In this parable, the use of the word “repent” is fairly simple to understand. The unnamed rich man, upon awakening in hell, sees the poor man, Lazarus, in the “bosom of Abraham.” The rich man first asks Abraham to send Lazarus to put water on his tongue, to relieve his agony. After Abraham assures him that this is impossible, because of the great chasm fixed between the place of reward and the place of punishment, Lazarus asks another favor. He asks that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers, so that they will not also come to the place of torment that has taken him. Abraham’s response is simple—no: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” This is followed by the exchange in which the word “repent” (in the strong sense) is used:
He said, “No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent (metanoēsousin).”
He said to him, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.”
Luke 16:30-31 (WEB).
The main point of the parable is, of course, in the last verse—those who ignore the law and the prophets will not be persuaded to repent even if someone rises from the dead. This point was very graphically proved to be true by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which only a relative few people have ever believed, in spite of the abundant evidence. Only those who are willing to listen to God can be persuaded of Jesus’ resurrection. Not many of the wealthy and powerful (like the unnamed rich man in the parable) are willing to listen. See, I Corinthians 1:18-24. “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24
There is, however, a secondary point made by this parable, and it is what illuminates the meaning of repentance. The rich man, in hell, knew that his brothers needed to repent. He told Abraham that if someone would go to them from the dead, they would repent. But of what would they need to repent?
The preceding verses tell us what it is in the unnamed rich man’s life that needed repentance sooner than it came. Verse 19 says not only that he was rich, but that he lived like an emperor (dressed in purple) and lived in luxury every day. He was not only wealthy, he flaunted it. Verse 20 then shows that, in his wealth, he was indifferent to poverty on his own doorstep. The poor man, Lazarus, begged at the rich man’s gate, but was allowed to eat only the crumbs that fell from his table, along with the rich man’s dogs—dogs that, as an added indignity, licked poor Lazarus’ sores. These verses alone would give us a good clue that a major part of the rich man’s sin was self-indulgent misuse of wealth and indifference to the needs of others around him.
That Jesus’ is highlighting exactly this sin is also shown by what happens after both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus, the poor man who was forgotten by the rich, God remembers by name. He is Lazarus. The rich man is never named; he is just the wicked rich man. In hell, even the nameless rich man remembers Lazarus by name, and tries to continue treating him as a servant! He asks Abraham to send him to relieve his distress. Abraham’s answer is that, on earth, the rich man received his good things, and Lazarus evil things, but now the tables are reversed. The rich man is in torment, because he treated his good things as his own.
It is at this point, seeing that there is no hope for any relief of his own torment, that the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Here, another sin of the rich man and his brothers is revealed by Abraham—they do not listen to Moses and the prophets. In their self-indulgence, they will not listen to God. But the summation of the law of God is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40). Their self-indulgence ignored the first commandment; their indifference ignored the second. Such people will not be persuaded, even though one should rise from the dead.