Thursday, June 9, 2016

Lazarus and the Rich Man parable (part 2): The Literary Context of Luke 16:19-31

In literary terms, the character Jesus dominates the narrative of Luke. Beginning with Luke 4:1, he is the center of interest, is at the center of all exchanges, and, until the passion narrative, is in charge as the main actor. Since Jesus is the hero of the story, the narrator expects readers to evaluate other characters in Luke according to their responses to Jesus. Many characters belong to a group (e.g., the Pharisees, scribes, and priests) and can be evaluated—in varying degrees of complexity— together (see Gowler, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend, 177-319). Numerous other minor characters, such as the characters in the parables, flit across the stage of Luke and Acts and are more difficult to define or delineate; but the Pharisees in Luke 16:14 and the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, like all characters in Luke, ultimately direct one's attention to the main character, Jesus. The narrator provides a number of divergent characters so that they can either draw out aspects of Jesus' character and/or provide alternative responses to Jesus; the narrator's own ideology is clearly seen by the way in which responses are seen as "appropriate" or "inappropriate." Jesus, of course, is clearly identified as the authoritative hero of the story: "Lord" (1:43, 76), "Son of the Most High" (1:32), "Son of God" (1:35), "Christ" (2:26-32), and various other positive evaluations (e.g., 2:40,46-47,49, 52; 3:15-17). The entire narrative reinforces this positive portrayal of Jesus.

The earlier sections of Luke portray a conflict that occurs as the good news of God encounters opposition from an often recalcitrant humanity. Signals of such conflicts reverberate throughout the narrative. The narrator intersperses the themes of reversal (e.g., 1:52-52) and Israel's salvation (1:32-33, 54-55, 68-79; 2:25, 30-32, 38) with the incorporation of Gentiles in God's plan (e.g., 2:30-32). After Simeon's prophecy explicitly foretells the conflicts ahead (2:29-35), signs of these conflicts soon appear in the narrative during the episodes prior to Jesus' public ministry (3:1-4:13). The preaching of John the Baptist (3:7-9, Ιοί 7) prepares the way in more than one respect: "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (3:6, cf. Simeon in 2:30-32). John warns those of Jewish descent not to trust solely on their ancestry (as I will explain in a later post, the rich man in the parable who calls out to "Father Abraham" certainly is in this category), and he also explains why people should "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (3:8, 14).


Luke 4:16-30 contains the inaugural statement of Jesus' mission and is a microcosm of the entire ministry of Jesus. Almost every scene in Luke and Acts can be related to this scene, especially the Galilean ministry (4:14-9:50). Jesus offers a proclamation of release (4:18-21), and the narrator then sets out to demonstrate that Jesus is indeed doing what he was sent to do, according to that programmatic declaration in the Nazareth synagogue, such as bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord. Then the narrative displays Jesus' activities related to this proclamation: casting out an unclean demon (4:31-37); cleansing a leper (5:12-16); healing a paralytic (5:17-26); healing a man with a withered hand (6:6-11); healing a centurion's servant (7:1-10); raising a widow's son at Nain (7:11-17); and other episodes (e.g., 4:38-41; 6:20-21; 7:36-50; 8:26-33, 40-56; 9:37-43).

More explanation of the literary context in the next post.

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