EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 30, 2007 (Lectionary 26)
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146 (Ps. 146:7)
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (Ps. 91:2)
1 Timothy 6:6-19
1a. CONTEXT: Luke 16:19-31
There is something about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that reminds us of a fairy tale or a morality play. Like a Punch and Judy show, first century rabbis used this Egyptian folk tale to convey a simple view of ethics. In the judgment in the afterlife, the immoral rich man will receive punishment and the poor man will be comforted. Jesus uses the vehicle of this well-known story to grasp his audience's attention and add a provocative twist to the tale: he links the story to Moses and the prophets, and to an understanding of the resurrection.
The specific Lukan context for this parable is Jesus teaching his disciples. He is overheard by avaricious Pharisees who proceed to deride him.
The passage occurs in a unique Lukan section, Luke 9: 51-18: 14. Luke uses this long section to portray his major themes. (1) The purposeful God acts in a final way toward the world through the spirit present in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. (2) The end time is an occasion for all human beings to decide their destiny in the last judgment of the Holy God. (3) The manifestation of the divine plan in this servant messiah, who reaches out to the outcasts such as the poor, the lost, and the sinner, while calling into judgment the rich, the self-satisfied, and the self-righteous in their separation from God. All of these themes are vividly present in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The social, economic, and political context of Luke reveal further clues to the understanding of this particular parable. After the Neronian
persecutions, Luke offered a two volume apologia, Luke-Acts, addressed to those outside the church, attempting to bring order to the chaos which followed this time of trouble, to refute the many false accusations, and to regain tolerance throughout the empire (Caird, p. 13ff.).
A more specific issue is who held power in this setting. There are two geographic jurisdictions in Luke's description of events. Pontius Pilate had authority in Judea and Samaria while Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea. The rich man could have been a Sadducee who collaborated with Romans for political and/or economic favor. The purple robe could have been that of a High Priest. The social, economic and religious habits of their fellow countrymen, the Pharisees and Sadducees, must have been evident to the disciples of Jesus, and a possible identification of the rich man with these people could have affected the way in which the disciples interpreted this parable.
For example, the existence of one social custom of Jesus' day was certainly well known to the disciples, and is helpful to us today as we try to understand the dramatic power of the story. Rather than use utensils in eating, people tore bread to scoop up the food. Most people ate both the bread scoop and the main dish, but the wealthy simply used bread as disposable utensils, the vehicle by which rich food was carried to the palate. The hungry poor, like Lazarus, stationed themselves near the site of such banquets, hoping to survive on the bread scoop leftovers. (James, p. 25.)
1b. TEXT: Luke 16:19-31
[Greek Text © 2006 http://www.greekbible.com/ ]
Lk. 16:19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
Lk. 16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
Lk. 16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Lk. 16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Lk. 16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
Lk. 16:24 He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'
Lk. 16:25 But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
Lk. 16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'
Lk. 16:27 He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--
Lk. 16:28 for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.'
Lk. 16:29 Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.'
Lk. 16:30 He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
Lk. 16:31 He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
2. ANALYSIS: Luke 16: 19-31
The first modern interpretation of the parables is marked by A. Julicher's HISTORY OF THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLES OF JESUS. His primary contribution was to free the interpretation of parables from the arbitrary allegorical methods used by most earlier works. Like A. Schweitzer's attempt to free the "quest of the historical Jesus" from the projections of ideology by earlier commentators, Julicher tried to put an end to such abuse in the interpretation of the parables. However, his solution was to reduce the interpretation to a single pristine point which he assumed came from specific historical events. Commenting on the parable we are examining, Julicher stated: "The story of the rich man and poor Lazarus was intended to bring joy to such as live in pain, terror to those who live at ease." More recent studies have tried to elaborate a broader understanding of parable interpretation without slipping back into allegory. For example, the form critics emphasized the diversity among the various categories of parable types. (Jeremias 16-19)
The obvious caution to any future analysis is an awareness of the constant temptation to project into the parable our own agenda. We can allegorize with the newest hermaneutical ideology as well as with an ancient, fantastic imagination.
The best historical evidence for the origin of this popular story is the Egyptian folk tale brought by Alexandrian Jews into Palestine. They told a story of the poor scholar, whose burial had no mourners, and the rich publican, whose funeral was elaborate. In the next world, the scholar went to the garden of pardise while the rich publican suffered torture. This story concluded with the words, "He who has been good on earth will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead." (Jeremias p. 128)
Not unlike Shakespeare or any great storyteller, the Lukan Jesus used a diversity of sources to gain attention and drive home his particular point. Narrative theology accepts that a good story possesses rich ore and can be refined to portray several facets of insight and typology wihtout succumbing to the license of allegory.
The analysis of "poor Lazarus and the rich man" is clarified in a word study of its key expressions:
1. "...DRESSED IN PURPLE AND FINE LINEN..." is a description that identifies this person as a particular rich man who could afford such luxuries. Religiously, it could easily identify a Sadducee who collaborated with the Roman occupation to secure his wealth. Theologically, the Sadducee identification is confirmed by his lack of moral concern and disbelief in judgment in the afterlife. Politically, he could be seen as a follower of Herod Antipas or Antipas himself.
2. "LAZARUS" could possibly be the brother of Martha and Mary, whom Luke described in Chapter 10: 38ff. which has a connection with John 11. The two may be using a common source. However, this is made problematic by the fact that, unlike John, Luke does not mention directly the miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead.
3. "HADES" is usually associated with SHE'OL, but this context portrays a division into two parts. On the one hand, GEHENNA is a place of torment for the unrighteous. The word is derived from GE HENNON, the valley circling Jerusalem from the south to the southwest. It had been the site where children were sacrificed to Molech and by Jesus' time was a smoldering garbage dump. On the other hand, PARADISE was where the righteous were comforted. The origin of this term is Persian; in that culture PARADISE referred to a king's garden or park surrounded by a protective wall. Thus PARADISE had its roots in a story of a garden of Eden prior to the Biblical story.
4. "A GREAT GULF HAS BEEN FIXED" is a description consistent with later Judaism's understanding of the division within SHE'OL. "Enoch xxii. 9 mentions a well in the righteous division of SHE'OL, and also testifies to the separation between the two parts."
5. "THEY HAVE MOSES AND THE PROPHETS" are the Jewish moral authorities whom Herod Antipas, in his remarriage, and his five living brothers have ignored. The Pharisees with whom Jesus collaborated confirmed this expediency of interpretation. The new age proclaimed by John the Baptizer, an Elijah figure, prophesies against the abomination of adultery.
6. "IF SOMEONE RISES FROM THE DEAD" is taught in 'Moses and the Prophets" according to Acts 26: 22-23. (word study from A. R. C. Leaney, pp. 225-226.)
3. STRATEGY: Luke 16: 19-31
The key issue for the preacher is the relationship between and consequence of eschatology and ethics. What is believed about human destiny has direct consequence on one's moral behavior, both personally and in community.
Helmut Thielicke, the famous German preacher and ethicist, chose originally to follow Julicher's emphasis on one key theme to unlock the meaning of the parable: "And this key is none other than the speech of Abraham in which he says that a man must hear Moses and the prophets if he is to come to terms with his eternal destiny" (Thielicke, p. 42).
Using a rather individualistic point of view, Thielicke draws the dramatic figures deeply in the flesh. He follows his theological premise: "For me the leitmotiv became Luther's dictum, PERSONA FACIT OPERA, ' It is the person who does the works'...I have been interested in the theological question of what change takes place in a man, and naturally also in the forms in which he expresses himself, when he finds God and so also himself." (Thielicke, p. 8)
But many years later, in a Princeton seminar in the 1970's, it was interesting to see Thielicke's growth in interpretation. He is now willing to allow the specific historical context to have a larger voice. In an interpretation reminiscent of Reinhold Niebuhr's MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY, Thielicke now points out that the position of the individual in society can have a significant effect on not just the person but the community too. For example, how did the manner in which the rich man gained his wealth affect the poor? The synergistic nature of man's relationship to his community becomes much clearer in this later interpretation of the parable.
In the earlier writing, Thielicke shows how the figure of the rich man evaded and escaped the issue of poor Lazarus. Not unlike a substance abuse addict denying his problem, the first century "yuppie" distanced himself from the horror of poverty by escaping into the Dolce Vita. Thielicke enlarges the issue in the seminar by showing how everyone is rich in some fashion whether money, health, intellect, etc.
One cannot help wondering how Thielicke would advise us to preach on this parable today. Undoubtedly, he would add social, political, and economic issues to the parable of private piety. I imagine he would agree with Martin Luther King who, in his last sermon, spoke of preachers' fears about what would happen to themselves if they did act, instead of fearing what would happen to the poor if they did not.
Another possibility for sermon development can be seen in the fact that, in the Lukan narrative, the rich man seems unaware that his status and life style have been radically changed by the new situation in which he finds himself. Instead of conversing with a fellow human being, Lazarus, he addresses himself to Abraham as if they were peers. He seems to forget the prerogatives of his earthly life are ended. He presumes twice to ask Abraham to "send Lazarus" for water and to his brothers as if he were a servant or slave to do the bidding of an upper crust person such as himself and Abraham. He just does not catch on that a new age has dawned.
In terms of corporate personality, the rich man illustrates the mindset of many modern technocratic nations and multinational corporations. In their striving for growth and profit, they seem to disregard both natural resources and persons. Far too often they arrogantly abuse ecological systems and poor population to their own ends. Even in temporal terms, the consequences of such immoral behavior have dramatic long-term effects on the lives of everyone on the blue planet. What is less evident or admitted is that all of us in a consumer society directly or indirectly participate in this system. Who are the Lazaruses who live at the doorstep of our city?
4. REFERENCES: Luke 16: 19-31
Caird, G.B. SAINT LUKE. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
James, Ann. "A Fellow Child of God." in THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY,
July-August 1978, pp. 25-26.
Jeremias, Joachim. THE PARABLES OF JESUS. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1955.
Fuller, Reginald H. PREACHING THE LECTIONARY. Collegeville, MN:
The Liturgical Press, 1974.
Leaney, A.R.C. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. LUKE. New York: Harper
& Brothers, 1958.
Thielicke, Helmut. THE WAITING FATHER. New York: Harper & Brothers,
Exegete: M. Douglas Girardeau
Episcopal Diocese of Easton, MD
LEXEGETE™ copyright 2007