Why Does it Matter if the Rich Man and Lazarus is a Parable?

In my continuing study of the Rich Man and Lazarus I want to drive home why it is so important to come to a solid conclusion on whether or not this story is a parable. Per my previous post (see Is “The Rich Man and Lazarus” a Parable?) I believe that it is a parable which weakens the case for the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment. Below I quote from a longer discussion on Interpreting Parables. What I want any reader to take away from this is that you cannot interpret every detail in a parable for meaning. Each parable has a main point that it is trying to make and you have to stay focused on that point.

If you do follow the link to the Interpreting Parables site they provide a list all Jesus’ parables which conspicuously leaves out the “Rich Man and Lazarus”. I recognize that to be a difference of opinion and nothing more. What it tells me is where they stand on the eternal conscious torment/annihilationism debate and nothing more.

If the “Rich Man and Lazarus” is indeed a parable then the following rules apply to it. I want to call your attention to points D and E below in particular. Once again if the “Rich Man and Lazarus” is a parable then we cannot interpret every detail as having meaning. That is important!

II. Principles for Interpreting Parables

 A.    Understand the historical setting of the parable.  Perhaps even more than any other literature type in the Bible, understanding the historical setting of parables is crucial. Remember that Jesus used illustrations from everyday life that people back then would have immediately understood. If we do not understand their historical background, then we cannot fully grasp the meanings of the parables.

 “A fishing net, a vineyard, a wedding banquet, oil lamps, talents of money, a fig tree still barren after three years, the value of a single coin to a housewife, the people’s despicable attitude toward tax collectors, the meaning of pounds or minas—understanding these elements sheds light on the significance of the parables and helps make the right transition to the spiritual truth” (Zuck, 211).

 B.      Examine to see if there is a specific question, problem, need, or situation that is the basis for the parable.

 1.      In Matthew 9:14, the disciples of John ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus then gives the Parable of the Bridegroom to show that fasting is not necessary while Jesus is on earth with His disciples. He also gives the parables of the old garment and new wineskins to show that He has introduced a new era in God’s plan.

 2.      Jesus told the parable of the Unjust Judge to tell his disciples that they should always pray and never give up (18:1).

3.      When Jesus was criticized for associating with a sinful woman, He gave the Parable of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:40–43).

4.      “Several times Jesus gave an exhortation or principle and then followed it with a parable to illustrate or illumine the point just made. For example Mark13:33 records that Jesus said, ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.’ Then He gave the Parable of the Doorkeeper (vv. 34–37)” (Zuck, 213).

 C.     Determine how much of the parable is explained in the text.  For example, in Matthew 13:3–9 Jesus gave the Parable of the Sower and then gave his explanation of the parable in 13:18–23. Likewise, in 13:24–30, Jesus explains the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and then explains this parable in 13:36–43).

 D.    Take note that not every detail in a parable has special significance. Show discernment in knowing which parts of the parable are crucial to the point of the parable and those parts which function as window dressing. For example, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all have special significance, but the road, the innkeeper, and the two denarii function as supporting details for the main point. 

 Avoid what the church father Origen did when he claimed that the man who was beaten was Adam, the robbers were the devil and his demons, the priest was the Law, the Levites were the prophets, the Good Samaritan was Christ, the beast was Christ’s body, the inn was the church, and the two denarii were the Father and the Son.

 E.      Look for the main point of a parable. Most parables are driving home one overarching truth or principle although there may be exceptions at times.

[Click on this link to see the next installment in this series: Does Using a Proper Name Turn a Parable Into a True Story?]

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