Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus Parable (part 10): Texts and Cultural Contexts in Dialogue in Luke 16:19-31

October, by James Tissot (1877)
Tissot is the artist whose sower painting is featured on the cover of my forthcoming book
I took this photo in early August at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


The vast majority of people in the first century were at the mercy of power-holders outside their social realm. Their sense of powerlessness was often reinforced by the climate and lack of natural resources in many areas of the Mediterranean world. Such persons had little or no control over the conditions that governed their lives. This more-or-less determined existence was verified by experience and led to the cognitive orientation that all desired goods—social (e.g., honor), economic (e.g., land), and natural (e.g., health)—existed in a finite quantity and were always in short supply (e.g., George Foster’s "Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good" in American Anthropologist).

One of the strategies in these "limited good" societies is the formation of horizontal and vertical alliances. See S. N. Eisenstadt and L. Roniger, Patrons, Clients, and Friends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). For an excellent list of the characteristics of such alliances, see K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 72. Peter Garnsey and Richard Sailer give an overview of social relations (e.g., patrons, clients, and friends) in The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture (London: Duckworth, 1987), 148-59. An important study of patronage and Luke-Acts may be found in Halvor Moxnes, "Patron-Client Relations and the New Community in Luke-Acts," in The Social World of Luke-Acts (ed. Jerome H. Neyrey; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), 241-68.

In brief, relationships among those of equal rank are based on an informal principle of reciprocity, an implicit obligation that is enforced by the honor and shame system. This implicit contract is an informal binding of pairs in an ongoing series of acts of mutual support. Asymmetrical contracts can also be established between people on differing social levels. Persons on a higher social level can serve as patrons for their clients on a lower social level, but the goods or services in this reciprocal relationship are not similar. Patronage thus occurs whenever someone adopts a posture of deference to another deemed more powerful and therefore gains access to resources as a result. See John Davis, The People of the Mediterranean (p. 132).

James C. Scott describes how this patronage works in the "moral economy of the peasant.” See James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976). As a side note, although the social location of the implied author of Luke is above that of a peasant, the "voices" of the peasants (e.g., the peasant artisan Jesus) can still be heard. As Mikhail Bakhtin argues, speakers do not use pristine words—"untainted" straight out of a dictionary—but rather these words have already existed in the mouths of others and thus already partially belong to others. Each word "tastes" therefore of the contexts in which it has lived its socially-charged life in previous speakers' personal, cultural, social, and ideological contexts. See Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 293-5.

Back to Scott’s arguments: Peasants are like people who are standing permanently up to their chins in water, so that even a ripple is sufficient to drown them. Such peasants are not radically egalitarian but instead—living in a limited good society—believe that all persons are entitled to a living out of the resources of the village (Scott, Moral Economy, 1, 5).

The peasants' "subsistence ethic" involves both a norm of reciprocity and an ethical belief in a right of subsistence. Patron-broker-client ties, then, are a ubiquitous form of "social insurance." Although the peasants' bargaining power is minimal, patronage includes a moral obligation; people who have resources are expected to help in difficult circumstances (Scott, Moral Economy, 11, 27, 51).

In a similar way, I would argue, the narrator of Luke uses characters like the Roman centurion in 7:1-10 as a moral example to emulate. In contrast, characters such as the rich man in 16:19-31 serve as warnings to persuade readers that they should—if they have the economic means—behave in a fashion similar to the centurion, not the rich man. Thus the centurion is one of many models in Luke-Acts of the proper attitude and behavior that socially advantaged patrons should have—both to Jesus and to members of their local community. The rich man, in contrast, is an example of what will happen if they do not follow this exhortation.

In the next post, I will comment on how the narrative of Luke expects such elite to live.

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