The gospel is Jesus’ telling of the parable of the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus. Lazarus is a Hebrew name meaning “God is my help.” The rich man is not named, but has often been called “Dives,” which is simply a Latin word meaning “rich.”
The rich man is dressed in purple and linen. You might expect to see a U.S. senator wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red tie. Style and color of clothing has often denoted position or wealth through the ages. For many centuries before and after Jesus’ time on earth, purple cloth, especially linen, was the mark of distinction. The territory of Phoenicia, for example, means “land of the purple,” and was the centre of the ancient purple dye industry. Rome, Egypt, Persia, Israel and other countries used purple as the imperial standard. Purple dyes were rare and expensive. Only the rich had access to them. Their purple colorants used came from different sources, most from the dye extraction from fish or insects of which thousands were needed to extract a single gram of dye. The symbolism of purple-scarlet accounts for the color of the clothing worn by cardinals of the Catholic Church.
The house of the rich man was likely a busy place with many people coming and going. With the addition of passersby on the street, the area outside of the gate was a good location for begging. Beggars claimed their locations and respected the rights of one another to their places. The rich man, then, saw Lazarus frequently and was sufficiently aware of his presence to know his name. But not sufficiently aware of his duty under the covenant with God to help a fellow Jew, his “brother,” in his need (see eg Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 10:18).
The Greek word “Hades,” used in the gospel for the final resting place of the rich man, was the name of the place and the Greek god of the underworld (the Hebrew name was “Sheol”). Most cultures of the ancient world believed that the dead, good and bad alike, went to a dark and gloomy underworld existence where they languished forgotten by everyone, even God (see for example Psalm 88). Only in post-exilic Israel (from the 5th century B.C. on) did some Jewish thought turn to a more blessed option for those who died in God’s grace and was commonly referred to as the “bosom of Abraham.” This was a reference to the way people reclined at special dinners rather than being seated. The guest of honor reclined at the right side of the host and could literally lay his head back against the chest of the host. This was the location of the beloved disciple at the Last Supper (John 13:23).
The final request of the rich man to send Lazarus to his family’s home to warn his brothers may have some indirect reference to the other Lazarus in the gospel account (John 11) whom Jesus will raise from the dead, but it refers more directly to his own resurrection, which will not be accepted by the majority of his detractors. Eyes closed to seeing the good in someone usually stay closed. Those who were opposed to Jesus will use any possible line of reasoning to bring disrepute to anything that would give testimony to him and his message.