This is Part 2 of a conversation we started last week on the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. If you missed last week’s email, you can find it on our blog at https://togetherasoneforeveryone.wordpress.com
Last week, we looked at a parable about a rich man and a guy named Lazarus in Luke 16. In the story, a rich man dies and finds himself suffering in “Hades”–a place of fire and suffering. Lazarus, a poor and pitiful man who used to lay on the rich man’s front porch wishing for his table scraps, also dies but ends up in “Abraham’s Bosom”–a place of peace and comfort, free of the suffering in his earthly life.
This parable is a story Jesus told in the midst of a series of teachings, warnings and other parables that vividly illustrate God’s love and compassion for the poor, oppressed, alienated, etc. in contrast with his disdain for those who worship power and money at the expense of others. His words obviously brought joy and comfort to the rejected members of Jewish society who had gathered by the thousands to hear him teach. The rich and powerful Pharisees, on the other hand, caught the brunt of Jesus’ disparaging depictions of their evil way of life. Ultimately, it was Jesus’ harsh words to these powerful men that led to his arrest and crucifixion.
The fact that this story is most referenced for its setting–Hades and Abraham’s Bosom–as opposed to the central message it carried from Jesus to his listeners is telling, in that it reveals some things about the way many modern readers approach the scriptures. I’d like to explore some reasons we might get distracted from the main point of this parable and others like it.
One of those reasons, simply put, is lazy Bible scholarship. The unfortunate truth for so many Christians today is that the scriptures have little bearing on their lives outside using partial passages and cherry-picked verses to rationalize their sin and reassure themselves that they will “go to heaven” when they die. Too many people who consider themselves disciples of Jesus haven’t taken the time to learn context or search out the themes and narrative threads of the gospels that reveal how much deeper and more life-giving a relationship with God is meant to be. Sadly, our Christian culture has unwittingly created a kind of Twitter version of Jesus–carelessly reducing the unfathomable Alpha and Omega down to a finite number of characters.
If our primary interest in God is to ensure a comfortable eternity and happy life leading up to it, the story of the rich man and Lazarus can be easily interpreted as merely a lesson on the afterlife–who gets in and who’s left out. A cautionary tale to remind us to be nicer to poor people.
So, is Abraham’s Bosom what heaven is like? In this parable, did Jesus give us a snapshot of the eternal destiny of sinners in hell? In the afterlife can you eavesdrop on conversations between Abraham and the elitist hell-dwellers who don’t realize the seriousness of their predicament? Maybe. It’s worth talking about. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking element in the larger conversation about the ultimate judgment upon Christ’s return.
Here’s what I’m driving at: every one of Jesus’ parables, healings, miracles and demonic exorcisms carried a message within his overall mission. We can best determine that message by understanding its place in the overall story of the scriptures, its contribution to the purposes of the author’s writing, its significance to the original audience and how it fits within the surrounding stories and teachings.
The message is the main thing and the main thing is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (to borrow from Paul’s words to Timothy). The other details and nuances of parables, in particular, are valuable but peripheral to the primary message. This means we have to be careful about building definitive doctrinal interpretations around those elements of the story. In the case of Luke 16, it would be irresponsible to cite the parable as proof of what hell looks like when–contextually–that part of the story is not meant to be proof of anything.
Irresponsible Bible scholarship leaves us wide open to clever words and overconfident declarations about the meanings of particular biblical passages or verses. There have been wars fought, nations enslaved, helpless people exploited and countless churches divided at the hands of those who have acted like, “children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4).
Jesus did not pull punches when it came to his harsh judgment of those who twist the words of the scriptures to selfishly rationalize their sin and accrue power and resources at the expense of the weak and vulnerable. I don’t really see myself as purposefully manipulating scripture for personal gain. Even so, a lazy approach to understanding the Bible leaves me vulnerable to being manipulated as well as the spiritual damage I may inadvertently inflict on others as a result of my ignorance. Let us become students of the Word. It doesn’t require a seminary degree to be a responsible Bible scholar, but it will require us to spend purposeful time in the scriptures becoming more and more familiar with the scope and flow of God’s story beautifully revealed to us in the 66 books of the Bible.
Next week we get to talk about why checkbooks make terrible Bible interpreters.