Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 17): Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604)

Pope Gregory the Great

This blog post begins examining interpretations of the rich man and Lazarus parable in the Middle Ages.

As Besserman notes, “To begin by trying to assess the place of the Bible in medieval culture is like trying to apprehend the oxygen in the air we breathe . . . . [I]t was a constant component of the mental life of medieval men and women” (Besserman 1988: 4). The language and content of the Bible began to permeate most literature, art, and music, as well as many areas of everyday life. This environment brought rich and expansive developments in the afterlives of parables, with the Rich Man and Lazarus being one of the four parables that received the most attention (the others were the Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan, and Wise and Foolish Virgins).

When we start talking about biblical interpretations of the parables in the medieval period, the writings/sermons of Pope Gregory (the Great) are a great place to start.  

Gregory was born into an aristocratic family in Rome. His father was a Roman senator, and Gregory initially followed his father in an administrative career. Upon his father’s death, however, Gregory used his inheritance to found seven monasteries on his family’s lands and became a monk. In 579, however, Pope Pelagius II compelled him to be one of the seven deacons of Rome and then appointed him as papal ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. Gregory returned to Rome in 586 and, upon Pope Pelagius’s death in 590, became the first monk to be selected as pope.

Gregory was an influential pope who extended his duties to secular and even military roles, negotiating, for example, peace with the Lombards who besieged Rome in 592-3. He is also famous for the evangelization of England, sending approximately forty missionaries to Canterbury in 597. Gregory vigorously defended the authority of the Bishop of Rome, promoted monasticism, and made significant changes to church liturgy and music (e.g., the Gregorian chant is attributed to him). In addition, Gregory devoted vast sums to charity to help those in need, and he combatted “heretics” such as the Pelagians, Donatists, and Arians (see McKim 2007: 486).  

Gregory’s contributions to the interpretation of the parables primarily stem from his homilies on the Gospels that were written during the first three years of his papacy. His interpretive approach to Scripture establishes a typical pattern for medieval interpreters in the West. Gregory insists that the historical or literal meaning of Scripture is foundational, but he prefers to dwell on the three “spiritual” senses of Scripture that reflect the divine mystery and the limits of human understanding: (a) the allegorical, (b) the anagogical (which prophesies the future), and (c) the tropological (the ethical/moral sense). Scripture, he believes, nurtures Christians at many levels: It is like a river in which a lamb could walk and an elephant could swim (Moralia, Letter to Leander). The proper response to this divine mystery is to ascend from the “simpler historical sense to the more obscure spiritual senses” (Hauser and Watson 2009: II, 96).

Gregory’s homilies are directed to both clergy and laity, so they are less complex than many of his other works.

The next post will examine how Gregory allegorizes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as how Gregory interprets its moral implications.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 16): Ephrem the Syrian

Almost Ready to Go!
AAR/SBL 2016: At the Baker Academic Booth

I have returned from the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference. This year it was held in San Antonio, a lovely place for a conference, especially along the Riverwalk. It was great seeing and catching up with friends and colleagues, and it was also good seeing The Parables After Jesus at the Baker Academic booth bound and almost ready for publication (see above).

The sessions I attended also were good, with a few disappointments (which, in fairness, I won’t mention here, since I will not critique them in any detail; only one was directly connected to the parables of Jesus).

Instead, I will return to my posts on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, continuing with the great poet, hymnist, theologian, and biblical interpreter, Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373). 

Ephrem spent most of his life in the southeast of modern Turkey, writing hymns, serving in the catechetical school, tending to the poor, and performing other duties in episcopal service, but had to flee to Edessa (in Greece) in 363 CE, where he lived as an ascetic (e.g., he lived in a cave), until he died on 9 June 373.

Jerome tells us that Ephrem composed many “distinguished works in the Syriac language” (a dialect of Aramaic) and exhibited the “incisive power of lofty genius” (Lives 115). Ephrem wrote hundreds of hymns, and many of them were sung/recited in the church’s liturgy, complementing the chanting of Scripture in worship services. These hymns are sometimes called “teaching songs,” because they are intended to be chanted and accompanied by a lyre in the style Christians envisioned King David doing in the Hebrew Bible (Griffith 2004: 1399; cf. the Kontakion during the Byzantine era). As a result of Ephrem’s influence, the liturgy of the Eastern church is still more based on poetry and hymns than is the liturgy of other church traditions (MacCulloch 2009: 183).

Ephrem’s mode of biblical interpretation also became the approach adopted by Syriac Christian writers, and his writings were translated into a number of different languages. His prose works include commentaries on the Bible and the Diatessaron (a harmony of the four New Testament Gospels compiled into a single narrative by Tatian around 150-160 CE), as well as polemical texts against the followers of Marcion and others.

Ephrem’s concern for the poor permeates his commentary on the Diatessaron. For example, he devotes extended sections on the rich man—so “confident in his earthly wealth” (15.3)—who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life (e.g., Luke 18:18-25), before explaining the meaning of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable. After the rich man and Lazarus died, the rich man’s agony while he was being tortured in Hades was increased because he could also see Lazarus with Abraham. The context of the passage suggests, Ephrem argues, that Jesus was comparing the rich man to the Jewish priests and Lazarus to his disciples (15.12). Ephrem then, however, discusses the moral implications of the parable:

See then! The more the rich man lived sumptuously, the more [Lazarus] was humbled. The more Lazarus was made low, the greater was his crown. Why was it, therefore, that he should have seen Abraham above all the just, and Lazarus in his bosom? It was because Abraham loved the poor that he saw him, so that we might learn that we cannot hope for pardon at the end, unless the fruits of pardon can be seen in us. If then Abraham, who was friendly to strangers, and had mercy on Sodom, was not able to have mercy on the one who did not show pity to Lazarus, how can we hope that there will be pardon for us? (15.13; Ephrem 1994: 235-36)
Ephrem interprets the parable in a similar way in The Hymns on Paradise by noting how Abraham, “who even had pity on Sodom,” has no pity for the rich man “who showed no pity” (1.12, cf. 1.17). In Hymn 7, Ephrem elaborates that we should learn about God’s justice from this parable:

And may I learn how much I will then have received
            From that parable of the Rich Man
Who did not even give to the poor man
            The leftovers from his banquet;
And may I see Lazarus,
            Grazing in Paradise,
And look upon the Rich Man,
            In anguish,
So that the might of justice outside
            May cause me fear,
But the breath of grace within
            May bring me comfort (7.27; Ephrem 1990: 129).

Ephrem’s legacy—especially the influence of his hymns (madrāshē) and the musical precedents they set—is tremendously important for Syriac Christianity. He deservedly is the most celebrated voice within the Syriac tradition of Christianity—Sebastian Brock even calls Ephrem “the finest poet in any language of the patristic period” (1987: xv)—and one of the most revered Christians during Late Antiquity.

As another (much more modern) reception history comment on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, I want to not that Charles Blow’s column today in The New York Times exemplifies how we should react to such powerful rich men who abuse those with little or no power.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus Parable (part 15): Macrina the Younger

Macrina the Younger

Now I turn to later receptions of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Many of these people and their interpretations are also treated in much more depth in the book, but these blog posts will give you some indication of who they are and their points of view.

First, Macrina the Younger (ca. 327-380), the sister Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste, who all were bishops. Like her brothers, Macrina would be canonized as a saint (see also her brother Gregory’s hagiography of her, Life of Macrina; Gregory repeatedly calls her teacher and says that she was “father teacher, guide, mother, counsellor in every good”; Gregory 1989: 37).

In his On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory describes the conversation he had with his sister while she was on her deathbed. Macrina presents the case for the resurrection of the dead, and she and Gregory discuss the nature and the immortality of the soul.
Gregory asks his sister to explain the location of the “much-talked-of and renowned Hades.” Macrina answers that Hades does not exist in a particular location; instead, the soul migrates from “the seen to the unseen.” Hades is invisible, and any passages from the Bible that suggest otherwise are allegorical (e.g., Phil. 2:10).

But how can this view cohere with the teachings of Jesus, who clearly speaks of the existence of Hades, such as in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? Macrina responds that the parable itself gives many hints that it is allegorical; these hints lead “the skilled inquirer to a more discriminating study of it.” A non-allegorical reading is “superficial,” since such aspects as the “great gulf” between Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man being in torment in Hades should not be interpreted literally. How can the rich man, for example, lift up his eyes to heaven, when his bodily eyes remain in his tomb? Both of the men’s bodies physically are in a tomb, and disembodied spirits cannot feel the heat of a flame or have a tongue cooled by a drop of water:

Therefore, it is impossible to make the framework of the narrative correspond with the truth, if we understand it literally; we can do that only by translating each detail into an equivalent in the world of ideas. Thus we must think of the gulf as that which parts ideas which may not be confounded from running together, not as a chasm of the earth.

The many figurative elements of the parable, though, speak important truths about the soul. The chasm in the parable, for example, represents the decisions human beings make in their earthly lives between good and evil. Those who choose evil dig for themselves the “yawning impassable abyss” that nothing can breach. Lazarus reclining in Abraham’s bosom, on the other hand, represents those who choose the virtuous life:

As then figuratively we call a particular circuit of the ocean a “bosom,” so does Scripture seem to me to express the idea of those measureless blessings above by the word “bosom,” meaning a place into which all virtuous voyagers of this life are, when they have put in from hence, brought to anchor in the waveless harbor of that gulf of blessings. Meanwhile the denial of these blessings which they witness becomes in the others a flame, which burns the soul and causes the craving for the refreshment of one drop out of that ocean of blessings wherein the saints are affluent; which nevertheless they do not get. If, too, you consider the “tongue,” and the “eye,” and the “finger,” and the other names of bodily organs, which occur in the conversation between those disembodied souls, you will be persuaded that this conjecture of ours about them chimes in with the opinion we have already stated about the soul. Look closely into the meaning of those words. . . . If one, then, thinks of those atoms in which each detail of the body potentially inheres, and surmises that Scripture means a “finger” and a “tongue” and an “eye” and the rest as existing, after dissolution, only in the sphere of the soul, one will not miss the probable truth.

The lesson of the parable, Macrina concludes, is that during their earthly lives, Christians should free themselves as much as possible from the attachments of this life “by virtuous conduct.” The rich man in the parable symbolizes such inordinate attachment to matters of the flesh, something that Christians must avoid.

Macrina is a fascinating interpreter, and it was great fun exploring her interpretations of other parables for the book.

Next up: Ephrem the Syrian.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I'm back . . . finally

I have been away quite a while—the new position as division chair has added a tremendous number of other duties that have taken me away from scholarship quite a bit—but it seems a good time, based on what we have seen in the United States this week, to return to receptions of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable, although the parable of the Good Samaritan seems perhaps even more pertinent now.

In previous posts in this series I looked at how the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus should be interpreted in its first-century, historical Jesus, and Lukan contexts. Those results, not surprisingly, were contested by a few readers, whose complaints, in my view, were a result of their having domesticated the radical teachings of Jesus.

An example to the contrary:

My Religion 100 students read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited last week. I highly recommend that timeless book, and, perhaps after finishing this series on the Rich Man and Lazarus parable, I will write more fully about Thurman’s use of Jesus's parables in that book. 

In his book, Thurman argues that, in some respects, much of contemporary Christianity has domesticated the teachings of Jesus (e.g., “American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption”; p. 88). Jesus was a poor Jew who was member of oppressed minority, and his message was to those who, like him, were disenfranchised, who had their “backs against the wall,” and it is this aspect that helps make Jesus’s message especially relatable today to people who similarly are disenfranchised and have their own backs against the wall: This is the position of the disinherited in every age, Thurman points out. Jesus proclaimed that the poor are worthy in God’s sight, are children of God, and God cares about and for them. This, Thurman argues, gives the disinherited a self-confidence in their own worth, a new courage and power to face up to and work against oppression. They have the assurance from Jesus that God loves them and will take care of them. 

I won’t yet discuss the other aspects of that book, but Thurman does use the parable of the Good Samaritan effectively to illustrate how love of God and neighbor, even one’s enemies, is the central ethic of Jesus’s message.

Okay, in the next post I will discuss the use of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus by Macrina the Younger (ca. 327-380).

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

  Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, throug...