Print this page

Parable or Fact?

One of our readers has inquired concerning the passage in Luke 16:19-31, a passage which records the story of the rich man and Lazarus. It is too long to quote here, but our readers are urged to look it up in their Bibles. The question is: "Could you explain whether this passage is parabolic -- a 'kingdom' parable -- or to be interpreted literally?"

It is clear from several considerations that the passage is a parable. The first is that it was a part of a series of parables which Jesus is using to illustrate His teachings while he was in Perea. Luke 15 includes three such parables. Luke 16:12 records another. This passage fits in with the whole context as a parable.

The second consideration is that it fits in with what Jesus is discussing with the wicked Pharisees. He had told the disciples the parable of the clever steward (vss. 1-12) and the Pharisees had overheard it. Especially Jesus' concluding remarks, which are recorded in vs. 13, pricked them. They were covetous and "they heard these things." So they began to deride Jesus (vs. 14). Although there is the insertion of a passage concerning divorce (vs. 18) -- perhaps because the covetousness of the Pharisees extended to coveting their neighbor's wife -- the parable of the rich man and Lazarus extends Jesus' instruction concerning the evil of covetousness by demonstrating what happens to covetous people in the world to come -- after death.

The third consideration which proves this is a parable is the fact that the story contains elements which cannot possibly be true in life. It speaks of the rich man in hell being able to see heaven: "And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom" (vs. 23). It speaks even of conversation between the inhabitants of hell and the inhabitants of heaven. The rich man and Abraham carry on a discussion. If, in fact, these things were possible, Scripture's description of the bliss of heaven would be incorrect. Heaven would not be the blessed state that it is if we, while in heaven, were able to witness things taking place in hell and even converse with those who are in hell. We may thank God that that is not true.

While we ought to be warned by the parable of the terrible consequences of covetousness, it is not out of order to call attention to a few truths found in the parable.

One aspect of the parable is particularly striking. I refer to the fact that really Jesus includes in this one parable, two separate parables, although they are related. The final end of the rich man and the final bliss of poor Lazarus are graphically described. But the latter part of the parable (vss. 27-31) deals with another subject.

The rich man seems to have forgotten his request for a drop of water to cool his tongue and now begins to think of his brothers. Some have interpreted this request of the rich man to be a mark in his favor. He can be concerned about the eternal welfare of his brothers in the hopes that they will not share in his sad end.

But we must not interpret his request in this way. It was, in fact, extremely wicked. There are at least three considerations which show the evil of the request of the rich man. 1) If the request were pleasing to God, this parable would teach that the wicked in hell can do things pleasing to God. This is manifestly impossible.

2) The rich man, by his request, was really seeking to ease his own punishment in hell. He was probably the eldest son and responsible for the conduct of his younger brothers. One of the great horrors of hell is the fact that those who go there will be every moment confronted by people whom they have led astray and for whom they are responsible. False shepherds will be confronted forever with the church members they deceived. Mothers who aborted their babies will have to look into the accusing eyes of these murdered infants. The rich man would have to face the stares of brothers whom he taught to be covetous

3) The rich man, by his request, is really attacking God's justice. He means to say that his brothers do not have sufficient warning of the consequences of their covetousness. And, of course, if they do not have sufficient warning, then the rich man did not have sufficient warning as well. It is a clever way of shifting the blame for his punishment to God.

This latter point illustrates the whole point of the last part of the parable. The rich man (and his brothers) were brought up in the nation of Israel where they had and were taught in the Holy Scriptures. Now the rich man is saying to God: But those Scriptures are not enough. We need (like the Charismatics?) special signs and wonders. We need people coming back from the grave. We need something besides the gospel. Thy way is insufficient. If we had had more, we would have understood.

Abraham says: That is wicked. They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them. And when the rich man nevertheless argues about it, Abraham shuts him up with the devastating truth: If they will not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded though one rise from the dead.

The gospel is enough. Believe in that. And if you will not believe in that gospel, then nothing will change your hard and stubborn heart.

There is profound warning here, also for you and me.

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Additional Info

  • Volume: 7
  • Issue: 11
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


Contact Details

  • Address
    725 Baldwin Dr. B-25
  • City
  • State or Province
  • Zip Code
  • Country
    United States
  • Telephone