Post last updated on April 24, 2022
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The parable is an evident form of speech in scripture, present in both Old and New Testaments. Still, casual Bible readers probably most often associate parables with the preaching ministry of the Lord Jesus. In his speech, parables find their most extensive and powerful use-so much so that they remain subjects of inquiry and debate.
It is, therefore, worth noting that when these parables were first spoken by our Lord, even then they had a mixed effect upon their audiences; and yet, this was in concert with their very design. If the Lord’s parables remain points of debate today, that is only because of the way in which they were first spoken. After all, in his parables the Lord employed narratives to clarify truth to some hearers, even while he disguised the same truths to others. Accordingly, when his disciple asked for the meaning of the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, Jesus said, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand” (Luke 8:10).
Here, it is important to see that the very form of the parables is connected to its effects. By its indirect but objective allusions, the parable can simultaneously disclose and conceal its intended meaning. In other words, each of the Lord’s various parables stood on their own as narratives, but their objective meaning is discovered only when its characters and scenes are disclosed and interpreted by the storyteller himself. Plainly, the parables are not to be filled with meaning by the reader; they possess that on their own terms.
What does this mean for the reader of scripture? Only that our Lord made the parable the servant of God’s revelation. Accordingly, the Christian should understand that God has revealed himself in a kind of speech that is now secured in writing; moreover, the Spirit has made some parts of scripture to exist in this form of revelation, instead of others-that is, as a parable. Clearly, the parable was not an incidental form of speech, but the Lord’s frequent form of God’s revelation. The parable’s very form accomplished what others could not: disclose objective meaning that remains hidden to the proud.
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This said, readers have often disagreed with one another regarding the precise definition of a parable; and yet, there is no difficulty in assigning it a minimal quality: a parable is, at the least, a story designed to teach a truth of some kind. This minimal definition, however, does not quite say enough, mainly because some have gone too far, insisting that the parable’s narrative must also be fictitious. This is the additional and unnecessary restriction that confuses the question. Additional clarification, then, is needed to protect the parable from its exile as mere fiction, as if the parable were merely and always a fictitious story to teach a truth.
Helpfully, the Old Testament confirms an additional feature of the parable that protects its readers against unbelieving inclinations. Job’s speech reminds us that a parable might posses a varied character in its narrative. In other words, even as a parable uses a story to teach a truth, there is no reason to excessively confine the character of the narrative itself; it is only necessary that the narrative communicates the intended truth by its analogies. In other words still, whether a parable’s underlying story is fiction or not is actually irrelevant to the form and function of a parable. The story line of the parable might be either true or not and still serve its purpose.
To consider this further, note that chapters 26-31 record Job’s last major speech in the book that bears his name. Importantly, chapters 27:1 and 29:1 both describe that final speech as a parable. More significant still is that the parable in this section is not even a single tale or story; rather, it is a collection of several different parts. In other words, Job’s parable is a single speech that employs different kinds of narrative within the one parable. For instance, Job 27:13-23 considers the temporal and eventual end of the wicked, but later in the same parable Job also compares his own former experiences over and against his present misery and humiliation (Job 29:1-30:31). The first part is hypothetical of any wicked person; the latter is autobiographical.
The point is only that these are two different kinds of speech, evident in the same, single parable. The parts do not depend upon one another thematically, nor is it particularly relevant to Job’s larger point whether the different parts of the parable are true: One is perhaps hypothetical, but the second definitely recalls actual events; nevertheless, the two different parts of Job’s parable are joined together to serve a single purpose greater than their individual parts. In this way, the larger, whole section (Job 26-31) rightly obtains its identity as a parable, and that identity is never endangered, whether the narrative is based upon fact or hypothesis. Job’s speech remains a parable, because of its intention. Accordingly, Job arranges these words to instruct his audience: “I will teach [emphasis mine] you by the hand of God: that which is with the Almighty will I not conceal” (Job 27:10). Therefore, again we see that the most significant feature of the parable is that its various parts emphatically serve the purpose of instruction, whether those parts are hypothetically true or actually true.
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This feature becomes important when we consider Luke 16:19-31. There, Jesus tells a story to his disciples, one well known to most Bible readers. That story briefly speaks of a certain rich man who enjoyed pleasures and privileges during his lifetime that another man-a beggar named Lazarus-never enjoyed. The rich man daily refreshed himself in his own house, while Lazarus lay outside the rich man’s gate-always famished, always miserable. Lazarus’ earthly hope was humble, even pathetic: he but craved the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. The subsequent turn of events in the story is also well-known. When each of them dies, their fortunes are quickly reversed: Lazarus is carried into the presence of Abraham, while the rich man awakes to pains and deprivations in hell. The rich man is now tormented, but he is also unsatisfied there, wanting water in a way that recalls Lazarus’ former want of bread.
If only these few distinctions are kept in mind, it is easy to mistakenly read this same story along mere ethical grounds, as if the rich man were condemned as a decadent dandy, while Lazarus is ushered into paradise on the account of his poverty. Some readers may very well wonder whether this is the actual intention and force of the story-to establish virtues, to warn how lifetime fortunes of the rich and poor are reversed in the afterlife. If that were the case, the story provides an rather unqualified hope for the poor, but also a prescription for the rich-no money market funds, but rather monasteries. Unfortunately, it seems that this has sometimes been a favorite interpretation and emphasis for some readers; nevertheless, this wrongly reduces the passage to a morality tale about the lives and fates of the rich and poor.
The story is no mere commentary on wealth and the wealthy. Indeed, we all know that the poor are sometimes covetous, just as the rich are sometimes generous. Nor is asceticism the ground of a man’s eternal life, any more than riches alone a sign of damnation. Otherwise, Abraham-also featured in this text-would also be damned, for he was very rich (Genesis 13:1-2); but as it is, this story confirms Abraham’s central place in redemption’s story.
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It is at just this point, however, that the reader must further consider the circumstances of these two men more carefully. The torment of the rich man is actual and terrible, but Lazarus is comforted and consoled. A natural reading will not allow for another alternative, especially given scriptures other references to hell’s agony.1For instance, Mark 9:44-50 or Revelation 14:10-11. Indeed, the agony of the rich man is pictured in his new contrast to Lazarus. From across the divide between them, the rich man requests Abraham that Lazarus might bring him something to drink (Luke 16:24). For all of his former extravagance and pleasure, the rich man has never wanted for something so simple as what now becomes his eternal desire-common water. Quite obviously, then, the rich man becomes hell’s beggar.
That said, the narrative helps the reader to understand how that that hell carries more than the sensations of bodily pain. Indeed, the rich man’s suffering is not confined to his body-for neither were his former, earthly pleasures merely physical sensations. The rich man’s thoughts will become his other anguish, and those provoked by his memory. He received good things in his lifetime and Lazarus evil things. Abraham asks the rich man, whether he remember how it once was for them both; now, their situations are but reversed (verse 24). The rich man seeks mercy from Abraham, but that mercy is denied-and the rich man’s memory becomes the sufficient witness of his guilt. He also expresses a true concern for his own brothers (Luke 16:28), which means that he is also anguished because he can join together his own present to the past and also to their futures.
Eternity, then, occasions some kind of eternal remembering. In this way, we are reminded how a man is both pleased and pained in the a relation of his affections to their eventual apprehensions. A man’s present affections nurture his hopes and actions, which must inevitably lead to pain and pleasure by their gain and loss. We see that fact illustrated here: the rich man formerly fared according to his desires; now he will be made frightfully subject to other longings under new circumstances. Indeed, the rich man’s pain now excites his longings in hell, contrasting the way that his former lusts were once exercised and strengthened by his pleasures.
Regardless, the reader must face the clear presentation of hell as a fact of the story. This fact has, of course, been met with an increasing number of denials over the recent years. Often, those denials are made to rely upon the story’s literary form, that parables are necessarily fiction; but again, a parable is not defined in this way; and even in those instances where a story is imagined, fictions still often depend upon factual settings for their plot. Again consider the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. In that parable-confirmed as such in the scripture (Mark 13:8)-we have no reason to think that narrative recalls a particular event, that it is a “true story,” so to speak; but just the same, it is absurd to deny the setting of the story-a farmer’s field.
Accordingly, when skeptical readers relegate hell to a fiction because it appears in a parable, they are both incorrect and inconsistent. After all, readers do not dismiss the existence of fields, just because that is another parable’s setting. In this case, the skeptic’s bias is apparent. That said, for all of its veracity, this narrative is not merely a description of hell, as if it has nothing else to say; nor is its confirmation the point of the parable. Instead, hell is the undeniable assumption upon which the story’s emphatic point is eventually made.
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To what, then, does the story ultimately direct the reader? To help answer that question, it is here noted that verses 19-22 are surprisingly reserved in their sketch of the two men. It is true that their poverty and wealth are contrasted; but other vices are not the main subject of this story. For example, the rich man does not keep company with whores or strangers; instead, the story pictures him alone, and it this fact that hints at his real wickedness. It is only when the rich man wakes up in hell that his selfishness is confirmed as unrighteousness. At this point, what may first seem merely distasteful manners to some readers, suddenly requires their keenest consideration. What does this mean? Everyone who has ever passed a beggar with open eyes and a closed heart must now deal with the fact that the rich man awakes in hell-alone.
The reader will understand that the rich man’s seclusion is not absolute but relative to others, relative to those on the other side of the gulf between them. Much in the same way that he excluded Lazarus in their lifetimes, the rich man is now excluded in his death. We might even say that the rich man is newly but finally made to be conscious of others. As well, he is aware of another world to which he is now forbidden-the place beyond the gulf between them. Indeed, he now longs for another world and its comforts, but it is a world to which he has no real access. He is the worst kind of alone: he is excluded from where he wishes to be.
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The gulf between them thwarts the desires of anyone that would pass from torment to bliss. Verse 26 reads, “And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot.” Indeed, neither can anyone pass from comfort into the place of suffering, but who would desire to that? Abraham and Lazarus are on one side; the rich man on another.
This is the ultimate irony to which the parable points. It is true that one man was rich and the other man was poor, but they should have found a sympathetic unity as sons of Abraham. They did not. We are, accordingly, then made to wonder which is the greater surprise, that the rich man divided himself from another son of Abraham while they lived, or whether two sons of Abraham had a different eternal destination? Doubtless, the latter case was the greater surprise to Jesus’ audience. In the end, Abraham kept company with Lazarus, but the rich man was without, separated from Abraham. This difference between the men is important, and gets to the doctrinal content of the parable.
In their lifetimes, the rich man shut out Lazarus at the very place designed to welcome a man into a home-a gate. This point is also significant; after all, Lazarus daily lay at the rich man’s gate (Luke 16:20), constantly kept out by a door that might have been opened unto a seat at the rich man’s table. The closed gate between the rich man and Lazarus, then, serves as the contrast to the gulf that eventually separates them.
In this way, the parable does not merely confirm the unrighteousness of the the rich man, but ultimately the religious insensibility of the Pharisees (see John 8:21-45). It was the Pharisees who properly understood that they were of the physical seed of Abraham, but could not simultaneously see that they were not his spiritual children (cf. John 8:37-39) Instead, they confirmed themselves as sons of the devil (John 8:44). This gets to more than an ethical distinction between men; it directs the reader to the facts of believing faith within covenant Israel. The Pharisees misapprehended both the Abrahamic and Mosaic promises; accordingly, they refused to become Christ’s disciples (John 8:31, John 9:28).
The Pharisees considered themselves righteous men, but excluded themselves and others from the hope held out to all men in the Abrahamic Covenant-that in Abraham’s seed all families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Then, by their frequent misapplications of the duties and privileges of the Mosaic Covenant they obtain the surprising place as the enemies of God, even as they are part of the covenant people. They do their father’s will (John 8:44), and are then shut out of God’s kingdom. Luke 13:23-30 reads this way, describing the Lord’s denunciation of the Pharisees and others in similar error:
Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.
This, again, does not emphasize the mere ethical differences of the people, but instead helps the reader to understand the ways in which the several covenants associated with the Jewish people were a progressive revelation, providing for faith and salvation in Jesus Christ. False expectations of the kingdom of God were turned on their head when Jesus Christ appeared. Many would eventually sit and feast with Abraham in God’s kingdom, but not those who thought they deserved a place. The despised of Israel-and even the Gentiles-would be ushered into a door that Christ opened for them.
It is for this reason that the parable does not end with an appeal to morality; rather, it confirms the place of word and resurrection in God’s revelation. The last sentence of the story is its greatest confirmation of its purpose: to highlight the unbelief and damnation of those who would speak of Abraham and Moses but also deny their words. Jesus is telling his audience that Moses is the sufficient testimony to Jesus Christ. And more to the point, Moses’ words were so descriptive of scripture’s promises that, when they were refused, not even his own resurrection would suffice against unbelief. Luke 16:31 is the Lord’s prophecy of his own resurrection, but also the prophecy unbelief in the present age.
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Some readers have refused to consider this section as a parable at all, perhaps at an attempt to protect it from skeptics who dismiss it. That is probably an irrelevant argument, mainly because the skeptic’s criticism is first unwarranted. In fact, the reader eventually sees that this story is quite like the the other parables: it is the Lord’s description of how the kingdom of God is much different than the way the Pharisees and scribes assumed it must be. God’s kingdom is founded upon the work of God’s Son: It finds its ultimate unity in neither Abraham nor Moses, but in the same one in whom both Abraham and Lazarus would find their rest-Jesus Christ.
Lazarus obtains his initial comfort in relation and proximity to Abraham, but he will enjoy his final rest on account of Jesus own resurrection. This is only possible because the righteousness of a resurrected savior is accounted to the believer. And it is this point to which Jesus’ short parable finally alludes-to his own resurrection. By his humiliation, death, and resurrection, Jesus did what the rich man refused to do, usher in the uninvited. Jesus’ own resurrection would become God’s open invitation to all take a seat at a table with Abraham by faith in the Son. Jesus is the door to the house where that table is spread (cf. John 10:7-9), opened now, even to whores and strangers. Such is God’s kingdom.
Notes & References
|↑1||For instance, Mark 9:44-50 or Revelation 14:10-11.|