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.

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