05 October 2007

Po' Lazarus . . .

Posted by at 6:52 PM Read our previous post

In the Gospel of Luke there's a parable attributed to Jesus about a rich man who ignores the plight of his neighbor, the wretched Lazarus (16:19-31), who begs him for a crust of bread. After they've both died, Lazarus joins Abraham in Heaven and the rich man winds up burning in Hell, asking Abraham for mercy, a mercy which is denied. The rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus (whom he interestingly still sees as some kind of servant even in death) back to Earth to warn his live brothers so that they may repent and become righteous and thus avoid his fate. God half-jokes his reply to the rich man:

Look . . . they already HAVE the law. If they won't listen to Moses and Abraham, why would they listen to Lazarus? They won't listen even to one come back from the grave!
What is this parable about?

I've been thinking about it for a few days. The question was brought up in A New Testament Student's blog. As usual, I was disappointed by all the exegetical acrobatics that people tend to engage in order to squeeze some christological significance into every little thing that Jesus is made to say in the gospels. It's irritating to watch such spinning, complete with parsing of particular Greek verbs in the text, as if that changed the overall meaning of the parable in any significant way. That's just feigned erudition thrown up as a smokescreen. As someone who doesn't have any theological need for such fanciful interpolations, I object to people inserting their own christological constructs into a text that clearly doesn't contain them.

This parable is simple and straightfoward, it is an exhortation for rich people to share their good fortune with the destitute and to help the marginalized. This is obvious, especially in light of the fact that this particular parable is but one in a series of short parables and aphorisms in that chapter alone with the same basic moral. Jesus' point is fairly clear in the whole chapter: he's sayin', "Not only can't rich people buy their way in, but their very fortune handicaps them from the git go". Nowhere is there any real indication that this story is to be read with any kind of christological lens. You can follow such pious labyrinths til the cows' second coming if you want, but you would only be surmising things into the text that are simply not there.

So . . . . What IS there in the text?

A few particularly interesting about this parable:

  • The two men are sent to their respective places, but no mention is made of either the rich man's wickedness or of Lazarus' righteousness. These have nothing to do with salvation/damnation in this parable. All we know is that, because he has suffered much in life, Lazarus is comforted. This fits in with other familiar teachings of Jesus such as, "Blessed are the poor, for they shall find comfort" and ,"it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle", etcetera. In other words, simply being rich and apathetic is what lands the rich guy in hell. Belief or righteousness are secondary to compassion in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a very important point. And these exhortations are not limited to the parables of Jesus, this extends to parables about Jesus as well. There is a post in James F. McGrath's very cool and very prolific blog, Exploring Our Matrix, in which he riffs on the story of Mary annointing Jesus with expensive oil (John 12). The apostles complain about wasting the precious oil
    McGrath - This difference between John and other sources seemed less crucial a point of discussion that the statement of Jesus that "the poor you will always have with you". When I first read those words, I took them to mean that, in general, concern for the poor should take a lower priority than worship. I now take a different view of the meaning, primarily because it seems that the words attributed to Jesus are an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11. When combined with the story from other Gospels (which John seems to have known, even if not directly from one of them in written form), the impression one gets is that concern for the poor remains as central a concern as ever - it is more central in both Testaments than many contemporary Christians do justice to.
    I think he's right. And I think that Jesus' insistence on such radical economic justice has little to do with pious christological affirmations. He was upholding the deeply-held tradition of compassion that is the essense of Torah, both written and oral. Concern for the poor and the helpless is arguably one of the crucial and recurring themes in Torah. Unfortunately, then as now, people seem to choose to ignore that little command from God, that urgent reminder that, yes, we are in fact our brother's keeper. It's more important than worship, as James rightly points out. I guess that's too inconvenient a teaching for folks to take seriously, though. Funny how Jesus' strong anti-rich stance as portrayed in the gospels is not given much lip service in sermons. Is it?

  • The punchline of this parable, the turnaround, the promise to the poor and downtrodden of the world that they would be compensated in the afterworld must have sounded like an amazing paradox to listeners of this parable. And a right welcome one too! Imagine that! The rich finally paying dues and the poor triumphing in the end. This must have been one of Jesus' most popular lectures.

  • Lazarus is unique in that he is the only character in all of Jesus' gospel parables to actually be given a proper name. That's interesting in and of itself.

  • There's another reference to a Lazarus in the gospels. In John 11. I think that the author of GJohn is making a kind of humorous allusion to the parable in Luke 16 in his story of the raising of his Lazarus. A persuasive argument for this can be made based on the following facts:
    1. Both Lazarus stories contain the raising from the dead motif.

    2. The stories of Jesus rasing people from the dead in the other gospels (e.g. Luke 7:14) are told with less dramatic emphasis than the one in John 11. In fact, they rise to a level no higher than any other healing miracle of Jesus. However, it is almost the climax in the story that John tells before beginning the passion narrative. This progression from simple to more sensational elaboration fits the current chronological model and thus strengthens the notion that John was familiar with a lot of the stories (if not the actual texts) contained in the synoptics.

    3. If the raising of Lazarus is not allegorical, that is, if it happened literally in such a public and grandiose way as GJohn describes, then why have none of the other evangelists recorded it? This deserves more than a glossing-over.
  • In the very gospel which features an unnamed disciple as "the one Jesus loved", Lazarus is explicitly called by that very same phrase, "the one Jesus loves" (John 11:3). ¿Coincidence?

Maybe. Whether yes or no, it's a valid question. But I honestly think that to not see a connection between these two stories is to be in the proverbial, "lah lah lah !!! - I can't hear you!!!" mode of selective hermeneutics. Though it might rock the sycophantic sensibilities of some fideists . . . in the words of a favorite Leonard Cohen poem:

Forgive me, partisans,

I only sing this for the ones

who do not care who wins the war



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