This is Part 3 of a conversation we started a couple weeks ago on the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. If you missed our previous emails, you can find them on our blog at https://togetherasoneforeveryone.wordpress.com
So far, we’ve looked at the importance of biblical context in understanding the message of Jesus–and all scripture–in his parables. When we fail to understand what he was trying to communicate to the people sitting with him on the seashore all those years ago, we will be tempted to use (abuse) scripture to propagate and affirm our own agendas and ideas. This parable in Luke 16 is most often thought of in terms of its setting–a rich man who finds himself in Hades and a poor man who ends up in Abraham’s bosom (the good place, so to speak), which sheds some light on the ways Jesus’ words are often misinterpreted or misappropriated.
While there is nothing wrong with being curious about what the setting of this story might have to say in the conversation about heaven and hell, we have to be careful about using peripheral details in parables as proofs or invalidations of doctrine. 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 and alienated, in contrast with his disdain for those who worship power and money at the expense of others.
The dangers of ignoring context and missing or contextualizing the intended message of this parable are real, but unnecessary. A general familiarity with the book (Luke) that includes the parable and a little digging makes finding the central message quite accessible. From there, we are best able to discern its meaning to us today in our own modern context and avoid hijacking Jesus’ teaching for our own purposes.
There is another reason we might be tempted to file this parable under the heading of Heaven and Hell. Rich and powerful people tend to be extremely uncomfortable with stories that depict rich and powerful people burning up in Hades–and, like it or not, you and I are among the richest and most powerful people in the world.
Powerful people with vast resources at their disposal tend to feel entitled to and put great effort into acquiring security and certainty. The rich and powerful often ask God to reveal his will, but mostly in the interest of a compulsive pursuit of their own personal betterment. We are quick to look to God for the perfect job, spouse, well behaved kid and low mortgage rate, but forget to pray for widows, orphans and foreigners. Rich and powerful Christians can become acutely interested in the conversation about heaven and hell because they want to know how to lock down an afterlife in heaven that improves on the comforts and security they are building for themselves in this life.
Broken people hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. They read God’s story through tear-filled eyes, stumbling through a thick fog of grief and pain to seek God for mercy and relief. These are the kind of people who flocked to Jesus as he traveled, and these people were constantly shocked and astonished by his message; that Yahweh, indeed, had heard their cries and sent his Son, the Messiah to save them. They believed him when they saw him heal the blind and the diseased.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a warning to those who worship their possessions through their ironic pursuit of cheap peace and security by means of violence and subjugation of the people around them. Stripping this story down to a misappropriated eschatological doctrine is a grave distraction from allowing this message from Jesus to convict us of sin and push us to align ourselves with the compassionate and just heart of God.
This sounds harsh. I would much rather look for ways to identify myself as one of the “least of these” than admit I look much more like one of the rich Pharisees at the edges of the crowd. Unfortunately, there it is, right in front of us, told in the form of a parable so we will be less likely to forget it. Unless, of course, we are lazy with the scriptures or blinded by pervasive practices of cherry-picking Bible verses as proof texts for doctrinal debates. The wealthy Pharisees in the crowd that day did not go home to discuss the correlation between Abraham’s Bosom and Old Testament doctrines of Heaven. They stormed off, red faced and ears burning, determined to dream up a viable and legal way to see this problematic rabbi silenced–nailed to a cross.
As Christians, we cannot afford to let smooth-talking teachers and fear mongering preachers feed us their party lines and create disunity in the body of Christ. Instead, we must be students of the scriptures, prayerful contemplatives and humble co-laborers with our disciple brothers and sisters who will encourage, edify and challenge us in our faith and standing before God. I, for one, am grateful to worship in community with a group of Jesus followers who are willing to confront their own discomfort in order to hear God’s voice and respond in obedience. None of us could do this on our own, so let’s continue to walk together!