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.

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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).

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.

1 John Fridays- No Green Lantern Here

Begin 1 John and your mind should jump to other Biblical passages, namely John 1 and Genesis 1.  “That which was from the beginning…” mirrors the opening phrases of Genesis “In the beginning, God created…” and of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word.”  In Genesis the focus is on the God who speaks, calling out creation each day and exercising creative kingship over the universe.  In John’s Gospel, the focus is not on the God who speaks as much as the God who IS speech, the Word (logos) who was before God and who is God.  Now in this first letter of John, the focus is not on the Word’s Speaker or the Word Spoken directly, but on the the Word experienced by John and the apostles.  The Word is not impersonal or merely some kind of cosmic energy or the good side of the Force…but rather is heard, has been seen by “our eyes” (not the eyes of the mind, mind you, or the great “eye of faith”, but real round human eyes), was touched by their hands as they walked the shores of Galilee and through the crowded streets of pilgrim-populated Jerusalem.  Here (as opposed to the Gospel where John takes 14 verses to bring the Word out of eternal glory into a real tabernacle of human flesh) John orients us to the reality of the Word.  Yes, the Word is life, but this is not to be thought of as a kind of impersonal spiritual power that can be tapped into (perhaps with secret “knowledge”?) as we pursue our own spiritual perfections.  The Word isn’t a sacred Green Lantern for a quick spiritual recharge to escape and fight this evil material world on our way to demigod status.

No, the Word is Jesus.  One touched by hands, seen by eyes, heard, witnessed.

And the reason John reminds us of all this not to brag about his great experiences or remind us that we can no longer see Jesus like he could.  Because this Jesus was real, their proclamation to us now, those once removed (or 2000 years removed) gives us fellowship.  The connection between John and these readers is that they have shared in experiencing Jesus, the Word of Life.  One experienced directly, but now we share in it as we accept the apostolic proclamation of the Word of life to us.  And this fellowship goes deeper than readers-apostle, no, “our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” We may not touch Jesus as John did, but as we receive his word about the Word, we share fellowship with this manifested Life as well.

And by writing to remind us of such, our joy indeed should be filled.

Shooting the wounded- 1 John Fridays

It’s Friday, so time to jump into 1 John.  Some of these posts will be more textual, others more like riffs or tangents from my studies in this letter. Today is a little introduction, so I don’t know which category that fits in.

Last week I teased you with my concerns about the pastoral handling of a Biblical text like 1 John.  After all, most of us have been taught in pastoral or counseling training to love nuance and treat situations uniquely.  Then we run into some texts in Scripture that apparently have no use for nuance.  Everything is black/white, good/evil, love/hate.  The Johannine literature (1 John is no exception) is full of this, as well as are many Psalms (the Psalmist prays rescuing judgment for the good guys and punitive judgment for the wicked), many of Jesus’ parables (Wise man and the fool), and wisdom literature like Proverbs or James.  Ok, so maybe these types of polarized statements aren’t so strange to students of Scripture.

But, where we run into trouble in 1 John, is that many of the polarities are placed as test cases.  If X, then Y, not X, then not Y.  “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” or “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” Well, what about when I got mad at my spouse the other day (hypothetical of course) or what about someone who was abused by a family member and is struggling with strong feelings that aren’t warm and fuzzy love in reaction to that?  See, nuance would be nice, we think. At least it would make us feel better in most of these test questions.  After all, it would be easy to read through the polarities of 1 John and see ourselves on the negative side of most of those.  And of course it is easy for us to preach or teach this letter in such a way that our feelings of failure as followers of Jesus are shared by those within earshot.  Misery loves company.

But that doesn’t seem to be John’s goal in writing this letter (or transcribed sermon).  In fact, the love and attention he shows towards the audience (terms of affection and familiarity like “little children” are easy to find) makes us think he does not want them to come out of this hearing with the weight of failed Christianity hanging over them.  We don’t know much about the situation, but apparently a significant group had recently deserted this Christian community (2:19), were teaching false doctrine (2:26, the doctrinal tests of chapters 4-5), and apparently were causing these believers who stayed behind to have some doubts (1 John 5:13 assumes a congregation in need of re-assurance of their faith.)  There are a lot of polarized statements, but these are aimed at those who left, perhaps who are still seeing the faithful Christians at the marketplace or homes and are pressuring them to leave as well.  John’s readers may have been wondering, “Were those who left really wrong, or were we wrong to stay? Does the fact so many left undermine all we have now believed?  How can we even tell who the true followers of Jesus are when we have been taught 1 thing by John but a pretty convincing teacher has managed to persuade our friends, people we called “brother’ and “sister”?”

1 John is meant to be an answer of comfort and assurance to these questions. His tests are designed to assure those who stayed that this is the real deal, they are truly “Christian”, assured by one who saw and spoke with and touched the incarnate “Word of life”.  They can see these tests not as measures of their perfection, but as signposts of the change the Spirit of God is working in their lives.

So we should preach and teach 1 John accordingly.  It is not a text for raising more doubt for our people or scaring them out of what we might perceive as complacent Christianity (there are such texts…Hebrews or Mark’s Gospel, for example).  Rather it is a text to build up, to strengthen faith and provide assurance.  We should not hold John’s tests over their heads as pass/fail exams, but as hopeful signposts that change has happened.  Even in the hard cases mentioned above, perhaps hate has given way to thoughtful wrestling over the implications and applications of forgiveness and justice.

1 John is meant to be an infirmary for Christians wounded in the battles of faith, perhaps by what looked like friendly fire even. Don’t use it as boot camp for whipping your church into shape or as a place to shoot the wounded.

1 John Fridays…

Well, to get myself back into this writing stuff,  I will be starting a weekly series of posts on 1 John (and 2nd and 3rd), which I studied some last year. (This year I’m going through Luke’s Gospel. I felt a lot better about my Greek when I was in 1 John, I will admit!)

So next week, look forward to an introductory discussion on how the message of 1 John can be abused.  After all, this letter is filled with polarities between good/evil, light/dark, love/hate.  John rarely has a phrase that “dies the death of 10,000 qualifications.” That makes it difficult for us, especially as pastors, to apply its message to the deeply nuanced situations of our own hearts and people. And of course, the irony there is that John (I’m using the traditional author’s name for shorthand) has a Pastor’s heart, clearly loves his people, and in fact seeks to encourage and strengthen their faith in this writing.  So how do we reconcile his absolutism with his intended pastoral concerns?  (And by extension, how can we appropriate it as well?)

“Justification” brief impressions…

Just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. I don’t really feel up to writing a full/exhaustive review or thoughts from it.  So here’s a few brief thoughts:

-As most know, Wright can write.  His pen is sharp and quick, which is bad for his real opponents but less helpful during friendly sparring.  One will not be bored or feel tedious at any point in this book.

-Wright lets his frustration get the better of him at times, comparing his opponents to pre-Copernican geocentrists and other bits of “Why can’t they be as brilliant as me?” pepper the book (though unfortunately more in the book’s beginning.)  I’m more of a make-your-argument-THEN-take aim guy, and I feel Wright might have found more sympathy by going in peacefully and working the disagreements from there.  You almost wonder why he isn’t as conciliatory in the beginning than one finds him in later portions.  Smugness is never a virtue, and portions border on it.  I’ll include here the few frustrating bits where he says things like “I didn’t say that, PAUL said that” as if people are disagreeing with Paul directly and not with Wright’s interpretation of Paul.

-Wright has a lot to teach the “Old Perspective” guys.  His skills in synthesizing great canonical themes are a treasure to the church and provide some great insight.  He and the NPP guys are right in continuing to throw the Jew/Gentile conflict background at us, especially in Romans and Galatians.  His chapter on Galatians is excellent.

-Wright hates the medieval language of “merit” being introduced in the exegetical topic of “justification.”  Rightly so.  That was the Reformers playing on the Catholic’s home turf and having to invent some fancy passing schemes to go around the mud if you ask me.  And yes, sometimes guys let that language slip in where it really doesn’t belong in the subject of imputation.

-Wright emphasizes the concept of union with Christ, which seems to be a huge topic for Paul, was ironically a pretty big topic for Calvin from what I’ve read of him, and which many common Evangelical traditions have pretty much ignored.

-At times, it seems like Wright bends over backwards to avoid using the language of imputation, even when describing his own views.  His take on the pistos tou Christou issue is that of the subjective genitive (Faithfulness of Jesus Christ) as opposed to objective (faith in Jesus Christ), but that reading implies that Jesus’ faithfulness is imputed to us, it seems to me.  I wrote in the margin several times after some of his sentences…”so X is credited/given/dealt/reckoned to us…kind of like it is imputed to us?”.

-Wright has some amazing cards in his hand.  Sometimes he overplays them.  (kind of like in RSG where he’s dealing with the Intertestamental literature and pretends like a mere belief in “heaven” but not “resurrection” wouldn’t have given people enough hope to be martyred.  I agree that Resurrection of the body is the biblical teaching…but the other conclusion has been proven to be false by countless historical examples.) He’s good at slipping in unwarranted (but usually GREAT sounding) conclusions after making a good argument overall.

-The issue I most had questions about going in (after hearing some of the Reformed critiques of Wright, some better than others, which had to lead to some of that written frustration here) was that of how this “future justification” works with the present justification in his scheme.  now maybe he saved all that for his forthcoming Paul book or he deals with it in the recently released “After you believe”(?-help from any readers of that?)  Ironically, he barely discusses it in detail.  He makes a brief mention of it at the end of Galatians (in Gal. 5, though “hope of righteousness” could mean either “hoping for [future] righteousness” (as he takes it) or “hope produced by righteousness”. He doesn’t discuss the options but kind of launches into a prelim of what he’ll do in Romans 8.), but even the mention of it in Romans is small.  It has something to do with actually living out righteousness in the power of the Spirit, making sense of the “reward”-type texts of Scripture, and somehow assurance and “resurrection life” fits in.  I came in confused and left confused at that point.  At points his description sounds (ironically) very similar to Reformed guys like Piper (justified in Christ now, future judgment vindicates/justifies the life lived by the Spirit…), but apparently they disagree with him there and I simply hope he’s making a fuller case elsewhere for his view. Many of his objections in this sections go more towards the Keswick-type pietism than his Reformed critics.

-I would still take “righteousness” as going deeper than “covenant faithfulness.”  It does include that, which is why it works very well as a definition at some points, but I think it goes beyond just God conforming to the norm of a covenant, but to the kind of God who makes good covenants in the first place.  Expanding this takes righteousness back to creation and better answers the problems of Genesis 3-11.  (Piper’s view of the term narrows off in a different direction.)

-Longest chapter on Romans. “Greatest document ever penned by a human being.” Didn’t leave out chapters 9-11.  Did leave out 12-16, which explicitly highlights that theme of Jew/Gentile relationships as core to Paul’s motivations for writing the letter.

-Since the nature of review largely focuses on disagreements, I’ll add that I thought he brought out a lot of great stuff in many places in the text.

-No mention of the pastoral epistles.  I know why, but disagree.

-In all, Wright asks a lot of good questions.  I didn’t always agree with his answers, but those are good questions.  The OPP and NPP concerns must both be dealt with, and Scripture (not tradition) is our only way forward.  At times, both sides (even Wright, though he attempts a middle ground in many places) wrongly go for an either/or when a both/and conclusion is warranted.