Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lazarus and the Rich Man Parable (Introduction; part 1)

David Teniers the Younger, The Rich Man being led into Hell


I have been mulling over, now that the book is in its copy-edited stage, how to proceed with this blog. I have decided to dedicate the summer to various receptions of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (yes, I reversed the traditional title, for a reason), receptions that range from the one found in the Gospel of Luke to the most recent interpretations of the parable.

In subsequent posts, before moving on to various receptions of this parable, I will analyze (1) the literary context and function of the parable, (2) possible intertextual connections between the parable and similar stories in the ancient world, (3) the social and cultural implications of the story, and (3) some ideological elements of the parable. In this way, some of the dialogues between text, culture, and ideology in Luke 16:19-31 can be explored.

I will thus begin with an academic study of the parable; I will lay a foundation of critical study that will provide a foundation upon which other receptions of the parable can be understood in a much deeper way.

Here goes:

Modern research on the parables essentially began with Adolph Jülicher's Die Gleichnisreden Jesu in 1886 (Jülicher revised this work, and a later two-volume edition came out in 1888 and 1889), and—although his categories have been superseded—many of his discussions still influence current debates. For example, Jülicher argued that one must distinguish between the parables of the historical Jesus and the parables as they are found in the Synoptic Gospels. Not only were the parables told thirty to fifty years before the gospels were written down, but the Gospels' authors themselves were creative expositors of the traditions. For Jülicher, the major problem is that the Gospel authors obscured the parabolic message of Jesus with an overgrowth of allegory, descriptive supplementation, and interpretive application.

When literary approaches to the parables began to emerge during the late 1960's and 1970's, scholars primarily utilized literary criticism to try to understand parables' natural function as language but still almost always removed parables from their Gospel contexts and used the tools of historical criticism to recreate their "original" forms (see Gowler, WATSA Parables? 3-40).

A more recent approach has been to interpret parables in the literary contexts in which they are embedded (a return, in some ways, to earlier interpretations). Contextual readings of the parables emerged with works such as Charles Talbert, Reading Luke (1982); John Drury, The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory (1985); Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (1986); John R. Donahue, The Gospel as Parable (1988); David B. Gowler, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts (1991); Warren Carter and John Paul Heil, Matthew's Parables (1998). These literary approaches realize that parables further the plot development within each Gospel and that characters in the parables give implicit and explicit commentary on the characters in the larger narrative. As Ched Meyers noted, parables stand in fundamental relationship to the story as a whole and cannot be "properly interpreted" apart from it; they function primarily as a kind of "mirror" to assist the reader/hearer (Binding the Strong Man, 169-74). In literary-critical terms, characters in the narrative function at a diegetic level, and characters in parables function at a hypodiegetic level (see Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 92-93. Relations between these levels are established by means of analogy, that is, by similarity and contrast. Note, for example, the labeling of the Pharisees as "lovers of money" (Luke 16:14) and the concrete example of such a person given in the rich man in the parable found in Luke 16:19-31. Also, the "grumbling" of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke 15:2 over Jesus' welcoming sinners is reflected in the three "lost and found" parables of Luke 15. In both examples, Jesus directs the parables to the Pharisees (15:2 [and scribes]; 16:14).

Such literary approaches certainly are not the only way to interpret the parables, but they do demonstrate clearly the function of parables as integral elements in the Gospel narratives. Yet tensions inevitably arise between parables and the Gospel contexts in which they are embedded, because no single narrative context can restrain or complete the parable's power to communicate meaning. How, then, should we resolve the sometimes diverging elements of the parables as told by the historical Jesus and the parables as we now find them in the canonical Gospels?

The literary theory of the philosopher and classicist Mikhail Bakhtin offers an answer: The relationship between gospel contexts and parable is dialogic. Once a parable becomes embedded into a larger narrative, its sense changes dramatically. The author's voice enters into a dialogue with the parable; the author's voice reverberates with the original utterance(s) of the creator of the parable; and the narrator's voice reverberates with the utterances of the characters in the parable and the characters in the larger narrative. Yet the dialogic nature of a parable embedded in a larger narrative is also true for the "original" parable itself. Jesus' words were, in essence, a rejoinder in a greater dialogue, incorporating, in different ways, the words of others who had preceded him, whether from the Hebrew Bible, traditional repertoires, or the polyglossia of the first-century Mediterranean world (See Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 431). These words, in a Bakhtinian sense, were not created ex nihilo, because this parabolic dialogue is a chain of reactions that continued in a radically new way when the historical Jesus first took the conventional language of his first-century Galilean culture and created these poetic narratives. As part of this continuing conversation, parables still call for dialogic responses on the part of hearers/readers, as they become participants in that greater dialogue.7

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 provides an excellent example of how this dialogic approach to the parables might proceed.


Afterward, we can then proceeds toward a more rich examination of how the parable of Lazarus and the rich man parable has been interpreted through the centuries.

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