The Rich Man and Lazarus – Part 3Otis Sellers
But Abraham said, Child, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. Luke 16:25.
We have every right to question why Abraham said this. Was he wasting words on such a solemn occasion? Why did he remind the rich man of something that had no relationship to his suffering? Why did he refer to something that had no bearing upon the bliss of Lazarus? The problem of why he said what he did is a major one, but it all becomes even more puzzling when we realize that these words were spoken by one who in his lifetime had been very rich (Genesis 13:2), and whose life had been filled with good things, even including personal dealings with God. Does it not seem absurd for a man whose life has been filled with good things to answer a manï¿½s request for a few drops of water by reminding him that he had received his good things during his lifetime. If the rich man was to be reminded of the good things he had enjoyed, Abraham was the last one who should have assumed the task.
The rich man’s plea was refused on two grounds. The ground of previous good things and the ground of impossibility. Abraham points out that in addition to the fact that he had received good things, a vast chasm exists between them, “put there in order that those who desire to cross from this side to you may not be able nor any be able to cross from your side to us.”
After this refusal the rich man entered a plea to Abraham that Lazarus should be sent to his father’s house to testify to his five brothers lest they should come into this place of torment. Abraham answered this by telling the rich man that his five brothers had Moses and the prophets, that is, the Old Testament, and that they should hear them. The rich man objects that this is not sufficient, they require more than this; that they will believe if one return from the dead. Abraham answered that if they would not hear Moses and the prophets, they would not be persuaded though one rose from the dead. And so ends the story.
No Portrayal of God or Christ
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a familiar story. When it is referred to, the average Christian has some knowledge of it. It would be well if each one would ask himself just how this knowledge was gained. Did it come from prolonged meditation upon this passage? Or was this knowledge gained from sermons that were heard? It is often true that we are quite ignorant things with which we are quite familiar. We are inclined to form certain conceptions which afterwards are superimposed upon that which we may be observing or reading.
The statements that have been made so far in this study will probably open the eyes of many for the first time as to the real character of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. They have long imposed their own conceptions upon it and read their own ideas into it.
They vision it as presenting a great picture of God and Christ, of the home of the redeemed and the abode of the damned, of heaven and hell, of a great sinner and a great saint, of the great sinner in torment because of a life of evil, and the great saint in heaven because of a life of righteousness.
This is the picture which many seem to have pasted on their eyeglasses, and they put these on their eyes each time they read or speak upon this portion. But this picture is not in this story. It contains no hint of God, and there is no one in it who represents God. It contains no word concerning Christ or the work of Christ. No one in the story stands for or represents Christ. There is no sinner in it and there is no great saint. There is nothing in it that sets forth redemption or salvation, and no teaching as to how a man can be justified in the sight of God. The only doctrine it contains in regard to the cause of the rich man’s torment or the poor man’s bliss is repugnant to every revelation of God’s righteous dealings with mankind. It sets forth Abraham, himself a rich man, giving an irrelevant and meaningless answer to the rich man as he attributes his sufferings to be the result of a life of good things, of which Abraham’s own life was parallel.
These are the problems and difficulties that arise from prolonged meditation upon, and penetrating study of this passage. They demand that we discover some understanding of this portion so that they no longer exist. It is imperative that we discover the true character of this story and the real purpose of Christ in telling it. When we do, all difficulties and problems will vanish and this portion will shine forth with all the glory that God has given to His Word. This is the task that is now before us.
What is the Bible?
The Bible is the Word of God. I accept without question and fully believe in its plenary and verbal inspiration. I take second place to no man when it comes to believing that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. The more than forty years I have given to assiduously searching its pages permits me to speak with some authority in regard to its character. This Book is God’s thoughts reduced to writing.
When thought is reduced to writing it becomes literature. Therefore, the Bible is literature-literature in its highest and best form. It must always be treated as a literary production. Those who ignore this are either ignorant, or else they desire this to be a book that can be made to say what they desire it to say. That the Bible is literature can be seen from this simple illustration.
If one should visit the largest library in the world! there would be thousands of volumes in many languages. Yet, there are only eight kinds of words in all these books. Even so it is with the Bible. Every word in it is a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, or interjection. These words are arranged in sentences according to established rules. This is called syntax. Every sentence has a subject and a predicate. In other words, the Bible says something. In doing so it uses the means of communication that are common to man.
In communicating ideas there are many ways of saying a thing. These ways of saying things are usually called literary forms or rhetorical devices. For example when things are said poetically, the literary form is poetry. If they are said ironically, the literary form is irony, and if they are said satirically, the literary form is satire. Then there are also such forms as fable (used so cleverly by Aesop), parable, allegory, humor, proverb, and many others. All of these rhetorical devices are found in the Bible. Some of them (like parable and allegory) are named in the Word itself. Most of them (such as poetry) are so evident that they can hardly be missed. Nevertheless, many of these are flagrantly ignored because someone wants to use a figurative passage in support of some doctrine which has no other support in the Word of God.
In the interpretation of any passage it is essential that we determine what literary form, if any, is being used. If we do not we will go astray. We must know how the Bible says things in order to know what is being said. With this end in view let us examine a few of the literary forms found in God’s Book.
First, and probably the most abundant of all, is the actual historical narrative. An example of this is seen in the record of the raising of Lazarus as set forth in John 11. Another is the slaying of Goliath by David as set forth in 1 Samuel 17.
Next there is poetry. David, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all used the poetical method to give their massages. The Psalms are quickly recognized as poetry, but many do not see this in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Much of the poetic character of these books is lost in the translation.
Then there is the parabolic method of speaking. “All these things spoke Jesus unto the multitude in parables,” is the divine description of this literary method (Matt. 13:34). The writings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke abound in examples of this rhetorical device.
The Bible shows that some men spoke their message by means of fables. There are fables in the Bible. By “fable” I mean a narration intended to enforce a truth or precept, especially one in which animals, plants, or even inanimate objects speak and act like human beings. Jotham’s fable of the trees is the oldest in all literature (Judges 9:8-15). In fact both satire and fable come together in this narration6 . And even though it is told as though it actually happened, anyone who takes it to be literal history would come under the censure of Proverbs 26:7, which while spoken of a parable, is also true of fable, satire or allegory.
The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools .
On one occasion Paul used the allegorical method to give his message, as Galatians 4:22-31 will show.
There is both humor and irony in some of the statements made by Christ. But as J. B. Phillips, the translator, has said: “the unvarying solemnity of language makes it almost impossible for us to realize either the irony or the humor of some of the things Christ said.” Some of these ironical statements will be pointed out later.
That many literary forms are found in the Bible, none can deny. Our question is, therefore; What literary form is used in the story of the rich man and Lazarus?
Is Luke 16:19-31 Historical Narration
My conviction has already been stated that these words of Christ cannot be treated as a narration of actual history. Nevertheless, there are those who strongly insist that since our Lord said, “There was a certain rich man” and “there was a certain beggar named Lazarus” that these two men must have existed and that everything said about them must have happened.
In the Bible a narration or parable told for the purpose of pointing out an important truth can begin with the words “There was” without the speaker actually vouching for its literality. Several parables begin with these words, as can be seen in Matt. 21:33 and Luke 18:2. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Greek to support the words “there was” at the beginning of this story. It should read, “Now a certain man was rich.”
These words of our Lord could be a parable, a satire, a fable, or a suppositional story, but it is impossible for them to be a narration of actual history. Those who insist upon this will back down the moment they come to the details of the story.
Some will insist that if we do not accept this narrative as being literal history, we will be guilty of making void and destroying a portion of the Word of God. This reasoning is false, as can be easily demonstrated.
A man would be foolish indeed to accept the fable of the trees, as told by Jotham (see Judges 9:8-15) as being literal history, even though Jotham told the story as if it actually happened. Some may believe that the story told to King David by Nathan (2 Sam. 12:1-4) was actual history, but I do not. In fact David was quite sure that Nathan was reporting an actual occurrence until he called for the man to be put to death who had done this foul thing, and then Nathan said “Thou art the man.”
It does not dishonor the Word of God in the least to hold that these two men narrated events that never took place. Therefore, it does not dishonor the Word to hold that the events narrated in the story of the rich man and Lazarus never occurred. Let the diligent student read once again Judges 9:8-15, 2 Samuel 12:1-4 and Luke 16:19-31 and he will see the truth of this. Jotham told a suppositional story about trees and a bramble bush, and Nathan told a story about a poor man, a rich man and a lamb. These were told for the purpose of indicting and exposing the ones at whom their words were directed. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a suppositional story told by our Lord in order to indict, expose Pharisees and all in league with them.
Is Luke 16:19-31 A Parable?
Suppositional stories can be parables, but I do not believe that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. However, I would at this point repudiate the many foolish arguments that are advanced by some who also insist that this is not a parable. There is a marginal note in the Scofield Reference Bible (page 1098) that declares this is not a parable because, “In no parable is an individual named.” Yet as a chapter heading for Ezekiel 23 the Scofield Bible gives, “The parable of Aholah and Aholibah.” If there is any single passage in the Word that is manifestly a parable it is Ezekiel 23:1-4, and yet two names are given in it. “Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah.” I think it would be well for all to read this portion, then cease forever the puerile argument that Luke 16:19-31 cannot be a parable because a man is named in it.
I have carefully considered the position, set forth by many teachers, that this story is a parable. Some have corresponded with me concerning this, and I have ever been sympathetic to their arguments. It is evident that they are seeking some honest method of understanding this story. They cannot accept this narrative as literal history, since this conception throws it into conflict with the entire Old Testament revelation concerning death, sheol, and the state of men between death and resurrection. However, many of them err in their attitude that if this is not literal history, then it must be a parable. They assume that there are only two literary forms in the Word of God.
Those who declare that this is a parable are forced to interpret it as a parable. Every attempt that has been made to do this has been wholly unsatisfactory. In many cases doctrines are manufactured to fit the things set forth. The Greek word parabole means to cast alongside, that is, a placing beside for the purpose of comparison. The story in a parable must be in all main points parallel to that which it is illustrating. Not everything in a parable needs to be a representation, and some things are inserted for the purpose of carrying along the story and linking together the points that do represent. This can be seen in the parable of the tares among the wheat where the men who slept, and the servants who inquired about the tares are passed over in the interpretation given by our Lord.