Is Lazarus and the Rich man a Parable?

I came upon Luke 16 finally in my Greek reading.  It reminded me of some study I did a few years back on whether the narrative of the Rich Man and Lazarus was a parable or not.  Having read through Luke for the last 7 months up to this, it has further reinforced my conclusions.  So enjoy something from the archives!

I recently heard a sermon on Luke 16 about the Rich Man and Lazarus.   I have for the most part always been of the persuasion that this was NOT a parable, but rather a recounting of actual events.   For some odd reason, I decided to look a little deeper into the passage regarding whether or not this was a parable.  I just thought I’d pass on some of my findings. 

Reasons Against being a Parable…
1. The Lazarus character is named. In the rest of the parables we have from Jesus, no characters are named.  This might suggest something different is going on here.  Complicating this is the fact that John’s Gospel records Jesus’ resurrection of his friend Lazarus after 4 days of death, thus supplying for some the referent of the Luke 16.
2. This narrative is not introduced by the common Synoptic parable formula “The kingdom of God/Heaven is like…
3. The story includes other events with surprising similarity to “real” events described elsewhere in Scripture. Certainly, the painful judgment of the rich man and the blissful reward of Lazarus match with other Biblical descriptions of heaven/hell.  The use of these realities within the story would then indicate the reality of this story itself.  For many, to take the narrative as a parable would be to deny a literal coming judgment of punishment and reward after death.

Reasons For Being a Parable…
1. The story follows a common Lukan method of parable introduction. Many of the parables in Luke start similar to this: “There was a man…”  Some Examples:

  1. Luke 10:30, ““A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..” in the parable about the Good Samaritan.  (I add that no one uses the fact that “Samaritans” were historical people to argue for the historicity of this parable.)
  2. Luke 12:16– “A rich man’s land was very productive.” Another parable about the rich and coming judgment.  This one even includes God himself entering the story to bring judgment.
  3. Luke 14:16-“A man was giving a large banquet and invited many.”  The man in this story is an illustration of God.
  4. Luke 15:11– “A man had two sons.”  Here is another parabolic use of a man (the Father) as an illustration of God.
  5. Luke 16:1, “There was a rich man who received an accusation that his manager was squandering his possessions.”  This is the final parable preceding the Rich Man and Lazarus.  In fact, the two share a context of Jesus’ chastising the Pharisees and scribes.  Both even begin “A rich man…”
  6. Luke 18:2, There was a judge in one town who didn’t fear God or respect man.”  A similar example, only the man is called a judge from the beginning of the story.
  7. Luke 18:10, Two men went up to the temple complex to pray,”  Now though I have heard a well-meaning Bible teacher or two describe in detail Jesus’ watching these two men at the temple, verse 9 clearly tells us that this is indeed a parable.  Note that Luke’s introduction of parables is not consistent.  (Many clear parables are not introduced as such.)  He seems to introduce them as parables primarily when he wants to emphasize the reason of the parable.
  8. Luke 19:12, “A nobleman traveled to a far country to receive for himself authority to be king and then return.” In Greek, this literally begins “A certain noble man…” following the formula often seen above.
  9. Luke 20:9, “A man planted a vineyard, leased it to tenant farmers, and went away for a long time.”

*It appears from these examples in Luke that a major marker of a parable was beginning a story like this “A certain man” (Greek: “a‡nqrwpo/ß tiß”).  Especially with the narrative occurring in the same discourse after a clear parable that also begins “A certain rich man…”, this is a strong point from the Biblical evidence itself, namely Luke’s method of telling parables.  In fact, only Luke 13:18, 20 contain the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like” found more often in Matthew’s Gospel. (This would invalidate point 2 under “Reasons Against”, especially since the formula only appears in Mark once!).

2. A character’s name does not rule out the possibility of the parable. I alluded to this above when mentioning the parable of the Good Samaritan.  There, Levites and priests are also named in the text.  It seems a little disingenuous to require that a person’s first name (no family description is given) must allude to a specific historical individual when a national name or occupational title does not do the same.  Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.  The name Lazarus means “God is my help” and is probably used to illustrate a truth of the parable—the only help of the poor beggar was indeed God.  This name cannot be intended by Luke to remind his readers of the Lazarus in John 11 that Jesus raised!  In fact, Lazarus is not mentioned in Luke’s telling of the account of Mary and Martha (probably the same as Lazarus’ sisters) in Luke 10.  The NET notes remind us that by including a name for the poor man, Jesus can show that the rich man in Hades even knew the poor man’s name but had no such concern for his well-being while on earth.

3. Seeing this text as historical to prove theological reasons elsewhere developed is quite simply eisegesis, not good exegesis. Some are persuaded that the theological arguments for a literal place of judgment after death would be devastated if this story is not historical but a parable.  They need to do their homework.  The doctrine of hell is alive and well without this story.  Others have created complicated eschatological scenarios regarding “Abraham’s bosom” and Hades that rely heavily on this text, and therefore hold dearly to it.  The good news is two-fold.

a. First, the point of the story, regardless of the parable/history debate, is not meant as a description of Heaven and Hell, outside of the issue of comfort/torment, which are ideas clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture.    The point of the story is that the rich Pharisees in chapter 16 are the ones in danger of going there!  I have heard many sermons calling for pity for those in hell from this text.  A love for those without Christ is Biblical, but not the point of this story.  The point of this story is for the wealthy (especially the “religious” wealthy) to be warned of divine judgment, and the outcast who rely on “God, my help” (Lazarus) can take comfort in the future reversal of their plight.

b. Second, the parabolic nature of the people in the story does not necessarily discount the reality of coming judgment.  (After all, that is the point of the story for the wealthy Pharisees.)  Rather, it builds off known categories in Scripture of God as judge and simply inserts a hypothetical story into that grid to make a point.  I refer one back to the parable in Luke 12 where Jesus uses God himself as a character in the parable to teach a point.  Would this mean God doesn’t really exist or never really judges?  No!  The fact that both those statements are really true actually makes the point of the parable.  Parables are illustrations, and illustrations from true material are powerful.
It would be a shame for us to miss Jesus’ point in order to be “theologically” correct here.  By missing Jesus’ point, we not only might miss out on helpful truth, but on Jesus himself.  Those creating complex theological categories from text like this need to allow the more clear Scripture to interpret the obscure.

Conclusion:
The point of the narrative is a warning to the rich Pharisees of judgment to come if they ignore the Law, Prophets, and even one rising from the dead.  Let no one miss that!  But, based on exegesis, this story clearly fits into the Lukan pattern for telling a parable.  It also contextually fits within a sequence of several parables in Luke 15-16 aimed at the Pharisees.

Sometimes a little Bible study can change your theology or at least challenge you to teach right doctrine from correct texts.  It did for me in this case.

1 John Fridays-When you need him most…

I hit 1 John 2:1-2 briefly in my last 1 John Friday post.  The “if” clause there continues as a fitting conclusion to the 5 “if”s carried over from chapter 1.  But it also opens a few things that are worth exploring on their own.

1) One of the titles Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is “the comforter.”  In fact, that forms a major part of his concluding words to his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, letting them know that His return to the Father was better for them, because the “Comforter” would come.  We may remember that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “another comforter”, in essence implying that the disciples currently had a comforter with them already. Here, John lets us know that Jesus is still our comforter, or advocate.  Here, specifically, Jesus comes alongside us in the times of our sin.  This is Jesus, the word of Life, from the Father.  We would expect him to be as far away from our sin as possible, but he is not.  “If someone sins, we have an advocate with the Father.” And John reminds us of the condescension involved, it is “Jesus Christ the righteous one” who is our advocate in our lowest moments. (In chapter 1, John also describes God the Father as the “righteous”…again in the area of forgiving and cleansing our sins.)

2) “Not for our sins only, but also the sins of the whole world.” I think John is doing a couple things here by adding this:

-First, he is highlighting the magnitude of Jesus’ propitiation.  It is more than enough.  Lest we think our sin abounds too great for us to confess, too great for even the faithful and just God who promises forgiveness to follow through on, John reminds us His grace is more than enough because Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf was more than enough.

-He is also reminding the huddle of its external obligations.  John will later emphasize acts of love.  He also will warn against the dangers of loving the “world” (same word for world here). But remember this is a church that has experience abandonment from their so-called brothers and sisters following the false teachers. Their tendency will be to huddle up, to go into their shells for self-protection.  And John, while giving them a great amount of encouragement, gently reminds them that there is more at stake than just their group.  There is a world outside that Christ also died for that they should keep in mind. (and yes, this verse would make the stricter, unqualified forms of “limited atonement” Biblically untenable).

“A Meal with Jesus”- Book Recommendation

I recently read an excellent little book by Tim Chester called “A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table.   It’s a study of several portions of Luke’s Gospel that deal with Jesus at various meals.  I was greatly challenged by much of what was said, especially in the practical applications of hospitality in cultures where even families don’t eat meals together anymore.  There’s also some challenging chapters on the ways we can use food and even hospitality to feed our idolatry rather than worship God and bless others. I immediately passed it onto my wife for her reading shelf since it’s hard to start applying new ways of hospitality without your wife being on board!

Here are some quotes to entice you more:

“Meals can be a visual representation of our hearts. If our hearts are concerned for position, honor, status, or approval, then that will be reflected in our dining etiquette. Consider how your meals express your vision for life.  Think about who’s invited, how they’re served, what you hope to achieve, and the layout of your home.  Do they express the vision of the kingdom of God?”

“Many people love the idea of the church as a community. But when we eat together, we encounter not some theoretical community, but real people with all their problems and quirks. The meal table is an opportunity to give up our proud ideals by which we judge others and accept in their place the real community created by the cross of Christ, with all its brokenness.”

“If guests offer to help, then take them up on their offer. Your aim is to love, not impress. Jesus himself was the recipient of hospitality more than he provided it. Letting others serve us creates a relationship of equality and intimacy.”

There are a lot more little tidbits here worth reading.  I found some of the thoughts on meals very similar to Eugene Peterson’s writing in “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places” from which I hope to put some quotes up in the near future.

1 John Fridays- Ifs, ands, and buts…

This week, I want to take a brief look at 1:5-2:2.

There are noticeably 6 big “if” statements in this section:

v. 6- “If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness…”

v. 7- “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light…”

v. 8- “If we say we do not have sin…”

v. 9- “If we say that we haven’t sinned…”

v. 10- “If we say that we have not sinned…”

2:1- “If anyone sins…”

What can we see from comparing these? Well, a few things:

1) Talk is cheap.

Notice that all 3 conditions that John ends up critiquing involve our “saying” something. (v. 6, 9, 10) The danger John sees is not in underestimating our spiritual reality, but in saying more than is actually true of ourselves.  Talking big about a non-existent relationship with the Father, talking up our current sinlessness, or denying our past sins.  John does not believe in some weird kind of “spoken” spiritual magic.  What we choose to say about ourselves does not actually create spiritual reality (sorry, televangelists of today).  Heretics that John will deal with later in the letter apparently are known by how much talking they do.

2) “Walking in the light” is not sinlessness, but “needy authenticity.”

This one requires a little logic, but notice how the only spiritual perfection here is found in the misguided statements that John condemns.  Which means that what John must mean by “walking in the light” can’t simply be “not sinning.”  The three “positive” conditions together are “walk in the light”, “confess our sin” and even “sinning” itself.  John wants us to make sure to see that true spirituality, walking in relationship with the Father, is not characterized by our greatness but by our neediness.  Walking in the light means our sin is followed by confession; walking in darkness is hiding our sin.  John is by no means declaring that the more we sin the more spiritual we are.  But he is saying that more we confess our sin, the closer our walk with the Father in the light really is.

3) There are beautiful rewards for needy authenticity.

-fellowship with one another. -every sin cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus his Son. -we experience the faithfulness and righteousness of God. -sins forgiven, cleansed from all unrighteousness. -We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. -we have propitiation for our sins.

4) Inauthentic, proud spirituality is condemned in the strongest of terms.

-we are lying. -we are not practicing the truth. -we deceive ourselves. -the truth is not in us. -we make God a liar. -God’s Word is not in us.

John is encouraging these faithful Christians by reminding them that the neediness they feel after being deserted by the false teachers and the others who left their fellowship is not a bad thing, but is actually what is required for true spirituality, a relationship with God the Father. What is not good is the proud talk of those who have claimed sudden spiritual superstardom.