Friday, October 31, 2008

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 4)

This is still the same chapter as "part 3," but that post was getting long, so I thought I would be nice and break things up a bit. The second half of Luke 16, in fact, deals with economic issues. One might begin to think that Jesus (or Luke) is obsessed with relations between rich and poor, wealth, and, well, giving it all away.

So, here is a famous story by Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham's bosom:

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. At at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon 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, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil 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 corss 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 some one 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.'"

Ok...I know that was long. And this is a famous story. By the way, this is not the same Lazarus that Jesus rose from the dead...although the coincidence of resurrection language and the name Lazarus is suspect! But here the point is that Lazarus will NOT be raised from the dead, because it would be pointless.

But let's see what is going on in the dynamics of this story. The first thing I noted was that the rich man wore purple. Purple was a luxury item, and in this period is highly associated with the imperial regime--the emperor wore the most purple. Senators next, and so on. This detail, at least, narratively evokes that imperial apparatus. This man lived well and ate sumptuously in stark contrast to Lazarus, the beggar outside, who wishes for just a scrap, but, it seems, does not receive it. Both die, and we have the literary technique of reversal: the first becomes last and the last first. The rich man is taken to Hades in torment, Lazarus receives comfort. In a nice inverse parallel, just like Lazarus wanting a scrap from the rich man's table and evidently not receiving it, the rich man wishes for just a bit of water from Lazarus, but cannot receive it. Just as he refused to give in this life, he will not receive in the next. In the end, the rich man wishes to send warning to his five brothers through Lazarus. But Abraham notes that they already have warning by Moses and the prophets. If they cannot learn by Moses and the prophets, what good would a guy rising from the dead do? Let me pass over briefly the obvious theological irony here with regard to Jesus' own resurrection. The rich man wants to send Lazarus so that his brothers will repent. Repent of what? Why, exactly, is the rich man in Hades? My first inclination is to say that he is there because he failed to let Lazarus eat from his table. He should have given his scraps to the poor, right? But, if the afterlife is an inversion of this life, and getting what you gave, the inversion would be that he would be in Hades and get some relief from time to time. How does Abraham explain why they are in their respective positions? He says: "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good thigns, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish." You get the opposite in the afterlife that you get in this life. So, what should his brothers repent of? If they want to ascend to Abraham's bosom and not be in Hades, they need to repent of their wealth. This, in fact, is very consistent with Jesus' earlier pronouncements of one not being able to serve God and mammon. It also is consistent with his command to sell everything you own and to give the proceeds to the poor. It is, I think, the understanding that keeps true to the story itself: comfort in the next life is the luxury for those who have none in this life. Luke's Jesus, indeed, is a radical one. Whether Jesus' economic vision is one you think is viable is a different matter.

Now, apart from these economic issues, what about the theological, or christological point: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neitehr will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead." Does this completely undermine Jesus' own resurrection as in any way meaningful? Lazarus does not come back to life because the Law and the Prophets should be enough. Does this, therefore, pass the criterion of dissimilarity--meaning, we can be confident Jesus said it because it is not in the interest of the early Christian movement? It might explain why, in fact, some early Christians were having trouble getting people to believe their message. On the other hand, it suggests that there is no need of a new message--it is all there in the Law and the Prophets. All you need is Moses...or, the Lukan Jesus' interpretation of Moses.

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