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
We normally think of "parable" as referring to a fictional analogical story. But the Greek word παραβολή has a broader meaning than this. BDAG gives this definition:
- someth. that serves as a model or example pointing beyond itself for later realization, type, figure
- a narrative or saying of varying length, designed to illustrate a truth especially through comparison or simile, comparison, illustration, parable, proverb, maxim.
In addition to fictional analogical stories, the Bible also calls these parables:
- proverbs: Matt 15:14: "if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit"
- lessons: Matt 24:32: "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near."
- general teaching: Mark 7:15: "Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them."
- sayings: Luke 4:23: "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Physician, heal yourself.”"
- metaphors: Luke 5:36: "No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old."
- educational scenario: Luke 14:8-10: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests."
When "parable" is understood with this broader sense, I see no reason why the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16 shouldn't be counted among the parables. It's a narrative that teaches a spiritual truth, whether it's fully fictional or not.
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.
Due to some comments below, I see the need to mention that merely proving this is a parable is not sufficient to prove that the setting for the parable is purely fictional. It does not follow that if this is a parable, then nobody will experience torment in Hades. The use of this scenario in Jesus' teaching is evidence for its possible reality, although not as good evidence as its use in a direct teaching passage about all people rather than about one person.
Again, I hope we can discuss whether this is a parable without bringing external concerns into the discussion, such as whether it supports a preferred view.
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.
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.
A parable is "the putting together of one thing along side of another by way of comparison or illustration."
1While the New Testament has many which employ fictitious or natural events, the letter to the Hebrews identifies two which have real events and people:
Which is a parable of the time present: according to which gifts and sacrifices are offered, which can not, as to the conscience, make him perfect that serveth, only in meats and in drinks (Hebrews 9:9) [DRA]
ἥτις παραβολὴ εἰς τὸν καιρὸν τὸν ἐνεστηκότα καθ᾽ ἣν δῶρά τε καὶ θυσίαι προσφέρονται μὴ δυνάμεναι κατὰ συνείδησιν τελειῶσαι τὸν λατρεύοντα
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son; 18 (To whom it was said: In Isaac shall thy seed be called.) 19Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable. (Hebrews 11)
19 λογισάμενος ὅτι καὶ ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγείρειν δυνατὸς ὁ θεός ὅθεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐν παραβολῇ ἐκομίσατο
Both the priestly service in the Tabernacle and Abraham offering Isaac are called parables. Therefore, the term itself should not be considered a means which identifies fictitious or real "stories," and in some cases the later reader recognizes the comparison. For example, there is no "parable" as such when Isaac is offered but, as the writer of Hebrews understands history, it may now be called a parable:
Parables which do not utilize real events are "self-contained" in that the comparison may be found in the "story" and can be made immediately. On the other hand, those with real events begin as a historical narrative and remain as such until the second event is completed and recorded. There is no parable until until a retrospective comparison may be made. In the example of Abraham and Isaac, what was historical narrative is now a parable because of Jesus' death and resurrection.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
In terms of Luke, the story of the rich man and Lazarus has events from which a comparison may be made. In that sense it meets the criteria and may be correctly be called a parable. However, in terms of Luke and John, Jesus' use of the name "Lazarus" raises the question: did Jesus tell the "story" anticipating the real events of Lazarus' sickness, death, and resurrection?
Now it is difficult to reconcile all of the details about Lazarus in Luke with what is given in John, where the sisters are financially "well off" and presumably their brother should not have to go begging for food. Still, it is possible Lazarus left only to end up living as described in Luke, and like the Prodigal Son, returned to his home in Bethany when he was sick (and where he soon died).
Regardless of whether the description of the life of Lazarus is completely factual, the final point Jesus makes in Luke is that the rich man's brothers will not listen if one returns from the dead:
And he said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead. (Luke 16:31)
This point is factual:
9 A great multitude therefore of the Jews knew that he was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests thought to kill Lazarus also (John 12)
Lazarus returned from the dead and just as Jesus taught in Luke, they still did not believe. In this regard, because Jesus deliberately included the name "Lazarus" in Luke, whom He would raise from the dead, he was speaking of this future event.
The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man was a parable when it was first told. It may be unique in that some aspects also become real events. This creates a prophetic component in that it correctly predicts how some would respond after He raised Lazarus from the dead.
In a reversal of Abraham and Isaac where what was initially simply a historic event and later became a parable, Luke has a parable which later becomes a real event. Yet, as with Abraham and Isaac, the subsequent historical event may also be termed a "parable." The final condition (which includes both Luke and John) comprise the final parable; what is found in Luke is the first and in some sense a "lesser" parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Therefore, it might be better to distinguish the two by calling the initial story a prophetic parable
2which Jesus later enacts to create the parable of Lazarus.
1. D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark, The Seabury Press, 1963, p. 126
2. Since it is impossible to state all of the details in Luke are factual, it seems best to assume details which are not confirmed are fictitious and used to enhance the initial coparison. There is no reason to use the parable as a completely factual description of Lazarus' life because the significance is how others react to his coming back from the dead.
Is Lazarus and the Rich Man a PARABLE?
Viewing this final story as parabolic has certainly engendered much speculation. It has often been assumed that in this account Jesus set forth a composite picture, not only of the Pharisees, but also his self-righteous and outwardly pious brothers, the rich and powerful men in Israel at that time, especially the teachers of the law who would not lift a finger to alleviate the lot of the oppressed, such as the Sadducees, the Scribes, Lawyers and Priests. They all had the benefit of the law and prophets but similarly neglected the weightier matters of the law such as judgment, mercy, faith, and love toward God and man. Conversely, Lazarus has often been seen to represent those Jews who were helpless and tormented, the outcasts of the day whose movement toward repentance was interpreted as prefiguring their identification in Christ's death and resurrection enabling them to be recipients of God's comforting promises to Abraham?
However, a prophetic interpretation does not develop naturally from either the context of the chapter or the specific situation Jesus was facing. In addition, there are a number of reasons that suggest this account may not be a parable. Firstly, Jesus’ parables are usually identified for us by the gospel writers themselves; this one is not. Secondly, gospel parables tend to center on one clear concept or point out one clear truth; this one does not. Thirdly, the parables of Jesus all involve everyday common events and possible human experiences; this one does not. Lastly, there are few other recorded parables where one finds personal names weaved into the story. The Rich Man and Lazarus then does not readily fit the mold of parable.
If not a parable, is it possible that there is another literary form which holds the key to accurately interpreting Luke 16:19-31, one that adequately accounts for context - both immediate context (who Jesus was speaking to and why) and historical context (particularly, how Jesus’ audience might have understood and responded to this narrative).
COULD THIS STORY BE A PARODY?
- While Jesus often used non-literal, non-historical material to illustrate truth, would He ever resort to satire to make a point?
That Jesus did employ satire at times is quite evident in the gospels. Examples of this include, Matthew 9:13, where Jesus exempts the Pharisees from His redemptive plan because He only came for sinners, not “the righteous” and again in Luke 13:13 where Jesus ironically expresses that prophets cannot possibly perish anywhere except in Jerusalem. Also in Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus silences the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection by expanding upon the nature of angels (verse 30). I don’t think for a moment that Jesus was seriously trying to convince the Sadducees of something they did not believe in by elaborating upon something else they equally dismissed as nonexistent.
But does the account under consideration qualify as “satire”? In order to establish that the literary form of Lazarus and the Rich Man is satire, or more particularly, a parody, there must be clear evidence that:
a. A common or "well known story line is being imitated".
b. irony is employed; that the story’s outcome is changed such that there is clear “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the expected result”
c. the unexpected results "highlight human stupidity" or corruption.
d. "a comic end is served", the purpose of which is to cause listeners "to detach sympathies from certain people (groups), to judge their actions and to see the absurdity in their behavior.."
I believe The Rich Man and Lazarus account satisfies these criteria and fits the mold of parody rather nicely.