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The Rich Man and Lazarus as a Parable?

At the end of this month, the world celebrates the holiday of Halloween. In it, people will dress up as superheroes and politicians, and ghosts and zombies. Although people may focus on the fun and the candy that they get to eat, perhaps a few will think of the dead at this time. They may wonder where the dead are, if they know what their family members are doing, or what they are experiencing.

In the Gospel According to Luke, there is one passage of scripture that reveals much about the afterlife. It is found in Luke 16:19-31. It follows three known parables in the prior chapter (the parables of the lost sheep, lost piece of silver, and the prodigal son). All three of these end positively, with only the last one containing mention of a large amount of wealth. At the beginning of chapter sixteen, Jesus continues, and this time he presents another parable. This one refers to a steward who wasted the goods of a rich man (Luke 16:1). At the end of it, Jesus warns, "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:13)

The two verses that follow this are key for us to see why Jesus would need to speak on the rich man and Lazarus. After the statements of verse thirteen, the Pharisees deride Jesus for what He has said. Luke records for us, "And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him." (Luke 16:14) Jesus then warns against those who are justified before men, but are an abomination in the sight of God. "And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." (Luke 16:15)

It is with this exchange that one finds the background for the accounts of the rich man and Lazarus. And in the text, both of these individuals are described from the start (Luke 16:19-21). The text then continues with the deaths of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man being in torments in Hades, and him crying out to Abraham (Luke 16:22-31).

These portions, and also the prior parables, lead some to view the events of the rich man and Lazarus also as a parable. From this perspective, almost everything in it is a sign pointing to something else. For instance, notice that the rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen. These are symbolic of royalty and the priesthood, and because of this, he represents the people of Israel. By contrast, Lazarus is supposedly a representation of the Gentiles who are separated, which is similar to what is found in Ephesians 2:12. The symbolism continues when one sees Lazarus (the Gentiles) close to God, in Abraham's bosom, and the rich man (Israel) now afar off (Luke 16:22-23). Finally, the torment endured by the rich man is simply mental anguish caused by one flame (Luke 16:24).

These views are rather remarkable, and there is much more that could be said about them than is available here. The full argument may be rather convincing to a number of people. One thing we need to keep in mind though is that the text of the rich man and Lazarus does not fit what is found in any other parable in the New Testament.

If the passage was a parable, it would be the only one that contains a conversation including an individual known to have lived (Abraham). It contains no comparative texts using an event in it to teach another truth (Luke 15:7; Luke 16:10). The record is written solely in a narrative form, and does not contain instruction concerning the analogous story and its application (Luke 8:4-18). Finally, parables are true-to-life, but hypothetical illustrative stories. They use physical events that the common person could relate to. These physical stories taught spiritual truths.

The account of the rich man and Lazarus does not follow this definition. It is a text focused almost entirely on spiritual events to which nobody in the audience could relate. Ten out of thirteen verses speak of things following the deaths of Lazarus and the rich man. This, in of itself, is the reason why this passage cannot be a parable.