The Rich Man and Lazarus Part 4Otis Sellers
In seeking to interpret the story of the rich man and Lazarus as a parable, a great number of meanings have been set forth for the figures and actions in it. A composite of these interpretations would seem to be that the rich man represents faithless and selfish Israel; the fine clothing and sumptuous living is made to represent God’s great provision for that people, and Lazarus is made to stand for the publicans and sinners who were thrust outside of Israel’s blessing by those in control. The deaths of these two men is regarded as being Israel’s national death which affected alike all classes of the nation. The flames and torments are regarded as representations of Israel’s present sufferings.
Other interpretations follow different lines or differ in details. I have tried to consider all of these in my study of this portion, but find them to be inadequate, incomplete, forced, and quite often contrary to divine revelation. It is my conviction that to treat Luke 16:19-31 as a parable will only increase our difficulties, leave all our questions unanswered, and all our problems unsolved. It forces upon us the task of trying to show what each main character, event, action, and place represents. This is utterly impossible, especially when we come to the conversation between Abraham and the rich man, and the “five brethren” who were still on earth and not being tormented.
Again let it be said that if we reject the idea that this story is literal history, and also reject the idea that it is a parable, we have not yet exhausted all methods of interpreting it. There are many other rhetorical devices used in the Word of God.
Is Luke 16:19-31 A Satire
The word satire is a broad term and its meaning is hard to encompass in a brief definition. As used in this study satire means a literary form or rhetorical device, a type of writing or speaking, wherein a suppositional story is told the object of which is to hold up vices, follies, ideas, abuses or shortcomings to censure by means of ridicule. It is a literary form which is by most feebly understood, and it has fallen into disrepute due to those who have grossly abused the use of it. Nevertheless there are excellent examples of satire in its most exalted form in the Bible, and our knowledge of this rhetorical form can be greatly advanced by examining several of these.
The Satirical Fable in Judges 9:8-15
In order to appreciate any satire one must be completely familiar with the thing that is being satirized. This is a simple matter in the case of Jotham’s satire, for the actual event that caused it to be spoken as well as the background for the event is given in detail in Scripture.
The man Gideon had placed the people of Israel forever in debt to him because of his deliverance of them from the bitter bondage of the Midianites. His grateful countrymen offered to make him king but he declined. Nevertheless, he served Israel as captain and judge throughout his life. At the time of his death he had forty sons for he had many wives, also one son, Abimelech, by a concubine. After his death his good works were quickly forgotten and his house and family were sorely neglected.
Soon after his death Abimelech went to his mother’s brethren in Shechem and intimated that the forty sons of Gideon were going to take over the government of Israel. And, as is so often the case, he had a prearranged solution for the false alarm he had raised. He asked if it were better to be reigned over by forty or by one, and at the same time he suggested himself as the one who should be sole ruler in Israel.
His words that accompanied this suggestion remember also that I am your bone and your flesh were nothing more than a promise that they would all enrich themselves at public expense when he became king.
So the men of Shechem supplied him with money with which he hired some worthless and reckless followers, and in true dictatorial fashion he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed thirty-nine of his brethren upon one stone. Only one, Jotham by name, was able to hide himself and escape. Following this the men of Shechem made Abimelech king, and a report of this was brought to Jotham.
Upon hearing it Jotham went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim and cried aloud, “Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you.” This man had something to say. His purpose was to hold up their sin to exposure, ridicule, and condemnation. The method he chose to do this resulted in one of the oldest and one of the finest satirical fables to be found in all literature. Consider his words:
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.
But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees ?
And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
Then said the trees unto the vine. Come thou, and reign over us.
And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.
And the bramble said unto the trees, If in a truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon. Judges 9:8-15.
It can be seen that if this satirical fable is treated as a parable, then we would need to find parallels for each symbol in it, the olive tree, the fig tree, the grape vine, and the bramble. Of course we will have no problem concerning the bramble as it points powerfully and directly to Abimelech, but the rest of this fable fits nothing in history as far as is known. However, if we consider this to be a suppositional story told in a satirical manner then we are not required to find parallels for the leading actors and events in the story.
In fact this story in no way fits the course of Abimelech. The men of Shechem had not gone out looking for a strong and good man to be king over them, then upon being refused by three such men, offer the kingship to an incompetent as a final resort. It was Abimelech that sought the position; the position did not seek him. It was not a case of the bramble being asked by the trees, but just the reverse. Therefore, we cannot treat this as a parable, as Scofield suggests in his marginal notes; it must be recognized as a satiric fable. Some will even be able to detect a humorous strain in it when the bramble bush is made to say to the trees, “then come and put your trust in my shadow.” Imagine, if you can, a cedar of Lebanon finding refuge from the hot sun in the shade of a bramble.
Nathan’s Satirical Narration
We read of this in 2 Samuel 12:1-4: And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had brought up and nourished up: and it grew together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
This story is mild satire, told to expose and rebuke King David. It is not harsh like Jotham’s fable as its purpose is to correct and bring about improvement. Scofield states that this also is a parable, but such a conception creates impossible difficulties. In this story the outstanding event is the killing of the poor man’s lamb. Without this there would be no story, but there is nothing in the great sin of David that is parallel to this. It is a simple matter to say as some do that the rich man represents David, the poor man represents Uriah, the “exceeding many flocks” of the rich man represents David’s numerous wives, and that the one little ewe lamb represents Bathsheba, the only wife of Uriah. However, at this point in the story all representations go awry since it was Uriah (the poor man) who was killed, and Bathsheba (the little ewe lamb) became the wife of David. If this were a parable then the story would probably have been that the rich man murdered the poor man, stole his lamb and added it to his numerous flocks.
A very important principle is seen in this. The flow of a parable must always be in harmony with that to which it is parallel, but in satire there is no such need. A satire is more free since it is not illustrating. Since it points to things but does not represent, it is at liberty to take off in any direction. It does not need to run parallel with that which it is exposing. Once we recognize that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus our Lord was speaking satirically, all difficulties will disappear. However, before we give this detailed consideration, several other principles related to our Lord’s words must be established.
Elijah on Mount Carmel, 1 Kings 18:17-41
An important principle in divine revelation can be found in the record of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah seems to have been amused at the great physical efforts put forth by the prophets of Baal in order to stir up their god and cause him to act. He taunted them with these words of mockery and sarcasm: And it came to pass at noon that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awakened. 1 Kings 18:27.
Would anyone care to say that Elijah was serious in this advice, that he actually believed that Baal may have been in conference, on a hunting trip, or taking a journey? Could his statements be used to show that he believed that a god called Baal actually existed, and that he would answer if he were aroused from his preoccupation? Of course not!
These are words spoken in mockery, and they demonstrate that one of the greatest of all God’s prophets made effective use of this sharp weapon to cut down the pretensions of those who worshipped Baal and who rejected the true God. And since it is true that Elijah used the verbal weapons of sarcasm and mockery to demolish these false prophets, then it presents no problem when we find that our Lord used weapons like these against those who loved money, who served mammon, and who made the Word of God void by their traditions. Correct handling of the Word of God means that we must recognize the true character of Elijah’s statements. How unjust to him it would be to label his words, “Elijah’s conception of Baal.”
Careful study of the rhetorical devices used in the Word of God will show that when men deal in sarcasm, irony, or satire they may say things which are not at all expressions of what they believe.
The Ironical Statements of Christ
In the words of Christ we find certain statements that are sarcastic, ironical, and satirical and should not be regarded as expressions of what He believed or taught.
For example, the Pharisees came to the Lord in Perea, Herod’s country east of Jordan, and said: “Get thee out and depart from thence for Herod will kill you.” (Luke 13:31). They represented this information as coming straight from Herod, and their purpose was to frighten Him from Galilee into Judea where He would be more in the power of the Sanhedrin which they controlled. In reply He told them to go tell that fox that He had three days of beneficent works yet to do and would remain in Perea until His purpose had come to a full end. Then He added: For it cannot be that a prophet should perish anywhere except in Jerusalem. Luke 13:33.
This statement is ironical. Its humorous sarcasm should not be missed. Actually a prophet could perish anywhere if people turned against him. But so many prophets had been slain in Jerusalem, that our Lord infers that this city has a virtual monopoly on killing prophets. Thus our Lord states that He feels safe as long as He is in Herod’s country, since prophets have a place where they perish, namely Jerusalem. How it must have stung the self-righteous Pharisees who controlled everything in Jerusalem for our Lord to say He felt secure in Herod’s country since the only place a prophet could perish was in a city controlled by them .
False conceptions of Christ, based mostly upon the stylized character depicted in stained-glass windows and religious pictures, have caused many to feel that He was a listless man who never showed real physical or mental energy. But He who lashed the money changers with a scourge or cords, lashed the Pharisees again and again with a scourge of words.
There were times when our Lord took the very words of men, even though false, and turned them back upon them. If men are to be held responsible for their words, then He who will hold them responsible has the right to use these words against them11 .
This is seen in one of His parables.
Parable of the Pounds-Luke 19:11-27
As the Lord traveled toward Jerusalem, His disciples knew that His presence in that city would create a major crisis. Hopefully they supposed among themselves that the kingdom of God would immediately be manifested, solving all their problems. In view of this He spoke a parable about a certain nobleman who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Upon his departure he called his ten slaves and delivered to them equal sums of money with the instruction that they should engage in some business enterprise until he returned.
There can be no doubt but that this nobleman represents the Lord Jesus. Passing over some of the details in this parable, let us consider the case of the slave who kept his pound wrapped in a handkerchief. His explanation of his failure to transact any business with the money trusted to him was:
For I feared thee, because thou are an austere (harsh) man: thou takest up that thou layest not down and reapest that thou didst not sow. (Luke 19:21)
The slave’s estimate of his lord was that he was mean and grasping, also a thief; for he who picks up what he did not lay down or reaps what he did not sow ignores the simplest requirements of honesty.
His lord did not deny the accusation or bother to refute it. He accepted the slave’s declared estimate of his character and said: Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked slave. Thou knewest that I was a harsh man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping what I did not sow: Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required my own with usury? Luke 19:22, 23.
It is evident that we can build no doctrine concerning the character of Christ upon this statement. Even though the nobleman in this parable is a representation of our Lord, we repudiate any conception of Him that might be based upon these words. Did He not declare in another place that He was meek and lowly in heart? Did He not instruct His own disciples to “lend, hoping for nothing again” (Luke 6:35) ? Did He not say that He came not to get but to give? It is from statements such as these that we form our conceptions of His character, not from Luke 19:22, 23.
These words were not spoken for teaching. They were spoken to reveal the utter falsity of the wicked slave’s position. His master was not this kind of man, and the slave did not believe him to be. He claimed he acted out of fear, but the truth is that he was lazy. If he had really believed his lord to be grasping and dishonest,he would have felt assured that he would welcome the opportunity to get some exorbitant interest.