One of the more difficult challenges for the credo-hopeful as myself is to find a safe place in the midst of so much disagreement within the realm of biblical interpretation.
Some insist that the old way is always the best way; stick with traditional thinking. They say, “If the plain sense makes sense, quit looking for another sense.“
So what of when it doesn’t make sense… at least not to everyone; at least not to a growing number who are providing resources for dabblers as myself to indulge in? Take for example the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).
The traditional stance on this parable or narrative account holds that this is a severe warning to the travesty of an eternity spent in a place called hell for some, while for others, the wonder of dining forever in the bosom of Abraham, or as they will say, heaven.
But for many, no matter how the text is construed, at the end of the day, or at death if you will, there is the contention that those who live in poverty get to go to heaven, and as for the rich, well, we best take care of our teeth, for we’ll need them for gnashing one day.
The contention is of course settled by the “proof in the pudding” argument, that those who are saved by grace are changed, and riches are no longer their gods, resulting in a life of good works and not one spent selfishly wallowing in over-abundance.
Someone may ask though, “Why does the poor man then get to dine with Abraham?” We merely hear that because he received no reward in this lifetime, a greater reward awaited him at death. There’s no indication or evidence that this man is godly or that he’s ever done a good work. He’s just helplessly sick and poor, and the poor are just as capable of living a sin-filled life as the rich. It’s not that the text can’t be manipulated to meet the traditional end, it’s just that it requires manipulating that brings questions to the table.
Through the years I have heard a couple of approaches to the meaning of this story that vacate the traditional.
One of these alternatives considers the rich man to be national Israel and Lazarus the Gentile nations. This richness it is said that Israel enjoyed was their access to God. They were robed in the purple of His revelation and providence, while the Gentiles were laid at his gates without even having a knowledge of the one true God, because Israel refused to make Him known, not even with a crumb from his table if you will. The great gulf separating the two characters is said to be the difference between old and new covenants; they are irreconcilable.
If these who hold such understandings of this text are right, it seems to run hand in hand with other accounts, such as, “They will come from far away to dine with Abraham,” and “Even the dogs sit below the table for the crumbs that fall.”
While I’m not willing to make a dogmatic stand on where I fall within these thoughts and the related just yet, I do admit it is hardly hidden that Jesus spent much of His ministry trying to convey that something was very wrong with the Jewish people’s religion, that they had went astray from the relational God of their father Abraham, and that the destruction of their nation was imminent.
My unwillingness to readily adopt interpretations as this one is fueled by fear that it is only a means of escaping the humanitarian expectations Jesus prescribes we ought have for one another, or to negate the fear of knowing we are accountable for the welfare of others, while too often looking a lot like the rich man in this story.
Amy-Jill Levine in her work, Short Stories By Jesus, insists the message in this parable would have been perfectly clear to the culture of the day, where the Jews confused wealth as blessing and poverty as curse. She concludes her work on this parable with these words.
The parable tells us that we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate — on the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers — then we are lost.
Covenants old and new both place stringent emphasis on the care for the poor and the helpless. James would argue that all religion is useless if it does not produce a compassionate and charitable heart.
D. A. Carson, in his lecture on this parable, dissects the essence of the rich man’s problem by demonstrating that even in death and torment, he refuses to relent from his exaggerated self-worth. He continues to ignore Lazarus even in hell, dictating Abraham to send him as servant-errand-boy.
Since we still see through the glass darkly, it may be vanity to claim we fully understand this and maybe any of the parables, but regardless of what we walk away with, it would be fool-hearted to miss the disparity between the two characters. One of them was totally dependent on the mercy and grace of others, and inevitably on God Himself. The other basked in his wealth while refusing to acknowledge where it came from and where it was meant to be used.
A-J Levine tells of Albert Schweitzer citing this parable as the reason for his becoming a doctor and moving to a foreign land.
“He recognized that although the rich man, representing Europe, had access to medical care, Lazarus, representing Africa, did not.”
Justifiably, some may retort, “It is of utmost importance to focus on the spiritual needs of others. We can’t get bogged down with the physical, for eternity is in the balance.” But as my Pastor recently reminded, Jesus began his ministry to those he loved by first meeting them in the place where they were. To those who hungered, he fed. To the outcast he offered acceptance. He defended the lowly and the helpless.
Once he was in their world with them, then he directed the conversation to the greater need.
Could this parable, among much more, be speaking volumes toward the persuasive materialistic nature of western culture, even within the church? A quick inventory of my closet leaves me without defense, not to bring about mention of attics and storage containers.
Maybe this is why Jesus identified the poor man but not the rich man? Do you think there is a logical reason for the rich man to have no name? Think about this. Lazarus, a man who few could probably name is given a name, and yet a very wealthy man who anyone in the town’s proximity could probably have given not only his name if requested, but many more significant details. Why is this?
Most who will have access to these words I write are probably much like me; well off financially by the standards of the majority of the world.
Could it be left blank for whosoever will to insert their own?
One of the wisest things ever discovered by those interrogating the parables of Jesus was the recognition that we need not get bogged down by every detail of the story, as though every word has to have some transcendent purpose. Every good story is made up of the essential and the filler. This parable has a point, and Jesus was a masterful story-teller. Remembering the glass is cloudy, the point of this parable seems to give us opportunity to recognize that we all naturally spin toward a self-centered lifestyle of accumulating and hoarding. It’s not as though it is sinful to enjoy life. But it is so when we have no burden for the less-fortunate, when we indulge in excess and refuse to meet needs.
This is basic parable reading, I admit, to find the primary point of the text and then allow the filler to only highlight and emphasize the importance of the central message. We all have a Lazarus laid at our gates. I would surmise that the parable is meant to move us to ask, “What will I do about it?” But not just ask; ask and then allow the answer to identify the condition of our rich man’s heart.