The Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus
I'll be honest, this particular study was so much fun! Have you ever watched Zombieland? In it, the main character has his list of rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. Rule #1: Cardio. Rule #2: Double Tap.... etc. Well, I have my own list of rules... Rules of Biblical Research. Rule #1: Remove your goggles Rule #2: Let the Bible Interpret Itself. Rule #3: Historical Context... etc. That said, Rule #3, is absolutely essential to drawing out the truth from this parable! What I found is that there are three keys to unlocking it.
Halakhah & Haggadah
Right away, I found that there was much debate about whether or not this is actually a parable. It doesn't fit the mold. For one, parables don't contain names, but remain generalized and non-specific. A parable is related to the simile and the metaphor. The definition is "a comparison; illustration; analogy." Jesus uses parabolic language to preface His parables... "The Kingdom of Heaven is like...." "To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?..." (let the listener understand, parable coming next...) Parables use something concrete and understandable to illustrate something more abstract. Is that what is happening in the story of the rich man & Lazarus? Not really. Did he preface it with parabolic language? Nope. Hmm, is this a a parable at all? We can call it that, but it is not a perfect fit.
Which led me to the learn about the teaching methods of the Jewish Rabbi's. (Rule #3) Halakhah & Haggadah (apparently, Hebrew words don't translate to English well so there are several different ways to spell these words in English). Anyway, one was the law and the other the application of the law. One was the bones and the other the flesh. One was Moses; the other, David. They were yin & yang. The Talmuds (written Rabbinical teachings) are filled with both - but the Haggadah is what we are concerned with today. These are the parables and stories they told to teach the concept in practice. We know that Jesus taught using parables - but did you know that's how all the Rabbi's taught? The difference is Jesus' parables challenged you to come to a different conclusion than the traditional Rabbi parables. Which probably contributed to their dislike of Him...OK, so key #1, understanding Haggadah - quick stories Jewish Rabbi's told to make a point. They can be parables, or something similar to a parable. As in the case of the Rich Man & Lazarus.
Why is this important? Because there are many well-meaning teachers out there using the fact that this story is not a parable, therefore it must be taken more literally. And that's where we get into this convoluted idea that this is a sneak peak into a fiery hell... By understanding the historical context (rule #3), that using stories like this, whether perfectly parabolic or not, is the common way that Rabbi's taught in the 1st century, we also conclude that the point was the moral of the story, not the detailed setting of the story. We understand that we are not meant to take the setting of the story literally. One would never do that in a parable, or Haggadah.
Bar 'mayan and the Poor Scholar
Understanding Haggadah has another purpose as well! How fun is this: there was already a similar story in circulation among the Rabbi's! Jesus literally took their Haggadah and re-worked it to come to a slightly different conclusion! Ok, I'm getting ahead of myself... Let's back up. When we look at extra-biblical texts, we actually find that a version of this same story (or Haggadah) was common in several cultures in this time period. The Egyptians had one, the Greeks had more than one, and the Jews had one. (My research indicates there were more, but these I actually read, therefore the only ones I feel I can actually reference confidently.) The purpose of each is to bring a change of heart; to encourage mercy and kindness during one's life; to promote a lifestyle of righteousness. In the original Jewish version, recorded in the Palestinian Talmud, it was a rich tax collector, named Bar 'mayan, and a poor, lowly student of the Torah. The tax collector spent his life oppressing and cheating people, while the Torah scholar lived poorly, but righteously. They both die on the same day, and while the tax collector was given a big, lavish funeral and mourned properly, the poor, righteous Torah scholar had no funeral at all, and no mourning. (Remember, funerals were a VERY big deal in this culture. They literally hired professional mourners to wail and cry at them!) Anyway, a friend of the Torah scholar was very upset at this injustice, and was given a dream to comfort him. In it, he saw the tax collector in torment trying to reach a stream of water with his tongue, and it remains always just out of his reach, while the scholar is nearby in paradise with streams of water running all around him. In this Haggadah, other forms of torment are recorded, each one different for each person. This man's torment is that he can't ever actually get that water - it is just barely out of reach. He learns that the tax collector had done but one single good deed in his life and his lavish funeral was his reward, paid in full for that good deed. While the Torah scholar had committed but one single sin, and his lack of funeral was his judgment for it. The story taught that we are rewarded and punished in this life for our specific deeds, but that in the afterlife it is the overall character of the person that matters.
Is this a picture of what the Jews actually believed happened right when they die? Remember, the Sadducee's didn't even believe in an afterlife at all. They believed that THIS life was the only life; their goal was generationally minded, not afterlife minded. The Pharisees (and the general Jewish population) believed that when anyone died, righteous or unrighteous, they went to Sheol and RESTED while they awaited resurrection. There was no torment or paradise in Sheol. The Old Testament is clear on this point. So, the answer is NO. This is NOT a literal picture of what the Jews actually believed happened when they die. The story was making a point about living righteously. The point of the story was not to give a glimpse into an actual, literal afterlife setting. When hearing and telling parables, the idea is the moral of the story. One is not meant to get bogged down by the details of the story, but to glean from the moral it contains. We in Western culture don't really understand this, but this is a common Eastern way of teaching. Think of Aesop's Fables... We don't knit-pick at the details of these stories, the settings and scenery, or the animals that have all the starring roles. We glean from the moral the story. That is also the case with parables and Jewish Haggadah.
The Haberim and Am ha 'aretz
Key # 3. In this time-frame, the temple was the center of the Jewish culture's governing and religion; everything they did and believed came from this source. The Priests, Scribes and Rabbis were the elite. These were the royal families. Bloodline was everything. They were the top rung of this caste-like society. They were the "haberim." The Pharisee's, Sadducee's and Essenes were in this group. Several rungs down, there were the "am ha 'aretz" - the people of the land. These were the everyday 'sinners' that were just trying to make a living and didn't devote their entire being to the laws of the temple. The Talmud indicates that they were considered "boorish, uncivilized and ignorant," and to marry a daughter of the "am ha 'aretz" was akin to cross-breeding. The elite haberim considered themselves defiled to come into contact with such a person... you know... the ones Jesus regularly hung out with - "This man eats with tax collectors and sinners!!" they often pointed out! BUT, even below that rung, are the destitute. The lame, the crippled, the blind from birth - the haberim elite believed that the destitute were were cursed by God, and it was considered by them an act against God's divine judgments to help the people that He had cursed. Therefore, they were spit upon, rejected, avoided and ignored by the elite haberim. (Remember this point, it's important!)
Now that we have laid some groundwork, let discuss the actual story keeping these three keys in mind. We're going to Luke. But we're going to zoom out and follow the story of Jesus and the religious elite that is leading us to this haggadah (story or parable).
Luke 4: Jesus begins His ministry. He makes known in the synagogue who He was and begins making waves, casting out demons, healing people and with His contrary message.
Luke 5: The Scribes and Pharisees are getting frustrated with Him; He heals a lame man with a comment about His sins being forgiven (Remember Key #3! The lame paralytic was considered cursed by God - he was being punished, so they thought). So Jesus announces His forgiveness and heals the man! They of course are outraged by this. Then He calls a tax collector into his discipleship (it's what Rabbi's do - they recruit disciples and teach them, but they don't generally recruit 'vile sinners'!), and goes to his house for a meal. Again, outraging the elite.
Luke 7: While at Simon the Pharisees house, an "am ha 'aretz" woman cries at His feet and wipes the tears with her hair. The Pharisee is appalled, and Jesus uses haggadah to correct Him, and again, forgives the sinner while chastising the Pharisee for his lack of love.
Luke 11: Jesus begins condemning 'this generation' for it's lack of repentance. He is invited to eat with a Pharisee, and the "woes" begin... "Woe to you Pharisees!..." He condemns their rituals, their double standards, their pride, their injustices to the poor, etc.
Luke 13: He encourages them to repent, calls them hypocrites for outlawing healing on the Sabbath.
Luke 14: Again, eating with the Pharisees, and again the issue of healing on the Sabbath comes up. He defies their rules and heals once again, but not without giving them the chance to repent first. Then through skillful use of haggadah, He begins addressing their pride, telling them what true hospitality looks like, specifically calling them to include the lame, the poor, the crippled, the blind - the lowest, class of people in their society!! The ones that they considered cursed! (Key #3).
Luke 15: Again the Pharisees are grumbling that Jesus receives sinners (the am ha 'aretz) and again, He uses haggadah (parables) to make His point. Three parables in a row all themed around celebrating what had been lost, but was found. His accusation was the these leaders should be celebrating that sinners are coming into the fold, and verse 1 tells us He was specifically speaking to sinners & tax collectors. He was letting them know God was calling them, seeking them out, and not rejecting them, as the religious elite had.
Luke 16: He continues with parables of money mismanagement and loving money, and warns them that God knows their hearts.
And then, the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. The tension has been building, His words strong and clear, even though generally delivered in parables and haggadah. Now, do not forget - this basic parable was already in circulation - so Jesus takes their story and flips it on it's ear! Let's take a look....
19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.
20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The Rich Man
What do we know about this man from the text?
He was rich, dressed in fine linen and purple,
joyously lived in splendor every day,
there are 5 brothers in his father's house.
Fine linen and purple were reserved for royalty and priests; throughout the Bible (and extra-biblical writings as well) these items symbolized wealth and luxury. Both were very expensive in the ancient world, so for one to be wearing fine linen and purple every day, we must be talking about a King, a Roman official or a Jewish priest - somebody big. (Exodus 28 tells us that only the priests wore fine linen and purple - TruthQuest Rule #2: Let the Bible interpret itself). He lived in splendor every day - a reference to his wealth being excessive. There were 5 brothers in his father's house. Hmm, ok now this is specific. When we examine everyone in Jesus' world that was 'royal and wealthy' - AND who had 5 brothers, we come up with one person. The High Priest in office when Jesus spoke these words. Caiaphas. He checks every box. Let's look at Caiaphas and his family for a minute...
Caiaphas was the son-in-law of the previous High Priest, Annas (or Ananus). Josephus records "Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests." Annas was appointed High Priest by the Romans, and managed to have his son-in-law, Caiaphas, and his 5 sons, and his grandson all appointed to the office. It appears that he maintained the true authority while the others held the title. This was a dynasty of Sadducees. This is important because they were even more against Jesus than the Pharisees. As Sadducees, they did not believe in resurrection, life after death, or even angels or demons. They put all their energies into gaining wealth, and securing their family line in the office of the priesthood. They were extremely unpopular to the common Jew because of the way they looked down on the commoner, and used any means to increase their own wealth. This family dynasty was so ruthless and despised, even by the Jews, that there brutality is even documented in the Babylonian Talmud - which is written BY THE JEWISH RABBIS! Josephus records (referring to the reign of Annas' son, Ananus the younger) “The high priest, Ananus (the younger), (after he had been relieved from his office) to some degree, was respected and feared by the citizens, but in a bad way; for he loved to hoard money... he also had wicked servants, who associated with the most vilest sort of characters, and went to the thrashing-floors, and took the tithes that belonged to the priests by force, and beat anyone who would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests that followed him as well as his servants acted likewise, without anyone being able to stop them; so that some of the priests, those who were old and were being supported with those tithes, died for lack of food.” Good gosh, this was not JUST a dynasty, this was a mob family!! And they held that power within their family for years!! THIS is who Jesus is pointing his finger at as re-works the Rabbinical story of the rich tax collector and the poor Torah scholar into "the Rich Man & Lazarus"... Think back for a minute to the previous parables in Luke... they addressed pride in one's social status, love of money, dishonest gains, lack of kindness and generosity...
Ok, back to the story. The poor man Lazarus, was laid at the gate of the rich man's home, where dogs licked his sores and he longed for the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table...
In one version of the original Rabbinical story, the rich tax collector's one single good deed was that he had once dropped a loaf of bread from under his arm and allowed a poor man to keep it. So we see Jesus loosely referencing the original story. I agree, that could be debatable. But what's not debatable, is that in reality, there is no way this man, who is unclean with all of his open sores and (unclean) dogs licking him, would be allowed at the gate of the High Priest's home. As High Priest, it is imperative that you not be defiled by anything considered 'unclean.' So we know that although Jesus is referring to a real person, the story is not altogether literal. Therefore, the we are looking for a moral of the story, as in a parable or haggadah.