Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rich Man and Lazarus

If you read my preview post a couple of weeks ago, you already knew this topic was coming, so I'll jump right in. Here's the structure of the post:

1) The recorded text of Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-31). It's from the New International Version's translation.

2) My old interpretation of the story

3) My new agnosticism on the story, and an alternative interpretation

The text

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "

My old interpretation

I used to think this story was pretty cut and dried. Jesus was telling us that heaven and hell are real, and that we don't want to go to hell. Bad place. Burning, pain, etc...

I also had a vague idea that the rich man might represent the Jews, since he had five brothers (just like Judah in Genesis 35). But I had a hard time reconciling this harsh future outlook for the Jews with Paul's bold assertions of the fate of the Jews in Romans 11.

My journey on the interpretation

A couple of years ago I was challenged in my interpretation by some fellow Christians. They asked why I could say that this story was proof of heaven and hell. I simply answered, "they're in the story, so they must be real."

They continued in their challenge, and asked if I would use the same reasoning to assume any of the other parts of the story as absolute truth:

--Abraham is the central figure of heaven
--If my body was burning, I would, above all else, long for a drop of water on my tongue
--People who receive good things in life go to hell
--People who receive bad things in life will be comforted in heaven
--There is a chasm between heaven and hell, but both places are close enough so that the souls on either side can see each other and communicate
--Passage both ways between heaven and hell is not permitted (...why would anyone need to be explicitly stopped from leaving heaven to go to hell?)
--Moses and the prophets taught everything you need to know to avoid hell

I had to admit that I don't believe any of those things. But they're in the story. So how could I toss away all of the above illustrations while latching onto the picture of torment as an accurate portrayal of hell?

So I studied more. And more. I was stymied by this story, just as millions (billions?) have been confused by Jesus' amazing-yet-hard-to-grasp style that often used parables and symbols. There was no moral tale here, at least not that I could see on the surface. Rich guy goes to hell, poor guys goes to heaven... but no real reasons why they get those fates.

I kept thinking it had to be teaching something about eternity, because the story is set in the afterlife. But I took none of the individual story's aspects as literal, so what truth could I glean about eternity? The story doesn't even say that the two men's fates are eternal -- for all I know Abraham could swap their places tomorrow. Stymied.

I will tell you right now that I don't assume to know exactly what Jesus meant by this story. It's the last in a series of five stories/parables told by Jesus in the same sitting, so there are all kinds of contextual possibilities. More than a brain like mine can decipher with 100% confidence. That's why I used the word "agnostic" in my introduction -- I just plain don't know for sure what the moral was. But here's one possibility:

Another view

When Jesus told this story, he was either on the doorsteps to the city of Jerusalem or had already arrived. 70 years later, in the same place where he was teaching, the following would happen:

--A trench would be dug around the city's walls by Roman commander Titus and his army (a chasm?)
--A blockade would be setup, with no human traffic in or out of the city (no crossing the chasm in either direction)
--Rich people lived inside the city walls, because they could afford the real estate. Poor people lived outside the city in tents, and normally came inside the gates during the day to do business. In this case, though, the rich were locked in, with no food or water. And the poor were locked out.
--Severe thirst and starvation soon hit the trapped citizens of Jerusalem. They would literally be willing to beg for a drip of water on their tongues.
--During fighting with the Romans, the temple was eventually set on fire. Then the fire spread to the rest of the city. The screams of those inside the city could be heard beyond the trench outside. Burning torment. Communication across the chasm.

Just before the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the bible notes that the tax collectors, Pharisees and teachers of the law were listening to him. These were the rich and powerful. The people who could afford homes inside the city. The people most in need of a warning about what was to come 70 years later.

It may not the right interpretation, but I have to admit that it fits better than my old idea. What do you think?

p.s. -- I'll be visiting my parents for Christmas for the next several days, but will keep in touch through the comments section. The next post will be on "four biblical views of hell" and will be sure to stir up plenty of things in case tonight's post fell flat. :)


James W said...

I think I was more in line with your old view. I can see the correlation of your new view but not sure if this is what Jesus was trying to convey to the Pharisees. What I see from this is a moral lesson. What I see is that the Rich man has turned his back on the poor to fend for themselves. He seems to be more concerned of his wealth than anything or anyone else. The poor man longs for food from the rich man and not any of his other material wealth. Ok I may be going out on a limb here, but I can even see the dog plays a role in this. You could say the dog represents God because he is coming to comfort the poor man. Ok now follow me here. If you have ever watched a dog that has cut or has a sore that hurts they will lick the wound to try and make it feel better. I think then the rest of the story shows what Heaven and Hell are like.

Bob Barbanes said...

I've often wondered about which writings Emporer Constantine decided to inlude into what we now know at the Bible and which he elected to leave out. Perhaps some of the no real moral stories might as well have been left out?

Or maybe we sometimes look for meaning in things that have none!

Or, in the case of Luke 16:19-31, perhaps we are just looking too deeply. "Father" Abraham (the forefather of the Jews) merely tells the unnamed rich man "son" that people must listen to Moses and the prophets - that if the non-believers won't listen to them, then they would not be convinced even by someone rising from the dead - perhaps a reference to Jesus Christ himself?

It's kind of a stretch, but I am often annoyed by Christians who used the Bible to prove the Bible. Maybe this where it begins.

MamaRose said...

This parable always seemed a bit HARSH to me, too--but, it IS the WAY Jesus chose to do a LOT of his TEACHINGS!!!!!

The best thing about them/this way, I think, is that LOTS of folks can get LOTS of 'insights' from just ONE STORY--and, I think,--that's LOTS of I think's, huh?!!--THAT'S THE PURPOSE/REASON for them!

I'm sure when I first read it, I 'took' it as TRUE/really happened & it COULD have. And, I DO believe it teaches us some things about good/bad, Heaven/Hell.

Although, I also believe that the way Heaven & Hell are 'set up' right NOW MAY CHANGE after the Judgement--from other studying I've done--so, that would be the WAY THINGS ARE, NOW!!!!!

And, even now, NO ONE can cross over or back--which like you said, the ONLY reason I could think of ANYONE would ever cross FROM Heaven to Hell would be to BE WITH A LOVED ONE--but, that's a WEIRD kind of LOVE, huh???!!!!!

It's VERY interesting what you said about what happened RIGHT THERE 70 years later--could have been a WARNING to them--but, most of them wouldn't still be alive, then, probably.

I usually take 3 BIG lessons from this story--THE RICH FOLKS BETTER SHARE/BE GENEROUS with the gifts GOD has given them/US!!!!! And, just because someone is 'poor' here on Earth doesn't mean they won't be RICH IN HEAVEN for ETERNITY!!!!!!!!!

And, the BIGGEST Lesson I think we're supposed to 'get' from this is: WE NEED TO BELIEVE & OBEY GOD'S WORD, because HE'S NOT SENDING ANYTHING ELSE TO US TO SAVE US ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Which TOTALLY rules out what the Mormon's say, huh???!!!!!!!!!

I've always LOVED this parable, though, so THANKS for studying it further & bringing this GREAT POST to us all!!!!!!!!! LOVE YOU, Mom

Redlefty said...

Thanks for your input and ideas, gang -- I always learn from feedback like that.

James and Mom, you have both gotten some good moral lessons out of the parable, and anytime the bible inspires us to be more generous and loving, I think that's excellent.

Perhaps it's the "stretching" that Bob referred to that bothers me a little. When somebody takes a non-literal story and turns it into a fear-based lesson on how God is prepared to burn most of his creation for eternity. But I'll save that for next time. :)

Thanks again, friends and family!

CresceNet said...
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Don R said...

I got my reinterpretation of this parable from That version makes perfect sense to me. It deals with the Rich Man representing the Jewish leadership of the day. To get the full interpretation, check out Tentmaker if you haven't.

Mike said...

Redlefty, Sometimes I think Christ hid multiple meanings within the parables. Your interpretation is the first time I have heard that slant, but it seems plausible to me.

BTW, Christ uttered those words about 40 years before 70 AD, so many who heard him would have been alive for the judgment of Jerusalem.

Thanks for commenting on my blog. I completely agree!