Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Rich Man and Lazarus

There is a tendency among evangelicals to interpret most of Jesus' parables as disguised tracts about how to get to heaven and avoid hell. One of the things I have appreciated about N.T. Wright's work is his concern to let the parables speak out from their specific historic, temporal context rather than turning them into teachings about the hereafter.

N.T. Wright gives some convincing evidence that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, when interpreted in light of its 1st century context, has nothing to do with the post mortem state at all. I'm not sure that his view represents the final word on the matter, but I am substantially in agreement with his main points. The following is taken from Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God:

"The story carries clear echoes of well-known folk tales, to which Jesus is giving a fresh and startling twist. The emphasis falls at the same point that was made twice - i.e., with great stress - in the prodigal son: 'resurrection', i.e. 'return from exile', is happening all around, and the Pharisees cannot see it.

"The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through that city without a map. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of the evidence, that Jesus 'must really' have been primarily concerned to teach people 'how to go to heaven after death'. The reality is uncomfortably different.

"The welcome of Lazarus by Abraham evokes the welcome of the prodigal by the father, and with much the same point. The heavenly reality, in which the poor and outcast would be welcomed into Abraham's bosom (as everyone would know from the folk-tale), was coming true in flesh and blood as Jesus welcomed the outcasts, just as the father's welcome to the returning son was a story about what Jesus was actually doing then and there. The theme of 'rich and poor', not unimportant in Luke, is here thrown into stark prominence, as recent studies have stressed. But the point of this, when the story is seen as a traditional tale with a new ending, was not so much what would happen to both in the end, nor yet simply a statement on the abstract 'ethical' issue of wealth and poverty, but rather what was happening to both rich and poor in the present time. Jesus' welcome of the poor and outcast was a sign that the real return from exile, the new age, the 'resurrection', was coming into being; and if the new age was dawning, those who wanted to belong to it would (as in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) have to repent. The story points up the true significance of what Jesus was doing, and the urgent need of those who were at present grumbling to recognize this significance. The five brothers at home correspond quite closely to the older brother in the prodigal son. 'Resurrection' is happening, but they cannot see it. The story takes for granted that the poor and outcast were rightly being welcomed into the kingdom, and it turns the spotlight on to the rich, the Pharisees, the grumblers: they, too, now needed to repent if they were to inherit the new day that would shortly dawn. They were refused the extra revelation of someone ongoing to them from the dead; the message of repentance was clear enough in Moses and the prophets.

"The parable is therefore further strong evidence that 'repentance', in the senses already discussed, formed a central element in Jesus' proclamation. The basic story he was telling invited his hearers to see themselves as the true Israel, returning at last from exile, and turning back to their god as an essential part of the process."

Although I have not reproduced Wright's rich footnotes, one interesting point from the footnotes is that "scholars who presuppose the real referent of the parable to be the future post mortem state (e.g. Nolland 1993, 827) tend to reject the importance of the known [folk] story - despite the wealth of evidence discussed by Hock and Bauckham, to look no further."

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