In this post we will look at a more fundamental aspect of this story – whether it represents the reporting of an actual event, as it certainly might appear to do, or if it simply represents a parable meant to teach one or more lessons. The nature of the story is particularly important because if it is intended to be understood as being the reporting of an actual event, that must affect our understanding of the details of the story itself and the nature of the afterlife scenario that it describes.
There are two main reasons why the story is sometimes seen as reporting a factual event rather than being simply a parable. First, it is true that the Synoptic Gospel writers (there are no true parables in John’s Gospel) usually introduce the telling of a parable with words such as “Then Jesus told them a parable” (Luke 18:1), or they tell us in retrospect that something was a parable, as in “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables” (Matthew 13:34). But in Luke 16 there are no such statements that the story of Lazarus and the rich man was, in fact, a parable.
Secondly, the parables of Jesus are almost always generic – they do not utilize the names of actual individuals, but rather tell us of the actions of “a man” or “a woman” or even “a certain king” or whoever. In Luke 16, however, Jesus specifically names the man Lazarus as the central character of the story, in line with his statements regarding other specific individuals such as King Herod or John the Baptist.
But against these two arguments it can be said that the gospel writers do not, in fact, always mention when a story is a parable. Luke himself does not do so in recording the story of the rich man and his financial manager (Luke 16:1– 13) which does not utilize any personal names and is universally regarded as a parable. Also, although Jesus does not use personal names in his other parables, he did sometimes include personal details and allusions that associate the story with an actual individual. Such are his parables about building a tower (Luke 14:28–30) and a king waging war without proper preparation (Luke 14:31– 32), both of which can be clearly linked to specific rulers of that era although they are not actually named.
Another aspect to consider is that Jesus frequently stressed the meanings of names – as when he named Simon, “Peter.” This attention to names and their meanings may play out in the story of Lazarus and the rich man because in its underlying Hebrew form, Eleazer, the name means “God has helped,” painting a powerful word picture of the identity of an individual who was shunned and rejected, yet whom God helped.
Finally, there is a convincing grammatical reason to understand this story as a parable. In recounting the parables of Jesus Luke often uses the Greek pronoun tis, “one” or “someone” (often translated “a certain …” in Bible translations). So, for example, he tells us that “A certain man had two sons” (Luke 15:11). Luke uses exactly this pattern in introducing the story of the rich man and Lazarus: “There was a certain rich man …” (Luke 16:1), indicating that he was introducing not a reported event, but a parable.
Taken together, these four reasons outweigh the fact that personal names are not usually used in the parables of Jesus and show that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is best understood as a parable in which the name of the only identified person has relevance to the story itself. This is an important conclusion as it means that we should not use the story in the formation of doctrine regarding heaven, hell, or punishment. It is likely, in fact, that rather than revealing actual details regarding the afterlife (which would be unique in the whole Bible), the story of the rich man and Lazarus is simply a parable using the current understandings of the religious individuals with whom Jesus was speaking.