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).

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