Dialogue on the Rich Man Praying to Abraham (Luke 16)

Dialogue on the Rich Man Praying to Abraham (Luke 16) May 22, 2016


Print illustrating the story of the rich man and Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


This is a follow-up discussion regarding my post, Asking Saints to Intercede: Teaching of Jesus. I have edited for the sake of concentration of specific subject matter and flow in the dialogue. The entire exchange is found on my Facebook page. Dave Scott and John Atkinson are Protestants (John is an “ordained Anglican minister”). Dave’s words will be in blue; John’s in green.


“for I am in anguish in this flame”, please remind me of where you think this flame is located.

Limbo of the Fathers, or Hades, as it says in Luke 16:23.

So not in this realm? The asking and the response do not happen in Earth-as-realm? If that is the case then I don’t see it as a basis for prayer to saints; [it] appears tenuous and overly derived.

The story still works in terms of someone praying or making an intercessory request of someone other than God: right from the lips of Jesus.

Again, I’m not seeking to invalidate your contour but it does seem that the main direction of prayer, as instructed by Jesus, is directly to the Father with the help of the Spirit.

The problem with your “take” is that it clearly goes through Abraham:

16:24 (RSV): “And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz’arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ ”

Abraham says no (16:25-26), just as God will say no to a prayer not according to His will. He asks him again, begging (16:27-28).

Abraham refuses again, saying (16:29): “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'” He asks a third time (16:30), and Abraham refuses again, reiterating the reason why (16:31).

How this does not support the principle of saints interceding and being able to intercede is a mystery to me. If we were not supposed to ask saints to pray for us, I think this story would be almost the very last way to make that supposed point.

Abraham would simply have said, “you shouldn’t be asking me for anything; ask God!” In the same way, analogously, angels refuse worship when it is offered, because only God can be worshiped:

Revelation 19:9-10 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” [10] Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” . . .

Revelation 22:8-9 I John am he who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; [9] but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

St. Peter did the same thing:

Acts 10:25-26 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. [26] But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.”

So did St Paul and Barnabas:

Acts 14:11-15 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycao’nian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” [12] Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. [13] And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people. [14] But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying, [15] “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.

If the true theology is that Abraham cannot be asked an intercessory request, then Abraham would have noted this and refused to even hear it. But instead he heard the request and said no.

Jesus couldn’t possibly have taught a false principle.

[. . . which is also an answer to John’s statement: There were two major components of rabbinic teaching aggadah or haggadah (Hebrew: הַגָּדָה, אַגָּדָה; “narrative” or “telling”). The second component being halakhah ( Hebrew: הֲלָכָה ) usually translated as “Jewish Law” (literally “the way to walk”). Notoriously difficult to define[,] aggadah is usually associated with a broad range of teaching in story form to illustrate a principle.]

Are you saying that gets blocked in some way and requires prayer to the saints?
Prayer to the saints is never “required” but it is always permitted as a possibility and avenue of access to God. James 5:16 states: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”  The saints are perfected in righteousness. That’s why we ask for their intercession, because it carries much more power than our own.
Note that the rich man’s attempt to intercede on behalf of his brothers was rejected.
I already answered that in my post:
Abraham doesn’t deny that he is able to potentially send Lazarus to do such a thing; he only denies that it would work (by the logic of “if they don’t respond to greater factor x, nor will they respond to lesser factor y”). Therefore, it is assumed in the story that Abraham had the ability and authority to do so on his own. And this is all taught, remember, by our Lord Jesus.
All this shows is that an intercessory prayer can be rejected by God (or, here, Abraham), if it isn’t according to God’s will. It doesn’t disprove the manifest ability to make an intercession of father Abraham. God’s answer to prayer can always be “no”, and this doesn’t “prove” that we ought not pray to God, because He turns down requests outside of His will. We know that from these scriptural passages:
James 4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
1 John 3:22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
Famous Presbyterian commentator Matthew Henry makes these same logical mistakes:
Those who would make the rich man’s praying to Abraham justify praying to saints departed, go far to seek for proofs, when the mistake of a damned sinner is all they can find for an example. And surely there is no encouragement to follow the example, when all his prayers were made in vain.
Note how he casually assumes that the rich man prayed to Abraham. Exactly! He did!
Secondly, it’s not “all [we] can find” in the first place; there are plenty of proofs of various sorts for the intercession of saints, as I and many others have written about. See, for example, an excellent biblical exposition, “Praying to the Saints,” by Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin.
Thirdly, the point is not that it is merely “the mistake of a damned sinner.” Rather, it is a supposed “mistake” which Abraham did not correct, and which (ultimately) Jesus Himself did not correct within the story. Thus, according to this flawed and fallacious logic, Jesus sanctioned a very serious theological error (which is not possible!).
Fourthly, the fact that the intercessory requests were denied in this instance is no proof that they could not be made to Abraham, per the passages above about unanswered prayer and the necessity to ask according to God’s will in order to receive a positive answer.
Benson Commentary admits that prayer took place here, too, but commits the same two logical fallacies already refuted above, with the same blind spots as to the relevant issues:
It cannot be denied, that there is one precedent here in Scripture, of praying to a departed saint: but who is he that prays? and with what success? Will any one who considers this be inclined to imitate him?
Every instance you have cited lacks a command or instruction to pray to anyone except Jesus. This is an argument based on conjecture at best.

Why don’t you answer my specific arguments, then (if they are so bad), instead of repeating mere Protestant points?

My argument doesn’t depend on a command. Jesus gave this example in His story, and it cannot contain a falsehood or bad theology. There is not the slightest hint of condemnation or opposition to the notion of praying to Abraham.

Jesus said (summary): “The rich man prayed to Abraham, asking him to fulfill his petitionary requests.”You say (summary): “men cannot pray to Abraham or anyone else but God.”

Conclusion: I pick the stated view of Jesus, God the Son, over the contrary opinion of John Atkinson.

There’s no command in the Bible that says all true Christian doctrines have to be presented explicitly in the Bible, either, and that is your false premise that underlies your present argument and is also fairly fundamental to the entire outlook of sola Scriptura, and assumed minus any biblical indication of such a thing.You can keep repeating unproven Protestant platitudes and traditions of men; I’ll keep repeating biblical arguments, thank you.

Well it was an interesting discussion while it lasted … but if you write me off as someone who would be limited to “unproven Protestant platitudes and traditions of men” you clearly do not know me. Building a doctrine of intercession from an aggadic text is contrary to the principles Rabbinic and Christian hermeneutics – I’ll leave it at that.

I haven’t written anyone off, but it is true that you continue to refuse to respond to my actual arguments. You simply repeat your own, as you do here yet again. But that particular point of yours about Jewish teaching methods doesn’t overcome my argument, so it’s just flailing at windmills.

I understand that you are an Anglican clergyman. All the more reason for you to squarely face my arguments and offer some sort of direct counter-reply to them . . . Dave — to his credit — is doing his best to offer that; surely you are also capable of it. I think he fails, but he’s giving it a great effort, making direct replies to my arguments, and I respect and admire that.


Your assumption rests on the request being valid and that Abraham is potentially able but not capable.

It’s a pretty solid assumption, by analogy, since, as I showed, it is blasphemous to worship anyone but God; therefore, Paul and Peter and angels all specifically refuse worship and rebuke such a notion. Thus, if a prayer to Abraham was similarly blasphemous, in the story given by the omniscient Jesus, he certainly would have rebuked the prayer request and pointed the rich man to God. But he doesn’t. He simply says that the request (not the very notion of prayer itself!) is denied.

It is just as valid to read Abraham’s reply as an ‘even if I was able it wouldn’t be possible.’

That doesn’t follow. If the prayer were improper this certainly would have been pointed out, lest Jesus lead astray His followers into seriously false and dangerous doctrine (according to how Protestants view it).

“Therefore, it is assumed in the story that Abraham had the ability and authority to do so on his own” is a sequitur, but not the only sequitur available.

Not the only, but by far the best and most plausible.

There is not the slightest hint of condemnation or opposition to the notion of praying to Abraham.

Probably because it is not the main teaching point that Jesus wishes to emphasise. Does this mean, by your same method, that Jesus thinks a camel can go through the eye of a needle? …. there is no negation of this possibility.

That’s a silly example because it is clearly Hebrew exaggeration and hyperbole (which He often used), and that is not the case at all here. It is a literal re-telling of a story that appears to have actually happened. But even if it didn’t (if it is a parable), Jesus could never mislead with false theology. God is never mentioned in the story. The prayer goes to Abraham. I would say that it is understood that the power to grant it goes back to God, based on teaching elsewhere. Hebrew culture was based on many shared common premises that were understood.

Fine, Jesus’ original audience (John’s ‘Jewish context’) would have thought the original camel proposition quite absurd. 

No; anyone who knew anything at all about genre and Hebrew idiom and culture would understand it as hyperbole. But educated people sometimes do misunderstand anyway (like Nicodemus and the “born again” issue). Note that Jesus rebuked Nicodemus for that, implying that he should have known that he was speaking spiritually and not literally.

Why is it not fair to take a contour on the ‘Rich man’ that he too was attempting something desperate but unreal?

Because Jesus the teller of the story didn’t state that and correct it.

I think there is a valid distinction between the realms of the temporal and the eternal. If not then universalism beckons where repentance and petition post-mortem would be the norm.

Of course there is. But it remains the case that someone other than God is prayed to here, and that is anathema to Protestants. Secondly, this is not yet the eternal realm, but Hades / Sheol, which is not the final state, but an intermediate one.

Jesus did say that the rich man prayed to Abraham, asking him to fulfill his petitionary requests

Thank you!

but where did he say this was an authoritative norm?

He doesn’t have to. The presence of the practice in the story, without being rebuked, is proof that it is legitimate.

What he did say about prayer was , “Our Father ….” 

That was given as a quintessential example of prayer. It doesn’t follow that any other form is invalid, so it proves nothing as to our dispute.


PS You know that there is more than one ‘sola’ – on Sola Scriptura, Jesus cites the Law and the Prophets as being authoritative.

Yes they are, but both go beyond the letter of Scripture. The Law given on Mt. Sinai also included oral law, which the mainstream pharisaical tradition (and Jesus and Christianity) accepted. The Sadducees (the liberals of the time) denied it.

Yeshua gives more weight to written.

The authority of the prophet (like that of the apostle) also went beyond Scripture. Prophecies that weren’t recorded in Scripture were still authoritative, just as apostolic preaching and teaching were, whether or not they made it into Scripture or were understood as Scripture when given (e.g., Paul’s letters before they were known to be canonical).

The purpose of Sola Scriptura was (partly) meant to help interpret traditions in order to discern those which were based on God’s truths and those which were more cultural habit. You have employed the same methodology yourself !

I have employed Bible quotation, because the Bible is inspired, infallible revelation. That’s not sola Scriptura, which holds that only the Bible is infallible, and Church and Tradition are not; thus able to be (arbitrarily and subjectively) rejected by the individual, precisely as Luther did.

Nope, Church and Tradition are interpreted by scripture and in that sense Scripture if foundational. Tradition does not interpret Tradition that would be tautological. Tradition is only infallible as much as it accords with (infallible) Scripture.

Precisely; just as I said is the (false and unbiblical) mindset of sola Scriptura. But we stray from the topic at hand. This discussion is too good and interesting to wander off into sola Scriptura land, which is endless and never gets resolved.
No, Dave, you miss the point. Sola scriptura is precisely Biblical.
What’s in the Bible is biblical, which is why prayer to a saint is established.
Only marginally if at all … why debate the merits of a marginal and miss the blindingly obvious? Gnats, camels? On that note, your line of argument must conclude that Jesus did think it was possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle since he didn’t immediately refute it. Liquidised camel?
Why would He have to refute what He Himself just said? You have an odd technique . . .

It’s your argument Dave. i.e. because something’s not refuted it must be possible as in … because Abraham did not refute the Rich man praying to him so therefore it must be possible or normative – that is your technique … and you, rightly, describe it as “odd”.


However, that is not how Biblical discourse pans out – the camel going through the eye of the needle etc, Jesus does not refute its possibility therefore, by your principles of assumption, it must be possible.
The camel metaphor is a completely different genre, and so is irrelevant to our discussion and not an analogy. Jesus had him pray to Abraham in the story. If it actually happened, He was simply repeating it. If it was a parable, then it;s a stronger argument, because Jesus had Him do it in a story that He could present any way He wanted to. But in any event (whichever scenario is correct) there is no hint that the prayer was wrong.  That was why I provided the analogy of angels and Peter and Paul rebuking people who tried to worship them. Likewise, if prayer to a saint was wrong, it would (by analogy) be rebuked. This is a real analogy, as opposed to the silly attempted comparison with the camel and the needle.

So, we must count your assumption as possible … however it is not normative as per Jesus’ teaching or the examples of the apostles.

The Transfiguration was a point well made but, again, it is not normative and only possible in an exceptional circumstance.

I may be wrong but when every RC adherent prays to a departed saint is there a visible manifestation of that saint present every time – as per the Transfiguration. I think not, therefore not normative but it may happen.

No, we don’t see the saints 99.99999% of the time, but this is also a non sequitur. The transfiguration only shows that this supposed absolute prohibition between the afterlife and the earth and communication between inhabitants of both is a myth and falsehood. That’s all it proves. I’ve never claimed more for it than that.
However, prayer to the Father, in His name with the assistance of the Holy Spirit seems much more in keeping with what Jesus explicitly taught. All things being equal, if this is the path given to bridge the temporal and eternal then why employ a lesser path? Or are you saying that your if your prayer path to the Father is in any way blocked you can enlist a saint to help you? Does that mean that asking a saint makes you “more heard” by God? Surely that limits the Father … and Jesus.
Matthew 6:9 … “Pray then in this way”
Acts 8:22 … “Pray to the Lord”
Most say pray … to God.
Yes, a saint’s prayer is much more powerful, according to the teaching in James that “the prayer of a righteous man is very powerful in its effects.”

Thus, we ask the holy person and the very holiest (saints who have departed this earth) to pray for us, because of their greater power in intercession (Mary most of all).

1. doesn’t say a departed saint … the reading makes no reference to the departed only a general principle and applied to present people.
(You re-assert an extrapolated assumption)
Exactly. This establishes the principle of the usefulness of asking a holier person to pray. That was my reply to your query about why we wouldn’t simply pray to God. You decide that it doesn’t also include saints in the afterlife. That is your gratuitous assumption.

2. It says it is more powerful in its effects not in God’s ability to hear it, it may be answered because it accords with God’s sovereign will (hence righteous), plus that saint prays to God, there is no indication that anyone other than God is being prayed to.

I didn’t say it wasn’t to God. You completely miss the point. Asking the intercession of saints is still praying to God, but through a second party. In context, the righteous person was Elijah, who prayed for it not to rain and then later to rain (James 5:16-18). His prayers had much more power than just any Hebrews’ prayers. We go to the righteous person to obtain our request from God, because of his power.

3. However, I know that there are prayers that are not heard but, in context, I believe we are talking about prayer among believers and that saints/righteous man, in context, was a departed not present one.

The departed saints are more alive than we are, and aware of events on the earth, as is made quite clear in Revelation, the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 and other places. Hence, Jesus said:

Matthew 22:31-32 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, [32] `I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
Does that mean that praying to a departed saint is an admission/confession of unrighteousness? If so, does that mean that there is no absolution at Confession?


It’s an admission that others are more righteous than we are. Protestants can agree that there are differential levels of sanctification.

Then surely all your prayers should be directed to the departed saints since they are more righteous than any in the RC church, or are they?
They are without sin, and have transcended it, since they are in heaven, where sin is no longer allowed entrance (which Protestants also agree with, since it is expressly stated at least twice in Revelation). We can pray directly to God or ask them to pray for us. Folks are free to do as they please.
And if you, here on earth, are not righteous enough then surely the departed saints can hear you but not act – as with Abraham,
Abraham didn’t say he couldn’t act. He said “no” to the request.
however if that is not analogous then the realm of Dives does matter and is not transferable to us here in Earth praying to departed saints.
As I’ve said once or twice already, it shows that someone can be prayed to other than God, which is already “scandalous” to Protestants, but there it is in the Bible. Read it and weep . . .
Alternatively, if there are saints righteous enough here and now then it is to them we should petition. Surely priests etc are more righteous … but is that what the Saviour instructed.
People do that all the time. Protestants do; so they will, for example, get a righteous man like Billy Graham to pray for them, and even feel that his prayer is more powerful, just as it says in James. James also says that we should ask others who have status in the Church to pray for us:
James 5:14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
By logical inference, the elders should (ideally) be relatively more righteous, just as the Bible talks about how bishops and deacons ought to be above reproach.
I still think praying to Our Father and the Lord totally eclipses the tradition you espouse in the same way that an instruction is more powerful than an allusion.
We wouldn’t expect anything different from you. You’re a Protestant. You have discarded the very rich tradition of the communion of saints that Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans retain from the apostolic and patristic Church.
PS when did praying to the departed saints start?


Sometime in the Old Testament period because we know that the Jews believed in it. So, for example:

2 Maccabees 15:12-16 What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. [13] Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. [14] And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” [15] Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: [16] “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”
Meta Description: Reply to objections to my use of the story of Lazarus & the rich man (Lk 16:19-31) in defense of the intercession of the saints.
Meta Keywords: communion of saints, intercession of the saints, invocation of saints, prayer, praying to saints, Lazarus & the rich man

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