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.

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