Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lazarus and the Rich Man parable (part 3): The Characterization of the Pharisees prior to Luke 16:19-31

In the literary context discussion of the previous post, what happens is that if readers recognize the implicit assumptions in the narrative that illnesses have social consequences, then all of Jesus' healing activities actually reflect the proclamation of release in Luke 4:16-30. People assaulted or possessed by unclean/evil spirits, for example, can be properly described as oppressed or held prisoner by demons (note how the spirit/demon in Luke 9:38-39 "seizes" the child, "convulses" him, "mauls" him, and will "scarcely leave" him). As John Pilch notes (The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible), illness removes a person from status and disturbs kinship relationships (77); thus the "good news to the poor" includes both economic and social implications.

The Characterization of the Pharisees prior to Luke 16:19-31

Before I start a discussion of the literary characterization of the Pharisees, I cannot stress too strongly that this examination is of the Lukan Pharisees, not the historical Pharisees. The author of Luke and Acts constructs his own portrait of the Pharisees that sometimes does not reflect the historical Pharisees (cf. John Meier’s reconstructions in A Marginal Jew).

The seemingly disparate elements of Luke 16:14-31 must be analyzed in conjunction with one another, because they are all directed toward a single group: the Lukan Pharisees. As Luke T. Johnson noted, the Lukan travel narrative is often vague concerning spatial and temporal settings, but changes of audience for particular teachings of Jesus are quite specific (e.g., 15:2-3; 16:1, 15; Johnson, The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts, 107-10). Therefore, to a considerable degree, the content of Jesus' sayings is appropriate to the nature of the group addressed. Jesus often speaks to his disciples, not surprisingly, about the nature of discipleship (e.g., 12:22-53). The crowds are often given warnings and calls to repentance (e.g., 12:54-13:9). Jesus often condemns the Lukan Pharisees (e.g., 11:37-54), but sometimes he includes a call to repentance in those rebukes (e.g., 14:14; 15:3-32; Johnson, Possessions, 109-110). So it is clear from this pattern that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus should be read in light of the narrative's characterization of the Pharisees, because no change of audience is mentioned until 17:1. The parable is mainly directed to the Lukan Pharisees— and people like them—who are "lovers of money" (16:14).

The Pharisees (and scribes/lawyers) in the Lukan narrative serve as legitimation devices via negativa for Jesus. The conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees play a crucial role in their characterizations. When the narrative implicitly and explicitly contrasts Jesus' teachings, authority, and person with those of the Pharisees, all the portrayals become clearer. Because of his victories in verbal contests with various religious leaders, Jesus gains honor and confirms his authority and stature.


I will write much more on the characterization of the Lukan Pharisees in my next post. That will place the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus into its literary context and make it much more understandable.

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I will be speaking at "The Prodigal: A Curated Experience of Art and Scripture" in Edmonton

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