Thursday, October 3, 2013

Is the Rich Man and Lazarus a Parable or a Story?

Is the Rich Man and Lazarus a parable or a story? Admittedly I have been perplexed by the question for years. Though at first it appears to be parabolic, many have suggested otherwise. The main reason for this conclusion is the identity of Lazarus. If this is a parable, the argument goes, then it is the only parable where one of the characters is named.

Admitting this difference, Dr. Robert Stein still argues that the story is a parable for the simple reason that it has all the characteristics of a parable.


Luke introduces the story the same way he introduces other clear parables in his Gospel. Compare the following with Luke 16:19: (Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day)
  • Luke 10:30 - Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.
  • Luke 14:16 - But He said to him, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many;
  • Luke 15:11 - And He said, “A man had two sons.
  • Luke 16:1 - Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions.
  • Luke 19:12 - So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return.
In each of these examples above, the parable is introduced with the Greek word tis meaning, as translated above, "a man." This same pattern is used by Luke in 16:19.

Common Story Elements

Though the above point is Stein's main argument for interpreting this as a parable, there is another point worth highlighting. Jesus presents this narrative as a story with common story elements. First, it takes liberties you cannot have in a real story. For example, Abraham is present and he speaks. Lazarus is described as being in "Abraham's bosom" meaning, essentially, heaven. But Abraham's role here is not only as a metaphor for heaven, but prophetically. He speaks to the rich man. In regards to the rich man, his mouth is severely parched and yet he speaks plainly to the Jewish patriarch. Jesus, here, is telling us a story and taking necessary liberties common in parables.

Secondly, there is rich symbolism. The rich man, for example, goes to Hades while Lazarus is with Abraham. The Jewish audience would have immediately known what Jesus meant by these terms. The religious elites would have been shocked by the assertion that the poor beggar is with Abraham and the self-righteous rich man, strikingly similar to the Pharisees, is in hell. This reflects storytelling, not history.

The Point of the Story

One final point should be made and that regards the thesis of the story. The parable ends with Abraham proclaiming that not everyone will believe someone raised from the dead. That is the thesis of the parable. Jesus is telling the story and in a few short chapters, Luke will tell the historic account of Jesus' death and resurrection and yet many of those standing there will not believe in Christ.

This reflects parabolic literature. Each parable has a main point Jesus is trying to make. Who is my neighbor, for example, is answered in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow or a man who finds a treasure. God pursues sinners like the father of the prodigal. The same thing is happening here.


I think Stein is on to something here. I have often wondered about this story and I believe Stein makes a good argument for interpreting it as a parable. But just because it is likely a parable does not mean it is not true. The clearest description of hell is found in this parable. The assertion that it is not historic does not mean that it does not accurately described the tortures of hell. But ultimately, let us not be a fulfillment of the parable. Let us be the few who do believe in the one raised from the dead who is now reigning at the right hand of the Father.
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