Jesus’ story, in summary, tells us that a very rich man ignored the poor man Lazarus who lay outside his gate each day. When both men died we are told that Lazarus was “… carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (vs. 22), while the rich man found himself in a different place: “In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (vs. 23).
Those who see this account as a literal one recording actual events feel that it obviously refers to Lazarus being in heaven and the rich man in hell. But there are problems with this view. If it records actual facts, then the dead are able to speak despite their torment and can converse with those in heaven, and vice-versa (vss. 23-31). Apparently, a single drop of water would also relieve the burning torment of someone in hell (vs. 24). This situation is in contradiction to several statements that we find in the Old Testament (Psalm 115:17, Ecclesiastes 9:5, etc.), so we must ask why would Jesus flatly contradict these scriptures?
On the other hand, although it is sometimes claimed that the story is unlikely to be a parable because it has a named character (Lazarus) – something that we do not find in the parables – there may be a reason for this instance of naming. By telling us the rich man asks that Lazarus bring him water and go to warn his family, the story indicates that he knows who Lazarus is and therefore must have known him and been fully aware of his need during his lifetime. This is a way of specifically showing the rich man’s guilt.
Furthermore, Luke introduces this story of the rich man and Lazarus in exactly the same way he introduces the parables that precede it. All of them are introduced either with the formula “what man/woman …” or “there was a man/woman …” (Luke 15:3, 8, 11; 16:1). There is, in fact, nothing about the story of the rich man and the poor man that cannot be seen as a parable.
This is especially true as the story of the rich man and Lazarus fits into a sequence of parables and sayings on the same subject: the use and misuse of money. After giving the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus gave the parable of the shrewd manager and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this, the final climactic story of this group, Jesus gives an example of the principle that we cannot serve God and money, as he stressed a few verses earlier (Luke 16:13).
But even if the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, we must still ask why it contradicts clear statements found in the Old Testament. For the answer to this we must look again at the context of the parable. Luke tells us: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3).
This is the setting in which Jesus began the following four parables – including the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The direct audience for the parables was not the crowds he frequently taught, but a group of Pharisees. Although Luke shows that Jesus switched his attention and directed one of the parables toward his disciples (Luke 16:1), he then continued to speak to the Pharisees as we read: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them …” (Luke 16:14-15, emphasis added). It was at this point, after some initial comments, that Jesus gave the story of the rich man.
This story was specifically aimed at the Pharisees. Jesus not only mentioned the futility of riches and Abraham (to whom the Pharisees looked for their eligibility for salvation – John 8:39), but also structured the story according to the teachings and beliefs of the Pharisees themselves. Although the priestly Sadducees said that there was no resurrection and no angels (Acts 23:8), we know that the Pharisees believed in angels and in the resurrection, both of which Jesus referenced in the story (Luke 16:22, 31). They believed in human spirits that existed after death and would, on the last day, be bodily resurrected. But the Pharisees also believed in concepts of heaven and hell that were essentially like what we find in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
It is highly significant that when we read of Jesus talking to the priestly Sadducees he never discusses this idea of a tortuous hell – it was something they did not believe in. But when Jesus talked with the Pharisees he used this kind of graphic example of the kind of ongoing tortuous separation from God in which they believed. Jesus knew the teachings of the Pharisees well (Matthew 23:25-28, etc.) and put them to use in correcting the Pharisees themselves.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable then, but it is one given for the ears of the Pharisees and given “in their language,” according to their theology, in a way that they would get the point of the parable without getting caught up in arguing the theological aspects of the story itself.