Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Rich Man and Lazarus - Part Two

As I said in my last post, the Rich Man and Lazarus is a truly shocking parable.  Shocking because it is the rich, powerful, and successful man that ends up being tortured in the after-life and the loser, who can only lie all day at his gate, who gets to be with Abraham.  What is more, Abraham refuses to let the Rich Man even have a drop of water to ease his pain.

What would Jesus' hearers have made of it?  That he wasn't too keen on rich people would seem one thing.  As I was preparing, however, I was struck by the following historical details.

The High Priest at the time was Caiaphas.  He was the son-in-law of a previous High Priest, Annas.  Both of whom are mentioned in the Gospels (Luke 3:2, John 18:13, Acts 4:6).  Annas had been deposed by the Romans for over-stepping his authority, but he remained extremely powerful and influential.  Annas had five sons of his own all of whom went on to become High Priests as did Caiaphas' own son.  Josephus tells us that this was one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Judea in the first century.

Commentators rightly note how the Rich Man isn't named in the parable.  (More about which in a moment.)  But is it possible that Jesus is, at least, basing his picture of the Rich Man on Caiaphas?  High Priests wore purple and fine linen as did the Rich Man.  The Rich Man had five brothers.  Why five?  OK the five brothers were brothers-in-law, but the figure five is surely suggestive.  Then there is the fact that normally the High Priests were Sadducees, Caiaphas certainly was (Acts 5:17), and the one certain thing that we know about the Sadducees is that they did not believe in resurrection and they did not believe, and this is important, that there were rewards and punishments after this life.

Their wealth and views on the after-life then provide a perfect explanation for the background to the parable.  By having the Rich Man tormented and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, Jesus is challenging their confidence that there will be no reckoning for their behaviour in the present.  It may also explain Abraham's rather strange comment that if the Rich Man's brother's did not believe 'Moses and the prophets', then neither would they believe if someone was to rise from the dead.  Why wouldn't the Rich Man's brothers believe if someone rose from the dead?  Is Jesus simply saying they are set in their unbelief or is he making an allusion to the Sadducees stance on life after death?  Something, indeed, that Jesus has an argument with them over.

If this sounds a little fanciful, we know that they didn't believe when it actually happened that someone did rise from the dead.  In John 12, Jesus raises Lazarus, yes Lazarus, from the dead and the reaction of the chief priests, which would have included Caiaphas' 5 brothers-in-law, is not to believe him, but to try to kill him:

'So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.'  (John 12:10-11)

This is precisely how Abraham says they would react.

If I was to tell a story in a sermon and began it, 'There was a certain black President who was the leader of a powerful country ...'or, 'There was a certain leader of a city who always wore bow-ties ... ' Wouldn't people make associations with either President Obama of the United States or Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong?

Now nothing depends on this as far as the interpretation of the parable is concerned, but if it is in anyway on the right lines then it would have added even more dramatically to the impact of the parable when Jesus told it.  Its shock value would have been even greater.

And it is shocking even if we manage not to be shocked by it.  The Rich Man is not given a name.  He is known by his wealth.  Money does this it possesses and take over the personality of the person concerned so that they become known by their possessions.  What matters is the brand labels they wear, the places they are seen in, the addresses they live at.  The Rich Man, because of his love of money, has become anonymous, defined now by his wealth and not by who he is.

Riches also pervert.  Abraham says how in his life the Rich Man received good things and Lazarus evil things.  The parable is not glorifying poverty as, sadly, Christians sometimes are tempted to do.  Lazarus' poverty was evil.  But what the rich man owned was also good.  Jesus is not dualistic.  He is not suggesting that material things are wrong.  The Rich Man's clothes were beautiful.  His food was no doubt a tribute to his chef's skill and creativity.  The problem is good things too easily become gods rather than simply goods.  In our lust and desire for them, we give them a role they should not have perverting them and corrupting them.

We live in a society that from the earliest age encourages children to get an education so they can embark on a well-paid career and acquire as a result all the trappings of success.  Doesn't this parable challenge this philosophy of life and call into question our attitudes and values?  By encouraging our children to think like this, we are not preparing them so much for life after college as for hell after death.

Jesus speaks about a reversal of fortunes after death in such graphic terms not to frighten us by what will happen to us in the future, but to encourage us to change in the present.

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