Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part Two)

One way I am thinking about this parable is as a “Tale of Two Tables.” Somov and Voinov examine the image of “the bosom of Abraham” in their article, and assist me in this line of thinking. In Luke 16:22, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “to be with Abraham.” In Luke 16:23, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “by [Abraham’s] side.” Neither rendering captures the intensity and intimacy of this image or the real impact of the two tables in our text.

Somov and Voinov argue that this metaphor of Abraham’s bosom “plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31…we argue that it represents a complex concept involving fellowship at a banquet/feast. Luke makes an opposition between two banquets,” the authors continue, “although there is no place for Lazarus at the earthly banquet at which the inhospitable rich man feasted, he is granted the most honored position at the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality” (page 616).

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The article reviews the theories which stand behind the work of the authors. That’s interesting, but if you read the work, you might want to jump to the second section, which deals specifically with our text (and you might want to skip over the diagrams based on the theories). The theories upon which the work is based help us to identify the system and structure of the metaphors used in a piece of text. In translation, we can then try to replicate not only the denotation of the words themselves but also the structure of the metaphors being employed.

In our text, the metaphor system is primarily spatial. According to the authors, we get lots of “up-down” imagery in the parable. The gate is lower and the rich man’s table is higher. The food scraps fall down from the rich man’s table while Lazarus looks up, hoping to (at least in his fond desire) catch some of the scraps. Lazarus is carried up to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man finds himself in Hades, the underworld.

In addition to the spatial imagery, the parable uses banquet imagery to show the reversal evidenced in the text. In this life, the rich man feasts every day, and Lazarus is in want. In the next life, the rich man is in want (for water). The parallel would be that Lazarus is the one who is satisfied. “In other words,” they summarize, “the opposition of hunger and satiation plays an additional role in the reversal of fates in this story” (page 621).

The authors note, along with most other commentators, that this parable illustrates the proclamation Jesus makes in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26. ““Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled (v. 21) …Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (v. 25, both NRSV). The Lukan author uses the banquet imagery throughout the middle section of the Gospel account. We have encountered those descriptions of “kingdom table manners” in the previous weeks of the lectionary readings.

The authors remind us that Abraham is mentioned frequently in the Lukan account – at least twelve times. In seven of those cases, Abraham is described as the “father” of Israel. He shows up in the afterlife both here in in Luke 20:37-38.  Lying in Abraham’s bosom, they argue, gives us a complex of three images. It describes what it means to be gathered with the righteous ancestors of Israel. It also shows a child lying in a parent’s loving embrace. And it illustrates the closeness of a guest to the host at a banquet (see page 626).

Lying in the bosom of a father is the image and language the Johannine author uses in John 1:18 to describe the relationship between the Son of God and the Father. This is more than an emotional experience. The image is intended to show physical proximity and intimacy. The Son, in John 1:18, is not just close to the Father’s heart in emotional terms. That imagery shows physical proximity and connection.

More to the point the image of “reclining next to the host at the same dining couch in the closest and most honored position” appears in John 13:23. This is the position of “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is the position of highest honor at a first-century banquet. This is, perhaps, the very kind of position for which people jockeyed when Jesus made his observations about seating charts earlier in the Lukan account.

Therefore, the imagery in our text may well indicate that Lazarus is now in the position of highest honor at the messianic banquet. This does not exclude the idea of close connection and intimacy. In fact, the two ideas are related and give structure to the parable, according to the authors. The fact that Abraham is known for his hospitality toward and intimacy with strangers (in Genesis 18:1-8) makes Abraham the ideal dining partner for Lazarus.

So, the parable is a tale of two tables. At the earthly banquet of the rich man, he is hospitable only to himself and to his guests. Lazarus is far away from (and far lower than) the rich man, who is the host of the banquet. The rich man is satisfied with physical food, while Lazarus hungers and longs to be filled.

At the heavenly banquet, Abraham is hospitable to Lazarus, as one would expect of the host of the banquet at Mamre (whether Lazarus is to be seen as a representative of God in the parable, therefore, is another conversation). Lazarus is close to Abraham, the host. The rich man is far away (and far lower). Lazarus is filled and satisfied. The rich man thirsts and longs to have something to drink. The use of the banquet metaphor makes the realities of the reversal much clearer and sharper (page 630).

The authors are translators, and their task is to render the text accurately into a variety of human languages. The question for them is, how to do that. It is possible to do a simple one-to-one exchange of the Greek “kolpos” for “bosom” or “lap” or “breast.” The authors worry that most of the available terms (in English and other languages) evoke associations with maternal care, something that doesn’t work as well with the male Abraham.

I’m not sure that’s an issue in the first-century context as much as it is in the twenty-first century context, but I’m not a professional translator. That is precisely the option, for example, which Martin Luther chooses for his translation of the New Testament. The German term, “Schoss,” means “lap” or “womb” or “bosom.” It fits in idioms that have to do with resting in the care, for example, of one’s family or of the Church. It can have a sense of physical intimacy as well. A Schosshund, to illustrate, is a “lap dog,” a close family pet.

That being said, the “bosom” option may not convey the fullness of the connection portrayed here. We can go the NRSV route and use phrases like “beside” or “be with.” But, the authors argue, “such a rendering misses the idea that Lazarus is in the most important place by Abraham’s side as the guest of honor” (page 632). Some translations go ahead and fill in that detail. The CEV reads that Lazarus is brought to “the place of honor next to Abraham.”

The Kiswahili rendering is “kifuani,” which means “chest.” This word carries the sense of close familial connection and intimacy. An “urafiki wa kifuani” is a “bosom friendship.” That’s a dimension worth considering in our interpretation, with its sense not only of intimacy but of positive regard and fellowship. The term can also be used in Swahili to describe a chest cold. Translation is tricky business at best. Nonetheless, the emphasis here is on emotional closeness and connection.

The fullest translation (and interpretation) is going to include the senses of closeness and physical intimacy, the place of honor, and the setting of the feast or banquet. While it’s not clear to me what sort of rendering could accomplish this, we certainly have the opportunity as interpreters to make this clear to our listeners and readers as we grapple with this text.

The authors summarize their work in a concluding paragraph. I’ll quote portions of that paragraph here. “In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position.” This opposition “makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable” (page 633).

As an interpreter, I don’t have to work out how to translate “eis ton kolpon Abraam” into English or any other language. But knowing the range and depth of this metaphor in our text does challenge me both to explain that structure fully and to wrestle with how that impacts the meaning of the parable in my preaching. If anything, this fuller understanding makes the proclamation of this parable more challenging and painful (at least for those of us who are more like the rich man than we are like Lazarus).

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of John. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Somov, Alexey, and Vitaly Voinov. “” Abraham’s Bosom”(Luke 16: 22–23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” The catholic biblical quarterly 79, no. 4 (2017): 615-633.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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