Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 4: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Bonifacio di Pitati, Dives and Lazarus (1540a, Accademia de Venice)

[For previous posts in this series, see here, here, and here.]

Over the past month I have been blogging intermittently on one of Luke's dominant topoi, that of the so-called "eschatological reversal," according to which the arrival of the kingdom of God will inexorably bring with it a fundamental social transposition. Those who hitherto had experienced the depredations of poverty and, hence, were totally dependent on God for their security (the "poor") would find themselves vindicated and blessed. The rich, meanwhile, who in this life experienced power, popularity, and pleasure at the expense of the invisible masses below them on the social ladder, would be brought low. Jesus, who programmatically directed his "gospel" message to the "poor" in keeping with the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:16-21), most clearly enunciates this social transposition in the blessings and woes found in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-26). But it is in one of his most famous parables that he describes this reversal most memorably. I am speaking, of course, of his story about the rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” 

I remember vividly how this parable was understood and used in the Christianity of my youth. Because nothing was said about the faith (or lack thereof) of Lazarus—with some of my teachers this consideration would have been rendered moot by the different "dispensation" under which Jesus' auditors' lived—the emphasis was placed entirely on the second part of the story, viz., the depiction of the characters' lives in the afterlife in "Hades." Most often—as would be expected for those who believed this story recounts an actual event instead of a fictional story—this description was presented as a literal picture of what awaited people after death . Sometimes this "two compartment theory" of Hades was correlated with the notion of Jesus' "harrowing of hell" in the triduum between Jesus' death and resurrection.

Such an understanding, however, is clearly mistaken. The fact that the story is a parable is clear from the outset: the very words Luke has Jesus saying to introduce the story (anthrōpos tis ["a certain man"]) are precisely the words he used to introduce parables in Luke 10:30; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1; and 19:12. As such they would signal readers to the story's genre in the same way the phrase "once upon a time" does to modern-day English readers. Even more significantly, the portrayal of the afterlife here differs significantly from what may be gleaned elsewhere in the New Testament about the state of the dead in the time prior to the final resurrection (which is decidedly less clear than many imagine). Indeed, the story is filled with motifs found both in Greco-Roman (the Egyptian tale of Setme, Lucian's Cataplus) and Jewish (the story of the legal scholar and the tax collector Bar Ma'yan found ca. 400 CE in the Palestinian Talmud [y.Sanhedrin 6.6 (23c)/y.Ḥagigah 2.2 (77d)]) sources in the ancient world (besides H. Gressmann's almost century-old article, "Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus" in Abhandlungen der königlichen preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, cf. R. F. Hock, "Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31," Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987] 447-63; R. Bauckham, "The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels," in The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses [NovTSup 93; Leiden: Brill, 1998] 97-118). The Lukan story differs in certain respects from all such parallel tales, so talk of "adaptation" of one or more by Jesus (or Luke) is less apposite than a realization that the story makes use of common folkloric motifs to make its point. If so, however, we must conclude that Luke's purpose in including this story in his account had nothing to do with providing a geographical picture of the contours of Hades, the realm of the dead. As always—can it ever be otherwise?—we must look to the story's immediate co-text to discern its purpose and intended meaning.

Years ago T. W. Manson referred to the special Lukan ("L") material in Luke 15-19 as "the Gospel of the Outcast" because of its high concentration of parabolic teaching "whose purpose is primarily to demonstrate God's care for those whom men despise and condemn" (The Sayings of Jesus [London: SCM, 1949] 282). Within this section chapter 16 presents what Joel Green has helpfully dubbed "Kingdom Economics" (The Gospel of Luke [NICNT], 586). Indeed, this chapter is framed by the twin parables of the Unjust Steward (16:1-9) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31), which are held together by Jesus' more straightforward teaching on the use of money (16:10-13) and the permanent validity of the Torah (16:16-18), and so are designed to mutually interpret each other. Not only this, but the intended target of Jesus' teaching is likewise made clear, viz., the Pharisees:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them,“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight." (Luke 16:14-15)

Jesus' parable of the Unjust Steward is a model of ironic brilliance, as he uses the example of the selfishly motivated perpetrator of fraud to make his point about how his own followers should use "the mammon of unrighteousness" (16:9), that is, the money of this present world which, as it is the currency of "the present evil age," inexorably tends to corrupt and enslave (16:13) those who live for it. The unrighteous manager was, as the defrauded owner resignedly admitted, "shrewd" (16:8) in the way he used money to play the system and garner future goodwill upon his release into the labor market. If "the people of this world" are so attuned to the ways of the world, why then, are "the people of the light" so tone deaf, as it were, to the ways of the kingdom of God (16:8)? And nowhere does faithfulness to the ways of the kingdom count more than in the use of money. Kingdom economics involves reorienting one's view of money around the priorities of the kingdom. And that means, as Jesus says, "gaining friends for yourselves" with money "so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings" (16:9). Such "faithfulness" (16:10-12) with what God has entrusted oneself with will come in handy when the real crisis, be it death or the earthly consummation of the kingdom, comes. Only those who have thus been faithful will "be welcomed into eternal dwellings" (16:9).

What such faithfulness entails is not described in the story or in Jesus' application thereof. But the attentive reader of Luke's Gospel already should know what is involved. For our Lord has already instructed his followers of what Kingdom Economics" entails:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:32-34)

The difference between the self-serving action of the unjust steward and that of Jesus' followers, however, is startling. For the disciple of Jesus, if she is to orient her existence around the priorities of the kingdom of God, must do so without any expectation of reciprocity. Love entails generosity and a complete disregard for the social structures of this world. And it is in this light that the following parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus must be understood. The rich man provides, as it were, a negative example of one who lived according to the mores of this world and who, as a consequence, was not "received into eternal dwellings" when his allotted time on earth had come to its close.

In the past it always struck me as odd that Jesus provides no information about the faith and little of the behavior of the story's two main characters. But those who have been reading Luke's Gospel already know Jesus' perspective on the two characters. The rich, by virtue of Jesus' conception and birth, have already been deposed from their seats of power (1:52-53). Having already received their "consolation" in this life, Jesus proleptically pronounces "woe" against them in anticipation of the coming eschatological reversal (6:24). Indeed, the rich man in this story acts according to type. He remains oblivious to the poor, crippled beggar who had been dumped (ebeblēto) at the gate of his estate (16:20), apparently viewing himself as generous for dumping the crusty pieces of bread used as napkins onto the floor at his feet (16:21). That he knew about the beggar is evident from his post-death dialogue with Abraham, where he suggests that the patriarch send Lazarus (he knew his name, after all!) both to provide aquatic relief for his suffering in Hades (16:24) and to warn his siblings of the unwitting fate awaiting them (16:27). Indeed, the rich man addresses the patriarch as "Father Abraham" (16:24, 27, 30), demonstrating covenantal misunderstanding even in death. The reader of Luke, of course, already knows that John the Baptizer had warned the crowds who had gathered around him in hopes that he would herald the coming of the Kingdom of God:

"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)

Lazarus, on the other hand, despite being poor, undernourished, crippled, and besieged by scavenging canines, is transported to "Abraham's bosom," likely a development of the Old Testament concept of dying and "being gathered to their fathers." Nothing is said about his love of God or Torah-centered behavior. The key, however, to understanding his character is found in the distinctive feature of the story which has misled many popular preachers into thinking the story was a "real" one. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that this poor cripple is given a name. And it is not just any name. "Lazarus" (Lazaros) is a Hellenized, shortened form of the Hebrew name ’El’āzār, which means "God helps." In other words, Lazarus represents the very "poor" whom Jesus declared blessed, to whom he had come to proclaim the "gospel," and whose fortunes had been reversed in principle by his coming into the world.

The parable, then, is a graphic portrayal of eschatological reversal already realized. What it provides is a narrative call for his hearers to make use of their money faithfully and wisely in the service of the kingdom of God and the poor who are its primary beneficiaries. After all, as Abraham tells the unnamed rich man, Moses and the Prophets (which in the immediate co-text Jesus already has proclaimed still to be relevant [16:17]) have plenty to say about how God's covenant people are to treat the poor in their midst (Luke 16:29; cf., inter alia, Deut 15:7-8; Isa 58:6-7; Amos 2:5). A fortiori, the same priorities should be found among the putative citizens of that kingdom. Money, after all, is "the mammon of unrighteousness" and completely irrelevant to the new world set in motion by the Christ event. And so, as Klyne Snodgrass nicely puts it, "the injustice of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty cannot be tolerated" by those who claim to be followers of Jesus (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008] 433.

This is not a matter to be taken lightly, no matter how countercultural it may be for those Christians raised with an ingrained American worldview. But, according to Jesus, the matter is one in which "being received into eternal dwellings" is at stake (Luke 16:8). Claiming to be a Christian while showing no concern for the poor is an oxymoron, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. In the end the matter will not hinge on one's profession, for God is not mocked and knows the human heart. Callous indulgence in this life will be met with an absence of blessing from God in the next.

Jesus, of course, does not say how this is to be done, in his own context let alone in our very different social world of today. Luke, however, does provide an approving glimpse later in his two-volume work about how the Christian church implemented, from the very beginning, the priorities of the kingdom in their own community life. Discussing those texts will be the subject of my next, and last, installment in this series.


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