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Posts Tagged ‘Lazarus’

Considering Lazarus

During a recent discussion in our church’s training school, I commented that in all of Jesus’ parables, he never once names any of his characters.  The people are always generic:  son, servant, master, builder, Samaritan, etc.  I was quickly corrected, however, and reminded that there is one parable wherein Jesus names some of his players.  The parable is found in Lk. 16:19ff, and is commonly called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  You can read the full text here.

Why is Lazarus named in this parable?  Tim Keller makes the claim that Lazarus’ name is significant in that it makes the contrast between Lazarus and the rich man all the more stark:  the rich man, who by earthly standards is ‘somebody,’  has no name in the parable, whereas Lazarus, a poor man (‘nobody’), has a name.  Even more, Lazarus means “God is my help.”  Perhaps this suggests, however subtly, that the rich man is one who trusts in earthly status (i.e., wealth) for help.  Jesus is speaking among Pharisees, after all (c.f., 15:2, 16:14), whom Luke reminds us are lovers of money (16:14).  We should also note that Biblical names very often speak to the character and identity of the individual.  The poor man’s character and identity are wrapped up in God, whereas the rich man has no character or identity outside of his wealth.

Jesus’ parable ends with the Rich man’s plea to Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead so he may warn his brothers of their impending judgment.  Abraham’s reply is that “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if somebody rises from the dead” (16:31).  I had always taken this verse to be foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  Says Jesus,  “You Pharisees are so hard of heart that even if I rise from the dead, you won’t believe me.”  Fast forward to Acts 4, and you can almost hear Jesus saying, “See?”

But perhaps v.31 is referring to the actual  Lazarus whom Jesus did raise from the dead (Jn. 11:38-44).  Note again the response of the Pharisees:  Not only do they want to kill Jesus (11:47-53), but they want Lazarus dead, too (12:10).  The resurrection of Lazarus is certainly a hinge point in John’s gospel, not unlike Peter’s confession in is a hinge point in Mark (Mk. 8:27-30).  Both are centerpieces in their respective gospels, and mark the beginning of Christ’s road to the Cross.

Because of the importance of Lazarus’ resurrection in John’s gospel, some have wondered why the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) do not include it.  It has been speculated that one of the reasons why the synoptics do not mention Lazarus is precisely because of Jn. 12:10, i.e., Lazarus is a marked man.  Since the synoptics could have circulated when Lazarus was still alive, the writers engaged in a “witness protection program” of sorts.  John, which is widely believed to have been written later than the synoptics, retells the story because by then Lazarus is dead.

The conservative exegete in me wants to limit the importance of Lazarus’ naming in the parable to a literary device created to contrast his character with that of the rich man.  This stays closest to Luke’s text and immediate context.  I am more cautious about taking v.31 to refer to the real Lazarus simply because it requires some speculation, however well-informed.  We could also play the “both/and” card here, and make the claim that v.31 refers to Lazarus and Jesus.  Thankfully, the referrant of v.31 brings little to bear on the point(s) of the parable itself, so I’m ultimately content to let it rest there, and perhaps add it to my list of questions to ask the Lord when I meet Him face to face, or at least to the list of reasons why I need a good commentary on Luke.

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