This past Sunday’s text in the Methodist lectionary was Luke 16:19-31.
It’s a difficult passage, the story of that other Lazarus. In this short parable, Jesus tells us of an unnamed rich man and (the other) Lazarus, a disease-afflicted man who lies at the doorstep of the rich man’s home hoping for scraps from the man’s table. Both die, with Lazarus being carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man going to Hades.
The rich man calls out across a great divide to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water, but Abraham tells him that none can cross the chasm. The rich man then begs Abraham to let Lazarus go to the rich man’s living family to warn them about his fate. Abraham objects that his family has Moses and the prophets to guide them. The rich man retorts that they may not heed the message from the prophets, but will certainly listen to someone returned to the dead. Abraham ends the parable by explaining that those who will not believe Moses and the prophets will not even believe one who rises from the dead.
Jesus sometimes has words difficult for us to hear, and even one such as myself whose theology focuses on the love, forgiveness and benevolence of God would be a fool to ignore the warnings in such passages.
The warning hits especially close when, as with K and I’s new church home, one must walk past homeless folks to enter worship.
The Rich and the Poor
I certainly do not want to de-emphasize the message in this parable about how we should treat the poor, the afflicted, those less fortunate than us. This warning is the clearest part of the passage, and perhaps the one that resonates most with Jesus’s other sayings.
But I’m going to make my comments on that aspect of the passage quickly and move on to less-frequently-discussed ideas conveyed by the text.
I’ll point out the purple robe worn by the rich man. Purple dye–at least the best of it–was known as Tyrian purple; it was produced by the Phoenicians in Tyre (and later elsewhere along the Mediterranean), a city north of Israel in modern Lebanon and visited by Jesus according to Mark. Tyrian purple comes from the secretions of sea snails from the Muricidae family. Even before the first century C.E., writers remarked that the dye was worth its weight in silver. The expense of this purple dye caused it to be known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple.” According to Strong’s, the word that we translate rather feebly as “dressed in” (at least in the ESV) has a meaning more like “habitually dressed in.”
Everyone hearing Jesus’s message at the time would have immediately understood his meaning–this was not just a wealthy person; this was a person with the means to squander money on lavish clothing, not for special occasions, but for everyday use. I suppose it’s like saying the man drove a Ferrari or Lamborghini past Lazarus every morning.
This is poised next to the statement that “Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” There are two ways to read this statement, I think. The first is what we instinctually read–that the dogs licking his sores is a further insult and embarrassment to Lazarus. But, through both experience and reading, I know that dogs can smell disease in humans (and Lazarus’s seems to be pretty obvious besides) and will often lick wounds in an effort to comfort and promote healing–this is their instinctual reaction. So, I think that the juxtaposition here is not just about Lazarus’s lowliness; it’s also about the fact that even the beasts who survive off of scraps from the table know to treat Lazarus better than the rich man does.
Truth and Seeing
As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the real point of this passage is simply about behavior and punishment. In fact, I don’t think that we should read the afterlife scene depicted should be taken as a statement of actual reality at all.
One hint of this, I think, is Jesus’s use of the word Hades–he’s making reference to a Greco-Roman cosmology that he surely doesn’t believe in. Now, on the one hand, Jesus is speaking to a culture now firmly entrenched in the ideas of the Greco-Roman world, but he’s also speaking primarily to Pharisees here, and it would seem that, were he wanting to make a statement about what to expect in the afterlife, he might have used the Hebrew word sheol instead.
So, with that argument made, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the ideas of afterlife justice and punishment here–I just don’t think that’s the point and I don’t think that’s where we should be spending our interpretive time and effort with the passage.
Instead, I want to focus on the substance of the exchange between Abraham and the rich man rather, with the setting allegorically informing the conversation rather than being a demonstration of reality. In transparency, this is probably a break with tradition–this parable is frequently depicted in medieval art, probably because of its treatment of the afterlife.
When the rich man is dead and in Hades, he can see that Lazarus is with Abraham–the text tells us this plainly. Based on the text, we are well within our rights, I think, to assume that the rich man is founded in the Hebrew beliefs of the time. It follows, then, that he should immediately understand the situation as it is, with Lazarus being rewarded and him being punished. And yet, he persists in the worldview he had in life, the one that caused him to ignore Lazarus in the first place–that, by virtue of his wealth and status he was necessarily better than Lazarus and deserved to be higher than him and served by him.
Let’s make that clear: in spite of seeing Lazarus being rewarded and in the presence of Abraham, and being himself in a place of torment (and assumedly punishment), the rich man still thinks its fitting to ask Abraham to tell Lazarus to serve him.
For me, this changes the way that I look at Abraham’s response when he says, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
I read this not as a statement about the inability of the dead to move between punishment and grace, but as a statement that the worldly status quo, the dominance of the wealthy and powerful over others, cannot be enforced in the afterlife. Were the rich man not blind to reality, he would have seen this in his situation and would not have made the request in the first place. We see him as foolish in asking for such a thing, and I think that’s entirely the point given what follows.
If you’re like me, you find it strange that the rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus and not him to warn his (the rich man’s) family. This could be because the rich man still refuses to look past the disparity of social rank and privilege he enjoyed in life despite Abraham’s explanation, but it could also be that he believes Lazarus might have the privilege to speak to the living where he does not or that Abraham’s side of the chasm is connected to the land of the living and the rich man’s is not. Here, we have a break with Greco-Roman views of Hades, I think, given the number of stories in both Greek and Roman culture in which a spirit of the dead communicates with the living.
Regardless of the why, it’s the substance of the exchange that follows the request that matters most. Ultimately, Abraham says that those who do not believe Moses and the prophets will not believe even someone returned from the dead.
Abraham’s response to the rich man is an application of logic to the ad hominem fallacy engaged in by the rich man–it’s the truth of the message that matters, not the source of the message. Those who have already rejected the truth upon hearing it will not suddenly believe it because someone else–even one risen from the dead–tells the truth to them again. Those who choose to remain blind to the truth when it is staring them in the face, as the rich man does throughout this passage, will find ways to continue to do so.
Social science seems to back this up–just this week I heard on NPR about a study that seems fortuitously related to this topic. In that study, the political beliefs of participants were assessed before and after they participated in a program of interaction with people of different political beliefs and backgrounds. Our assumption, as is so often the case, is that exposure to different ideas, the building of relationships with people of differing beliefs, will naturally cause us to become more open-minded–or at least empathetic to differing views. But this particular study showed that a significant number of participants with very strongly-held views became more entrenched in their views after participating in interactions with people of differing views, choosing to use those interactions as confirmation of their pre-existing beliefs rather than evidence that it might be reasonable to believe otherwise.
The current state of American politics–particularly as Republican congresspersons and officials engage in impressive mental gymnastics to remain loyal to an embattled president with a history of willful ignorance of the ideals of American government–provides further evidence. But if I’m going to be fair (and I should be, shouldn’t I?), the problem lies on both sides of our political divide, because the biases and extreme positions of some Democrats have given an excuse to make the argument that any action taken against the President is a matter only of political bias. Just this morning on the drive to work I head a Republican congressman not just imply but state that the current Ukraine scandal might not have any merit because the whistleblower involved might be biased against Donald Trump. The ad hominem fallacy again raises its ugly head–it doesn’t matter at all whether the whistleblower was biased in blowing the whistle; it only matters whether the allegations of misconduct and abuse of power are true. But I digress.
As those of you who follow the theological posts on my site well know by now, I take an existentialist approach to my theology. I’ve argued that the process of sanctification (and therefore participation in the present Kingdom of God) is a matter of changing oneself to see reality more clearly. In many ways, that’s the argument of this parable–I’m willing to argue that, had the rich man seen reality the way God created it and communicated truth about it to us through Moses and the prophets, he would have treated Lazarus as he should have and never would have ended up in the situation in which we find him. Righteous action flows from righteous thought, which flows from righteous seeing.
Jesus’s Self-Referential Meaning
I haven’t heard or read anyone discuss the irony in Abraham’s final words in this passage. When Jesus gives this parable, he is going to die and return from the dead with messages for the Disciples and for us at large. So how do we relate this statement to Jesus’s death and resurrection (and its effect–or lack thereof–on believers)?
It’s possible that this is evidence that Jesus’s death and resurrection was never intended as a sign to create belief in God. If we take the message of Luke 16:19-31, that makes sense, right? For those whose contact with Jesus already convinced them that he was the Son of God, his resurrection was simply confirmation of their belief, not the source of new belief. Those who rejected Jesus’s divinity before his death and resurrection had ready arguments for continuing to disbelieve. Someone stole the body. Jesus only swooned on the cross and never actually died. The crucifixion never actually occurred.
This, existentially speaking, is the condition in which we, as human beings in the modern age, find ourselves. We have no way to prove the reality of the resurrection itself, much less to use it prove Jesus’s divinity. We have Moses and the prophets, and the Disciples and letter-writers; if we don’t find truth in them, where will we find it?
I need to carry this further, I think. As I argued in my last theological post (Speaking Creation), Jesus is the reality of our creation and sustenance, with the Bible’s primary value as a gateway to a personal encounter with Jesus that transcends all other human ways of knowing or seeing. Jesus is the right seeing of the universe. The incarnation and crucifixion, then, are revelations of truth, not for the purpose of forcing us to see clearly, but for giving us the possibility of seeing clearly if we are willing to see at all.
For us Methodists, it’s the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to be open to seeing before the truth is ever clear to us. But that is a mechanism beyond my understanding except in the most abstract of senses.
This idea, that the crucifixion and resurrection are not about causing belief, naturally requires the question: “What is it about, then?” Jesus answers that question, at least in part, elsewhere, when he tells us that “No greater love have a man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” As Paul writes, “But God demonstrates his own loves for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
This knowledge returns us to the chasm between Abraham and the rich man. If that chasm were ever intended to represent a real divide between the forgiven and the unforgiven, it cannot remain after the redemptive act of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Abraham speaks to the rich man in terms of impossibilities, but through Jesus, all things are possible.
Synchronicity and Application
I had the very good fortune to hear J.J. Warren speak this weekend at a Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference event. If you’re not sure who J.J. Warren is, search for him in Google. Start with his speech from the floor of the Called Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC earlier this year and go from there. His first book, Reclaiming Church: A Call to Action for Religious Rejects, is available for pre-order on Amazon.
He spoke/preached on the prophet Amos, whose warning to the Hebrew people was that God found the worship and supplications of the Hebrew people distasteful (to put it mildly) while they refused to engage in the pursuit of the social justice that God had called them to.
The application of this message in the warning that we, as United Methodists, ought to be very carefully scrutinizing whether we’re seeking God’s justice with our actions, not just with regard to LGTBQ+ issues but also in matters of immigration, wealth disparity, inequities of power in our nation, the lack of justice in our judicial system, and many other issues both “secular” and political, resonates deeply with the passage from Luke. After all, that’s the very warning the rich man fails to heed in his ignorance of Lazarus: are you pursuing justice or allowing injustice?
Was Amos at the forefront of Abraham’s mind when he warns the rich man that those who are heedless of the prophets will not heed even one risen from the dead? Something to think on…