Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus Parable (part 11): Texts and Cultural Contexts in Dialogue in Luke 16:19-31


During our stay in Montreal, we were able to attend part of the MontrĂ©al First Peoples Festival. The above photo was taken during the August 4 concert by Digging Roots. Some of their songs evoke the same themes of oppression, justice, and liberation that the Lukan Jesus proclaims (e.g., Luke 4:16-21). 


The last post described such things as the "subsistence ethic" of "peasants" (not the best term to describe first-century non-elites, but the most common one) and patronage. This post will begin to explore how the narrative of Luke expects the elite in ancient society to live (which explains how evil the rich man in this parable actually was envisioned): 

Interpersonal social interaction in the narrative of Luke occurs on a continuum of reciprocity ranging from those exchanges based on altruism to those based on self-interest. There are three main categories of reciprocal exchanges:
1) Generalized reciprocity: An open sharing founded on altruism, which focuses completely on the needs of the other person. Assistance is given without a specific obligation to return the favor (e.g., family relationships). 
2) Balanced reciprocity: An exchange based on the common interests of the two parties. Social norms judge the gifts to be equivalent; there is a symmetrical quid-pro-quo agreement (e.g., exchange of goods or services). 
3) Negative reciprocity: An exchange of pure self-interest in which one party attempts to receive from another without giving anything in return (e.g., lying, cheating, or theft). Such behavior is acceptable in an agonistic society when one is dealing with strangers. No ongoing social relationship occurs (see Gowler, "Hospitality and Characterization in Luke 11:37-54," 231-32).
The rich man—because he reflects the characterization of the Pharisees in 11:37-44 and 16:14—operates from a system of negative reciprocity. Rapacity drives the speech and actions of such elites, and Jesus' command to give alms calls for a radical shift in their perspective. No longer are the "lovers of money" to operate in the mode of exchange that involves negative reciprocity; Jesus requires them to participate in almsgiving—vertical generalized reciprocity—a redistribution from the advantaged to the disadvantaged that expects nothing in return (Moxnes, Economy, 127-8).

Luke 11:11-12 gives an example of generalized reciprocity in a familial setting, and Luke 14:21-23 is an example of generalized reciprocity in a meal setting. Since God—the referent in both cases—showers humankind with vertical generalized reciprocity, humankind should follow God's lead in their relationships with each other (See Jerome Neyrey, "Ceremonies in Luke-Acts," in The Social World of Luke-Acts, 385).

Jesus makes this point in the meal scene in 14:12-14, where he advises the elite not to engage merely in balanced reciprocity. Such elite invite friends, brothers, kinsmen, and rich neighbors to their feasts (14:12). Jesus advises them instead to invite the poor, maimed, lame, and blind (vertical generalized reciprocity). Luke 16:14 will add another building block in this portrayal, because lovers of money do not operate from Jesus' perspective of vertical generalized reciprocity. The elites' concern for money is balanced by their lack of concern for human beings, a point made excruciatingly clear by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Unrighteous mammon can only be gained at the expense of God's commandment to love one's neighbor (J. Duncan Derrett, Law in the New Testament, 80-82), and the connection between riches and unrighteousness can only be broken through vertical generalized reciprocity (e.g., almsgiving, Luke 14:13-14; 16:9). 

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, though, the redistribution of goods from the elite to the non-elite does not take place, and the rich man symbolizes a recalcitrant idolater who worships material possessions.


The cultural script of honor and shame plays a role here as well. Honor, in the broadest sense of the word, is compliance with traditional patterns of behavior. Thus honor, in this sense, is nearly identical with "goodness" or "virtue." A man of honor is a virtuous man, with honor being attained and maintained by conformity to prevailing cultural norms. What Jesus does in Luke, however, is to transform those cultural norms in a way that insists that the elite operate from a system of vertical generalized reciprocity. The crucial test for any character is whether or not he or she accepts Jesus' authority as Lord and then begins to live accordingly. The rich man, with his rejection of Moses and the prophets and his failure to operate from a stance of vertical generalized reciprocity, fails this test.

I'll write more about first-century cultural aspects that influence our reading of the parable (e.g., purity rules) in my next post. 

I will conclude this post, though, with another photo about First Peoples and Montreal. Below is a photo of one of the many striking murals that you find on the sides of buildings in Montreal. 

I also highly recommend the First Peoples Gardens in the Montreal Botanic Gardens, by the way.



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