One thing that seems to distinguish parables from accounts of actual events is the absence of specific names for the people in the parables. In the parables we read, "A sower" (Luke 8), "A rich man" (Luke 12, 15), "A man" (Luke 13, 14), "A Samaritan" (Luke 10).
However, in the account of the Rich Man and the Beggar, we are actually given the name of the beggar. This is quite a distinction from all the other parables. In addition, Jesus tells us that the rich man saw another specific man--the patriarch Abraham.
So, the fact that the rich man's name is withheld does support the idea of this being a parable. Yet, the fact that two other specific people are identified by name seems to be stronger evidence to support the idea that this was an actual historical event with actual people.
The significance of this story comes in the reference to someone rising from the dead, as Jesus states that even if someone rises from the dead, some will not believe. This is fulfilled in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and even the chief priests of the day continued in their refusal to believe in Him.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side.The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31 ESV
Narnian's answer covers well the argument for this story being real and not a parable. I will attempt to cover the argument that it is a parable.
The first thing to note is the parable's location among other parables and teachings. Luke 16, where the parable is found, is surrounded by other parables and teachings. It is not part of the historic sections of Luke. It also sounds like a parable. There's a point to the story that has very little to do with the actual story. This alone is evidence enough for me to call it a parable, but there is more.
The only argument I have seen that this is a real story and not a parable is based on the fact that specific names are mentioned. I personally do not find that convincing.
Yes, it is odd that there are specific names in this parable. The appearance of Abraham is easy to explain. He is a character of necessity because of the place where Lazarus is. Many translations call it "Abraham's side" or "Abraham's bosom".
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.
This is the name of a place, not a person. Abraham has become a necessary part of the story. He is the voice that will deliver the message of the parable. There is little significance that it is Abraham rather than someone else.
Lazarus, on the other had, doesn't seem to be needed in the story, so the name was mentioned for a reason.1
One cannot read the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man and not be reminded of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. When examining that story, we see some similarities, especially in the message that can be gleaned from it compared to the message given in the parable.
At the end of the raising of Lazarus we do not see all the people falling to worship Jesus. Instead we see a few are convinced then a plot to kill him quickly develops.
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin [then plotted to kill him].
John 11:45-47 (NIV)
But beyond all this is that parables are meant to make a point. They are meant to illustrate a Truth, a bit of wisdom, that can easily be separated from the story. It is plainly clear what the point of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is:
If they [unbelievers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
In light of
If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?
John 5:46-47 (NIV)
which sounds oddly like the message of the parable, it seems plausible that Jesus developed this parable based off of the reactions of the pharisees after Jesus really did raise Lazarus. Compare this to Who are the five brothers mentioned in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:28)?, where my answer discusses the argument that they are the brothers of Caiaphas. This makes for a pretty good argument that Jesus made this parable drawing from real events, and the mention of Lazarus and 'five brothers' was a subtle way to name the Pharisees as those who would not believe "even if the dead returned."
- I've always wondered if there is evidence of this being a scribal insert. I'm looking into this now: Is there evidence that the name “Lazarus” in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a later addition?
An illuminating Source - Lazarus in John and Luke - Crisis Magazine - MARK P. SHEA
The view of the two Lazarus's being the same man (and the rich man and Lazarus being a real story not a parable) has a lot going for it.
It has the apparent contradiction that Lazarus was poor, but his sister Mary produced perfume worth a year's wages. This is a problem, but in the Luke 7:36- account of the anointing, she is called a 'sinful woman'. A prostitute. So rather than being a wealthy 'nice' family, we see a dysfunctional family: Lazarus a beggar, Mary a prostitute - with lots of money but not sharing with her brother.
The reasons I think this view is so unpopular are twofold:
In the Mary-sitting-at-Jesus'-feet episode in Luke 10:38-42, we prefer to think of Mary as virtuous and pious - politely listening, whereas this makes her a desperate and broken sinner, whose life depends on the words Jesus is saying. (No wonder Jesus let her off the dishes!)
John 11:5 says "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus", and we don't like the idea of Jesus loving this sort. But entirely consistent with the people Jesus spent time with, and people didn't like it any better at the time.
One more point in favor of the story being a parable, aside from those above, is that it contains internal self-interpretations which are unlikely in a straightforward recounting, but perfectly sensible as one of Jesus' self-interpreting parables (other examples are the Wedding Feast and the King's Far Journey, but the other parables in Luke 15-16 are also mostly self-interpreting).
The two most obvious example of self-interpretation are
- when Abraham describes an abyss which the rich man should have been able to see,
when Abraham ends the story by warning that stories of the afterlife won't be effective in making people repent.
That last is especially convincing to me: if that had been a real story giving real details, then there is no reason to end it with the warning that giving real details won't help.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus appears in Luke's Gospel as part of a group of parables, because of which it is unlikely to have been a true event. More importantly, it has close parallels to the rabbinic parable of Bar Majan, which seems to have been the source for the Christian parable. If it is possible the Jewish parable is no older than Luke's Gospel, it would be technically possible that the Bar Majan story was derived from Luke but unlikely, whereas the gospels made much use of Jewish traditions. The Jewish parable is said to have evolved from the ancient Egyptian story of El-Azar
Douglas Welker Kennard (Messiah Jesus, page 93) says this parable is similar to the Jewish parable of a rich tax collector named Bar Majan and a poor teacher of Law who reversed fortunes in the afterlife. Kacy Madsen ('The Rich Man and Lazarus') summarises the story of Bar Majan and its Egyptian source, and says that both Jesus and the Pharisees would have been familiar with this folklore.
As a footnote to this story, the New American Bible (NAB) says:
12 The parable of the rich man and Lazarus again illustrates Luke's concern with Jesus' attitude toward the rich and the poor.