If you only read the verses selected by the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday (Luke 16:19-31), you might think the story Jesus made up about the conversation in Hades between Abraham, the rich man, and Lazarus simply refers to the rich man’s lack of compassion and not feeding the poor. That’s what I always thought. Yet, more than ever I am seeing the importance of context in deciphering the meanings.
Why would Jesus offer this story at this time? Well, you need to look at the verses leading up to the story.
Last week, the RCL gave us Luke 16:1-13, where Jesus told the Pharisees they could not serve both God and mammon (an unfair economic system based on unequal weights and balances with the accumulation of money as the objective). This week the RCL gives us Luke 16:19-31, skipping verses 14-18.
I kind of understand why they left five verses out. It appears to be somewhat confusing the way it was originally translated into English…early in the 1600’s…in a male dominated culture. But it steals any ability to connect Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man with what came before it. Read any other version and then compare vits erses 14-18 with mine:
LUKE 16 [my additions are in green and identify what I believe to be the meaning, and the footnotes are explained after my interpretation of the story]
14 Upon hearing all these things, the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, scoffed at him.
15 So [Jesus] said to them, “You are those who pronounce yourselves moralh in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts, in that what is exalted [in verses 1-13, money was the focus; but in the next verse, the focus turns toward the Law and Prophets] among men is an abominationh2 in the sight of God.
16 “Until John (the Baptist) arrived, the Law and the Prophets were exalted. From that point forward, the kingdom of Godi is being proclaimed as the good news. Indeed, everyone is being strongly urged toward it.j
17 But for you, it is easier for the skyk and the earth to pass away than for one tiny mark of the Law to fall from its elevated position.
18 “Anyone who dismisses his wife and marries another commits adultery; and a man who marries a woman dismissed from a husband commits adultery.
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Something is missing that connects verse 17 to what Jesus said next in verse 18. To think that Jesus decided, all of a sudden, from out of the blue, to remind the Pharisees about adultery at this point in the conversation, as if he was agreeing with it, doesn’t make any sense. Either no conjunction was used because it was understood as part of a cultural way of saying things, or it was redacted (edited out) by a scribe. Try this: insert this conjunction between verses 17 & 18 and see if it makes a connection: [For example:]
Then immediately after verse 18, listen as Jesus might have intended to finish his thought:
[“This is a ridiculous law. A divorced woman often has no choice in this culture and society. Why is she declared to be off-limits for any man to remarry her because of a husband’s arbitrary decision to abandon her?l She has no way to support herself except to turn to prostitution. That would be cruel. In fact, let me tell you a story about those who exalt the Law even when it brings pain to the innocent (rejected wives).]
This is the point (now that you know the context) when Jesus tells the story about a rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham. This is my translation:
19 “A certain man was rich, dressed in purple and fine yellow linen, and he celebrated extravagantly every day. 20 Now there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who had been put out at his gate and 21 hoping to be fed with anything that dropped from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 Now it came time for the beggar to die and to be carried by angels into the arms of Abraham. But the rich man also died and was buried. 23 And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham in the distance, and Lazarus in his arms.
24 “So he called out and said, ‘Father Abraham, show mercy to me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this fire.’l 25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember how you experienced your good things during your lifetime, yet in the same way, Lazarus experienced troublesome things. Nevertheless, now he is being comforted and you are being tormented. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great gulf has been established, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot, nor can those from there cross over to us.’
27 “Therefore he said, ‘I beg you, father, that you might send him to the household of my father, 28 for I have five brothers, that he might warn them, lest they might come to this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them learn from them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone (namely, Lazarus) from among the dead goes to them, they will change the way they think.’m 31 So he said to him, ‘If they do not learn from Moses and the prophets [the ones they esteem most highly], neither will they be persuaded if someone (like Lazarus) might appearn from among the dead.’”
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h just; righteous, impartial, honorable, fair, moral, unbiased.
h2 abomination. How many things Jesus did call an abomination? A term we might use today would be “disgusting.”
i kingdom of God: the establishment of Oneness, development of Unity (the Aramaic word for God is Alaha, which means “oneness” or “unity”).
j strongly being urged toward it, is suggested by NRSV as well as is pressing forward toward it.
k heaven, the sky.
l fire is an image of purification, and also as the negative consequences of unloving actions.
m Metanoia means to change one’s mind, or change the way one thinks.
n anistēmi; rise up, stand up, come forth, appear. Since Jesus is referring to Lazarus when Luke says “someone,” it makes more sense to use “appear” so as to reduce the chance of readers being led to think Jesus was predicting his own resurrection. Those who exalt the Law above people would not listen to the spirit of a beggar returning to warn them.
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The story itself is an insult to the traditional Jewish male way of thinking. Jewish men believed anyone who was rich was favored by God. Poor people were being punished by God. Why would a rich man end up in Hades? Except that Hades was not the picture of Hell that some promote in the 21st century. Hades was the place where the spirit of EVERY person ended up when a person died. Thus, the rich man could “see” Abraham and Lazarus in the distance. They were all in Hades.
Maybe Jesus replaced the image of a woman dismissed by her husband with a male character—Lazarus. The suggestion of Abraham holding a divorced woman in his arms would not be imaginable by the Pharisees and they would immediately stop listening to the story. But in the 21st century, surely we are advanced enough to tolerate a picture of Abraham holding and comforting a woman in public other than Sarah (?).
Men are exalted while women are treated poorly by men. So a divorced woman is placed outside the gates of patriarchy to fend for herself. The dogs are the Gentiles who buy her flesh so she can barely stay alive. At least the dogs see some worth in her (small comfort to her that they will pay attention to her wounds, or shame).
The chasm is a person’s hardness of heart, absence of compassion, and closed ears that cannot hear the cries of those who suffer because of laws that uphold patriarchy and male domination.
The kingdom of God, as I explained in my book, is the development or establishment of unity, harmony, equity, or oneness among people on earth.
The bottom line: Jesus was fighting patriarchy and the inability of men to discern the damage that male-dominated, inequitable divorce laws were doing to women. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.