Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus Parable (part 9): Intertextual Dialogues in Luke 16:19-31

The SowerMontreal City Hall (Hôtel de Ville de Montréal)

Above is another photo from my recent trip to Montreal: A statue The Sower in Hôtel de Ville de Montréal. I have a few other photos from Quebec City and Montreal that I will include in the next few posts, including a painting from James Tissot, whose painting of the sower graces the cover of my forthcoming The Parables after Jesus.

But, back to my extended discussion of the rich man and Lazarus parable.

Ronald Hock has persuasively argued for a broader comparative framework—including Hellenistic-Roman sources—for interpreting this parable. He notes that the "parallels [between the parable and the Egyptian story] are neither compelling nor as explanatory" as suggested in scholarship and suggests that the Lucían texts Gallus and Cataplus can be seen as important comparative texts. His arguments can be found in his "Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31," JBL 106 (1987): 447-63:

Micyllus, a poor, marginalized artisan, goes hungry from early morning to evening, and he must bear the slights, insults, and beatings of the powerful. At their deaths, Micyllus and the rich tyrant Megapenthes make the trip to Hades. Megapenthes, like the rich man in Jesus' parable, tries to strike a bargain to alter his situation, but to no avail. Finally, Micyllus and Megapenthes face Rhadamanthus, the judge of the underworld. Micyllus is judged to be pure and goes to the Isle of the Blessed. Megapenthes's soul, however, is stained with corruption, and he will be appropriately punished. In Hock's opinion, both this story and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, betray Cynic views on wealth and poverty. He also correctly argues that this parable partakes in the broader arena of the social and intellectual life of traditional Mediterranean society (461-463).

In Bakhtinian terms, this means that discourse is a social phenomenon. No narrative, discourse, or utterance is created in a literary, cultural, social, or historical vacuum. Parables thus were created in conversations with their cultural environments, and they vigorously partake in that dialogical social discourse. The early Christian era, indeed the entire Hellenistic era, was an age of active heteroglossia. Scattered throughout the Mediterranean were cities, settlements, and other areas where several cultures and languages directly "cohabited," and they interwove with each other in distinctive patterns. The parables of Jesus, then, germinated and flourished in these fields of active heteroglossia. As active participants in these social dialogues, these texts also serve as rejoinders in the greater social dialogues, whose style and content are influenced—directly and indirectly—by their interrelationships with the other rejoinders in the greater social dialogues (here I reworked to apply to the New Testament ideas from Mikhail Bakhtin’s, The Dialogic Imagination, 291-2).  

Therefore we should not point to any particular ancient story as being a generative influence for the creation of this parable (Vernon K. Robbins, Jesus the Teacher; in the revised 1992 paperback edition, xxvi). Instead, the Lukan parable appears to be a written performance of a cultural tradition (cf.  Because of the nature of language, many voices actually speak, on some level, "through any individual person's use of language" (see Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 293-5.

 In addition, all texts are "rewritings" of previous texts and a reaction to current texts, where texts may be seen as a literary text or as a general "text of culture." Therefore, intertextual study should not merely be limited to "parallels"—similar and different phenomena considered to be directly influenced by each other in a causal or diachronic way. Instead, intertextuality should be expanded to include "cultural discourse," because parables are excellent examples of words that lived, in Bakhtin's terminology, "a real life ... in an environment of social heteroglossia" (Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 292).

What almost all interpreters of this parable have missed is that the first-century cultural setting of this parable demands—from the perspective of peasants and peasant artisans such as Jesus—that the rich man be seen as wicked and deserving of such punishment, even though (unlike the Egyptian tale) his evil deeds are not delineated within the parable itself. The significant exception, of course, is that the rich man engages in conspicuous consumption in the face of great need. Most modern scholars vastly underestimate the iniquity of the rich man, because they have not incorporated the cultural scripts inherent in the parable into their interpretations. This element is key to a better interpretation of the parable.

The parables of Jesus, as William Herzog has shown, not only provide a vision of the reign (kingdom) of God, but they also portray and critique the gory details of how oppression serves the interests of the ruling class. Parables explore how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence and the cycle of poverty created by such exploitation. Therefore the parables of Jesus were forms of social analysis just as much as they were forms of theological reflection (Parables as Subversive Speech, 3). Attention, then, must be given to that aspect of this parable.

In the next post, I will turn to elements of the dialogue between texts and cultural contexts.

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