Jesus’s use of stories in his teaching is well documented in the Gospels, but how much notice do we give to how these stories are constructed? A closer look reveals how Jesus was the master of his craft. Here we take a look at just one story, the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), to see at least three ways in which Jesus’s stories show his skill as a craftsman.
Words which say a lot
Jesus did not waste words. Consider how much is packed into just one verse: “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores” (Luke 16:20).
The phrase “at his gate” conjures up the Rich Man’s walls and enclosed home. It names the place the Rich Man had to pass every time he entered or left his home, ignoring Lazarus countless times. Meanwhile, the expression “was laid” (just one word in Greek) tells us that Lazarus had limited mobility and needed help to get into position. In just one sentence Jesus gives each character a history. We’re able to visualise their daily movements and the moment in which their lives converge.
Two verses later Jesus tells us that “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Without highlighting it, he records that the Poor Man died first. Of course, poor people generally live shorter lives. We hear that the Poor Man was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, while the Rich Man was buried. Here Jesus leaves a gap in our knowledge concerning whether the Poor Man was buried at all. In being explicitly buried the Rich Man gets better treatment in earthly terms, but not in heavenly terms. This underlines the fundamental contrast of the story: the Rich Man chose earthly recognition over heavenly recognition, much to his own regret.
Skilful use of names
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the presence and absence of names are used to powerful effect. The Rich Man, who was surely known to everyone, is unnamed, whereas the Poor Man, whom society ignored, is named. Lazarus is, appropriately enough, a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, meaning “God helps”. By giving a name to Lazarus but not to the Rich Man, Jesus shows that God’s values are the opposite of society’s values.
It’s also worth noting that the Rich Man ignored Lazarus while on earth, but when in torment wanted Lazarus to be his servant. He called out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24). Strikingly, here he reveals he knows the name of the beggar whom he had ignored on earth. This further highlights his guilt.
There is a contrast between the way the storyteller refers to Abraham as “Abraham” (verses 22, 23, 25, 29) and the Rich Man calls him “father Abraham” (verses 24 and 30) or just “father” (verse 27). The Rich Man wants to stress his family relationship with Abraham, but this is precisely where his problem lies. He asks Abraham to send witness to his five brothers, but if the Rich Man had considered the five books of Torah and really accepted Abraham as his father, he would have to accept that he had many more than five brothers, since Abraham had been promised offspring as countless as the stars and the sand. He would have to accept that Lazarus was his brother.
Old Testament references
Jesus often filled his stories with Old Testament allusions. The opening verse of this story relates that the Rich Man feasted daily in purple and fine linen. There’s only one other text in the Bible where we get linen, purple, and feasting:
“There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones” (Esther 1:6).
This is the description of Ahasuerus’s seven-day feast to which every man in the citadel was invited. This allusion contrasts the Rich Man’s meanness with Ahasuerus’s greater generosity.
Early in the story we are also told that the Poor Man was “covered with sores”. The only other man in the Bible covered with sores was Job, who was rich and yet could claim never to have ignored the needs of the poor (Job 31:17–21). This allusion to the Old Testament again highlights the Rich Man’s guilt.
Finally, when we read “in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:2), we have an echo of a famous Old Testament text: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (Genesis 22:4). These two brief passages have four words or phrases in common: (1) to lift up one’s eyes; (2) far/afar; (3) see; (4) Abraham. Abraham, like Job, was rich, and he entertained strangers. The similar wording in the descriptions of Abraham and the Rich Man serves to highlight their contrast, further emphasising the Rich Man’s lack of hospitality.
Jesus told stories skilfully, but never merely to entertain. His parables often work at a very simple level, but careful attention reveals a much greater depth. In this very short story we see Jesus’s careful use of language, the words and names he chooses and omits, woven into a rich backdrop of the Old Testament. Each of these three features carry deep moral challenges and show the value of studying Jesus’s words with great care.