Rich Man and Lazarus – Talmudic Background

Much of the Jewish knowledge was passed from generation to generation orally. After the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the Jews wrote down the Mishnah, to codify Jewish perspectives of the Old Testament. The Mishnah was studied extensively by the Jews in Jerusalem and in Babylon. Each community later published a commentary which became known as the Jerusalem and Babylonian Gemara.

We find many of Jesus' parables scattered throughout these writings. A more completely listing can be found in Robert Sheringham's preface to Joma, but to name a few:

  • the parable of the ten virgins
  • the parable of the laborers who worked different hours, but still received one talent
  • the parable of the sheep and the goats
  • the parable of the wedding banquet where one of the attendees did not have proper raiment and was thrown out
  • the parable of the rich man and Lazarus

Why do the Jews include these parables in their writings? I can think of two possibilities. On the one hand, the Jews may have had such an admiration for Jesus that they wanted to honor Him by including the parables in their sacred texts. I think this is unlikely. On the other hand, versions of these parables may have already been told by the Jews of Jesus' time, and He appropriated their parables to teach truths about the Kingdom of Heaven. I find this scenario much more likely. When one compares the text in the Jewish writings to the accounts in the gospel, Jesus often uses the content of the parable to teach a doctrine differently than what the Jewish Rabbis taught. For example, the Jews told a parable:

A king invited his servants to a banquet without stating the exact time at which it would be given. Those who were wise remembered that all things are ever ready in the palace of a king, and they arrayed themselves and sat by the palace gate awaiting the call to enter, while those who were foolish continued their customary occupations, saying, 'A banquet requires great preparation.' When the king suddenly called his servants to the banquet, those who were wise appeared in clean raiment and well adorned, while those who were foolish came in soiled and ordinary garments. The king took pleasure in seeing those who were wise, but was full of anger at those who were foolish, saying that those who had come prepared for the banquet should sit down and eat and drink, but that those who had not properly arrayed themselves should stand and look on. Shabbat 153a

Jesus tells the same parable in Luke 14:12 and Matthew 22:1, but rebukes the Jewish leaders with an interesting twist. The master of this story invites a certain set of people to come to his wedding feast. One-by-one, the invited excuse themselves. The master says "those who were invited [Jews] were not worthy" and sends his armies to destroy "those murderers." (which historically occurred with Jerusalem's destruction in 70 AD) The king then invites as many as were found [Gentiles] both bad and good, and He clothes them with His own raiment.

Between the two parables, Jesus contrasts the Jewish mindset of "self-righteousness" with our total dependence on Christ's righteousness to enter into heaven.

In the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Abin, dies at the age of 28. Rabbi Zera says the following parable at his funeral:

A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skilful. What did the king do? He took this laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. When the laborers came for their hire in the evening, the skilful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day's wages from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, 'We have toiled the whole day, while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full hire, even as to us?' The king said to them: 'Why are you angry? Through his skill he has done more in the two hours than you have done all day.' So is it with R. Abin b. Ḥiyya. In the twenty-eight years of his life he has learned more than others learn in 100 years. Hence he has fulfilled his life-work and is entitled to be called to paradise earlier than others from his work on earth; nor will he miss aught of his reward"

In the Jew's version, everyone is called in the beginning, and one is "taken away" early in the day based on his merits (presumably immediately to heaven). In Jesus' telling in Matthew 20:1, the invitation is made several times throughout the day. Every man receives their reward at the same time (at the second coming). Here, the Gentiles, those who are called towards the end of history, enjoy the same eternal reward as the Jews who are called at the beginning of history. Jesus also makes it exceedingly clear that no man is entitled to this reward, but rather the reward is a gift. Jesus says in Matthew 20:15, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?"

It seems to me that whenever Jesus borrowed a parable from the Jews, He was doing so to correct a false doctrine.

In the Babylonian Talmud (in the Berachot), the Jews have a commentary of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. In 1 Samuel 1:10-16, Eli the high priest sees Hannah praying. Her her lips moving but she is not speaking, and he believes she is drunk, and calls her a daughter of Belial. Hannah rebukes the high priest for his hasty judgment and lack of compassion. (Interestingly enough, the Jews accused Jesus of being a winebibber, and said "He has a demon." Jesus often rebuked them for their judgment and lack of compassion). Hannah then promises that if the Lord will grant her fervent and reverent request for a son, she will dedicate him to God.

And she vowed a vow and said, O Lord of Hosts [Zebaoth]. Rabbi Eleazar said: From the day that God created His world, there was no man who called the Holy One, blessed be He, Zebaoth until Hannah came and called Him Zebaoth. Said Hannah before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, and of all the hosts and hosts that Thou hast created in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one sone? Consider this parable: To what is the matter like? To a rich man who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, let me eat the crumbs that fall from the table, and no one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the rich man and said to him, Lord, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?"

Jesus in Luke 16:19-22 quotes this parable almost verbatim:

"There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;"

In previous articles, we have identified this rich man as a Pharisee:

  • this template is put forth in the prodigal son
  • they are the recipients of the previous discourse by John
  • the rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen, which represent a high priest, but he lacks the blue which represents obedience to God
  • the man has five brothers: the high priest in Jesus' time also had five brothers who served as high priests. This is the only time five brothers from the same family served as high priests.
  • He calls Abraham "father"

The poor man represents a test of hospitality. The rich man utterly fails this test in both Jesus' parable and the telling in the Jewish Gemara:

  • Matthew 25:31-47 "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick...."
  • Willing to justify himself, the Jewish law specialist asked, "Who is my neighbor. Jesus responds with the Good Samaritan parable where the Jews utterly fail to be hospitable (Luke 10:25-37)
  • The Syrophoenician woman even claims "will you treat us worse than dogs, that eat from the crumbs that fall from the children of Israel's table?" (Matthew 15:27)
  • In Jewish folklore, Eleazar was the character who tested hospitality. He was sent to Sodom and Gomorrah as a test of hospitality (as we saw in a previous article). He was also sent to pick a wife for Isaac, and the test for the wife was whether she would draw water for his ten camels. Camels can drink 40 gallons each, 400 gallons weighs 3200 pounds. The mother of the Jews of Israel drew 1.6 tons of water for a Gentile named Lazarus that God brought brought to her gate.

The purpose of Jesus telling this parable is not to teach about hell, but to exhort the Pharisees to be more hospitable. After recounting the Jewish parable, he adds on a postlude where two people in Sheol have a fictitious conversation. Why shouldn't this be taken literally? Because other parables of dead people in the Old Testament aren't taken literally.

  • Genesis 4:10, the blood of Abel figuratively cries out to God for justice from the ground, not heaven. (Hebrews 11:4 says he still is speaking figuratively)
  • Jeremiah 31:15 says that Rachel could be heard in her tomb crying out for her children. This is fulfilled in Matthew 2:18, where the grave of Rachel, not Rachel in heaven, figuratively cries out for her children.
  • When Pharaoh descends to the grave in Ezekiel 32:31, although he is lost, he is figuratively comforted that at least none of his rivals were saved and now sitting in the "good boy" section of Sheol. (The Pharisee receives no such satisfaction in Jesus' parable)
  • Isaiah 14:9-11 speaks of how all the wicked kings are stirred up to taunt the king of Babylon when he is destroyed and sent to hell. Although the conversation is figurative, it is symbolic of the casting of Lucifer from heaven. God says that rebellion against His government causes death. Those who would use this passage to argue that those in hell are not actually dead may find themselves siding with Lucifer's and saying "you shall become like God, (Isaiah 14:14)" and "thou shalt not surely die." (Gen 3:4)