459: THE PARABLE OF THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS

” A warm welcome to the one amateur religious blog that is not in awe of N.T.Wright. Of 70 religious bloggers surveyed (they didn’t ask me) that apologist for traditional Christian beliefs came top in popularity, followed by Dunn. Well, in my humble view, Wright is wrong, and as for Dunn…I dunno! This is Zingcreed: it’s a Christian-atheist polemic, and it’s different. It reaches parts that other Christian blogs don’t reach – I hope! Today’s offering is the third interpretation of a Jesus parable out of William Herzog’s book “Parables as subversive speech. Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed” .
With a general election in the offing here in Britain, should I be writing about that? What does the Church Times think of the Greens? Is Britain a Christian country (whatever that means)? What do the Quakers think? (see http://www.quakervote for an answer). I’m afraid I find it all one big yawn. The new Christian Socialist Movement website is quite positive, and urges everyone to take part. I wonder when they’ll tackle the issue of admission to church schools depending on how often the non-Christian parents cynically and hypocritically attend church, even though they don’t believe a word of it. (Answer – they never will.) What on earth makes a parent want to send their kids to a faith school anyway? If they had worked in as many as I have they’d pay to keep them out!

Back to one of the foundations of Western civilization – Christianity!
In solidarity,
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

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Herzog labels this parable The Unbridgeable Chasm. When I get home from the British Library where I’m typing this, I’ll insert the relevant passage from Luke 16:19-31. The story assumes the social structure of an advanced agrarian society, and it brings together 2 figures from the extremes of that social structure whose realities hardly ever touched in real life.

There was this rich man who wore clothing fit for a king and who dined lavishly every day. This poor man, named Lazarus, languished at his gate, all covered with sores. he longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. It so happened that the poor man died and was carried by the heavenly messengers to be with Abraham. The rich man died too and was buried. From Hades, where he was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off and Lazarus with him. he called out,””Father Abraham, have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in torment in these flames.” But Abraham said,”My child, remember that you had good fortune in your lifetime, while Lazarus had it bad. Now he is being comforted here, and you are in torment. And besides all this, a great chasm has been set between us and you, so that even those who want to cross over from here to you cannot, and no one can cross over from that side to ours.”

But he said,”Father, I beg you then, send him to my father’s house – after all I have 5 brothers – so he can warn them not to wind up in this place of torture.” But Abraham says,”They have Moses and the prophets; why don’t they listen to them?” “But they won’t do that , father Abraham,” he said. “However, if someone appears to them from the dead, they’ll have a change of heart.” (Abraham) said to him,”If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, then they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”
Lk 16: 19-31 (Scholars’ Version from the Jesus Seminar)

Let us consider the rich man first:
He is part of the urban elite, about 2% of the Galilee population, who control wealth, power and privilege. He is clothed in purple: the most expensive dye. His garment is of imported Egyptian linen: the most luxurious fabric of the ancient world. He eats excessive amounts of extravagant foods every day. The contemporary equivalent of such conspicuous consumption would be driving a Bentley in an Armani suit with a Rolex on your wrist. To him wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. The Pharisees encouraged such a false reading of the Torah and the Prophets. Jesus here profers an interpretation diametrically opposed to theirs.

Lazarus
was weak, in fact probably on his last legs. He was most likely the second or third son of a peasant family, unable to inherit because the family smallholding can’t be divided up any further. Alternatively he might have lost his land because his debt or mortgage was foreclosed upon by a member of the urban elite. He may then have become a seasonal day labourer, doing without food on the days he couldn’t find work. Like the Polish day labourers hanging around Wickes’ building supplies at 6 o’clock every morning near my home in Tottenham, hoping a builder will take them to do some plastering for less than the minimum wage and then going back to sleep between sheets of cardboard under the railway arches. The European euphemism for this is ‘Free Movement of Labour.’ This is what Comrade Jesus would have preached sermons on in London today.
Lazarus couldn’t become an artisan or tekton like Jesus because they passed down their skill set from father to son and didn’t take on apprentices. So, it’s urbanisation then, what every school kid learns about in Third World Geography. Think Sao Paulo, Mumbai or Nairobi.  Such cities were over-run by surplus poor 2000 years ago just like they are today. When malnutrition lead to deterioration of his body, Lazarus could no longer compete for jobs. His wounds wouldn’t heal, and the dogs licked him adding to his degradation and, in Jewish eyes, impurity. Perpetually hungry, vulnerable, covered with abcesses, even begging became difficult. In the eyes of many he was being punished for his sins like Ahab (1 Kings 21:19)
Meanwhile the Rich man and his dining companions used pita breads as napkins and after wiping their hands on them they would throw them under the table for the dogs. Remnants might be chucked out on the streets for lowlife like Lazarus to fight over. So, conspicuous consumption turned the necessities of life into disposables, and even then the dogs got first choice before the human poor.

The gate
The large ornamental gateway to the rich man’s mansion is where Lazarus spent his time. What a symbol! A social barrier between the elite and the expendables.

Death. After his life of ease and luxury, the rich guy has an honourable burial. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom, a place of honour apparently, where he will receive the care he did not receive in life.

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[more london graffiti 2015]

Part 2 of the parable (v. 27-31)
The rich man is in transit in Hades or Sheol (not the same as Hell). This is a shadowy abode of the dead, a place of waiting where appeals are heard. The good and the bad are kept apart. Roles are reversed. Now it’s the rich man who can’t get a crumb or a drop of water. They are now separated not by a gate but by a chasm. The rich man never asks why he is in the flames; he gives orders, seeing Lazarus as a servant or message boy. He has not yet perceived that Abraham is a father to them both: they are brothers! Instaead of repenting and atoning to join Abraham, the rich man tries bargaining. He wants to warn his brothers , to shield his class from the consequences of their luxury. (cf Micah 6:8 and Deut 15:4-5). Blind to his situation he tries to bargain for special treatment.

It is not the rich man’s wealth that has condemned him at all, it is his callous lovelessness and impious self-indulgence.
Likewise it’s not Lazarus’ poverty that has commended him to Abraham, but his humble piety.
Wealth is dangerous when it blinds you so that it no longer registers when you see starving vagrants at your gate, when you feel you have no personal obligation  to see justice done, when you have no concern for the poor. The rich man’s wealth was acquired at the expense of the rural poor. His class is a curse on the land.
Lazarus is justified not because of his piety but because of his poverty. It’s all in Moses and the Prophets, but not in the Jerusalem scribes’ interpretation of them. If Jesus is right about this reversal of expected fates, i.e. he is saying that the scribes are totally misinterpreting the scriptures, then what else might unravel?! Abraham’s prominent role in the story is because he was known to be a rich man too and he was supposed to legitimise the existing social order.

Source:
Herzog, William R “Parables as subversive speech” John Knox Press (1994)

Other posts based on Herzog’s parable work:
The parable of the wicked tenants
The parable of the vineyard labourers
Parables are subversive

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[london graffiti 2015]

[459,1]

 

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