Published: 19 July 2021

Were The Rich Man And Lazarus Real People?, Part 2

In the last blog post we considered evidence which suggests the rich man and Lazarus were not real people. Instead, it appears that Jesus adapted a well known Jewish story to teach a lesson. So, what was the lesson Jesus was teaching in this story?

As always, context should be the primary factor in determining the meaning of a passage. The structure and content of Luke’s writings offers valuable insight to aid us in determining what Jesus’s true point was.

Context, Context, Context!

There are several parables in Luke 15 and 16 and all of them deal with material resources. They are the parables of the lost sheep (Lk 15:3-7), the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10), the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), the dishonest manager (Lk 16:1-8), and the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). All these stories involve money or financial assets. 

Luke links the last three parables together to portray wastefulness and poor stewardship. The prodigal son squanders his father’s money, the dishonest manager wastes his master’s money, and the rich man of Luke 16:19 misuses his own money.[1]Marlene Yu Yap, “Three Parables of Jesus Through the Shame-Honor Lens,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 19 (2016): 207–208. Clearly, money is a consistent theme in these stories.

The ancient cultural context

It is also of historical-cultural significance that ancient (and modern) Mediterranean society is a shame-honor culture. Western society is a guilt-based culture with reputations resting on guilt and innocence. In a shame based society, an individual’s social standing is established by the amount of honor the community perceives the individual to have.[2]Ibid., 209. 

In such a culture, one way of achieving honor and status is to acquire wealth.[3]Bart B. Bruehler, “Reweaving the Texture of Luke 16:14-18,” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 5 (2013): 55. This desire to acquire honor by means of money is central to understanding the story. In addition, the literary structure of the chapter helps to reveal this. Bruehler proposes that there is a chiastic structure in Luke 16:

a: Parable of the dishonest manager (vv. 1-8)

b: Various sayings (vv. 9-13)

c: Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridicule Jesus (v. 14)

b’: Various sayings (vv. 15-18)

a’: Story of the rich man and Lazarus (vv. 19-31)[4]Ibid., 53.

A chiasm is a literary technique used by an author to present two or more statements (a & b in this case) and expands upon them with additional statements (a´ & b´). A chiasm is a repetition of related thoughts in the reverse order where explains statement a and explains statement b.

The chiasm suggests that the middle statement in v. 14 (the Pharisees were lovers of money) is the interpretive key which must remain in focus to properly understand Jesus’s words. Bruehler suggests that just as the sayings of vv. 9-13 amplify the story of the dishonest manager (vv. 1-8), the sayings of vv. 15-18 prepare the reader’s mind for the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus’s use of mental imagery

Bible students have always struggled to understand how Luke 16:16-18 fits into the surrounding narrative. These three verses seem totally random and unrelated to what comes before and after them. Bart Bruehler applies the use of rhetography in an effort to join these seemingly random and unrelated thoughts expressed in vv. 16-18 to the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Rhetography is defined as “the graphic images people create in their minds as a result of the visual texture of a text.”[5]Vernon K. Robbins, Robert H. von Thaden Jr, and Bart B. Bruehler, Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 368. In other words, these are the images your mind creates when hearing a story.

Lovers of money

Since the Pharisees and their love of money were the focus of Jesus’s words, what mental images might these verses create? Jesus’s reference to the law, the prophets, and John (v. 16) calls to attention to the fact that the Pharisees were failing to live by God’s instructions. The passing away of the earth (v. 17) may conjure images of the final judgement of the wicked. 

This is a story which inverted the culture’s normal ideas of piety. The story’s purpose is to teach that wealth and social status is not a guarantee of being in good standing with God, nor is it a means of gaining God’s acceptance.

Finally, the reference to divorce and adultery (v. 18) may evoke imagery related to people who sought to marry a spouse of higher social status while divorcing a wife of lower social status. This was a practice used by those of wealth and status in the Roman world as a means of achieving greater honor in their honor-shame society.[6]Bart B. Bruehler, “Reweaving the Texture of Luke 16:14-18,” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 5 (2013): 64.

This collage of imagery paints an unflattering portrait of the Pharisees and where their love of money had taken them. It reveals that the Pharisees in question were men willing to do almost anything, even divorcing their wives, to gain more money and greater social standing. This is the backdrop for Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus.

Wealth and honor are not a means of gaining God’s approval

When all the elements of the story and its context are put in their proper place, the story explains itself. As the story reveals, the rich man, whom others exalted, finds himself shamed and in torment after his death (v. 23). The poor man, though shamed and despised by men, finds comfort and honor at Abraham’s side after his death (v. 22). Jesus’s inclusion in the story of the rich man’s request to warn his living brothers reveals that heeding the teachings of Moses and the prophets was the way to secure God’s blessings (vv. 28-31). Wealth and honor may impress our neighbors, but these things do not secure God’s approval. They are not indicators of one who has good standing with God.

Sidetracked by irrelevancies

When studying the story of the rich man and Lazarus it is easy to become sidetracked by irrelevancies and miss the larger point. When we consider the historical-cultural and literary contexts, the simple message of this story is, “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15). 

This idea must have been so radical to Jesus’s audience that He felt it necessary to illustrate it with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This is a story which inverted the culture’s normal ideas of piety. The story’s purpose is to teach that wealth and social status is not a guarantee of being in good standing with God, nor is it a means of gaining God’s acceptance. Jesus illustrated this principle by showing how the rich man, who by the Pharisee’s reckoning was righteous (as evidenced by his wealth), failed to be rewarded after death. Likewise, the poor man, who the Pharisees would have considered a sinner, given his poverty, was exalted after his death.

Still relevant today

The lessons of this story are as applicable today as they were when Jesus spoke them. The wealthy are still exalted, and the poor are still despised. We still seek to justify ourselves before men. Some still teach that if we are not wealthy it is because we don’t have enough faith and/or haven’t given enough money to God via a televangelist. The application of this lesson is the same now as it was then. We are to love the praise of God more than the praise of men. We are to use our possessions to honor God, and one way of honoring God is to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Conclusion

People in Jesus’s day (as well as today) tended to believe wealth and honor were a gauge of God’s approval. The story of the rich man and Lazarus show that wealth and honor are not barometers which measure God’s approval of us. Jesus’s aim in the story was to bust this myth. 

We can have confidence in this conclusion for three reasons. First, we have noted what this story is not about. It is not a story about real people which serves as a primer about the afterlife. Second, an examination of the historical-cultural context revealed it is quite likely Jesus adapted a Jewish folktale his listeners were familiar with to illustrate His message. Third, we examined another historical-cultural component regarding honor-shame cultures to reveal how the Pharisee’s love of money contributed to their hypocrisy. Lastly, observing how vv. 19-31 fit into the structure of the text helped to zero in on Jesus’s intended meaning. 

This story was neither history, nor parable. It was a Jewish fable which Jesus used to correct the bogus idea that money and status equate to righteousness.

References

References
1 Marlene Yu Yap, “Three Parables of Jesus Through the Shame-Honor Lens,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 19 (2016): 207–208.
2 Ibid., 209.
3 Bart B. Bruehler, “Reweaving the Texture of Luke 16:14-18,” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 5 (2013): 55.
4 Ibid., 53.
5 Vernon K. Robbins, Robert H. von Thaden Jr, and Bart B. Bruehler, Foundations for Sociorhetorical Exploration: A Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity Reader (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 368.
6 Bart B. Bruehler, “Reweaving the Texture of Luke 16:14-18,” Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 5 (2013): 64.