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

Last week, I spent time comparing the Unjust Steward to Bugs Bunny. This week, it’s time for Christmas!

My spouse is ready for Christmas all the year round. We begin thinking about Christmas gifts in February. We begin securing those gifts in earnest starting in July. We are thinking about Christmas decorations in September. We even have a Christmas tree currently masquerading as a “fall tree” in our living room. We leave the lights and decorations up until the Presentation of Jesus in February, when it’s time to begin thinking about the next Christmas!

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I don’t share my spouse’s enthusiasm for all the signs of the season as year-round realities. However, I am never far from making a textual connection to some element of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Brief and brilliant, this novella is an unending source of illustrations and quotations. This week the connection is more than incidental. Instead, Dickens’ story gives us an interpretive key to our text and, for me at least, a way into preaching it in worship.

“With its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, this parable fits the form of an apocalypse,” Barbara Rossing writes in her 2016 workingpreacher.org commentary, “An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it is too late.” Rossing wrote in greater detail about our text in her 2004 book, The Rapture Racket. Page numbers in my references will refer to that book.

Rossing reminds us that apocalyptic accounts are not limited to ancient sources. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has all the features of an apocalypse. “The threat to Scrooge was not that he would end up dragging literal chains made of cash-boxes, keys, and padlocks,” Rossing writes, “He was bound by the chains in his life and his heart. The vision’s realism made them fearful,” she continues, “but not as literal predictions of the future” (page 85). Instead, the experiences gave Scrooge and urgent call to change his life while he still could.

As Rossing notes, the most important question Scrooge asks is, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” The rich man in our story is, indeed, past all hope. But we, as listeners and readers, are not.

Our story has the characteristics of an apocalyptic tale. What we see on the surface and in the earthly realm is not an accurate picture of how things really are. The true nature of things is revealed, uncovered, as the story unfolds. That is the meaning of the word, “apocalypse:” to uncover or unveil something that is hidden. An apocalypse lifts the covers and allows us to see the real story.

Journeys to the heavenly realm and to the underworld are also features of apocalyptic tales. These descriptions highlight both the blessings Lazarus now experiences and the agonies the rich man suffers. The contrast is elevated because the rich man can see the difference. But he can’t get there from here. Abraham serves as the supernatural guide for the journey, another feature of apocalyptic tales.

As the guide, he reminds the rich man that in his earthly life, he had already received his good things. Lazarus had received evil things. I can almost hear the voice of Jacob Marley amid the rattling of chains and the wailing of spirits. “These are the chains I forged in life!”

“The purpose of Jesus’ story is not to predict the details of actual future sufferings or blessings,” Rossing writes. “Abraham’s bosom is not a literal place, after all!” (page 86). We’ve examined the symbolism of that description in a previous post. “Jesus tells the story as a wake-up call for those who are still alive,” Rossing continues, “helping us to see the poor at our gate and do something before it is too late, before the terrifying chasm is fixed” (page 86).

In our literary context, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. They turned their noses up at his criticism of their hypocrisy. That’s the literal meaning of the verb translated as “scoffed at.” They were “lovers of money.” The literal meaning of that word is “friends of silver.” While Jesus urges us to “make friends with unrighteous Mammon,” the Pharisees in the text had developed too deep a friendship with wealth and couldn’t see the consequences of that cozy relationship.

If I mention the Pharisees in this regard in my message, I will take some time to make sure I don’t perpetuate several anti-Semitic tropes. It is too easy for Christians to portray Jews as greedy and corrupt money-grubbers. It is even easier to use any resistance to Jesus’ message as a subtle reminder of the “Christ-killer” label Christians have placed on Jews for millennia. I think we have to say as forcefully as possible that the Lukan author is not talking about “real” Pharisees. Unfortunately, the gospel writers, and especially the Lukan author, use the Pharisees as stand-ins for wealthy Christians who need to get their priorities straight. We need to be clear about that.

“Where does Luke intend the audience to see itself in this parable?” Rossing asks. Not in the bosom of Abraham – that seems clear. Instead, Rossing – in her workingpreacher.org commentary – tells us to look at Abraham’s responses to the rich man. Three times, the answer is “no,” even though Abraham acknowledges the rich man as one of his “children.” It is too late for the rich man.

Therefore, that’s not where the Lukan author intends the audience to see itself in the parable either. Instead, Rossing argues, the audience should see itself as the five siblings who are still alive. They “have time to open their eyes,” Rossing writes, “They have time to see the poor people at their gates, before the chasm becomes permanent.” The frightening apocalyptic tale is meant to be a wake-up call for the living, not a prediction of postmortem realities.

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” Rossing suggests, “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation…We have Moses and the prophets,” she continues, “we have the scriptures, we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and the hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is,” Rossing concludes, “Will we – the five sisters and brothers – see? Will we heed the warning before it is too late?”

If that’s where we end up in our reflection, then the parable seems to be all threat and no promise. But, in her book, Rossing doesn’t leave us in that desperate place. Instead, she goes on to describe the role of Christian prophecy, which she describes as “God’s word of salvation and justice for the world” (page 88). Our parable is not a prediction of the future. Instead, it is a desperate plea for our repentance and conversion. After all, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

Rossing points to the example of another (fictional) apocalyptic prophet, Jonah. Jonah predicts quite clearly that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. The king and people of Nineveh hear the word of the Lord, and they change. In response to their change, God changes. “The goal of prophecy is…to turn the world to God, to lift up a vision, so that threats of destruction will not be carried out,” Rossing writes. “God does not want to hurt or destroy the world,” she continues, “and God certainly does not determine the script in advance” (page 91).

I am thinking of the relationship between Scrooge and Tiny Tim in Dickens’ tale. As Scrooge’s journey progresses, he sees Tiny Tim. A spark of compassionate concern is kindled in Ebenezer’s heart of stone. Scrooge wonders if Tiny Tim will survive. “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost [of Christmas Present], “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge is cut to the heart when he hears his own words quoted back to him. This is the real warning in the story. It is not merely Scrooge’s life which is at stake here. Without a change in Scrooge’s heart, Tiny Tim will not live to see another Christmas. This is a life-and-death matter not merely for old Ebenezer but for any and all who might benefit from his compassion and generosity.

It is this kindling of compassion which opens the door to Scrooge’s salvation. Yes, Tiny Tim is saved and becomes best friends with the old man. But the one who’s life is really saved – and really saved in the here and now – is Ebenezer Scrooge. In his conversion to generous compassion, Scrooge finds his humanity once again, a humanity he had sacrificed in his love of money. Unrighteous Mammon may give us a world of wealth, but it will be at the price of our souls, Dickens says.

An apocalyptic tale raises the stakes to cosmic heights. Yet, I face this reality every day. Lazarus is always outside my gate. Will I share my table with him today?

References and Resources

Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/3261067.

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

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

Rossing, Barbara. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Westview Press, 2004.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “Jesus and Money—No Place to Hide and No Easy Answers.” Word & World 30, no. 2 (2010): 135-43.

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.

Van Eck, E., 2009, ‘When patrons are not patrons: A social-scientific reading of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–26)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 65(1), Art. #309, 11 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.309

Throwback Thursday Books: Great Expectations

In Advent I make it a habit to re-read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In a season of hopes fulfilled by Divine initiative, this is a story of human hopes disappointed. I was first introduced to this crowning Dickens masterpiece as a ninth-grader at the LeMars Junior High School. Margaret Hoorneman was our freshman English teacher. For a whole semester she read aloud to us the misadventures, misperceptions, and misjudgments of one Philip Pirrip, aka “Pip.” I was enchanted by the story, the writing, the language and the pathos. That has not changed in fifty years.

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Years later I learned that the book was much more than a piece of the curriculum for Mrs. Hoorneman. In her retirement, she created a script for a theatrical adaptation of the work. It has been produced in dramatic and cinematic forms, but perhaps not with the passionate love which Mrs. Hoorneman devoted to the work. She was able to secure family and professional assistance in the project. It was developed into a musical that has been performed in a variety of off-Broadway venues. The charming story can be found in an article from the LeMars Daily Sentinel in 2010.

You can find the article here: https://www.lemarssentinel.com/story/1434917.html.

Great Expectations is Dickens’ second to the last completed novel. In it, we find him at his full intellectual and imaginative powers. He relies far less on character names as transparent puns and two-dimensional characters as comic foils (although a few still make their appearances). Dickens had walked some of this plot path earlier, in David Copperfield, his only other “first person” narrative. In Copperfield, the hopes of the protagonist are eventually fulfilled, and they all lived happily ever after. In Great Expectations, the ending is somewhat different and, to my mind, far more compelling.

Of course, that depends on which ending you read. The book was originally serialized in the Dickens-published weekly periodical, All the Year Round. After the original ending was “tested” with the public and the critics, Dickens wrote a second and more “optimistic” ending that can be found in many of the editions. We prefer happy endings to less than happy ones. Dickens was in the business of selling books, and he knew how to respond to his market. But he noted that he preferred the original ending, as did many critics.

I am circumspect in describing the endings because I know that the book is not as widely read as it once was. I hope you will read it, and I don’t want to spoil it for you entirely. In the past week I have listened to the recorded version on Audible.com as narrated by Michael Page. I would recommend that experience if you have about eighteen hours to devote to the listening.

The chapters show the effects of serialization, often leaving the reader hanging on some narrative cliff or another. So it is well-suited to listening in installments. If you want the actual serial experience, discipline yourself to hearing one chapter at a time (for 59 sessions). The book is filled with archaic expressions appropriate to the time. If you are new to the book, I would recommend an annotated edition that can lay out the historical setting and explain some of the most obscure turns of phrase.

Here’s an inexpensive annotated edition: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Expectations-Annotated-Charles-Dickens-ebook/dp/B00GA8DLTI.

Why do I return to it? Certainly, it is a mature and clear-eyed examination of the nature of human hopes, of self-deception, of revenge and regret, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The book offers unblinking views of the trials of class and privilege in nineteenth century England and narrates from a firsthand perspective the pains and prospects of social climbing and social collapse. The book is filled with memorable characters, some of great complexity and none more so than Pip. The artistry is worth the time by itself.

When I was young I found it a revelation of my own hopes and failings. Pip sought to leave his roots and re-invent himself in a new setting. I have traveled that sorry path too many times to count. He never knew how good he had it at home and thus never did find a real home for his heart. Pip was well-schooled in the notion that as he was he was never worthy, so he had to perform a part in order to deserve approval. Pip’s hopes were always wishes to be fulfilled rather than a calling to be answered. Thus, he was almost always profoundly disappointed.

It is a deeply theological book as well. It is, though Dickens certainly did not intend such, a meditation on the theology of the cross. Pip’s salvation always comes from the most unexpected quarters. His rescue is always hidden under the form of its opposite, and he is always looking for grace and love in all the wrong places. The one who most nearly approaches the role of Christ figure in the novel is in many ways one of the least attractive characters. He is one who reminds me of the words from Isaiah 53 — “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

The book is filled, in the final chapters, with affecting scenes of confession and forgiveness. After years of malice and manipulation, several of the main characters come to awareness of their profound brokenness and the havoc they have wreaked in the lives of others. In a few instances, things can be put right and are. In most cases, there is some measure of healing but little opportunity for reparation. Forgiveness may be genuine, but it may not always displace regret in the end.

Great Expectations is a meditation on the nature of personal suffering and the various ways we humans respond to that suffering. Some characters respond to their loss with desires for vengeance and acts of violence. Some are dulled into despair and made dumb in the face of their pain. Some use suffering as a bludgeon or a scalpel to control people and circumstances. And a few are softened by their suffering into a deeper and fuller humanity.

One of the great quotes in the book comes from Estella, the anti-heroine. “And if you could say that to me then,” she murmurs to Pip, “you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” To be bent and broken but into a better shape — that’s a hope that I can share. I suspect that no other words in the book were closer to Dickens’ own sentiments as he wrote.

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,” Pip says as he recovers from his own weeping of remorse at another point, “for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” In the face of the famed British reserve, Dickens pleads for authentic humanity to open us to life and to bind us together across our differences. Confession and repentance can cleanse our hearts. It is a pertinent plea for our time as well.