Home > Magazine

The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham
(Part 2)

The parables of the New Testament are not simple stories like the fairy tales that we tell children. They can be, and were intended to be, difficult to understand.
By STEVEN COX
Read Time: 7 minutes

UNDERSTANDING PARABLES

If we are going to understand Luke 16:19-31 we have to do so in the context of the entire Bible. But first, it is worth noting that the parables of the New Testament are not simple stories like the fairy tales that we tell children. They can be, and were intended to be, difficult to understand:

“This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not understand.’” (Matt 13:13).1
“Although I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly.” (John 16:25).

The explanation of Luke 16:19-31, which will follow, requires a little thought, but then God gave us brains that we might use them:

“Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16).
“Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (1 Cor 14:20).

Here is an example of a parable that is more than just a simple “story”:

The Parable of the Weeds

In Matthew 13:24-30 there is a parable about a farmer who finds weeds growing in his field. The interesting thing about this parable is that it is one of very few where Jesus later (13:36-39) explained the meaning to the disciples:

  • The sower = Christ
  • The field = the world
  • Good seeds = good people
  • Bad seeds = bad people
  • The enemy = the devil
  • The reapers = the angels
  • The harvest = the end of the age

There is no confusion here because Jesus himself gave the identification of the characters in the parable. We now turn to some of the parables in Luke which lead up to that of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The Parable of the Great Banquet

In Luke 14:16-24, Jesus tells a parable about a man sending out invitations to a feast. But the invited guests are too busy with business to accept the invitation. The host then becomes angry and invites the poor and outsiders instead. It is easy to see that the characters in the parable are all real people or groups of people:

  • Host of the banquet = God
  • Servant sent to call guests = Christ
  • Guests who make excuses = the rich Jews
  • The poor and sick of the town = the poor Jews
  • Those from outside the town = the Gentiles

Also, this parable was based on real life circumstances. When he told this parable, Jesus was present at a banquet (Luke 14:1), and his audience included exactly the kind of people who were excluded in the parable (Luke 14:7).

The Parable of the Lost Son

In Luke 15:11-16 we have another parable. The mention of the far country and pigs in verse 15 suggests the same subject:

  • The father = God
  • Older son = Jews
  • Younger son = Gentiles

Again, real people, real local circumstances.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

In Luke 16:1-13 we have a much more complex subject. This parable is often misread as teaching that churches should imitate the world when handling money. But Jesus makes it clear that he is talking about “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money” (v. 14 ESV). When the Pharisees laughed at the parable, he turned to them and said, “You are the ones” (v. 15).

  • The master = God
  • The dishonest manager = the Pharisees
  • The debtors = the people

Instead of the bills being literal money owed to God, the Pharisees were reducing what the people owed to God in terms of worship and righteousness (v. 17). Jesus had in mind the practice of selling letters of divorce (v. 18).This information allows us to reconsider why the master had “commended” his servant for conspiring with his creditors to cheat him (v. 8).

What master in real life would do this? This cheated master can only be speaking with bitter irony. Certainly, in the next verses, Jesus had nothing good to say about the dishonest manager (vv. 10-13). The key to understanding this strange “commendation” (v. 8) is in the Old Testament. The “eternal dwellings” (v. 9) refer to the “eternal home” of the grave. (Eccl 12:5). And the so-called “friends” waiting there, are those already dead. (Psa 49:11-14). Therefore:

  • The master’s bills = God’s laws
  • Eternal dwellings = the grave

Again, the parable concerns real people, real local problems and contemporary issues. And, most importantly, the key to the answer was in the Old Testament.

THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS

We now come to the last of the parables in this section of Luke, the one with which we are concerned. One important point: there is no break between the words, “You are the ones” (Luke 16:15), spoken to the Pharisees and the Lazarus parable. This suggests that the Pharisees were the audience of this parable as well. Who are the characters?

  • The Rich Man =?
  • His father =?
  • His five brothers =?
  • Lazarus =?
  • Abraham =?

It seems easiest to start where there is likely to be most agreement, that Abraham is the Abraham of Genesis. The next easiest is Lazarus. There is only one person of this name found in the Bible, namely Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and Martha who was raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11:1-44.

Comparing the parallel accounts of the anointing in Bethany in John 12:3 and Matthew 26:6, we find that Lazarus’s other name was Simon and that he had been a leper. The leprosy must have been healed when Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, but he was still known as “Simon the Leper.”2 This explains why the Lazarus in the parable was “covered with sores.” (Luke 16:20).

The begging had nothing to do with poverty; it was because he was unclean. According to the Law of Moses, Simon would have been ceremonially unclean and could not enter his own house in Bethany; “he must live outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46).

So, we have two men, both Jews, both called Lazarus, both beggars, both lepers, both of whom died, and both of whom would not convince people by their resurrection (compare Luke 16:30-31 and John 12:10). This is too many coincidences for them not to have been the same person. So:

  • Abraham = Abraham
  • Lazarus = Lazarus

This would lead us to expect the Rich Man is also someone known to the audience of the parable. Who was the Rich Man? Reading through the story we can find the following clues to the identity of the Rich Man:

  • He was rich (v. 19)
  • dressed in purple and fine linen (v. 19)
  • lived in luxury every day (v. 19)
  • In his lifetime he received good things (v. 25)
  • He had five brothers (v. 28)
  • They lived in his father’s house (v. 27 KJV)
  • They had Moses and the Prophets (v. 29)
  • but they did not listen to them (v. 29)
  • They would not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead (v. 31)

It is not obvious to the modern reader who this Rich Man is. But it should be clear that the picture is much too detailed to simply be “a representative of all rich men.” But the Pharisees listening would have known immediately whom Christ was referring to. There was not any chance of their mistaking it, because only one man in Israel dressed in purple and fine linen.

There was a man who exactly fit all the clues which Jesus gave as to the identity of the Rich Man. As in Luke’s previous parable of the Dishonest Steward, the key to the meaning lies in the Old Testament. In Exodus 28 we find the instructions given to Aaron for making the high priest’s garments: “gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen.” (Exod 28:5-8,15,31,39).

The Pharisees could not fail to understand that the man dressed in purple and fine linen was the Jewish high priest. The high priest when Jesus spoke this parable was Caiaphas. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote a detailed account of the period in Antiquities of the Jews, that Caiaphas met all four of the first qualifications of the Rich Man of Luke 16:

  • He was rich (v. 19)
  • dressed in purple and fine linen (v. 19)
  • lived in luxury every day (v. 19)
  • In his lifetime he received good things (v. 25) (see Antiquities, XIII: 10:vi: p.281, XVIII:1: iv: p.377, also Wars of the Jews 11:8: xiv: p. 478).3

His Father’s House and the Five Brothers In Luke 3:2 and Acts 4:6 we meet the other high priest who served with Caiaphas, Annas, who was “father-inlaw to Caiaphas.” (John 18:13). Josephus also records that Caiaphas served as high priest AD 18-35 at the time of Jesus’ ministry.

Annas had been removed from his office by the Romans for openly resisting them, but behind the scenes, he retained his authority and position. This is why in John 18:13-24 Jesus is first tried by Annas, and only afterward sent to Caiaphas (v. 28), but then Caiaphas, not Annas, sends Jesus to Pilate (v. 29).

In case anyone listening did not understand who he meant, Christ was even more specific: the “five brothers” (Luke 16:18) Christ mentions are the five other high priests, who were in fact his five brothers-in-law, the five sons of Annas. The historian Josephus records:

“Now the report goes, that this elder Annas proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.” (Antiquities, Book XX, chapter 9, section i, p. 423).3

The years they served are as follows:

  • Eleazar AD 16-17
  • Jonathan AD 36-37
  • Theophilus AD 37-41
  • Matthias AD 41-43
  • Annas the Younger AD 62

As mentioned above, the years AD 18-35 between Eleazar and Jonathan were occupied by Caiaphas. Between AD 43-62 the high priests were taken from other families than that of Annas. Finally, in AD 70 the temple was destroyed and the high priesthood along with it. This confirms the list of coincidences between the Rich Man and Caiaphas:

  • 1. He had five brothers (v. 28)
  • 2. They lived with his father (v. 27)
  • 3. They had Moses and the Prophets (v. 25)
  • 4. But they did not listen to them (v. 29)

The final coincidence is confirmed when after the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany, we read that,

“the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus.” (John 12:10-11).
  • 5. They would not be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead (v. 31)

John 12:10-11 also confirms another coincidence between the Lazarus of the parable and Lazarus (Simon?) of Bethany. The resurrection of both was rejected by Annas and his five sons.

SUMMARY SO FAR

We have established the identity of all the characters:

  • Abraham = Abraham
  • Lazarus = Lazarus (Simon the Leper?) of Bethany
  • The Rich Man = Caiaphas
  • His father = Annas
  • His five brothers = Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, Annas the Younger

But what does the parable mean?

To be continued…

Steven Cox,
Leicester Westleigh, UK

 

1 Unless otherwise stated, Bible quotations taken from New International Version (NIV), 2011

2 Based on Mark 14:3 and Matthew 26:6, other Bible students think that “Simon the Leper” might be the father of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Even if this alternative view is correct, leprosy would still have been in the family and Lazarus might himself have suffered from the disease along with his father. (Joe Hill, Section Editor).

3 Quotations from Josephus taken from Josephus Complete Works, translated by William Whiston, republished by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1966. But note that “The Discourse to the Greeks on Hades” found in this edition of Josephus is not genuine. It is by Hippolytus of Rome c. 400 AD and is based on Luke 16.

View all events
Upcoming Events