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).

“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- 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.

What makes old commands new?

from 1 John 2:7-8:

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command, but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

The command here is “to love another.” It’s not explicitly stated, but like the unseen current propelling a ship towards its destination, this command to love invisibly pushes much of chapter 2 toward its goal.  (Verses 9-10 relate response to this command as involving either hatred or love of the brother, as further proof.)

But as John says, this is not a new command. From Genesis 4 where Cain asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the essence of Scripture from the Law to the Prophets to Christ’s own words is “Yes, love one another.  You are responsible for your brother’s well-being.”  This command is from the beginning.

But something is new about it.  What?  John tells us.  What’s new is that this command is now true in us, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is shining.  Here, one’s mind goes back to John’s Gospel where the eternal Word brought a “life that was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”  In chapter 1 of this letter, we are told that God himself is light.  The light that is in the Father is manifested in the Son, the Word, Christ.

And because Christ now shines (being manifested in the Gospel they heard), the darkness is passing away, retreating like a beaten dog into a safe corner.

So what makes the old command new?  The commandment has not changed but the situation has.  The darkness is leaving, the light now shines.  The “Not yet” is becoming the “already” bit by bit, and now in this light of Christ shown us in the victory over the darkness declared by the Gospel, we can love one another because the command is now true not only “in him” but “in us” who “remain in the light”.

What Churches can learn from “Lost” and “24”…

The church can learn this from TV: TV shows aren’t real.  The greatest entertainment and stories shown on screen end when the credits roll.  People have to go back to their real jobs with their real families, and their real problems and real hurts are still waiting there despite the momentary distractions of the flickering screen.

The only hope the church has ultimately consists of being unlike television shows.  The only hope we can offer better not be merely a momentary distraction but a real world solution to the deepest needs of humanity.

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.”

No ordinary family…

from the late Paul Hiebert’s The Gospel in Human Contexts:

“But this is no ordinary family, no merely human community. In world religions, the gods demand the service of their worshipers, who must feed and clothe them, take them on processions, and offer sacrifices to them. In the church, it is God who descends to identify himself with his creation, washes the feet of his disciples, offers himself as their sacrifice, and invites them to a banquet in which he himself is the meal! And when Christ returns in all his glory, he will seat his followers at his table and serve them (Luke 12:37). From a human perspective on power and glory, this is incomprehensible.”