, nor will it possess the unity of purpose, which so remarkably distinguished the parables of our Lord.[41]

It is most deplorable that some commentators have fitted this parable into their notions of some new social order, in which wealth is evil in itself, and poverty good. The rich man was not punished for being wealthy, but for being devoid of all sense of humanity; nor was Lazarus rewarded for being poor. Although not elaborated, the true character of the beggar is implicit in the name Jesus gave him, which means "God help, an abbreviated form of Eleazar."[42]

[41] Richard C. Trench, op. cit., p. 451.

[42] H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Luke (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1972), p. 319.

Verse 26

And besides all this, there is between us and you a great gulf fixed, that they who would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us.

The great teaching in view here is that death seals the soul's destiny. There will be no crossing from one side to another after death has closed life's day of opportunity. Such theologies as those related to the doctrine of purgatory are destroyed by the Saviour's words in this verse.

Verse 27

And he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house; for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.

The ingrained selfishness of the rich man first appeared in the request that Lazarus be sent to himself, a selfishness that might be overlooked in view of his misery; but, when all thought of his own improvement was denied, his selfishness was continued in this request that was concerned with nobody except his own kin. Furthermore, there was an implied argument in this request, which was a way of asserting that he would never have come to such a place of torment, provided only that God had made proper provision to establish his faith, such as sending someone back from the dead! Are not the Pharisees continually in view here? Were they not the ones always clamoring for a sign? This rich man was one of their very own.

Verse 29

But Abraham saith, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

As Boles said, "We have here one of many testimonies of Jesus, including that of Abraham from the heavenly world, that the Old Testament scriptures are the word of God."[43]

This ties this whole parable and its teachings into Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees, due to their unwillingness to hear, believe, and obey the law of Moses. This shows that the opportunities of the rich man to know God's will were more than ample, there being no reason whatever why some special sign should have been provided for him. The same is true of every man.

Verse 30

And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one go to them from the dead, they will repent.

So here it comes out. The rich man thoroughly understood why he was in torments, even if the commentators cannot seem to get it straight. It was because he would not repent. As Miller put it:

The rich man's desire that his brothers repent indicates that he had discovered that he was not in hell because he was rich, but because he had failed to repent of self-lordship and place himself under the Lordship of God.[44]

It was not what the rich man did that landed him in the jail, but what he did not that landed him in hell.

Verse 31

And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead.

If one rise from the dead ... A striking example of the truth of what Jesus proclaimed here occurred not many days later in the resurrection of Lazarus; and there is no way to avoid the perception that Jesus actually had that miracle in mind here. Lazarus (another one) did indeed come back from the grave in the very presence of the Pharisees; but did they repent? No! They set about to kill Lazarus. In a sense, Lazarus came to the Pharisees who were present when he rose from the dead. In the case of Jesus' resurrection, there was no appearance to the Pharisees; and this leads us to reject the comment of Geldenhuys that "the last words of this parable were uttered by Jesus with a view to his own resurrection."[45] No. Lazarus was the one Jesus had in mind here. Regarding his own resurrection, Jesus did not appear "to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before God," even to the apostles, "who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead" (Acts 10:41). It would have done no good at all for the Lord to have appeared to the Pharisees.

This great parable teaches many things. Barnes listed these: (1) the souls of men do not die with their bodies; (2) the soul is conscious after death; (3) the righteous go to a place of happiness, the wicked to a place of misery; (4) we should not envy the rich.[46]

Cox listed these: (1) we should not live in luxury while Lazarus begs at our gate; (2) the selfish use of wealth will bring torment beyond the grave; (3) memory will not be obliterated by death; (4) to prevent a great gulf from separating us from Lazarus in the hereafter, we should take care to see that the gulf is not there now; (5) if the ordinary means of grace cannot reach us, we need not expect the extraordinary; (6) he who is lost in death is lost eternally; (7) God's word is sufficient to save men.[47]


Going back to Augustine and Gregory the Great, many brilliant students of the word of God have found analogies in this parable with a scope of application broad as mankind itself.

Abraham is God, who alone presides over the destinies of men.

The rich man is primarily the ecclesiastical establishment of Israel. They wore the purple of God's royal favor, and the white linen of the sacred priesthood, and fared sumptuously in the bountiful knowledge that God delivered unto them in the Holy Scriptures.

Lazarus begging at the gate is the whole Gentile world lying in wretchedness, sin, and misery, which awful state Israel made no move whatever to alleviate.

The reversed status of Dives and Lazarus foretold the reversal of the status of the Jews and Gentiles in God's favor, as related so copiously by Paul in Romans.

The dogs that licked Lazarus' sores correspond to the ineffectual treatment of the Gentiles' wretched and sinful miseries by their philosophers, poets, and legislators.[48]

The desire of the beggar to be fed suggests the longing of men's souls for a truth which they have not; but a truth which the Jew had, and had richly; and which, if he had been faithful to his trust, he would have imparted to the benighted nations of the Gentiles.

It is in the primary application to the Pharisees and others like them in the leadership of Israel that the full impact of this remarkable parable appears. The Pharisees were not merely rich materially, but they were the custodians of the whole treasure of God's revelation to mankind; and it was their unfaithfulness to THAT TRUST, more than their mere misuse of money, that earned them the denunciation apparent in this parable.

[45] Norval Geldenhuys, op. cit., p. 427.

[46] Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 118.

[47] Frank L. Cox, op. cit., p. 51.

[48] For an extensive development of these and other analogies, see Richard C. Trench, op. cit., pp. 470-475.

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Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Luke 16". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.