Monday, July 09, 2018

Awfully Specific for a Parable

I find the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 a little unusual for one of the Lord’s parables, if indeed it is a parable at all.

For one thing, it employs plain language rather than the symbolism consistently associated with parables. Secondly, is not called a parable. Third, there is no ‘such-and-such is like’ to introduce it. Fourth, there are some awfully specific details given: The poor man, Lazarus, is named, something I’m not aware of the Lord doing anywhere else. Abraham, father of the Jewish nation, appears. The rich man has ‘five brothers’, rather than just ‘family’. Finally, it seems unlikely to me that the Lord would use a real, historical Hebrew saint with whom he had — and continues to have — a relationship as a mere character in an otherwise-concocted narrative just to make a moral point.

Personally, I lean toward thinking of the anecdote as historical. At very least, ‘story’ seems a better word for it than ‘parable’.

It’s about two men, one of whom lived and died in poverty, pain and ignominy, and a second that lived with the best of everything the world has to offer but no concern for, or interest in, the needs of a man suffering right under his nose. But the second man also dies, as will we all:
“… in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”
Note seven things about the rich man’s post-life experience in this passage:
  1. He remains fully conscious and has not lost his ‘personality’ or ‘soul’. This is not some random spirit crying out in Hades for mercy. This is an integrated person with memories, history and a sense of connection to this present world. There can be no relief in supposing that, in an eternity of punishment, those who reject Christ will experience the comfort of oblivion.
  2. He still seems to be in some sort of relationship to time. Abraham does not say of the rich man’s five brothers, “the opportunity for them is lost forever”, but “let them hear [Moses and the Prophets]”, as if there remains a chance for the brothers. The rich man knows the clock is ticking on his family, but can do nothing about it. That in itself seems an exquisite sort of torment, and one entirely self-inflicted.
  3. He can see the other side of the chasm: He sees Abraham “far off and Lazarus at his side”. The possibility of eternal joy is close enough to see, but not to be attained; nothing about his situation is open to change, and there is a constant reminder that his situation might have been very different.
  4. He has no body but still feels the need to have his tongue cooled.* The rich man says he is “in anguish in this flame”. His request for water to cool his tongue cannot be literal; his real tongue is rotting in his expensive tomb. But just as over 80% of amputees experience phantom pain in limbs no longer theirs, so the rich man’s soul and spirit are tormented; he experiences pain as if he still possessed a physical body. The heat, like the water and the tongue, may also be emotional or spiritual rather than physical, but that not make it any less terrible to experience.
  5. He doesn’t say, “Father Abraham, let me out!” and Abraham doesn’t say, “Don’t worry son, you’ve only got 500 years left to serve”. Despite Catholic dogma, there is nothing rehabilitative, curative or ‘purgative’ about the rich man’s torment. At some level he must recognize either the justice or the inevitability of his punishment and the fact that there is no revisiting his sentence. And his punishment is not undeserved. He “feasted sumptuously”, yet was able to heartlessly and repeatedly pass by a sore-covered beggar outside his gate, apparently without a second thought. Did he know the beggar’s name in life? Probably not. But he sure knew it in Hades. Did he recognize him when he saw him with Abraham? He certainly did. So in life he had looked on the poor beggar by his gate long enough to be aware who he was, but had not done anything to relieve his situation despite being more than able to do so.
  6. He cares about the fate of his brothers. We can sometimes find ourselves imagining that someone deserving of an eternity of torment must be a bitter, selfish, deeply hardened individual raging against God and glad to be away from him, and that perhaps this hatred of God somehow even armors such a person against the worst of hell’s torments. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” said John Milton, putting words in Lucifer’s mouth. This is the sort of attitude we expect to encounter in hell. The rich man in our story shows no such bravado or brazen antipathy to God. He simply lived for himself and ran out of time, and found himself having to render an account for his life when he never expected to.
  7. He seems to be alone. There’s no suggestion that the rich man is aware of anyone other than himself in Hades with him, though he is aware of Abraham and Lazarus. If there are others with him that the rich man is aware of, we don’t hear about it.
Naturally our popular culture disagrees with this bleak picture. The pop musician Morrissey sings, “There’s a place in hell for me and my friends” and Aaron Lewis waxes eloquent about a “party in hell”. That sort of blithe dismissiveness is now standard fare.

Unfortunately, it also comes with all the moral and doctrinal authority that accompanies the pronouncements of pop stars.

*  The dead do not appear to have bodies in hades, the temporary holding place of the dead. Their bodies are in the grave. The dead do appear to have their bodies in gehenna, the “second death”, the “lake of fire”, into which Death and Hades will be thrown after the Great White Throne judgment.

1 comment :

  1. I cannot think of another parable where the specific name of the person mentioned is given. In fact, it’s given alongside the name of a person whom we certainly know DOES exist, Abraham. If so, then for someone who’s taking the Scripture literally at all, the obvious road has to be to assume that when Jesus started the story with “Now there was a man…” He really meant, “there WAS a man.”

    Interestingly, the rich man’s name is not given, even though he’s the primary figure. Maybe we can assume that in Hell such details don’t matter much. Henceforth your existence, personhood and specific identity will remain a reality for you, but will be of no particular relevance to anyone else. Maybe that’s part of what it means to be “lost.”

    The people with Abraham still have names, though.