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.

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