Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Some exegesis on 'Lazarus and the Rich Man'

As I sit here, trying to derive a homily for Sunday, I sometimes find it helpful to do some exegesis on the passage. I wrote out my notes, and they follow.

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day…."

Why did the Lord tell this parable to the Pharisees? Was he speaking to a particular group? Was he visiting someone’s house, looking around at the guests at a meal? What might the Lord have seen as he approached the house?

If you look at the larger section of the Gospel, to discover the setting for this, the only hint you get is back at Chapter 14, it begins, "On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully." Whether all that follows took place at that dinner is not clear, but it’s possible.

"And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,"

—note the vivid contrast in what "covers" each: "purple garments"…"sores."

"who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores."

The contrast—between what a dumb animal does and what a human being fails to do—is striking.

"When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,"

Was poor Lazarus not buried? Why not? Was this part of the Rich Man’s failure, that he didn’t even notice, or care, about a corpse at his doorstep? Or was he not buried because the angels carried him away? If he was not buried, that of course would be a noteworthy injustice, as burying the dead is a very fundamental act of mercy, a duty we owe one another.

"and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'"

Note: the Rich Man recognizes Lazarus! He knows his name.

"Abraham replied, 'My child,"
This comment makes clear that the Lord’s parable is about a Jew, not a pagan.

"…remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."

We might here ask the question: just what did condemn the Rich Man to torment? Was it merely because he was rich? The text might be read as saying something like that--or even, "you were fated to have your good times in time, and bad in eternity--that's how it works sometimes!" But that would be very hard to reconcile with the rest of what is revealed to us by God. Being rich, per se, is not a sin, but it can be a snare.

The parable seems to raise the question: what was the Rich Man's responsibility regarding Lazarus? The details of the story suggest that the Rich Man's sin was the total lack of concern, his complete passivity: he didn't even provide scraps of food, worthless to himself; he provided no help to a sick man, so that only dogs could be counted on to provide comfort; and--if this is the meaning--he neglected a corpse. There is nothing to suggest the Rich Man had to divest himself of his wealth, in order to be saved. But he ought to have done something for Lazarus, but he did absolutely nothing.

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’"

The reason someone might wish to go from torment to Abraham’s bosom is obvious; but for what reason might anyone wish to take the opposite journey?

"He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'"

Interesting: the Rich Man shows some concern for his fellow man. One could take that a couple of ways: (1) Does this reveal that someone in hell can still have a decent impulse? Or (2), does it serve rather to advance the narrative—to prepare for the final part of the story—and therefore, should not be read as suggesting someone in hell is capable of such impulses. I tend to the latter, because it seems to me the nature of damnation—of being "lost"—suggests the sparks of decency have been extinguished. But that reflects my own view of salvation and damnation.

"But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.'"

This is worth noting here. You will hear people make rather breezy comments about the Four Gospels, trying to contrast them one from the other, and in doing so, will create oppositions between them, and their messages, that the texts themselves don’t support. So, for example, folks will say, "Oh, Mark emphasizes the humanity of Christ, John the divinity." Well, there’s a kernel of some truth in that, but really, that’s so misleading: they both present our Lord as very much God, and very human.

Or, someone will say, "Oh, Matthew is very Jewish, while Luke—who was a Gentile—goes the other way." So many flaws built into such a facile contrast. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall anything definite on whether Luke was ever a Jew—i.e., he might have converted to Judaism or been on the way to doing so. But in any case, folks who say such things haven’t read either Gospel closely enough. Matthew, for example, begins with the genealogy, which many people skim past.

It is very revealing, including the highlighting of many Gentile ancestors of our Lord, who—if you look closely—was adopted: i.e., he is presented as belonging to Joseph’s lineage, and yet, the text makes crystal-clear that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception of Jesus. Of course, this doesn’t call Jesus’ Jewishness into question, but in the context of the genealogy, with several Gentiles included, it presents the picture of the Church that St. Paul preached: of the Gentiles being "grafted in." And if you go carefully through Matthew, you’ll find lots more—i.e., all in anticipation of Matthew’s closing scene, where Our Lord says, "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…"

Then, here, in Luke, you have something like this phrase, which is remarkable—Our Lord is saying, the Law and the Prophets are sufficient. Our Lord would say many times that they point to him, that he is the Message of the Law and the Prophets. Sounds like something that was supposed to be in Matthew! Yet here it is in "very Gentile" Luke.

My point is not to deny contrasts and differences among the Gospels, but to point out that many make far too much of them; and many try to come up with shorthand descriptions of the individual Gospels that distort the picture.

"He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"

Many have noticed the following. First, of course, that we know Our Lord will die and rise from the dead—and many will still not be persuaded.

Second, some find very interesting that there was a Lazarus, who died and rose from the dead, and yet folks were not persuaded by that. They note additionally, Abraham did not actually refuse this latter request.

This is fascinating, no question, but I should note, however, a caution on the latter point: the raising of Lazarus from the dead is part of the Gospel of John, not Luke; Luke nowhere mentions it, or that Lazarus, if memory serves. So while there may be an historical connection, there is no textual connection—we cannot assume, without other evidence, that Luke is expecting his reader or hearer to know that other story, because it may not have been written yet, and we don’t even know if Luke knew about that other Lazarus. Yes, it’s a spectacular story, but so many things Our Lord were spectacular, and he raised others from the dead. We know Luke doesn’t include the story, but we don’t know why. If John did write his Gospel after Luke—we really don’t know—but if he did, it’s possible he had this parable in mind. But since John doesn’t include this parable, one might wonder—did he know about it?

For some, this may seem too esoteric; but many mistakenly combine different stories into one, or assume that if someone named "Lazarus" is mentioned more than once in the Gospels, then of course they all must be the same person. In fact, the Lazarus described in John is not a poor beggar, abandoned by all, but a man of some means, with many friends. I am at a loss to reconcile the two Lazaruses; if someone knows how that is done, please share. In the meantime, it seems better not to try.

Now, above I faulted those who make too much of each Gospel’s particular features, so I want to be careful not to do so myself. But this parable—which only appears in Luke—shows one of the things he is known for emphasizing: the reversal of rich and poor, mighty and lowly. Some find Luke the most "revolutionary" Gospel—if Liberation theologians preferred Luke, I could see why.

(By the way, "liberation theology" is not entirely bogus—it has many valid points. It’s error lay in focusing far too much on salvation in this world’s terms, through political or social change. And that is usually how it is with teachings that are deemed error or heresy—it’s not that they aren’t true, as far as they go, but rather, they don’t go far enough. Or they aren’t broad enough—they make too much of a true insight, but in isolation from the broader truth, and thus arises their error.)

This Gospel, along with the first reading, are naturals for a homily on social justice, as were last week’s readings. FYI.

A few more notes.

Somewhere or another, I've seen Catholic apologetics use this passage to support praying to the saints, i.e., asking the saints to intercede for us. They point to the following details: the Rich Man seeks Abraham's help (i.e., Abraham is a saint, although we are not accustomed to calling him that), as well as Lazarus'; and it shows people in eternity well aware of, and concerned for, people in this life. I.e., those who don't pray for the dead, and/or don't seek the intercession of the saints, often say, "I wonder if people in heaven know anything about what's going on here." Because, of course, if they did, you'd have a hard time explaining why they don't pray for us...and if they know, and pray, then merely thinking about someone in the next life, and wishing they would pray for you...oops! you just prayed to someone in heaven, asking for intercession!

While you can make these points, I'm not sure you can go further, and assert that Our Lord, or Luke, intended this parable to address these questions.

Finally, someone may wonder why the Rich Man is sometimes called "Dives." If memory serves, that is a Latin word for "Rich Man."


Rachel said...

Interesting exegesis, Father. you wrote, "it seems to me the nature of damnation—of being lost—suggests the sparks of decency have been extinguished. But that reflects my own view of salvation and damnation." I thought that was actually Catholic teaching, that there is no virtue left in Hell? Maybe I'm wrong.

I heard the following explanation of the rich man's apparent altruism in Hell: he knew that he had had a certain responsibility for his brothers, and his selfish lifestyle had influenced them for the worse. If they ended up damned, the rich man's torment would be all the worse, for he'd have to suffer for his part in their damnation. Thus, begging for someone to go help them to salvation was a perfectly selfish thing for him to do!

But that explanation seems to stretch things a bit; I tend toward your view that his request is just advancing the story and isn't something that would actually happen in Hell.

Fr Martin Fox said...

"I thought that was actually Catholic teaching, that there is no virtue left in Hell? Maybe I'm wrong."

I wouldn't say you're wrong; I would say, off-the-cuff I'd rather not assert that Catholic teaching has settled that question, but perhaps I wasn't paying attention that day in class at the seminary.

I.e., what the Church teaches is rather more terse than traditionally how that teaching has been explained or understood; but the latter, while venerable and very likely true, is not to be equated with the actual doctrine per se.

Whether any virtue remains in hell, I would put in the latter category.

Anonymous said...

Father, I listened to a priest that did combine the two Lazarus's into one, and it was almost a sin for me. Being a former Baptist, I know my Bible pretty well, and was most upset.

I personally don't have a problem with two people having the same name. Or if the story was told at the house in Bethany, it could be that Jesus may have been teasing Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary.

Anonymous said...

I've always been bothered by the Rich Man's appropriation of Lazarus's time. He tells *Abraham* to send Lazarus. WHY? Why should Lazarus go and why shouldn't he be asked directly? So I've never thought of the asking as showing a virtue so much as showing how little the rich man still thinks of Lazarus since he's just a servant to be sent hither and thither.

Anonymous said...

Thanks you, Father, for sharing background information, context adn your own insights on the Gospel reading. It was very illuminating and very moving to see how much thought and prayer adn work goes into your homily. Though I am somewhat to the (far) left of you politically and even ecclesially, I really enjoy your blog and its honesty, clarity and accessibility. Keep up the good work!

Martin Daly

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Fox.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I find them well done, even when I disgree with sections.
In this case I must challenge your decision to take the second option regarding the rich man's petition for his family. I think that the Bible has purpose, and doesn't use a lot of "filler" to flesh out a story. And while it is true that a God intent on punishing a person would threaten that man's family in front of him, I don't really accept that my God works that way.
If indeed Abraham tells him the man his brothers will be judged on their own merits, why do we pray for the dead? Would it not be better to toss them to the worms and let God deal with it? No. I think that our prayers have value and that while the evil we do lives after us, some of the good may come along through the intercession of others.
And consider the fact that the parable speaks of a Jewish man. Most Jews do not believe in the Roman Catholic hell, but in Gehenna which is much more like our purgatory (and with a much lighter sentence!). It was in this place, where a man does have a chance to atone for his sins, that the man cried out to warn his siblings.
Last but not least, Abraham is not the final arbiter in any case. Somehow I can pictuce God standing on the hillside watching the discussion taking place, coming down to put his arm on Abraham's shoulder, and saying, "Abe, how many times do I have to remind you to lighten up. It's about forgiveness."

Anonymous said...

Help me out here please. Is the story of Lazarus a real account or just a parable? Did the rich man and Lazarus really exist or was it just a story Jesus used to make a point? I have often wondered that.
How could this Lazarus be a saint in heaven if he wasn't real to begin with?
Thank you,

Fr Martin Fox said...


I don't know if the Lazarus and the rich man of this story are real. Whether they are real or not does not affect the truth or power of the parable, since its purpose is not to recount two particular human beings' eternal fate, but to teach.

I am not aware of anyone claiming this Lazarus is a "saint in heaven." The point is, the parable depicts him as being in heaven, so in the parable he might be called a saint, but I don't think that's the focus of the parable either.

Now, of course, there is another Lazarus mentioned in the Gospels, who is presumed to have existed--the Lazarus of Bethany who died and was raised. I assume he is a saint.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Father,
I agree completely with you on the truth and power of the parable as it pertains to eternal fate. I also appreciate your perspective on this gospel. The reason I ask about weather or not the two men in the parable are real is because thirty years ago my Father gave me a St. Lazarus medal that I still wear to this day. The medal depicts Lazarus on crutches with dogs at his side licking his wounds. It has brought me great comfort over the years and helped to keep me focused on God, my faith in the Catholic Church, and living the message of that particular gospel. So, every year that I hear it read at Mass I wonder about it and if my asking for St. Lazarus' intercession is falling on deaf ears, so to speak. Often when seeking intercession of Mary, Joseph, or any particular saint I tend to ask them to be beside me and pray right along with me as I pray my petition to the lord and I understand and believe that they are there with me. However, as it pertains to Lazarus I often wonder if I'm alone. Not that my sincere pray isn't being heard by God but, well, you know what I mean.
Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

Your use of 'Bonfire of the Vanities' for your Blog's title is a severe insult to Thomas Wolfe and the fine virtues for which he stood. I demand that you change it to better represent your association with the Roman Fascist Church.

Anonymous said...

Au contrair, anonymous, Thomas Wolfe used the title from an Italian custom of burning those precious things that might cause people to sin.

This happened in the 1400's, which is probably before Thomas started writing. ;)

Fr Martin Fox said...


If the eminent Mr. Thomas Wolfe has any complaints, I can't wait to hear from him; everything he says is enjoyable. It would be an honor to have him drop by.

Fr. Ron Williams said...

Jane M, you raise an interesting point about the rich man, even in death, treating Lazarus as though he were a servant to be sent to do his bidding. This is an interesting exegetical point that, quite frankly, I'd not considered. But another way to look at this is the rich man is eternally lost. Lazarus, because he is figuratively a saint in heaven (N.B. I'm not claiming that he's actually a saint, just that he stands for the "typical" saint), he can be sent back to the world as a heavenly interecessor. The rich man, meanwhile, has an impassable chasm that separates him from the rest of reality. And it is this separation that, unfortunately, brings him eternal torment.

Unknown said...

Anna and Padre Martin, good answers to the Thomas Wolfe fan.