Pentecost 19: 25 September Luke 16:19-31
One day you will have to face up to the truth about yourself. A favourite way of making this point in the ancient world was to imagine what happened to people when they died. Then their true reward would come. Such thinking inspired visions of the place of the rewarded and the place of the condemned, variously described as heaven and hell, paradise and Gehenna, and here as ‘Abraham’s bosom’ and Hades. More often than not Hades is the abode of the dead, like Sheol, rather than the place of torment as here. People often pictured Hades as an underworld in which there were many different compartments, including torture chambers, but also less horrible vestibules in which people were kept safe waiting for their future reward or punishment at the judgement.
Our story assumes that judgement takes place, effectively, at death. It seems to have been Luke’s view, for he reports Jesus promising one of the brigands hanging beside him on Golgotha that that day he would join him in paradise. Both John’s gospel and Hebrews also appear to assume that people will enter heavenly glory directly after death. It also came to be the common view in Christendom: ‘you go to heaven when you die - or to hell’. Other traditions, reflected in most of the rest of the New Testament, assume a judgement day. After death people sleep until the great day of the Lord, Jesus appears, the dead are raised and all face judgement. Then comes the transformation, the new creation. Part of that new creation is the resurrection of the dead in bodies of a new kind and a metamorphosis of those alive into new shining bodies, like those of angels. Jesus’ own resurrection was like this and appears to have been understood from the beginning as an advance on what was to come, the firstborn of the resurrection, the beginning of the end. His transfiguration was also an advance clue about what was to come.
There were thus two main patterns of expectation: dying-waiting-day of the Lord and dying-going to heaven or hell. In time, people spoke of the waiting period as more than just sleep; at least it was pleasant sleep; it was, as Paul says, to depart and be with Christ, but it still longed for the total transformation, including the renewal of the entire creation. Its focus was transformation of the whole. The second model limits its focus to the fate of the individual. The more it dominates the less important the future judgement day and Jesus’ return become, because what matters most from an individual perspective has already happened. People at Corinth took the radical step of saying a future resurrection was superfluous. Against them Paul mounts his argument in 1 Corinthians 15.
What has all this got to do with interpreting the parable? To begin with it indicates, I believe, that we are dealing with a version of a folklore story which reflects a popular view of the afterlife among many Jews and non Jews of the period which focused on the individual’s fate. In that sense it lacks the vision of a transformed world, which thought in wider than individual terms: the vision of a just society, transformed inside out and reflected in the eucharistic hope. So its potent message and social comment needs supplementing with this wider vision.
While it uses a different approach to future life than the one which seems to have been espoused by Jesus and the earliest Christian communities, it was the kind of story which people told and Jesus, or perhaps someone inspired by Jesus, made very good use of it, giving it some distinctive emphases. Luke has appropriately set it in the context of abuse of wealth.
The rich man is not portrayed as an overt evil-doer. His crime is his self preoccupation with which he prevented himself from caring about others as he cared for himself. The man is very rich and very privileged, wearing garments of purple suggests some link with royalty. Having a gate and a wall implies a large mansion. The poor man is named, Lazarus. The name means: ‘God has helped’ - no one else was going to! The image is one of abject poverty and humiliation (the dogs would not be seen as doing him a favour, but as licking their lips for when they could tear him apart). He goes to ‘Abraham’s bosom’, an odd phrase and difficult to translate probably because it reflects the common dining posture of lying on your elbow with your head, therefore, close to the chest of your neighbour. It is imagery also used of the beloved disciple in relation to Jesus and of Jesus in relation to the Father in John (13:23; 1:18). The rich man is to be punished forever amid the flames.
The rich man asks Abraham to get Lazarus to help him. What a reversal! Give him credit, the rich man then recovers some concern for others, but limited to his own family, his brothers (I hope he had no sisters!). The exchange which follows is interesting because it assumes that people need to hear the Law and the Prophets, whether from people still alive or from someone returned from the dead. Someone rising from the dead is now an obvious allusion to Jesus’ resurrection, but, reflecting Luke’s view expressed earlier in 16:17, the message is the same. The way to life is to keep the commandments in the way Jesus expounds them such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Failure to heed this message on the assumption that faith in Jesus can be separated from it and will guarantee a place in heaven is as much a folly now as it was then. Being and doing are what matter, not signing up. It is not about earning a reward, but about engaging in an ongoing relationship which has compassion as its agenda.
This parable spun from folklore piety has some loose ends. People who build unbridgeable chasms and contemplate flaming people forever will gladly support the death penalty and setting limits to love and compassion in the here and now. In their own lives they will be like their god, knowing that there are times when they should shut the door or even start the flaming violence towards those whom they condemn. Haters of the rich often become haters when power comes their way.
This parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor. The trouble is that even such abstractions become easy to live with. We need some first hand experience of encountering the real people whom we will then not be able to dismiss as relative statistics. And if that cannot be first hand, we need to help people engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which vested interests maintain.
We also need to address the moralism which the parable inspires, which warrants structures of violence which demean and destroy in the name of the ‘deserving rich’. We need a bigger transformation, a bigger vision than the tale employs, a eucharistic vision that will have a place for all and turn no one away. Our visions of the future nearly always become our agendas of the present.
Epistle: Pentecost 19: 25 September 1 Timothy 6:6-19