Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 20): Bonaventure (ca. 1217/21-1274)

Bonaventure

Giovanni di Fidanza (Bonaventure), in his biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, recounts how his commitment to Saint Francis began when as a young boy he was healed from a serious illness after his mother prayed to Francis. Giovanni took the name Bonaventure after he entered the Franciscan Order while a student at the University of Paris. He earned a doctor in theology degree, was elected as the leader (General Minister) of the Franciscan Order in 1257, and became Cardinal of Albano in 1274. He died just two months later on July 15, 1274, and was canonized as a saint in 1482.

Many of Bonaventure’s contributions to parable interpretations are found in his massive commentary on the Gospel of Luke. His exegeses include allegorical elements, since the Holy Spirit can lead interpreters to understand Scripture’s depth in “the multiplicity of its mystical understandings” beyond the literal words, but Bonaventure’s approach is significant because he also includes non-allegorical interpretations of parables (see Bonaventure 2001: xx-xxxii; 2003: x-xii; McKim 2007: 203).

Bonaventure’s interpretation of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable includes not only over one hundred twenty citations of Jewish Scriptures and over forty-five citations of the New Testament but also citations of over thirty earlier interpreters, such as John Chrysostom, Bede, Boethius, Gregory the Great, and Peter of Ravenna (Bonaventure 2001: 1516-51).

Augustine had argued that the rich man allegorically symbolizes those Jews who were filled with pride, Lazarus represents a poor tax collector or the Gentiles, the rich man’s purple and linen clothes represent the kingdom of heaven that will be taken away from the Jews, the banquets denote the Jews’ boasting about the Law, and so forth (see Wailes 1986: 255-6). Bonaventure, however, avoids all such allegorical interpretations: “this passage has more the character of an example than of a parable,” and it functions as an “exemplum of punishment for a lack of mercy” (Bonaventure 2001: 1516). Bonaventure also emphasizes the physical reality of what occurs in this “exemplum” to inform/warn his readers about the dangers of wealth, and Bonaventure finds three important lessons to learn (1516-1551):

First, the rich man lacked mercy because he loved himself and was filled with wicked desires: “For through its love for earthly things the spirit grows fat and is weighed down, so that it cannot travel into the higher realms of heaven.” The rich man also takes excessive pride in the glory of his “handsome and precious garments,” and his love of sumptuous banquets indicates his sin of gluttony.     

Second, this sinful lack of mercy results in a “merciless and impious” indifference toward his neighbor, Lazarus, who was sick, abandoned, and starving. In contrast, Bonaventure argues, Lazarus was holy and good. He shows patience, for example, in spite of the cruelty of the rich man, but the ultimate evidence of his piety is that he “was borne away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.”

Third, the punishment for the rich man’s merciless indifference to Lazarus was “being cast into the calamity of hell.” Even though the rich man saw Lazarus’s need, he does not have mercy. Agreeing with others such as Macrina the Younger (although he does not refer to her) that the soul is what is being tortured, Bonaventure says that the “flame was real, but the tongue was imagined.” Bonaventure thus focuses on the physical reality of sin/punishment and faith/blessing.


Bonaventure’s monumental commentary on Luke is a tremendous achievement, and one that creatively combines literal and allegorical interpretations of the biblical text as Bonaventure seeks to enlighten his readers with the depth of Scripture’s insights. The literal meaning is never abandoned, but the allegorical meaning yields deeper “mystical” understandings.

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