Monday, July 25, 2016

Cheaper place to buy the book

My forthcoming book--the subject of this blog--is now on the Baker Academic Publishing website

One thing I noticed while looking at that web page is  the link there to Christian lists the book $10 cheaper than on It's $19.99, not $29.99. If you are interested in the book, you should go to that site instead of Amazon.

The publication date is still a few months away, but hopefully will keep the book on sale for 33% off so that more people can afford to buy it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Lazarus and Rich Man Parable (part 7): Texts and Contexts in Dialogue

Coastal Path near Pentewan, Cornwall

I’m back with more discussion of the texts and contexts important for understanding the parables of the rich man and Lazarus.

Since I haven’t posted a picture for a while, I thought I would share some of the photos I took on my visit to the UK last month. Above is a photo I took on one of my walks on the Coast Path in Cornwall (near Pentewan where I stayed). My time in Cambridge was great, especially seeing my friends Chris and Catherine Rowland, but I had never been to Cornwall. It is well worth a visit.

Back to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

The second half of the parable becomes more complex. Although Jesus still narrates the story, it turns into a dialogue between Abraham and the rich man. Lazarus never speaks and remains passive throughout the entire parable. The rich man, though, is now in a humbled position (he even has to "look up" to Lazarus), and Lazarus has been exalted. The rich man could have crossed that social and economic chasm (his "gate") between him and Lazarus during their lifetimes, but now it is too late. He refused to act as a benefactor to Lazarus, and now that God has (finally) intervened, the "gate" becomes an uncrossable chasm (noted by Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 116).

The final verses of the parable do not bode well for the rich man's brothers, as well as the Lukan Pharisees these elite represent. The rich man becomes painfully cognizant of his error and desires to have Lazarus warn his five brothers (16:27). Abraham replies that the brothers have Moses and the prophets, but the rich man admits that his brothers are—like him—so obdurate that only a message from the dead will cause them to repent (16:30). The rich man still tries to bargain for special privileges for his fellow elites, although having the law of Moses and the prophets should have been enough. Abraham replies that if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, even someone rising from the dead would not convince them (16:31).

Other aspects of this parable echo the Hebrew Bible and its clarion calls for justice. Note, for example, that Lazarus lay at the "gate" of the rich man's house. On one level, this gate symbolizes the vast economic (human created) gulf between the rich man and Lazarus on earth. On another level, it presages the gulf that God creates between the rich man and Lazarus in the second half of the parable. Some readers might also, even though we cannot ascertain whether these intertextual echoes are intended by the narrator, recall the connections between justice/judgment and the gate (albeit a city gate, not the gate of a mansion) in the Hebrew Scriptures. Note, for example, the words of Amos 5:12, 15a: "For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.... Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate" (this connection is noted by Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 121).

In Luke 16:31 the parable becomes even more polyvalent, and different voices speaking to different audiences intermix in complex ways. Abraham, though, serves as the authoritative voice in this story. He explains God's point of view about what had happened to the rich man and Lazarus and why. Abraham also serves as an authoritative voice for those in Jesus' audience in the Lukan narrative; it is a call to the Lukan Pharisees to repent. Yet the voice of Abraham speaks also to the readers of Luke, exhorting them not to make the same mistakes as the rich man. Those who resemble the rich man—whether the Lukan Pharisees in the narrative or the more affluent readers among Luke's intended audience (such as the "most excellent Theophilus" of Luke 1:3)—must listen to Moses and the prophets, and therefore to Jesus as well, and operate from a mode of vertical generalized reciprocity (see below), a redistribution from the advantaged to the disadvantaged with the expectation of nothing in return (Compare Hendrickx, Third Gospel, 3:242-3).

Finally, there is another echo that would reverberate only with the intended audience of Luke. Someone "rising from the dead" in Luke 16:31 also serves as a secondary, proleptic allusion to the resurrection of Jesus and the failure of many people to respond accordingly (cf. Acts 3:11-4:22; 7:1-60; 23:1-10). The narrator thus sends another, more subtle reminder to the readers that they should understand more fully their responsibilities to those less fortunate and act accordingly, lest they be like the rich man, his five brothers, and the Lukan Pharisees.

This reading of the parable is instructive, but much more can be learned. A dialogic approach to this parable must incorporate additional perspectives, because language is constitutive of social communication whose intratextual functions presuppose extratextual systems of social interaction. Every text is a socially symbolic act and assumes certain social and cultural norms (Gowler, "Hospitality and Characterization in Luke 11:37-54," 220). Or, as Bakhtin notes, "the situation enters into the utterance as a necessary constitutive element of its semantic structure (As quoted by Tzvetan Todorov in Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, 41). It is critical, then, to examine both the dialogues this parable has with other ancient texts as well as the dialogic relations with first-century cultural scripts inherent in the narrative of Luke.

In the next post, I will start examining the intertextual dialogues in Luke 16:19-31.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Lazarus and Rich Man Parable (part 6): Texts and Contexts in Dialogue

Finally! Back to the interpretation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in its literary context in Luke. This post begins a section that I call “Texts and Contexts in Dialogue.” The reason why will become clear over the next three posts or so.

Here goes:

The parable in Luke 16:19-31 vividly contrasts the rich man and Lazarus in a concise and powerful way. The opulence of the rich man's lifestyle ("dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day," 16:19) is a perfect foil for the desperate poverty of Lazarus ("covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores," 16:20-21). The rich man not only is an example of a "lover of money," he also is an example of the wealthy elite who live a life of conspicuous consumption (This term denotes the expectation or tendency among the elite to flaunt and display their wealth ostentatiously in order to preserve their social standing among the other elite and in fact to gain a social advantage among their peers or with those lower on the social scale).

He eats, as he dresses, with extravagant excess, not just on special occasions, but every day. Lazarus, however, clearly belongs to the lowest strata of society, the "expendable class." The expendables included those persons who were forced—because of heavy taxes and oppression imposed by the elite such as the rich man in the parable—into the most degrading and lethal form of poverty. Life was brutal and brief for the expendables. On average, they lived for a period of five to seven years after entering this class. The relative number of expendables, however, remained fairly stable, because others from the classes above this class (e.g., peasants, artisans, or those unclean/degraded) continually flowed into it. For more on this topic, see the excellent discussion by William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech (1994, 53-73). Herzog is dependent on Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege (1966).

The first section of the parable illustrates the ever-present Lukan theme of reversal, and the characters in the parable serve as illustrative types. The blessings and woes of chapter six (6:20-21, 24-25), for example, find dramatic expression in this story (As Herman Hendrickx notes, the term for poor (πτωχός) is the same term found in Jesus' proclamation of release of "good news for the poor" in 4:18, as well as the first Lukan beatitude (6:20). See Herman Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World (vol. 3b; 2000, p. 227).  So does the warning to the Pharisaic host of Luke 14:12-14. All of these reversals, however, build upon Luke 1:52-53. It follows, then, that if someone were to behave as this rich man did, that person would suffer a negative reversal with eternal consequences (cf. 14:14). A concrete example is thus offered by this parable: just as the Lukan Pharisees ignored Jesus' instructions concerning the use and abuse of material possessions (11:13; cf. 16:13-14), the rich man of the parable ignored the words of Moses and the prophets concerning how to treat the poor (16:29). This point is reinforced by the fact that the rich man knew Lazarus's name (16:24) and still only wanted to command him as an errand boy. During his time on earth, he knew Lazarus and did not act to improve Lazarus's dire conditions. The probable etymology of Lazarus ("God helps") also reinforces the eschatological reversal theme (although it is unclear whether the narrator is aware of this etymology).

Even the fact that the rich man was a descendant of Abraham did not alter his position ("Father Abraham," 16:24; "Son," 16:25). The words of John the Baptist in Luke 3:8-11 had illustrated, in contrast, how to become a true "child of Abraham":

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

The rich man is therefore unable to call upon Abraham as his father, because he has not borne fruits worthy of repentance, such as sharing his fine clothes or sumptuous food with destitute Lazarus. He has been "cut down and thrown into the fire." Luke 13:10-17, however, demonstrates the correct attitude and behavior people should have toward the less fortunate "children of Abraham." On a Sabbath, Jesus heals a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. The leader of the synagogue indignantly protested, and Jesus replied, in part, "And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" The woman was a child of Abraham, as was Lazarus, and Jesus sets the example for how we are to treat such "children of Abraham" and how therefore we are to become and remain "children of Abraham" ourselves: We who belong to the "haves" must take care of those who belong to the "have nots" (Compare Hendrickx, Third Gospel, 3:241. Hendrickx also noted the connections with Zacchaeus, who repents and gives to the poor, as being a "child of Abraham"; Luke 19:1-9).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Current Reception of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This one is from my sister, Rev. Nancy Gowler Johnson, and it is well worth reading, contemplating, and putting into practice.

Here is just one section of her sermon:

I was reminded this week of the writings of Thomas Merton, 20th C. Trappist monk, writer of contemplative spirituality. Writing in 1963, in Kentucky, in the midst of civil rights movement, even as disturbing violence was perpetuated toward people of color, Merton wrote what he calls, Letters to a White Liberal. In it he speaks of his uncertain time as a “providential hour,”a kairos moment, Merton borrows a Greek term. Kairos (as opposed to chronos, or calendar time). Kairos – the appointed time, or right time, a fitting season or opportunity, pregnant with possibilities
Merton writes these thoughts when police dogs are lunging at black children in Birmingham, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was thrown in jail, before the Civil Rights Bill was passed, when Citizen Councils and lynchings haunted the south.
And instead of despair, he saw a kairos moment. There was no going back, the protests would continue, civil rights for African-Americans would be won. But that, he said was only the first step. In this kairos moment was the opportunity for white folks to awaken and see, in Merton’s words “the cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences, is rooted in the heart of the white man (sic) himself.”
Merton saw in those days, so fraught with unrest and fear, the possibility for spiritual redemption. He issued a warning that rings true this week. If such spiritual reflection and complete reform of the social system did not take place “the moment of grace could pass without effect.” Destruction and hate would take root. (1)
Merton’s ability to see a moment of grace in difficult days gives me hope. Perhaps in the rawness of these times, when it is nearly impossible to look away from injustice, there is an opportunity for redemption for us.
How does that happen?
First off, we who are white Christians need to shut up and listen.
We need to listen to the stories of those who have been beaten and bloodied and left on the side of the Jericho road.
We need to listen to the painful stories of those who in their suffering and need have been passed by, neglected, dismissed, devalued, unloved.
We need to shut up, and we need to listen.
We can’t truly listen to these stories if we’re busy denying the circumstances.
We can’t truly listen if we’re intent upon defending ourselves from the label of racism.
We can’t truly listen if we brush away the sufferings of others.
We can’t truly listen if our first reaction is to make excuses for dehumanizing behaviors, or if we look to blame victims for the violence perpetrated against them.
White Christians need to button our lips and listen to people of color speak of their experiences.
This is not a Democrat or Republican thing–it’s a white America thing.
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the house, whose politics paved the way for the Tea Party’s ascendancy said this week, “It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to make sense of this…If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America….[White Americans] instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”(2)
Listening to voices of color, hearing pain, anger, fear, frustration is not easy. It makes white folk uncomfortable. Because if it’s true, even if just a portion of what we hear is true, then for us to be a more just, compassionate people, change needs to happen. And change not just around the edges, but systemic change.
We need to keep our mouths shut and listen.
Once again, the entire sermon is worth reading carefully. I will mention only one additional sentence:
And we need to focus on the bigger picture: Fix the road. 
As Jesus concluded, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). 

Let us not only be Good Samaritans to those in need; let us work to fix the road.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

In memory of two Emory University/Oxford College students

On Saturday we in Atlanta received the horrific news that two Emory University/Oxford College students were included in those killed in the attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh: Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain.

I did not know Abinta and Faraaz, so I will not eulogize them as others have so eloquently. I do want to say, however, that all I have heard about them and even what is included in the recent story in The New York Times, indicates that they were, like so many Oxford College students, not only outstanding students; they were wonderful human beings. My heartfelt condolences go to their friends and family.

I also want to include the news from Emory University about the interfaith vigil for Abinta and Faraaz that will be held tomorrow, July 7, at 1 pm in Cannon Chapel (on the Atlanta campus). It will be live streamed for those who cannot make it in person:

An interfaith vigil in Cannon Chapel on Thursday, July 7, at 1 p.m. will honor the lives of Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain, two Emory students who were killed in the recent terrorist attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh.Kabir, who was from Miami, was a rising sophomore at Emory’s Oxford College. She had traveled to Dhaka to visit family and friends. Hossain, a junior from Dhaka, was a graduate of Oxford College and a student at Goizueta Business School.
"The Emory community mourns this tragic and senseless loss of two members of our University family," the University noted in a statement issued Saturday. "Our thoughts and prayers go out on behalf of Faraaz and Abinta and their families and friends for strength and peace at this unspeakably sad time." 
The Emory students were among those killed July 1 when terrorists attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery, a popular restaurant in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. 
Thursday's interfaith vigil will offer prayers for peace around the world. Those who cannot attend the vigil may view it online through a livestream feed. 
Resources available for the Emory University community
  • The Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) provides a variety of programs and services, including psychological counseling, to promote the physical, emotional, social and occupational health of Emory employees. FSAP may be reached at 404-727-4328 (after hours press 2 for on-call crisis assistance) or online.  
  • The Office of Spiritual and Religious Life provides a religious, spiritual, ethical and moral presence in our University community for people of all faith traditions and offers support, especially in difficult times. Visit the office’s website for a list of quiet spaces, worship and meditation sessions, and staff contact information. To contact a chaplain, call 404-727-6225 on the Atlanta campus or email Lyn Pace on the Oxford campus

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

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