The question is often asked, is this account of the rich man and Lazarus a historical account or is it a parable? Is there a difference? Is it the true story of two men who lived and died during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry or is it a made-up story used by the Lord to drive home a point? If we believe what most Scripture scholars hold true, we can say it describes an actual history of two men.
For you see, by definition, a parable is a true-to-life story used to illuminate a truth. This is true even if all of the details never occurred exactly as presented in the story. They are special stories that may, or may not, reflect historical events. Nevertheless, they must be true-to-life. By true-to-life we mean that a parable must be based on a real-life situation that the hearers are familiar with. In other words, the story itself has to be based on events that could have happened, whether they ever actually did or not.
Thus, a parable is a paralleled comparison. It must be a true-to-life story in order for it to have any meaning to those who hear it. To try to use a fanciful story containing elements that have no basis to the world in which men and women live would only serve to confuse people rather than providing them with spiritual light.
A simple survey of Jesus’ use of parables reveals that He always used things that were familiar and commonplace in His time and to daily life of his listeners. Recall the comparisons He used such as building of houses on rock or sand, using old or wine new skins, a farmer who sows seed that grow side by side with weeds until the harvest, yeast that permeates the dough, hidden treasures, fishing, a father’s forgiveness, a son’s regret and a jealous sibling, monetary debts, family life, weddings, a barren fig tree, a lost coin, a persistent neighbor, an unjust judge. While His hearers may not have made the connection to the truths the Lord was pointing out, they needed no explanation as to what the stories were about because they involved common everyday things to which they could relate. When the hearers of the parables perceived that there was an analogy between the story and their own situation, they were prompted to think about it and hopefully to respond by faith to the truth illustrated. Parables can be extraordinary and even shocking, but never unrealistic or fanciful.
When we come to this account of the rich man and Lazarus, we find a situation different from what is found in any of the other parables. Jesus’ hearers – which may have included the rich man’s brothers – could understand the contrast between the life of a rich man and a poor beggar. It was common to see beggars sitting by the road hoping for a handout, and they could easily identify the folks who had more than enough wealth to live comfortably. Then, as now, there was a stark difference between the lives of those who have an overabundance and those with nothing. We can still grasp an idea of the great difference between the lifestyles of these two men. The vastness of the “great gulf” between them is not unknown to us. Especially in third world nations people are literally starving to death living in the shadows of mansions and great wealth.
The hearers of this story could follow the contrast between these two men right up to the moment of their deaths. At that point, however, the situation changes drastically. The outcome was something that they could not relate to any life situations that they had ever witnessed. The state and location of the departed soul was beyond their life experiences. What takes place after death is hidden from us. In this Gospel Jesus was revealing the reality of what takes place so He could drive home an important truth. Many of Jesus’ hearers would have been familiar with the psalms but may not have made the connection to the words we read earlier this week: “They satisfied themselves while they lived; they will join the company of those who preceded them where the darkness lasts forever.”
Our dedication to our corporate commitment is living proof that we are learning the lesson Jesus is teaching … We share in the ministry of the compassion of Jesus when we provide hope and comfort to God’s people. The moral of the story, I believe, is captured in the prompting of Joan Chittister when she asks: “What do we want to be caught dead doing?”