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dianoigo blog

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Christadelphians, Politics, and the Common Good



This article offers critical analysis of Christadelphian moral teaching as it pertains to social justice. From the outset I want to make clear that I am not criticising the moral character of Christadelphians. My own experience suggests that most Christadelphians are upstanding, kind-hearted people. There are many Christadelphians active in humanitarian work around the world,1 and other evidences of integrity and virtue in the Christadelphian community.2 Thus, this article does not stake a claim to any moral high ground vis-à-vis Christadelphians. Rather, its focus is on certain points of moral theology.

I say "certain points" because I am not claiming that Christadelphian moral teaching is devoid of truth or value; far from it. If one compares Christadelphian moral teaching with that of wider Christianity, or of the Catholic Church (to which I am now committed), the commonality far outweighs the differences. The existence of objective moral values and the possibility of discerning right from wrong, both instinctively (through the divine gift of conscience) and via divine revelation, are assumed on all sides. Moreover, all would agree, following on the teachings of the Torah as expounded by Jesus, that the foundation of Christian morality is love—love of God and love of one's neighbour as oneself (Mark 12:29-31; Rom. 13:9-10; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8). All would agree that the Ten Commandments normatively capture the most fundamental obligations of love of God and neighbour.


If one were to ask, "What distinguishes Christadelphian moral teaching from wider Christian moral teaching?", the most obvious answer would be to list certain activities that most other Christians are comfortable participating in but that Christadelphians eschew, such as:
  • Political activities (including voting and running for political office)
  • Serving in law enforcement
  • Serving in the military
  • Jury duty
  • Bringing a lawsuit (and practicing law, especially criminal law)
  • Taking an oath of allegiance
  • Industrial action as part of a trade union3
  • Participation in public demonstrations4
Most of these activities are explicitly prohibited in the Statement of Faith used by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias.5 What the above activities have in common is that most of them involve the individual's obligations toward, and influence on, the State and its laws and policies. Thus, to understand why Christadelphians eschew these activities, we must understand Christadelphian teaching about the believer and the State.


A fundamental premise of Christadelphian teaching on this subject is that believers are "aliens and sojourners" (1 Pet. 2:11), "strangers and aliens on earth" (Heb. 11:13). "Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:19-20). Our gaze is fixed on the world to come, not on this world that is "passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31).6 As a Catholic, I affirm these ideas as heartily as I did as a Christadelphian.

Once the "stranger-and-pilgrim" concept is accepted, the logical next question is, "How should believers conduct themselves in relation to the present State and its laws?" Christadelphians point to clear biblical injunctions that believers are obliged to respect the State's authority, obey its laws, and pay taxes to it (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). As our Lord memorably put it, we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Mark 12:17). However, our submission to the State and obedience to its laws are not absolute. Christ's disciples are, as Christadelphian writer Jim Cowie states, to meet the obligations imposed by earthly citizenship "except where these contravene the principles and demands of their heavenly citizenship."7 In the words of the apostles, when the laws and orders of human authorities conflict with the commandments of God, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). So far, Christadelphian and Catholic are in full agreement.

The point of divergence lies in whether the aforementioned activities (voting and political action, police service, military service, jury duty, litigation, etc.) are consistent with the believer's alien status in this world. Do such activities fall under "rendering to Caesar," or do they violate our allegiance to God? Christadelphians take the latter view. Believers must not try to bring about political or social change (e.g., by voting or participating in demonstrations).
The disciple's view is much wider than the panorama of his own time or the circumstances of his own life. He does not regard himself as having the right to seek political change or to agitate for social 'justice.' Such right has not been given to him by his Master.8
As an alien in this world, the disciple "lives in the country, but has no part in its affairs."9 Our alien status "compells [sic] us to stand apart from the society in which we live, and avoid involvement in its practises [sic] and organisations."10

Contrasting what Christadelphians regard as acceptable vs. unacceptable ways of rendering to Caesar, Cowie states:
we are required to pay taxes to the state... but cannot give an oath of allegiance to serve it. We are required to obey the laws of the state... but cannot play a part in enforcing them. We are commanded to honour the king or rulers of the state... but cannot fight to preserve their rule. We are to respect and obey the powers that be... but cannot become involved in voting them in or out of office.11

In what follows, I offer a counterargument to the above idea that believers' status as aliens and heavenly allegiance precludes them from seeking to enact change by political or legal means. I will not focus on the more specific (and thornier) issue of military service here,12 but broadly on political and legal activities.13

We have already mentioned our Lord's fundamental principle guiding the disciple's relations with the State: "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mark 12:17). Strictly speaking, this is a false dichotomy: everything belongs to God, including Caesar! However, the unstated qualification is that God has granted Caesar a certain domain of legitimate authority (cf. John 19:11). Why has God done so? It is not merely that God is permitting evildoers to have the upper hand until the end of this age. Paul makes it clear in Romans 13:1-4 that the State's authority has been established by God and is a servant of God with a divinely appointed ministry, namely to preserve and promote the common good.

With this in mind, let us return to an even more fundamental moral truth, also stated by Paul in the same context: that the commandment that sums up all others is "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Rom. 13:8-10). This "second great commandment" (Matt. 22:39) raises two further questions: what is love, and who is my neighbour? Paul describes love's characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13 without giving a definition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following St. Thomas Aquinas, states that "To love is to will the good of another" (Article 1766). Some such definition is implied by the commandment to love neighbour as self. Each person innately wills and seeks his/her own good; we are asked to extend this goodwill to others (cf. Matt. 7:12).

It was in response to the question, "Who is my neighbour?" that Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The story challenged the questioner's assumptions by depicting a hated Samaritan as the benefactor of the imperiled Jew. Jesus closed by turning the question on its head: not who is my neighbour but who was a neighbour to the man in distress? Thus, we should not be asking where our social obligations stop, but how far we can extend the love God has shown us. The implication is clear: my social obligations extend to everyone, friend or foe, stranger or brother.

I expect that most Christadelphian readers will agree with everything in the last three paragraphs. Here then comes the crucial question. When we look at our community or society—whether local, national, or global—what do we see? If we have grasped Jesus' parable, we should see neighbours by the thousands, millions, and billions. We should see humans made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and worth equal to our own. Consequently, we should discern a neighbourly duty to love everyone in our society. This entails actively seeking the good of everyone. How can one individual possibly do this? The answer is, we can fulfil our neighbourly duty to love everyone by working for the common good, as far as we are able.

How do we do that? Every disciple should seek to use his/her profession to change the world for the better insofar as s/he is able. A teacher educates and inspires young people so that they will grow into good citizens. A truck driver helps to keep society fed and clothed by the efficient movement of goods. And what about a police officer or a lawyer? What about a voter or a demonstrator? We have already noted that the State has been established by God for the purpose of promoting and protecting the common good. Thus, by contributing to the effectiveness of the State and its laws, we are contributing to the common good, and fulfilling the second great commandment that sums up the law of God!

A democracy is a form of government that depends on the diligent and conscientious participation of citizens. A democratic State cannot function without our voices and our votes any more than it can function without our taxes. Paul says that payment of taxes is obligatory for believers, because it enables the State to fulfill its God-given ministry (Rom. 13:6). For believers who are citizens of a democratic country, voting is obligatory for the same reason. There is no question that casting a vote—or any other political activity, such as peaceful demonstration against some social injustice—contributes to the common good when done conscientiously. The same is true of litigation.14 If I neglect to do what I know is good, it is sin (Jas 4:17).

The Christian's heavenly citizenship and sojourner status does not require him/her to stand apart from society. Such a position tends toward indifference to the welfare of our neighbours.15 When believers vote or otherwise participate in affairs of law and State, they are not declaring that their kingdom is of this world, nor naïvely believing that some Christian utopia is achievable in the present age. Rather, they are seeking to shine the light of God's goodness into every dark corner of this world and its misery. To stand aloof from such matters is to hide that light under a bushel (Matt. 5:14-15).16



Another commonly cited Christadelphian reason for not voting is that our vote might go against God's will. Jim Luke makes the argument thus:
With issues such as education, the economy, the family, indigenous and foreign affairs, water, global warming etc., about which we may well have an opinion and preference, we must not forget that these matters belong to the governments of this day and that we are 'strangers and pilgrims' awaiting the coming of the Lord... So rather than becoming anxious about the outcome, we can rest in the knowledge that the Father is in control and that His will will be done. So whoever becomes prime minister and whatever party is voted into power, we will witness God's will being done. We must remain detached from the election and not vote, for we may place our weight behind someone whom God has not chosen if we do.17
This argument reflects a faulty understanding of God's will. Consider the hypothetical scenario of a democratic election featuring two candidates, A (who is clearly good) and B (who is clearly evil). First, I do not know which candidate (if any) God has chosen. If I vote for A, motivated by love of neighbour (seeking the common good), my vote is in accordance with the antecedent will of God, and I do well.18 If the consequent will of God is that candidate B wins, I am still blameless, and my vote for A has not frustrated God's plan. If I suspect that God's consequent will is for B to win, and I therefore vote for B, I have fallen into the error of "doing evil that good may come of it" (Rom. 3:8). If I refrain from voting, this decision still impacts the election (voter turnout swings elections!), and I am neglecting to promote the good and oppose the evil, which is sin (Jas 4:17). Of course, in reality the voter's choice is often murkier than good vs. evil, but the principle is still the same: if we vote according to conscience after due diligence, we do well.

Furthermore, in what area of life besides politics would we consider it rational to do nothing lest we might go against God? Suppose your child comes down with some disease. Maybe God wills that the child recover quickly, but maybe God wills that the child suffer greatly or even die. You don't know which it is. Would you therefore refrain from seeking medical treatment, in case this is contrary to the outcome God wills? Is the morally safe option to do nothing but sit back and "witness God's will being done"? Of course not. You would seek the best treatment possible, and even if the child died you would regard yourself as having done the right thing.

The argument "vote not, lest you vote contrary to God's will" essentially boils down to "Do nothing lest you might offend God." This bears resemblance to the attitude of the "lazy servant" in the Parable of the Talents, who buries his talent in the earth out of fear that he might mess up if he exercises the responsibilities entrusted to him by his master (Matt. 25:14-30).


Have I failed to notice what a dirty and acrimonious business politics is, or how the practice of law is more about greed than justice? Isn't it much better just to stay above the fray and leave everything to God? After all, Scripture instructs us not to place our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). 

Again, it is precisely because politics and law are so often characterised by dishonesty and corruption that Christian witness is needed in these areas. Are lawyers greedy and opportunistic? Show the world what a just lawyer looks like. Are police officers racially biased and trigger-happy? Show the world how to truly protect and serve. It may not result in utopia, but it will make a difference. To eschew politics and law because there are bad politicians and lawyers is no more defensible than to eschew teaching and truck driving because there are bad teachers and truck drivers. Christians should always retain a healthy suspicion of political power, but to simply eschew politics and leave it to others is not the behaviour that best accords with love of all our neighbours near and far.

Voting in an election in no way suggests a lack of faith. Yes, God is finally in control of all things, and the Christian prays for those in authority regardless of who they are (1 Tim. 2:1-2). However, this does not excuse us from exercising the stewardship that God delegates to his creatures. We trust in God for our material needs, but we still work for a living, realising that our livelihood may be the means by which God provides for us. Faith and action are complementary, not contradictory.


  • 1 One can mention Christadelphian charities like Agape in Action, Christadelphian Meal-a-Day, and Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation, and Christadelphian founders of charities like Marcus McGilvray of WhizzKids United, my good friend and former boss. The passion of Christadelphians in Durban, South Africa for community outreach made a great impression on me.
  • 2 Christadelphians have taken a stand of conscience against military service, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Christadelphians have a special love for the Jewish people, and this has manifested itself in heroic acts such as Christadelphian involvement in the Kindertransport during World War Two, as documented by Christadelphian writer Jason Hensley.
  • 3 This is not disavowed in the Statement of Faith, and there is some diversity of opinion among Christadelphians on the subject, but writings such as C. T. Butler's The Disciple of Christ and Trade Unions come out against it.
  • 4 This is not disavowed in the Statement of Faith, but numerous Christadelphian writers come out against it.
  • 5 See Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected 35-36.
  • 6 "[O]n the day we are baptised we say goodbye to the country of our birth. From that point onward, we are citizens of God's kingdom. No longer is our loyalty to Russia or America or England, but to Jesus our king. In a figure of speech, our position becomes that of aliens—people who live in a country but have a different nationality" (David M. Pearce, Christadelphians and the State). Again, "we are 'strangers and pilgrims' awaiting the coming of the Lord and the establishment of his beneficent reign in which all nations will be blessed, and 'all nations shall call him blessed' (Psa 72:17)" (Jim Luke, Christ and Politics, The Lampstand, 13(5) [2007]).
  • 7 Jim Cowie, Conscientious Objection to Military Service: A Manual Designed to Assist Christadelphian Young People Facing the Prospect of a National Service Call-Up (Hawthorndene, South Australia: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1999), 16.
  • 8 Harry Tennant, Christ and Protest.
  • 9 David M. Pearce, Christadelphians and the State. The full quotation is as follows: "Since we are told by Paul that the government of the country where we live has been set there by God, we cannot take part in revolutions or demonstrations or strikes in an attempt to bring about change. It is important to note that Jesus lived under Roman rule, and suffered with his fellow countrymen from the occupation of his country. Nevertheless, he did nothing to overthrow Roman rule. When Pilate questioned him as to his political status, he insisted that though he was a king, his kingdom did not belong to this world. That is a useful pointer for us – our kingdom is not of this world. It will come, when God is ready. Paul has a similar ruling in the passage we have already looked at : Romans 13 v1,2  ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’ It is for the same reason Christadelphians are not at liberty to vote in elections to appoint government officers, whether in local elections or national ones. We have to adopt the position of aliens. During an election, a person from another country is not allowed to take part in the voting. Hce lives in the country, but has no part in its affairs."
  • 10 Jim Cowie, Conscientious Objection, 4.
  • 11 Cowie, Conscientious Objection, 16-17.
  • 12 The Catholic Church upholds the "just war theory" developed by the Church Fathers, under which war may be justly waged when all of a narrow set of circumstances are met. Within the context of just war theory, soldiers who "carry out their duty honorably" do "truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2310); thus military service does fall under the moral argument of this article. It should be noted that the Catholic Church also defends the right of conscientious objection: "Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2311). I am sympathetic to conscientious objection since I do not believe that most wars waged by nations are either just or oriented to the common good of humanity. I believe that conscientious objection to military service makes sense on humanitarian grounds but am unenthused by Cowie's statement that "Our conscientious objection to military service does not spring from natural feelings of revulsion towards war or a sense of humanitarian compassion" (Conscientious Objection, 3).
  • 13 To name a few examples, these might include voting, participating in nonviolent demonstrations, contributing to political discourse, participating in community forums, serving with election oversight organisations, running for political office, practicing law, bringing litigation, or serving on a jury. Although involvement in labour unions and striking does not necessarily involve the State and its laws, the moral argument contained here easily extends to such issues as well.
  • 14 Litigation should not be framed in terms of financial self-interest; litigation can establish a legal precedent that promotes some justice or eradicates an injustice. Think, for instance, of Brown v. Board of Education in the United States. A litigant who sought to avoid any possibility of financial self-interest could always pledge to donate any damages awarded.
  • 15 Cowie, anticipating this, argues that Christadelphians' detachment from politics does not "bespeak a lack of concern for the distressed state of the world and is inhabitants," because the true Christadelphian eagerly anticipates the end of all human suffering after the return of Christ (Conscientious Objection, 19). However, merely hoping for the eventual resolution of the world's problems is inadequate (see Jas 2:15-16).
  • 16 To say this is not to preach a "social gospel" instead of the gospel of salvation. The Church's primary mission is to save souls, but just as Jesus both healed bodies and instructed minds, so his body the Church must attend to both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
  • 17 Jim Luke, Christ and Politics. Similarly, Cowie: "Could it not be that we may vote for someone whom God wills not to place in power"? (Conscientious Objection, 19).
  • 18 Theologians distinguish between the antecedent and consequent will of God. As part of his antecedent will, God wills that all humans be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but this does not mean that all are saved, because this outcome may conflict with other realities willed by God, such as free will. Thus, God's consequent will may be that not all humans are saved. This does not, however, mean that we should refrain from evangelising, in case someone is converted whom God does not intend to save! Coming to politics, God's antecedent will is surely that governments rule justly. In his consequent will, God permits wicked rulers like Pontius Pilate and Hitler, perhaps in order to accomplish some higher purpose (e.g., the atoning death of Jesus), and/or as an act of judgment that respects the free will of the evildoers who put them in power.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Unitarians and the Offering of Prayer to Jesus

Adorantist and Non-Adorantist Christologies in Unitarianism

The other day I came across a discussion on a Christadelphian Facebook page on the topic of praying to Jesus. Christadelphian participants alternatively expressed strong support and strong opposition to this practice. In fact, the debate is not a new one, but goes back to the dawn of Unitarianism in 16th-century Europe. Among the Unitarian congregations of Poland and Transylvania, two distinct positions emerged that are known to historians as adorantism and non-adorantism.1 The adorantists, such as Marcin Czechowic, Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus), and Giorgio Biandrata, believed that it was appropriate to worship, adore, and pray to Christ. The non-adorantists, such as Jacobus Palaeologus, Ferenc Dávid, and György Enyedi, believed that this was wrong, since Jesus is not God and God's majesty is not shared with another. Dávid argued that prayer to worship of Christ set one on the slippery slope to the Papist polytheism (as he saw it) that had necessitated the Reformation, while Sozzini saw non-adorantism as a slippery slope to Epicureanism and atheism. Sozzini spent months in 1578-79 trying to persuade Dávid to change his mind, and after he failed, he advised his followers to have nothing to do with Dávid. Shortly thereafter (at whose behest is not clear), Dávid was charged with having violated a law against religious innovation, and thrown in prison, where he died. The non-adorantists were gradually suppressed and had vanished from Transylvania by 1638, while the (adorantist) Unitarian church in Transylvania survives up to the present day. 

As for Christadelphians (the sect to which I formerly belonged), no clear position has been taken on this issue,2 but my experience suggests a hybrid liturgical practice: non-adorantism in prayer and adorantism in song!3 Public prayers—which are spontaneous as opposed to formulaic—typically end with words such as "in Jesus' name, Amen" or "through Christ we pray, Amen," but it would be atypical to address a public prayer to Christ, and doing so would ignite controversy in many ecclesias. On the other hand, Christadelphian hymn books contain numerous hymns addressed to Christ, and these are sung without controversy.

In Trinitarian ecclesiastical traditions, the question of whether or not it is appropriate to pray to Jesus does not arise. The practice is universal. In Evangelical circles, the "sinner's prayer" that is believed to secure salvation takes various forms, but the addressee is usually Christ. In Roman Catholic liturgy, prayers to Christ are recited at every Mass.4 The appropriateness of praying to Jesus is an obvious corollary of his deity. The historical relationship between belief in Jesus' deity and practices of worshiping/praying to Jesus is a matter of debate among scholars of earliest Christianity.5

In Unitarian circles, arguments against praying to Christ (for non-adorantism) may emphasise the implications of the first of the Ten Commandments, read against the backdrop of Unitarian monotheism.6 Whatever and whomever is not God cannot be adored, worshipped, or addressed as God is addressed; otherwise the uniqueness of God's deity is compromised. Non-adorantist Unitarians allow for Jesus' role as heavenly high priest and mediator, but stress that our prayers to God are offered through Christ but not to him. Dr. John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians, offered an argument against prayer to Christ that relied more on scriptural precedent. For instance, Christ functions as our high priest, so it is as unsuitable for us to pray to Christ as for the Israelites of old to pray to Aaron.7

Unitarian arguments for praying to Christ (for adorantism) typically stress the relational aspect of Christ's role in the ecclesia and in the life of the believer. If Jesus Christ is our Lord, Saviour, and Advocate, if he is alive and in heaven, how can we love and serve him without communicating with him? Moreover, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, in a perfect union of love with the Father, how could God feel threatened or slighted by prayer or worship being directed to Jesus? When we glorify Christ do we not in so doing glorify the Father? As one Unitarian apologetic work states, 
It is our contention that any Christian can ask the Lord Jesus to do for him anything that would help him do the works that Jesus did... You might look at it as having both a Father and a 'big brother'... whenever one glorifies, exalts, confesses, looks to and calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is God who ultimately gets the glory.8
Adjudicating the Adorantist Controversy

From a Catholic perspective, there are some good and true instincts behind both the non-adorantist and adorantist positions. Non-adorantists rightly highlight the absolute uniqueness of God over against all other reality, and the implications of this uniqueness for worship and prayer. Honour and glory must be given in proportion to the nature and merits of the recipient; otherwise it is mere flattery. In Paul's words, "Honour to whom honour is due" (Rom. 13:7). Who would liken the reflected brilliance of the moon to the radiated brilliance of the sun? Or, to borrow an analogy from the Book of Hebrews, the builder of a house deserves more honour than the house.9 If Christ is merely the foremost creature of God, clear distinctions would have to be maintained between the honour ascribed to Christ and that ascribed to God. Otherwise, it is not just a question of God feeling threatened or slighted as though God were petty and insecure. It is rather a question of denying the nature of reality, of blurring the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. Moreover, if the line between "worthy of worship, adoration, and prayer" does not pass through the infinitely large gap between God and his foremost creature, why should it pass between the foremost creature and another wonderful creature (e.g., an archangel)? Thus, non-adorantists are right: there is a real danger that adorantist Unitarian Christology could devolve into idolatry.

On the other hand, adorantists rightly emphasise the relational intimacy between God and Christ and between Christ and his disciples. If believers in Christ on earth communicate with one another to mutual edification, how much more fruitful might communication between disciple and Master be? (In fact, this analogy is fundamental to the Catholic practice of offering prayers and veneration—not worship—to angels and saints.10 Thus, adorantists are right that deity is not a requirement for being prayed to. We can pray to Christ qua our heavenly and yet human high priest, mediator, intercessor, and advocate. To rule out all prayer to Christ as dangerous and unprofitable on the grounds of his not being God would be unjustified, and thus adorantists have a valid point.

To draw together the dialectic, under a Unitarian worldview it seems that adoration and prayer offered to Christ is justifiable in light of his high and heavenly office, great virtue, and closeness to God. At the same time, praise and prayer to Christ must be carefully qualified so as not to blur the ontological distinction between creature and Creator. It must always be clear that the honour given to Christ is not of the same character and quality as that given to God. Prayers offered to Christ are brought in his capacity as mediator in the hopes that he will then intercede with God; prayer to Christ is not an end in itself. The situation is analogous to how Catholics view the angels and saints versus the Trinity. Catholics venerate Mary but do not worship Mary; Catholics pray to angels and saints as intercessors but not as sovereigns who could grant their petitions outright. In short, praise, honour, and petition offered by Unitarians to Christ is not finally offered to Christ but only through Christ to God.

A Trinitarian Evaluation in the Light of the New Testament

The orthodox view of God and Christ that has been normative among Christians for well over sixteen centuries, since the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, holds that Christ is by nature both God and man. Because Christ is a human high priest and mediator, much of what adorantist Unitarians believe and practice can be affirmed by Trinitarians. We can follow Jesus' example by praying to the Father (for instance, using the words of the Lord's Prayer). We can offer prayers to the Father through Christ as mediator and intercessor. Moreover, even in his deity, Christ is a Son whose identity derives from the Father: "born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made."11 By virtue of their shared nature and unity with the Holy Spirit in perfect love, all honour and glory given to Christ does bring honour and glory to God the Father.

However, here is the key distinction: from a Trinitarian perspective, prayer, worship, and adoration offered to Christ is also an end in itself. That is, honour given to Christ does not leave Christ to attach to the Father. It attaches to the Trinity because of their perfect unity. For this reason, Trinitarians can praise, worship, and pray to Christ without any limitation or qualification. In the fullest possible sense, they can "honour the Son just as they honour the Father" (John 5:23). In light of what we observed earlier about honour being necessarily proportional to merit, we cannot say that we honour the Son only because we want to honour the Father and the Father commands us to do so. An imperative to honour the Son just as we honour the Father is only possible if the Son is worthy of that honour. The true God does not ask us to honour the Son above his due, that is, to flatter him.

If we return specifically to the issue of prayer, we find that there is considerable precedent in the New Testament for praying to Jesus. As discussed above, the bare notion of praying to Jesus as heavenly human intercessor is consistent with both Unitarian and Trinitarian Christologies. However, if we look closely at the New Testament precedents for praying to Jesus, we find that not all of them fall into the category of asking him to intercede with the Father. Jesus' mediatorial role in the context of prayer is certainly in view in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:14-15, and 1 John 2:1. However, there are numerous instances where it is clear that Jesus, when addressed in prayer, is not merely a conduit to the Father's throne but is himself being petitioned to answer the prayer. Both aspects of Jesus' role in prayer are on display in John 14:14 and 16:23. In the latter text, Jesus promises his disciples, "Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you." Here Jesus is the intermediary whose name grants access to the Father. In the former text, however, the best reading is probably, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it."12 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is addressed with pleas for salvation from death. During a violent storm at sea, the disciples "came and woke him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We are perishing!'" (Matt. 8:25). When Peter attempted to walk on water and then began to sink, "he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matt. 8:30). Christadelphian founder John Thomas dismissed such "petitions to Jesus for temporal favors in the days of his sin-flesh" as irrelevant to the issue of praying to Christ.13 However, the Gospel narratives are not merely journalistic, biographical accounts; they are theological compositions intended to convey heavenly realities. These two stylised narratives both lead to profound questions or pronouncements about Jesus' identity. Many thousands of sermons or exhortations have been based on them down the ages, and most of these have not focused on the perils of sea voyages, but have rightly seen in the cry, "Lord, save me!" the universal cry for deliverance from human weakness, from sin and death. Besides this, no biblically literate Jew could have failed to connect these petitions with the cries to the Lord for salvation that saturate the Book of Psalms.14 In a similar "petition for a temporal favour" in Luke 5:12, a leper addresses Jesus as Lord. Remarkably, both his "prayer" and Jesus' response operate on the premise that the outcome hinges on what Jesus wills.

In Acts 1:24 the disciples pray, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen..." While the author has left the addressee ambiguous—itself a significant point—the wider context suggests that it is Christ.15 The prayers of the dying Stephen unambiguously identify the "Lord" he addresses as "Jesus" (Acts 7:59-60). These prayers, like that in 1:24-25, display no intercessory character but directly petition Jesus to exercise the lofty prerogatives of receiving the spirit of the dying disciple and forgiving sin.

The letters of Paul characterise Christians as "those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2) and declare that salvation is predicated on confessing "that Jesus is Lord," the "Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him" (Rom. 10:9-12). To justify this scripturally, he quotes from Joel 3:5: "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Rom. 10:13). Yet "calling on the name of the Lord" is a stereotypical Old Testament expression for praying to the one God of Israel. Indeed, the kyrios ("Lord") of Paul's quotation from Joel 3:5 translates the divine name YHWH from the Hebrew. Unmistakably, Paul places prayer to Jesus in the same category as prayer to God. Paul's letters also provide evidence that liturgical prayers to Jesus date back to the earliest days of the church. In 1 Cor. 16:22, he writes, "Marana tha." This transliterated Aramaic prayer means, "Come, Lord." That Paul could assume the Greek-speaking, Gentile congregation in Corinth would understand him probably indicates that he had handed on to his Gentile converts a piece of the earliest Jewish Christian liturgy.16 In 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul describes having "begged the Lord" thrice to remove some difficulty in his life. Paul's description of the answer he received makes it clear that "the Lord" here is Christ. And the text depicts Christ as answering the prayer (albeit not in the way Paul hoped).

We could write more of doxologies addressed to Christ in the epistles and in Revelation,17 or of a prayer in the psalms addressed to God that Hebrews says is addressed to Christ.18 We could also write much on the biblical idea that prayers—even those offered to Christ—are analogous to the incense offerings to God prescribed in the Torah (Rev. 5:8-14; cf. Ps. 141:2; Ex. 30:1-10, 34-38). However, enough has been written to accomplish our main aim: to show that New Testament witness concerning prayers offered to Christ cannot be explained in terms of the role of priestly human intercessor alone. Prayers are addressed to Christ that Christ himself answers.

Conlusion

The best resolution, it seems, to the adorantist/non-adorantist dilemma among Unitarians is to embrace the fullness of Christian orthodoxy. The doctrine of the Trinity embraces what is good in both horns of this dilemma. On one hand, God's unique majesty and sovereignty cannot be compromised or diluted in favour of a creature. On the other, the instinctive Christian practice of worshipping and praying to Jesus—one that has persisted from the apostles' days in Jerusalem down to the present—is of God, and cannot be toned down, restrained, or qualified. Only orthodoxy truly upholds this great "Both/And."

  • 1 For a brief history of this controversy, on which this paragraph is based, see Mihály Balázs, "Antitrinitarianism," in A Companion to the Reformation in Central Europe (ed. Howard Louthan and Graeme Murdock; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 172-194.
  • 2 As I've discussed elsewhere, there is arguably no such thing as an official doctrinal stance among Christadelphians, because of their lack of any centralised or representative decision-making structure outside the local ecclesia. The closest thing one can get to official doctrinal positions are those laid out in statements of faith that are used widely in the sect, such as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. This statement says nothing for or against praying to or worshipping Christ.
  • 3 This statement reflects my own quarter century of experience of Christadelphian public worship (spanning several countries, fellowships, and degrees of formality).
  • 4 These include the Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy"), the Gloria (addressed to the Father and the Son), the Mysterium Fidei (in all three of its forms), the Rite of Peace, and the Agnus Dei.
  • 5 For an overview of different views, see chapter 1 of Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  • 6 As in the arguments of Palaeologus, referred to above.
  • 7 Thomas addresses the matter in answer to a reader's question, "Is Prayer to Christ Scriptural?" The argument rests more on scriptural precedents than theological principles; Thomas seeks to show that "the scriptural procedure" consists of praying to the Father in the name of Jesus. To the extent that it is theological, the argument focuses less on the uniqueness of God's nature and prerogatives than on Christ's role in the drama of salvation, which is that of Elder Brother (an example to follow) and priestly mediator. He is our example, so we pray to the Father because he did. He is our mediator, so we pray to the Father through him. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, December 1855, pp. 282-83 (quoted here but misattributed to April 1855).
  • 8 Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd ed.; Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2003), 290-92.
  • 9 See Heb. 3:3. Of course, in Hebrews the analogy is used to infer the divine Christ's superiority to Moses.
  • 10 If the "communion of the saints"—as the Apostles' Creed calls it—cannot be broken by any earthly power, either by death or height (Rom. 8:38), then surely communion can exist between believers on earth and the holy ones (angelic or human) in heaven. (Of course, Christadelphian readers might object to the notion of human saints in heaven, but would surely allow for the presence of at least Enoch and Elijah there.) Communion requires communication; hence prayers to the angels and saints.
  • 11 English translation of the Nicene Creed used in the Roman rite of the Mass.
  • 12 "Either the unusual collocation, 'ask me in my name,' or a desire to avoid contradiction with 16.23 seems to have prompted (a) the omission of με in a variety of witnesses... or (b) its replacement with τὸν πατέρα... The word με is adequately supported... and seems to be appropriate in view of its correlation with ἐγώ later in the verse" (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [2nd ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 208). The commentary classifies this reading "B," meaning almost certain.
  • 13 op. cit., 282.
  • 14 For a few examples, see Psalm 3:8; 6:5; 7:2; 55:17; 106:4; 106:47; 107:13; 109:26; 116:4.
  • 15 The disciples have addressed Christ as "Lord" in 1:6 and 1:21 refers to the "Lord Jesus"; God is not referred to as "the Lord" unambiguously until two OT quotations in 2:25 and 2:34. Accounts of Saul's conversion and other visionary experiences involving Stephen, Ananias, and Paul have persons addressing Jesus directly as "Lord." Only in the prayer of Acts 4:24-30 is God unambiguously addressed as "Lord."
  • 16 The Greek translated form of the prayer occurs in Rev. 22:20 ("Come, Lord Jesus"), reinforcing the idea that this is a liturgical form.
  • 17 E.g., 2 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:5-6; 5:12.
  • 18 Heb. 1:10-12 cp. Ps. 102:25-27.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Reversals of Fortune, and the Eternal Banquet

100-Word Summary

The afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is much debated. Is it merely incidental to the story, or a description of what the afterlife is really like, or not like? To answer these questions, this article examines how the scene squares with the rest of the Gospel of Luke. The finding is that the parable's afterlife scene is very much at home in Luke, both in its use of a reversal of fortunes motif and in its implicit reference to an eschatological banquet. Thus the scene does form part of Luke's eschatological teaching.


A Much-Debated Afterlife Scene

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31 (hover to read),1 is one of the most fascinating, but also most disputed, parables of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. The story depicts a scene from the afterlife, and there are three main views on what the story teaches about the afterlife. The first view is that the story conveys an accurate idea of what happens after death. The second view is that the story's message is entirely a moral one, about the use of money and obedience to God's Word; the afterlife scene is just a setting for this message. Thus, the parable teaches nothing about life after death, just as the Parable of the Sower teaches nothing about agriculture. The third view is that the parable parodies popular ideas about the afterlife from Jesus' day and is thus intended to subvert belief in the kind of afterlife depicted in the story. Observe that these three interpretations are as different as they could possibly be! Jesus is either telling us what the afterlife is like, or what it is not like, or is telling us nothing about the afterlife. We will refer to these three interpretations of the parable's afterlife scene as the face value view, the parody view, and the incidental view, respectively.

Before trying to decide between these three alternatives, a couple of preliminary observations. (i) The parody view must shoulder the heaviest burden of proof. Luke certainly does not say that the afterlife story is a parody, intended to subvert popular ideas. At least on the surface, the story makes sense when taken at face value. Occam's Razor dictates that this simplest solution is most likely the right one. The parody interpretation is the most complicated, requiring us to see a subtle irony in Luke's construction that has escaped most readers, ancient and modern. In my estimation, the evidence advanced in support of the parody view is very flimsy indeed.2 (ii) The parody view is antithetical to both of the other two views, whereas the first two views lie on a continuum. Obviously the face value view and the parody view contradict each other. The parody view also contradicts the incidental view, because it is implausible that the parable's primary purpose is to convey a moral message about the use of wealth and obedience to the law and prophets, and yet at the same time to use subtle irony to subvert certain ideas about the nature of the afterlife. By contrast, the face value view and the incidental view are not contradictory. If present moral obligations have eternal consequences, then there is a fundamental consistency between a moral message and an afterlife scene. The difference is mainly a matter of emphasis.3

How then are we to judge between the three interpretations? The answer lies in content and context. Historical context is important: an understanding of ancient Jewish ideas about the afterlife would enable us to receive the parable's afterlife imagery as its original hearers and readers would have received it. As I have written previously, Outi Lehtipuu has done a lot of this historical legwork for us in her book, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After a thorough survey of Second Temple Jewish literature, Lehtipuu concludes that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."4 In this article, however, I want to consider another level of context: the Lukan literary context. If it can be shown that the afterlife scene in this parable is consistent with wider Lukan teaching, the logical conclusion will be that Luke wants his readers to take the parable's afterlife imagery seriously. There are two major themes or motifs from the Gospel of Luke that are reflected in the afterlife scene in this parable. One is the reversal of fortunes motif and the other is the eschatological5 banquet or eternal banquet motif.

Reversal of Fortunes in the Gospel of Luke

A major theme in Luke is that of reversal of fortunes.6 People's fates in this life will be reversed in the next. Perhaps the most succinct statements of this idea are in Luke 13:30 ("For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last") and Luke 17:33 ("Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it"; cf. 9:24). However, the classic Lukan statement of the reversal of fortunes is found in Luke 6:20-26, the Lukan version of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain:
20 And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. 21 Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. 24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.
This passage differs from the more famous Matthaean Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) in three significant ways. First, and most obviously, Matthew's text has only beatitudes (blessings), whereas Luke's also has woes that are the exact opposite of the corresponding beatitudes. Second, Luke's criteria for blessedness are physical (e.g., poor, hungry), while Matthew overtly spiritualises the criteria (e.g., poor in spirit, hunger and thirst for righteousness). Third, in Luke's case the relationship between the present state and future result is primarily that of reversal: the hungry will be filled (and vice versa), the weeping will laugh (and vice versa); in Matthew the reversal pattern is less obvious.7 Thus, a distinctive feature of Luke's moral and eschatological teaching is that those who enjoy the good life now will later have their fortunes reversed, and vice versa.8 If you read through the Gospel of Luke you will find numerous examples of this motif;9 but nowhere is it put more vividly on display than in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The rich man is the quintessential addressee of the Four Woes of Luke 6:24-26. He was rich, wore expensive clothing, and "dined sumptuously every day." This statement implies the other three attributes: the rich man is "filled," "laughs," and "all speak well of him." Here I would refer the reader to my previous article which gave background on dining in the Roman world. The Roman banquet was indeed an opulent affair, as firsthand accounts such as those of Horace and Plutarch illustrate. There was course after course of fine food, wine aplenty, laughter and entertainment. The host was honoured and flattered by his guests and could expect an invitation to the next fine banquet (cf. Luke 14:12). The parable implies that the rich man moved in a social circle where he hosted or was hosted at such banquets daily. In the afterlife, however, the reversal of his fortune is complete. He who had it all has lost it all. His sensual pleasure has been traded for fiery torment, and he who banqueted daily now pleads, unsuccessfully, for a single drop of water!

Lazarus is, by contrast, the quintessential addressee of the Four Beatitudes of Luke 6:20-23. He is poor, lying homeless at the rich man's door. He is hungry, longing to eat scraps from the rich man's table (like a dog; cf. Matt. 15:26-27). He is despised and excluded; the only attention he gets is from dogs (an unclean animal) that come and lick his sores. It goes without saying that he is miserable to the point of weeping. Yet, when he dies, he is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom (the meaning of this expression will be discussed below). Luke has Abraham explicitly justify the afterlife situation of the two men in terms of a reversal of fortunes: "My child, 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" (Luke 16:25). It is evident, then, that the afterlife scene in this parable is a vivid illustration of the reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. The afterlife scene thus accurately reflects Lukan ideas about individual eschatology; consequently it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the parable's meaning, much less viewed as an afterlife concept that Luke seeks to discredit.

The Eternal Banquet in the Gospel of Luke

All four canonical Gospels show interest in banquets and dining—both in the narratives and in the teachings of Jesus—but above all Luke. Jesus is a frequent guest at banquets in Luke. Levi the tax collector throws him a "great banquet" (Luke 5:29-30). He is invited to dine with a Pharisee named Simon (7:37-50), and later with another unnamed Pharisee (11:37-54), and still later with yet another (14:1-24). In the Roman world, as today, dining was not just about the food, but the socialising. To share table fellowship with someone was understood as accepting them socially; hence the offence Jesus caused by dining with tax collectors (Luke 5:29-32). As discussed in the previous article, the dining room setup was not of sitting in chairs around a large table, but reclining on three couches (a triclinium) around a small table.10 Strict rules of social hierarchy determined the reclining positions on the couches, with positions near the host being the most coveted. This social dynamic is often apparent in Luke. At the Sabbath-day banquet of Luke 14:1-24, Jesus notices how the other guests "were choosing the places of honour" and uses this as the occasion for a parable about humility (one that reflects the reversal of fortunes motif; Luke 14:7-11). Jesus' denunciation of the scribes mentions their love of places of honour at banquets (Luke 20:46). At the Passover meal (Last Supper) of Luke 22, an argument about social precedence breaks out among the apostles, which Jesus again uses as a teaching moment (Luke 22:24-27).

A banquet is one of the most prominent images used in Luke to describe the afterlife rewards of the blessed. The image comes up in parables, such as that of Luke 12:36-37 (which depicts a master waiting tables on his slaves—a stunning reversal of social custom), 14:16-23 (the Parable of the Great Feast), 15:1-31 (the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Lost Son).11 It is also present in more literal sayings, such as Luke 13:28-29,12 Luke 14:12-15,13 and Luke 22:16, 18, 30.14 Finally, anticipations of the eternal banquet can also be seen in Jesus' remarks about his eating and drinking as bridegroom (Luke 5:34; 7:34), in the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:11-17), in the Last Supper (particularly the institution of the Eucharist, Luke 22:14-20; cf. 24:30-35).

What does all of the above have to do with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? The answer is that we should probably see in the phrase "the bosom of Abraham" (to which Lazarus is carried by angels) an allusion to the place of honour at the eternal banquet. Because of the way diners reclined diagonally on the triclinium couches, the head of the person to one's right was adjacent to one's chest, and so that person could be said to be "in his bosom" (en tois kolpois autou).15 The same expression is used to describe the position of the Beloved Disciple relative to Jesus at the Last Supper in John 13:23-25. Notice also that Luke has earlier described the kingdom of God in terms of a banquet where people recline at table in the presence of Abraham, within sight of those who previously banqueted but are now excluded (13:28-29).16  Moreover, in view of the reversal of fortunes motif, Lazarus being escorted by angels to the place of honour at the eternal banquet is a fitting reversal of his earlier predicament of lying among dogs longing for table scraps.

A possible objection is that the rich man sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom; how could he see inside a dining room from a great distance? A plausible answer is that the eternal banquet takes place outdoors. Dunbabin notes that first-century stone triclinia and tables are preserved in Pompeii in gardens and in half-enclosed rooms.17 In this respect it is noteworthy that Luke elsewhere describes the setting of the eschatological kingdom as "Paradise," a word meaning garden (Luke 23:43).18 Biblical scholars have probably been correct, therefore, in regarding the phrase "in the bosom of Abraham" in Luke 16:22, 24 as a reference to a place of honour at the eternal banquet.19

Conclusion

In this article, we have sought to situate the afterlife scene in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in relation to wider Lukan ideas about people's ultimate destiny. We have seen that in two important respects, the parable's afterlife scene exemplifies Luke's eschatology. First, this scene is the Gospel's most vivid depiction of the prominent reversal of fortunes principle described in Luke 6:20-26. Second, the scene depicts Lazarus' reward in terms of a place of honour at a banquet hosted by Abraham, which the excluded rich man watches from afar. This places the scene in continuity with the banquet image that dominates this Gospel's concept of what the consummated kingdom of God will be like. The parallel between Luke 16:22-24 and 13:24-30 is particularly striking.

Given the cohesion between the parable's afterlife scene and wider Lukan eschatology, it is implausible to regard the afterlife scene as irrelevant to the meaning of the parable as intended by Luke. Yes, the parable's primary purpose is to warn of the dangers of wealth and the culpability of those who have the law and the prophets, but the afterlife consequences are an essential part of that warning. It is still less plausible to regard Luke as trying to subvert the afterlife concept used in the story. Is the parable providing us with a literal snapshot of exactly what the afterlife will be like? No. All biblical language about the transcendent only gestures toward what is admittedly beyond our ability to comprehend.20 However, the afterlife scene in the parable, including its indication that personal existence continues after death,21 is an indispensable part of divine revelation concerning "the last things." It is not an outlier that can be set aside.

  • 1 19 “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. 20 And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 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. 22 When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 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.’ 25 Abraham replied, ‘My child, 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 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.’” (NABRE)
  • 2 The most common argument concerns the rich man's request that Lazarus be sent to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue due to his fiery torment. This detail is said to be absurd, since the amount of water that can be borne on a fingertip could never cool the tongue of one who is tormented by fire. However, the description is not intended to render the story ridiculous; it is hyperbole, emphasising the extent of the rich man's predicament in that even such a meagre request is denied. This ties in with the Lukan reversal of fortunes motif to be discussed below.
  • 3 Hence, in my previous article on this parable, I referred to four views, the fourth being essentially a compromise between the face value and incidental views: the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked, but its afterlife scene cannot be pressed too far as a precise, literal description of that fate.
  • 4 The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 299. My previous article on this parable refers to other academic literature representing various viewpoints on the parable's interpretation.
  • 5 The word "eschatology" comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning "last," and is a technical term for Christian doctrine pertaining to the last things, including the afterlife.
  • 6 This theme also occurs in Matthew and Mark, too, but our focus here is on Luke since it is only Luke who gives us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
  • 7 Matthew does have some reversal, e.g., those that mourn will be comforted.
  • 8 Luke's negative view of wealth is, it must be noted, more nuanced than simply condemning the rich per se. For instance, the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21) is "to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions," and that a bad end awaits "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." Similarly, after recounting the story of the rich young man who declined to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23), Luke records Jesus' saying, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). This elicits the audience's question, "Then who can be saved?" to which Jesus responds, "What is impossible for humans is possible for God." Thus, Luke does not write off the rich, but he does make it clear that their standing before God is precarious.
  • 9 The earliest instance in the Gospel occurs in Mary's Magnificat prayer in Luke 1:53: "The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
  • 10 Luke never explicitly mentions triclinia or dining couches (Mark probably does, in 7:4), but this dining setting and style is implied by the use of verbs meaning "to recline," such as anakeimai (Luke 22:27), katakeimai (Luke 5:29; 7:37), anapiptō (Luke 11:37; 14:10; 17:7; 22:14), anaklinō (Luke 12:37; 13:29), and kataklinō (Luke 7:36; 9:14-15; 14:8; 24:30). The last two words verbalise the word klinē, meaning "couch" or "bed."
  • 11 The first two parables end with the finder calling together friends and neighbours to rejoice with her/him, a probable reference to a banquet; the third explicitly results in the father declaring, "Let us celebrate with a feast".
  • 12 "And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God."
  • 13 "Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”" The implication here is that you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous by being invited into the eternal banquet. One of the guests correctly makes this inference and says, "Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God" (v. 15).
  • 14 "for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God... for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes... I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom; and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
  • 15 This expression is used in the Septuagint more generically of any intimate embrace, such as that between a husband and wife (Gen. 16:5; Deut. 13:7(13:6), 28:54, 28:56, 2 Kgdms 12:8, Sir. 9:1), or between a parent and child (Ruth 4:16; 3 Kgdms 3:20, 17:19; cf. 2 Kgdms 12:3). The expression is used in this latter sense to describe the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in John 1:18. Since Abraham is a patriarchal figure and is explicitly addressed as "Father Abraham" by the rich man in the parable (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), it is possible that "in Abraham's bosom" has this sense of parent/child intimacy. However, this does not conflict with the notion that Lazarus is in this intimate position next to Abraham at the eternal banquet.
  • 16 This passage is itself a good example of the reversal of fortunes motif, since it envisions people who have previously dined with the Lord (and thus consider themselves entitled to a place at the eternal banquet) thrown out into a place of "wailing" while others enter into the banquet. The pericope ends with the reversal saying par excellence, "For, behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
  • 17 Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38.
  • 18 We should probably see in this an allusion to the Garden of Eden; cf. Rev. 2:7.
  • 19 "Lazarus, who hungered in earthly life, now rests on 'Abraham's bosom' in the afterlife. Clearly this is a reference to a banquet scene in which the banqueters recline and thus rest on the bosom of the diner to their left. Lazarus is said to be on the bosom of Abraham in order to indicate that he is to the right of the host, Abraham, and therefore in a position of honor. The image is that of a sumptuous banquet, a potent image for the joys of heaven. The rich man, meanwhile, in a true reversal of situations, begs for a single drop of water" (Dennis E. Smith, "Table Fellowship as a Literary Motif in the Gospel of Luke," Journal of Biblical Literature 106 [1987]: 625-26). Similarly, "[B]eing in Abraham’s bosom should be taken as a metaphor that plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31. 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. The metaphor being in Abraham’s bosom includes both the components 'place of honor' and 'banquet.' This makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable." (Alexey Somov 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," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 79 [2017]: 633).
  • 20 Paul stresses that no eye has seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9) and that "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror" (1 Cor. 13:12).
  • 21 This idea is also implicit elsewhere in Luke-Acts, such as in Luke 23:43 and Acts 7:59 (of reward after death) and Luke 12:4-5 and Acts 1:25 (of punishment after death).

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Place Settings at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John

In John 13:1-30, we have the Fourth Gospel's account of the Last Supper. The account differs differs significantly from those in the Synoptic Gospels—for instance, the words of institution of the Eucharist do not appear, and it may not be understood as a Passover meal. Nevertheless, the level of detail concerning the events at the meal are consistent with the writer's claim to present eyewitness testimony (cf. John 19:35).

When we picture the Last Supper, many of us imagine a scene inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, with Jesus and the apostles seated on one side of a long table.


A masterpiece, to be sure, but anachronistic in its depiction of the dining arrangements. In the early days of the Roman Empire, the typical dining room layout was as pictured below.

Figure 1: Plan of a Roman Triclinium1

Each of the rectangles is a large couch (Latin: lectus), arranged as three sides of a square. On each couch, diners (represented above by arrows) would recline on their left elbow at an angle to the table (Latin: mensa) in the centre, to which food and drink were brought by servers. (For a depiction of a triclinium with men reclining on it, see here.) The three-couch setup (Latin: triclinium) typically accommodated nine diners. At the Last Supper, there were apparently thirteen (Jesus and the Twelve).2 Dalby notes that 'More than nine diners could squeeze in, especially if some were sitting rather than reclining.'3 Thus, it is plausible that all thirteen men could have fit onto a triclinium, though space would have been limited.4 Four participants in the meal are named explicitly: Jesus himself, the Beloved Disciple (BD),5 Judas Iscariot, and Simon Peter.

Dunbabin informs us that the three couches 'were designated summus, medius, and imus (highest, middle, lowest), the three places on each couch numbered in turn, and strict rules of precedence dictated the positions of the guests'.6 According to first-century Roman custom, the host reclined at position 1 on the lectus imus (toward upper left in the diagram), while the highest-ranking or most honoured guest reclined at position 3 on the lectus medius (top left in the diagram), adjacent to the host.7 This position was referred to as locus consularis (the Consul's place). The Roman philosopher Plutarch gives a detailed account of dining conventions in the Table Talk portion of his Moralia.8 He describes arbitrating a disagreement between his brother, who allowed guests to seat themselves, and his father, who believed that the host should seat the guests to ensure that hierarchical order is strictly preserved. He also speculates on the reasons why the third position on the middle couch had become the most honoured.9

How were the participants in the Last Supper (as described by the Gospel of John) arranged around the table? We have no information on the location of anyone but the four explicitly named participants: Jesus, BD, Judas, and Peter. Scholars have proposed various configurations of these individuals around the table, and there is no universal consensus for anyone's position. Some scholars have followed Whiteley's argument that BD was the host of the meal and Jesus the guest of honour,10 while others have Jesus as the host and one of the other three as the guest of honour.11 While certainty is not possible, I think the most likely scenario is that Jesus was in the host's position, Judas in the guest of honour's position, BD to Jesus' right, and Peter to Judas' left, as depicted below.12

Figure 2: Proposed Positioning of Participants at the Last Supper in John 13

The evidence for positioning the men is as follows. First, BD was reclining 'in Jesus' bosom' or 'in Jesus' lap,' a position from which he could lean back against Jesus' chest (John 13:23-25). Dunbabin explains that diners on a triclinium 'lie diagonally across the couches, almost in the lap of their neighbour.'13 The typical diagonal positioning requires that BD reclined to the right of Jesus (notice at lectus imus in the diagram how the head of the person in position 2 would be adjacent to the chest of the person in position 1). This rules out Whiteley's hypothesis that BD was the host and Jesus the guest of honour, because then Jesus would have had no one to his right, 'in his bosom.' Plutarch states that the position below the host (i.e., position 2 on lectus imus) typically 'belongs either to his wife or his children'.14 Thus, it is a logical location for the disciple described as 'beloved' by Jesus. Thus, we can be fairly certain of the positions of Jesus (host) and BD (to his right).

It has sometimes been assumed that Peter reclined in the position of the guest of honour, as the highest ranking of the Twelve. This makes sense in principle, but it does not accord with the statement that Peter 'nodded to' BD to find out from Jesus who the betrayer was. If Peter was in the locus consularis position, he would have been closer to Jesus than to BD. It is absurd to envision Peter leaning around Jesus to make eye contact with BD in order to induce BD to ask Jesus a question.15 Thus, Peter could have been anywhere on lectus medius (apart from position 3) or on lectus summus.16 It has been argued that since Jesus' ethic inverted the roles of master and servant (as per John 13:4-17 and Luke 22:24-27), there was probably no hierarchical arrangement at the Last Supper.17 This is possible, but unlikely. Jesus does not dispute that he is in fact the Master (John 13:13), so the servant ethic is not about eliminating hierarchical order. Jesus' saying in Luke 14:7-11 presumes knowledge of hierarchical positioning at a banquet, and in Luke 22:24 an argument breaks out at table at the Last Supper over which apostle is greatest—a topic possibly precipitated by concern with their positions around the table. In John 21 (as well in sayings in other Gospels, such as Matthew 16:17-19) Jesus seems to give special authority to Peter, and so it is plausible that his location at the table reflected this. Position 2 on lectus medius is one of the positions of honour mentioned by Plutarch other than the locus consularis, and he notes that the Persians held it to be the most honoured position.18 From this position Peter could easily have attracted BD's attention and signaled him with a nod. He would not have been too far from Jesus, but any private conversation with Jesus would have been overheard by the guest in the corner between them.

This leaves the position of Judas. In John 13:26, Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one to whom he will hand the morsel after dipping it. He then hands it to Jesus. Although it is not impossible that Jesus rose from the table with the morsel and took it to Judas at another couch, this is unlikely. Such a move would have been very conspicuous, whereas Jesus' signal to BD was clearly intended to be subtle. It is most likely, therefore, that Judas was within reach of Jesus' position. With BD to his right and Peter (perhaps) in position 2 on lectus medius, the only remaining position within Jesus' reach is position 3 on lectus medius, the locus consularis. But why should Judas recline in the position of the most honoured guest? Two possible reasons may be suggested. First, the Gospel of John is emphatic that the events of Jesus' betrayal and Passion fulfill the biblical prophets (John 15:25; 17:12; 18:9; 19:24; 19:28; 19:36). In John 13:18, Jesus alludes to his betrayer as fulfilling a scriptural quotation from Psalm 41:10, which states, 'Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me' (NABRE). There is irony in Jesus' pointing out his betrayer by handing him a morsel (an act of kindness and friendship); the irony of Jesus' betrayer being among his closest followers would have been heightened by Jesus placing his betrayer in the position of highest honour at the meal. Second, when Plutarch speculates on why the third position on the middle couch came to be the most honourable place (chosen by highest officials), one of the reasons he gives is that
this place seemed to have peculiar advantages for the transaction of business'... there the space made at the corner where the line of couches turns between the second and third enables secretary, servant, bodyguard, or messenger reporting conditions at camp to approach the consul, speak with him, and learn his will without any of the guests annoying the consul or being annoyed by him.19
Thus, the locus consularis position was conducive to discretion, a requirement of those who might need to engage in important business during the meal. This aligns with Judas' status as treasurer of the group (John 12:6; 13:29). Indeed, when he left the meal, the others assumed that Jesus had sent him on some financial errand.

There is no way to be absolutely certain of the positions of Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper. We can place Jesus and the Beloved Disciple with very high probability in positions 1 and 2 on lectus imus. Judas was probably within reach of Jesus' position, and Peter was not in the place of highest honour, but was somewhere else on lectus medius or on lectus summus whence he could motion to BD. It is thus highly plausible that Simon Peter was in the middle position on lectus medius and that Judas Iscariot was in the position of highest honour, which was in fact 'in the bosom of' Simon Peter.

  • 1 This diagram is my own, but adapted from W. Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 279. Similar diagrams can be found in Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43; Gil P. Klein, 'Torah in Triclinia: The Rabbinic Banquet and the Significance of Architecture', Jewish Quarterly Review 102 (2012): 333.
  • 2 John 13 refers to those at the supper merely as 'the disciples' without giving their number. Luke 22:11-14 describes those at the meal both as 'the disciples' and 'the apostles'; Matthew 26:17-20 and Mark 14:14-17 as 'the disciples' and 'the Twelve'. The Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptic Gospels that there was a group of close disciples known as 'the Twelve' (John 6:67-71; 20:24), but never provides a complete list of their names. By comparing John 6:70 ('Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?') with 13:21 ('one of you will betray me'), we can surmise that the same 'you' are referred to, i.e., the Twelve.
  • 3 Andrew Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves,' in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World (ed. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau; West Sussex: Wiley, 2015): 199.
  • 4 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Fourth Gospel gives no details on the venue for the meal. Mark (14:15) and Luke (22:12) describe the venue as a large upper room that is furnished; the furniture presumably refers to the triclinium, table, cushions, etc.
  • 5 The Beloved Disciple is the main source of much of the narrative of the Gospel of John. He is traditionally identified with John the son of Zebedee, but since the Gospel never names him, we will just call him BD.
  • 6 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39.
  • 7 Dunbabin, Roman Banquet, 39-40; Fowler, Social Life, 279; Dalby, 'Men, Women, and Slaves', 199.
  • 8 Table Talk I.2-3, in Moralia, Volume VIII, 615c-19a. For text and translation, see Paul. A. Clement and Herbert B. Hoffleit (trans.) Plutarch’s Moralia (16 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1969), vol. 8.
  • 9 For other ancient primary sources that describe a Roman banquet, the reader may refer to Satire VIII in Horace's second book of Satires and to the Dinner of Trimalchio (chapters 27-78 of Petronius' Satyricon, Volume II), which date from the first century B.C.E. and first century C.E. respectively. Aristophanes' play The Wasps (lines 1122-1264), though much earlier, gives a humorous account of a son dressing his father for a banquet and trying in vain to teach him the etiquette.
  • 10 D.E.H. Whiteley, 'Was John written by a Sadducee?' Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.25.3 (ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995), 2481–2505. I was not able to access this work but its argument is described in detail by Brian J. Capper, '‘With the Oldest Monks...’: Light from Essene History on the Career of the Beloved Disciple?', Journal of Theological Studies 49 (1998): 1-55. Those convinced by Whiteley's argument, besides Capper, include Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 15 n. 15.
  • 11 E.g., Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 72-73 n. 65.; Michael J. Kok, The Beloved Apostles? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist (Eugene: Cascade, 2017), 5-6 n. 17.
  • 12 This seems to be close to Raymond Brown's view, apart from his less precise placement of Peter. Due to COVID-19 restrictions I am not currently able to access Brown's commentary in the library, so I am relying on a second-hand description of his comments by Henry J. Shea, 'The Beloved Disciple and the Spiritual Exercises,' in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesus 49 (2017): 6.
  • 13 Roman Banquet, 40.
  • 14 Moralia, Vol. 8, 619d; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47.
  • 15 So Capper, 'Light from Essene History', 14-15; Blaine, Peter in the Gospel of John, 73 n. 65.
  • 16 We should also note the sequence of events in John 13:5-6: Jesus 'began to wash the disciples' feet' and then 'came to Peter.' This suggests that Peter was not the first disciple whose feet Jesus washed, which he would have been if he were in the locus consularis position and Jesus moved around the triclinium in a clockwise fashion.
  • 17 So Urban C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 2:606.
  • 18 Moralia, Volume VIII, 617d, 619b.
  • 19 Moralia, Vol. VIII, 619de; Clement and Hoffleit, Plutarch's Moralia, 47, 49.