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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“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.

When Grace says “No”…(follow-up from yesterday)

Yesterday’s post which included references by me about making whips and going off on a youth ministry conference for rushing a publicly fallen megachurch pastor (and his wife) onto their stage is the petri dish for today’s post.  So you may want to click the link above and give it a quick read-through so this one will make more sense.

Does Grace ever say “no”? After all, grace is a gift, right?  Gifts are kind of like a giant “yes” to someone.  I could imagine that interlocuter at various points of my post yesterday raising its hand to say “objection.” And rather than ignoring that persistent throat-clearing happening on the other side of the room, I’ve decided to face this objection head-on.  Can grace ever say “no”?  Specifically, I can think of several examples in Scripture where this happens (we’ll get there at the end.)  But first I want to take on this “false” grace that exists in the evangelical corporate culture*, that rears its ugly, boil-filled head every time someone within that culture makes a major “boo-boo” as they call it.

Let’s compare two systems, shall we?  Let’s call them System A and System B for clarity’s sake.  Which of these sounds more gracious?

System A says that recovery from sin happens quickly and full restoration of position and privilege should follow.  System B says that sin is not conquered in a moment or in 3 months of intensive therapy but that sanctification is a “long obedience in the same direction”, an outworking of our new identity in Christ over the long haul by the Spirit of God.

System A says that the way to make things right involves a person becoming successful again after a setback.  System B says that the way to make things right involves a person throwing themselves helplessly at the feet of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

System A says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by future numerical results and publicity.  System B says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by our dependence upon the results of Christ’s atoning work.

System A says that your skills as a pastor define you and therefore you have to go back into the pastorate to be used of God. System B says that your adopted status as a child of God in Christ now defines you, whether you work at Starbucks or at First Baptist Church, Big City.

System A says that grace can be received from the people you didn’t hurt, a new church or the general public’s favor.  System B says that grace can only be a gift when it is undeserved, and therefore must be sought from those directly hurt.  Fleeing to a new scene is not considered true grace.

System A says that you have something to offer people and must remain a teacher.  System B says that you must be needy, including needing to be taught by others.

System A says that your family is worth sacrificing again to regain the limelight.  System B says that you need to put them ahead of your career.

System A says that you are worthless if you don’t rise above your circumstances.  System B says that you are worth the cost of Jesus to God because of His love.

System A says that you need to speak to a crowd of people to have community.  System B says that you need to listen to a small amount of people who know you really well and ask tough (not canned) questions to find true community.

System A says that if you can’t get the broken pieces back together, we’ll give you a shot.  System B says only the love of God over a lifetime can restore the damage of our sin and that everything will not be made wonderful just yet.

System A wants to use you for their profit.  System B says that God seeks to graciously profit you for his use.

System A ignores those who have been hurt by your sin by publicly acting like everything’s ok when it’s not.  System B says you can just leave your gift here, useless for the time being, and first go and seek reconciliation from those you have hurt.

System A needs you to increase.  System B says you must decrease so He might increase.

So which one sounds more gracious?

Now, admittedly, there’s an option C as well which says there’s no hope or path or grace to be found once the sin has crested the flood level, so to speak.  But we’re not dealing with that.  System A is the evangelical corporate culture and quite honestly, from the descriptions above, it lies about Christ and the Gospel.

The truth is that grace says no sometimes.  In Luke 15, a story which probably would be first on people’s lists of a Bible story where “grace” is pictured beautifully, there’s a major moment in the story when grace says no.  We might miss it because there are a lot of things that grace says yes to.  The Father in the story, God, receives back the sinful son.  He is grace.  He says a lot of yes’s: Yes, you can return.  Yes, I love you and will greet you with hugs and kisses.  Yes, you are my child again.  Yes, I rejoice in your return.  Yes, I will party in the joy I find having you returned from the dead to me.

But he does say no to one thing.  Remember the prodigal’s little speech he works up on his journey home to dad?  Dad, I’ve messed up.  I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired sons. At least that’s what he wants to say.  In 15:21, the son probably still selling of the unclean pigs he shared lunch with finds himself in the tearful embrace of his Father.  He goes through the speech again but is cut off before he finishes.  Grace says no.  The Father will have none of this hired hand business. (He doesn’t even let him get the words out.)  The son is not going to earn his keep.  The son is not going to labor for his lunch.  He is going to be given it.  Flat-out given.  Yes, he was lost and found, dead and alive again. The Father makes no pretense that His son didn’t just disappear or squander his inheritance.  But He is gracious.  He will not let this son atone for his guilt.  He will not let him pay for his sins.  He gives grace.  The one thing grace always says no to is our inherent idea that we can earn back our worth, that we can labor for God’s love.  The problem with System A, the evangelical corporate culture, is that in the name of grace, it does precisely the opposite.  In that world, grace is not a gift, it’s a stock option. The grace given isn’t free or undeserved; it’s leverage for a future pay-off (whether monetary or numerical success or influence).  And that makes it not grace at all.  Grace that never says no is not grace. We need to be told no to our works-based identity and self-righteousness constantly or we will never experience grace.

*I say this rather than “evangelicalism” because many evangelicals, whether pastors or laypeople, have no real relationship with this business that we call the American church.  They’re not the bookstore/conference/television circuit that exploits the successful and the failed to make a quick buck.  They’re not the society that says “If you make a major mistake, but are really passionate as a leader, we can find room for you to step back in.”  As a thought, just imagine if the typical radio preachers fell into some of the sins that televangelists often do, would there be a market for them any longer?  Would they get 3 months of re-runs and return after all is forgotten?  Probably not.

Strange Things Near Bethlehem…

I had the opportunity while in high school to go on a trip to Israel.  One of my favorite places was the fields just outside the city of Bethlehem.  It’s one of the few landscapes in Israel that look surprisingly like the mental image I had as a child of the Christmas story.  Big sky, rolling hills–a place where shepherds still do “keep watch over the flocks by night.” 

What is inescapable about standing there is one of the other sights within view, one that most of us probably know nothing about.  In the eastern horizon stands one hill that differentiates itself from the rest.  It looks more like a volcano in fact.  I don’t remember lava in the Christmas story, but I’m certain Roland Emmerich could take a stab at it for us.

It’s not a volcano.  It’s a palace.  Called “The Herodion,” this palace stands as testament to one of the architectural genii of the first century B.C., Herod the Great.

The palace is essentially a man-made volcano-esque cone at the top of a very steep hill.  Here, there were originally guard towers and walls at the top as well, providing a well-defended fortress.  Within it were luxuries and resources only a king could even dream of at the time.

I wonder if the shepherds in their fields that night sometime in 5-4 BC could see Herod’s great palace.  Were they mad?  Herod might be called “the Great” for his building prowess, but he was Idumean, not Jewish.  He was the puppet king of Rome.  Not exactly the fulfillment of prophetic hopes and dreams.  The palace itself, one of several Herod had, was a reminder perhaps of the shepherds’ own poverty.  It was a symbol of the spectacular resources of the rich and powerful.  It was also a reminder, with its extreme defensive measures, of the paranoia and evil embodied by King Herod.  The palace may have been intended more as a refuge from his own family than from any foreign ruler.  At least those of his family he hadn’t killed yet.

I wonder how surprising it was then to have an angelic army appear above their very heads and announce the birth of a different king.  I wonder how odd it seemed that the magnificent palace mountain before their eyes had been bypassed and replaced by a feeding trough in a place where animals slept in the small town nearby.  How strange that the heavenly messengers appeared to them and not to the royal guard stationed inside the citadel.

That first Christmas saw a lot of strange things.  And if we really believe the arrival of God’s Son changed the world forever, then maybe we shouldn’t be shocked if those strange things continue still.