‘One day you will have to face up to the truth about yourself’. A favourite way of making this point in the ancient world was to imagine what happened to people when they died. Then their true reward would come. Such thinking inspired visions of the place of the rewarded and the place of the condemned, variously described as heaven and hell, paradise and Gehenna, and here as ‘Abraham’s bosom’ and Hades. More often than not however Hades is the abode of the dead, like Sheol, it’s the waiting room before end time judgement rather than the place of torment as in this story.
There was great flux of opinion in the first century regarding life after death. In the New Testament you may have noticed a difference, for example, between those who think judgement happens when each person dies (Luke, John, author of Hebrews) and everyone else who assumed there’s a judgement day, the Day of Lord, a one-off event at a future time.
In this parable we are dealing with a version of a folklore story which reflects a popular view of the afterlife among many Jews and non-Jews of the period which focused on the individual’s fate. In that sense it lacks the vision of a transformed world that the Day of the Lord theology has.
Rudolf Bultmann writing in the ‘60s, identifying the two main themes of this passage as inequity between rich and poor and the adequacy of the Torah, dated it later than the first century (with v.26 an even later implant – there being no ‘chasm’ in rabbinic material). Bultmann’s argument is that Jesus did not preach moralistically about the dangers of riches, but told of the disruptive reversal of God’s immanent Empire. Nowadays the first part of the parable is dated as post-Jesus (so after 33 CE) and pre-Lucan (so before the end of the first century). It’s a story developed and told by the early Jesus movement.
The rich man in the story is not portrayed as an overt evil-doer. He is part of the urban elite which controlled wealth and privilege. His wrong-doing is his self-preoccupation with which he prevented himself from caring about others as he cared for himself; and his indifference to those outside his gate. The man is very rich and very privileged; wearing garments of purple suggests some link with royalty. He eats as he dresses: extravagantly. Having a gate and a wall implies a large mansion.
The Bible as a whole is clear: all possessions belong to God. We own nothing. We are kaitiaki, caretakers. Wealth is not condemned in Scripture, nor is enterprise. But the pull of wealth to draw us away from God’s priorities is. The trouble is, even for a pious Jew of the 1st century who knows this theology of God owning all, wealth has a way of saying ‘You deserve me, and I deserve you.’ It’s very seductive. And in its seduction it asks us to forget – forget the theology, Torah, the demands and vision of God; forget neighbour, forget that we are all one human family. You will note that Abraham’s words to the rich man after death are all about the opposite of forgetting: he’s asked to remember.
By contrast with the rich man, Lazarus is a destitute beggar. The image is one of abject poverty and humiliation. ‘What fell from the rich man’s table’ is a reference to the use of bread to clean your hands (like a serviette) which would then be discarded onto the ground. It’s another form of conspicuous consumption that turned the necessities of life into disposables. After the meal the dogs were let in to clean up these edible serviettes. But not Lazarus – he was treated as one lower than the dogs.
William Herzog[i] suggests that Lazarus may have been a 2nd or 3rd son from a peasant family who only had enough land for the eldest to inherit; and who had to leave so the others wouldn’t starve. Or he may have had a plot of land and lost it through debt and foreclosure (a system helping the rich get richer, their estates get bigger). Unable to support himself as a day labourer in the countryside he migrated to the city. But the cities too were overrun with excess sons of the poor and forcibly displaced peasants; which in turn depressed wages and conditions; which in turn led to malnutrition; which in turn made one unable to compete for the limited jobs. In time illness came, cuts abscessed; begging was a necessity and a prelude to death. Yet as Ken Bailey[ii] says, maybe Lazarus’ greatest suffering was mental. Destitution had cut him off from family, from community, from relationship.
The story-teller wants to bring Lazarus and the rich man into close proximity. The reality was that as a beggar Lazarus wouldn’t have been allowed to camp at the rich man’s gate. Certain suburbs, then as now, had ways of keeping poverty out of sight. (We need to be wary of those who would shut out of public spaces – including main streets and libraries – those who are destitute, demanding, or just different).
But “the gate” is also a biblical reference to judgement – the elders sitting at the gate to adjudicate Torah. The story-teller is alerting us that a reckoning is coming.
Lazarus’ sores were licked by the street dogs. The image is primarily that of ritual uncleanliness. He is not only poor; he is a ‘sinner’. Religion often colludes with the ‘common sense’ of poverty being the fault of the poor. As for the dogs, Ken Bailey suggests that rather than assuming they were getting ready to eat Lazarus assume the opposite: that they are showing affection, trying to heal his wounds. The dogs are the compassionate ones.
Lazarus in the imaginary after-life of this story goes to ‘Abraham’s bosom’, the common dining posture of lying on your elbow with your head, therefore, close to the chest of your neighbour. ‘Bosom’ is a metaphor of intimacy. The rich man goes to an imaginary place to be punished forever amid the flames. The rich man looks across the gulf between these images and asks Abraham to get Lazarus to help him.
You will note that he doesn’t ask Lazarus directly. He thinks Lazarus is an errand boy to do Abraham’s bidding. The rich man is used to issuing orders and having them obeyed. He hasn’t yet awakened to the fact that the tide has gone out on his privilege. Note too that he knows Lazarus’ name. He knew that Lazarus had been at his gate. He’d seen Lazarus with his eyes but not his heart.
You will also note that the rich man addresses Abraham as ‘Father’, which is his title - he’s the faith-father of Jews (and Christians and Muslims). But in the story Abraham is also the father of Lazarus (and hence the intimacy). So the uncomfortable truth is that the rich man and Lazarus are kin.
The rich man is blind. He is blind to this kinship. He is blind to his own past actions. He continues to see Lazarus as an errand boy and pleads that Abraham send Lazarus to his five brothers. If commanding doesn’t work, try pleading. He pleads with Abraham. But note the rich man does not ask for forgiveness. His concern is for his own biological family, his class. When Abraham rejects this plea, the rich man asks for special treatment (as the rich often do) “send someone from the dead to tell them’. By implication the rich man is blaming God for his predicament. If Scripture has not worked in his case and the case of his class, then surely it is Scripture that is not good enough. ‘God, your messaging isn’t up to scratch; you need to sharpen up your communications’.
Throughout all this exchange, and indeed throughout the whole parable, Lazarus is silent. He neither pleas nor rages nor repents nor condemns nor seeks vengeance nor asks for special favours. His silence is seemingly unnoticed. And yet for those who have begun to see his silence is the most powerful thing about the whole parable.
This is a story about representatives of two social classes. Their lives are linked by their proximity, their faith, and the economic system that privileged one and destroyed the other. The rich man is not overtly condemned for his wealth, and it’s assumed that he is pious and Torah-observant (as most of the urban elite were). As the Latin American theologian Segundo said, Lazarus is justified before God “simply and solely because he is one of the poor” – justified not by faith, but by poverty. And Abraham is his advocate. The rich man with his Torah-observant religion cannot see the simple truth that his brother Lazarus was suffering and he did nothing. Religion doesn’t save the rich man.
This parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor. The trouble is that even such abstractions become easy to live with. We need some first-hand experience of encountering the real people whom we will then not be able to dismiss as relative statistics. And if that cannot be first hand, we need to engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which vested interests often maintain.
In this parable the after-life judgement – which of course is saying indirectly how we should live now regardless of our beliefs and hopes about any next life – this judgement is based on deeds, not beliefs; is based on kinship across economic and social divides (we are one human family), not on biological, clan, class, or national allegiances; is based on acts of compassion, generosity, empathy, and empowerment, not on beliefs about God, or Jesus, or religious doctrine, or what we think the Bible says. Actions, even very little ones (think of the dogs licking) are commended; indifference is condemned.
The way to life is to keep the commandments in the way Jesus expounds them such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Failure to heed this message on the assumption that faith in Jesus can be separated from actions, and faith will guarantee a place in heaven, is as much a folly now as it was then. Being and doing kindness and compassion are what matter.
So, the status quo, the privileged in their palaces and the poor on the pavements, is neither a reliable guide for determining God’s will, nor for determining who God has and is blessing, nor for discerning whom God thinks is honourable. We may be blind.
[i] Parables as Subversive Speech.
[ii] Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes.