Answer by Diane Eager and John Mackay
The account of the rich man and Lazarus is recorded in Luke 16:19-31 and contrasts two very different Jewish people: an extremely wealthy man living an indulgent lifestyle in opulent accommodation, and a poor beggar named Lazarus who suffering from diseased skin (most likely as a result of malnutrition) and who lay at the entrance to the rich man’s property. The beggar died and was taken to a place of comfort in the presence of Abraham (ancestor of the Jews). The rich man also died and ends up in a place of flames and suffering. The story then recounts a conversation between Abraham and the rich man across the gulf that separates the two places. We will come back to this later.
First let’s consider the stories Jesus uses which are clearly listed as parables and see how this account compares with them.
Most of Christ’s parables are clearly identified because they are preceded with statements such as “he told them this parable” (Luke 15:3) or “he was teaching them many things in parables”. (Mark 4:2) There are also some stories that do not start with such a statement, e.g. Mark 426-29 (the growing seed) yet are clearly identified as parables by their ‘parabolic style’.
1. They use common events and observations of everyday life, e.g. farming, going on a journey, wedding celebrations, etc..
2. Any characters in them are not named, but simply referred to by their role in the story, e.g. a farmer, a king, or even just “a man”.
3. They are simple and down to earth, and are used by Christ to make a connected pointer, i.e. what the Kingdom of God is like by using illustrations drawn from their earthly lives. Hence the common saying: a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
This structure is easily seen in Luke 14:7 -16:13 where Jesus communicates several identified parables, ending with the parable of the shrewd manager, but then the gospel narrative changes as Luke tells us the Pharisees, described by Luke as those “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), took offence at Jesus’ parables because they recognised Jesus was speaking a parable in judgement against them. Jesus then responded bluntly to the Pharisees with four statements firmly labelling the Pharisees as self-justifying, law breaking, prestige seeking adulterers. He then tells them a true story that firmly puts them in their place – the rich man and Lazarus.
So, let’s check this record to see if it differs or not from the parables. The first significant difference is where the story takes place. Most of it occurs in the afterlife after the two initial characters have died, with only a brief description of their lives on earth at the start. Abraham’s bosom and hell’s flames are things that only Jesus would know about, but the ordinary person would not.
Another significant difference is that people are named, and those names include a clearly identified historical person – Abraham. Furthermore, the place where Lazarus went is referred as “Abraham’s bosom” in older translations. This term may be translated as “Abraham’s side” in modern translations, but that does indicate the true significance of this term. To be in the “bosom” of a great person is to be in close relationship in the same place as that person and the share the honour that person has. Jesus is referred to as being “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). For Jews, to go to “Abraham’s bosom” after they died meant to go to Paradise – a place of comfort and honour.
A key point is Jesus would never tell a made-up story about Abraham or “Abraham’s bosom”, especially to Jews. It would undermine His authority straight away, and give the antagonistic Jewish leaders an excuse not to take Him seriously.
Now let’s go back to the story. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some relief from his torment in flames, but Abraham reminds him that he (the rich man) had spent his earthly life in comfort, ignoring others’ needs, while Lazarus endured much suffering but is now being comforted. The rich man finally thinks of others and asks that Lazarus be sent back to warn the rich man’s brothers of what terrible fate awaits them if they don’t repent. Abraham tells him that they have the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and if they didn’t respond to that they would not repent, even if warned by someone who had been resurrected from the dead.
This story was a rebuke to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on knowing and obeying Moses and the Prophets, but their lives did not reflect this. Jesus’ statement also served as a prediction that anyone who rejects God’s written word in the writings of Moses, (the first five books of the Bible) and the Prophets would not repent despite the evidence of Christ rising from the dead, and therefore they will also share the same hellish fate as the rich man. That prophecy was fulfilled in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection, when Jewish leaders rejected the Apostles’ teaching that Jesus was their Messiah who fulfilled Moses and Prophets, even though Jesus had risen from the dead in their lifetimes.
Jesus’ prophecy continues to be fulfilled in Western countries today through selling out to evolution. It happens wherever people have had the Scriptures but now reject their authority because the teachings of liberal theologians, academics and church leaders convince people that Moses and the Prophets are just theological theory, rather than the real history of the real world. This is why Creation Research exists – to point people to the risen Saviour by showing people that Moses’s writings, especially on Creation, the Fall of Man, Noah’s Flood and the Tower of Babel can be trusted. It is in these true stories we learn of God’s power as Creator, His righteousness as Judge, and His love in the promise of a Saviour who will bring new life.
In conclusion: Rather than being a parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a direct and very real warning to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time, and to any who reject God’s Word at any time in history. God’s judgement, with its associated rewards and punishments, is not just a scary idea used by religious leaders to get people to submit to their authority. It is real and certain, and will happen to all people when they leave this life. Make sure that you trust in the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, before you leave this life.
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