dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label parables. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parables. Show all posts

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


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 22 September 2019

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager: Does Jesus Endorse Fraud?

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-8), part of the Gospel reading for today in the Roman Catholic lectionary, is probably the most difficult of Jesus' parables in the Gospels to interpret, particularly from a moral-theological point of view. It is probably fair to say that the story has been causing interpreters to scratch their heads throughout the nearly 2000 years since it was told. Here is the parable:
1 Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. 2 He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ 3 The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ 7 Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ 8 And the master [Lord?] commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:1-9 NABRE)
In verses 1-7 we read of an incompetent manager who, informed of his impending dismissal, alters financial documents to reduce the debts of his master's debtors, thus winning their gratitude. This sounds like fraud, plain and simple. The puzzler, therefore, comes in verse 8, where we read that the master commended the dishonest (literally, 'unrighteous') manager for his prudence or shrewdness. Is the Gospel endorsing fraud, at least under desperate circumstances?

Marius Reiser, in his book Jesus and Judgment, offers a good discussion of different scholarly views on the meaning of the parable (including his own view), which has served as the basis for this brief summary.1 Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought on the parable. One school regards the unrighteous manager's actions as morally upright, because he sought to rectify an injustice in the original debt amounts. The other school regards the unrighteous manager's actions as morally wrong, and thus not a model for financial stewardship, but praiseworthy only for shrewdness and resourcefulness in a dire situation.

Within the first view there are at least two variations. One variation holds that debts in commodities (rather than money) were used to circumvent legal restrictions on the charging of interest (usury), and therefore the original debt amounts (100 measures of olive oil; 100 kors of wheat) were unjust. The manager acts to rectify some of his master's unjust usury, which mitigates his own guilt and wins the favour of the debtors. The master, who can hardly protest without losing face, commends the manager (perhaps ruefully, since the manager has cost him a bundle!) The second variation holds that managers behaved similar to tax collectors in that they unjustly inflated the amounts due to their masters and pocketed the excess. Knowing that he won't be around to collect his take on outstanding debts, the manager reduces them to the amount actually due to his master. He thus repents of his past corruption and also wins the favour of the debtors. In this scenario, the manager's action has not cost the master anything, so the manager can commend his shrewdness wholeheartedly. The biggest exegetical difficulty with the first view is that it hinges on unstated details about the nature of the debt reductions (i.e., the debts were reduced by an amount representing usury or corruption). It helps to resolve the parable's moral conundrum, but not entirely: is fraud an acceptable way to right financial injustices?

Under the first view, the manager is 'unrighteous' only in the previous wastefulness that (v. 1) that led to his dismissal, and not in the behaviour described in vv. 3-7. The second view, however, has the manager behaving unrighteously throughout. His action in reducing the debts due to his master is fraud, plain and simple, motivated by his own self-interest. Under this view, it is more difficult to understand why the manager wins his master's praise: not only are his actions unrighteous, but they have cost the master a bundle. A rueful commendation for shrewdness, along the lines of, 'Yeah, he got me there!' is possible, but there is another intriguing possibility. Reiser argues that the parable ends in v. 7 and that in v. 8a Luke is already describing Jesus' reaction. So it is not 'And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently', but 'And the Lord commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently' (the Greek word for 'master' and 'Lord' in Luke is the same, kyrios.) In support of this view, it is characteristic of Luke's style (unlike the other Evangelists) to refer to Jesus in the narrative simply as 'the Lord' (ho kyrios).2 Indeed, in Luke 18:1-6 we find another parable that ends abruptly and is followed immediately by a reaction from 'the Lord'.

I find the second view to be more exegetically plausible, since it does not require us to assume unstated but crucial details about the nature of the debts in the story. If so, then the manager's financial activities are not depicted as morally upright, and are not presented as a model of stewardship. Certainly there is no endorsement of fraudulent activity under special circumstances. What is commendable about the manager's 'prudence' or 'shrewdness' is precisely and only that he acted decisively to secure his future in the face of an impending day of reckoning. In Luke 16:2 the manager is called to 'give an account,' language that is used for the final judgment in other parables of Jesus (Matt. 18:23; 25:19; cf. 12:36). The manager's situation as a guilty individual whose day of reckoning is imminent thus symbolises the unrighteous in Israel,3 for whom the Day of Judgment is drawing nigh. They ought likewise to take decisive action to secure their future—particularly in the way they use their material wealth (v. 9). The 'friends' they are to make with this wealth are either the poor (who might intercede on their behalf), or possibly God and his angels (whose prerogative it would be to welcome people into the 'eternal dwellings'; cf. Luke 16:22). The message is not to defraud earthly masters (the master in the parable represents God) but to use earthly wealth in a way that will produce an eternal profit, after the earthly wealth has failed. The parable is thus of a piece with the other great parable of Luke 16, that of the rich man and Lazarus.

It is probably precisely because of the dodgy nature of the manager's actions in the parable that Luke has supplemented the parable with sayings about the importance of trustworthy stewardship and of not making financial gain one's master (verses 10-13). Luke wants to reinforce these principles to make sure his readers do not draw faulty moral inferences from this difficult parable.


  • 1 Marius Reiser, Jesus and Judgment: The Eschatological Proclamation in Its Jewish Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 291-301.
  • 2 See, e.g., Luke 7:13, 19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39, 42; 13:15; 17:5, 6; 18:6; 19:8; 22:61; 24:34. For an excellent treatment of the Christological implications of Luke's use of ho kyrios, see C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
  • 3 E.g., the Pharisees (Luke 16:14)

Friday 14 October 2016

An hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and his disciples about the devil


Almost three years ago I wrote an article entitled The Enemy is the Devil: The parables of Jesus and Christadelphian satanology. This article offers a detailed critique of the Christadelphian doctrine of the devil based on three parables of Jesus: the parable of the strong man (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21-22), the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; Mark 4:2-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15) and the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). I am disappointed that to date, I'm not aware of any Christadelphian having responded to this article, despite some robust interaction on some of my other writings on the subject of the devil.

If I were to rewrite the article today, I would make a few changes in light of my further studies on the subject of 'New Testament Satanology' since it was written. For instance, I would give Jesus himself more credit for the distinctively Christian idea of Satan, rather than suggesting it was an idea 'adopted' from Second Temple Judaism with only minor refinements. I maintain, however, that the term הַשָּׂטָן in Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2 and its translation ὁ διάβολος in the Septuagint form the definitive background for New Testament Satanology, mediated through development in beliefs about cosmic evil in Second Temple Judaism.

What I would like to do in this post is to illustrate anew the basic argument of the article by means of an hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and his disciples based loosely on the parable of the tares in Matthew 13. It is not intended to be flippant or to make fun of Christadelphian ideas about the devil but rather to convey what I believe are prohibitive hermeneutical difficulties that arise when one presupposes a Christadelphian understanding of the devil while reading these parables. Hence, the dialogue is a rhetorical construct illustrating a reductio ad absurdum argument.

The Dialogue

Jesus: Here's another parable for you. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'

Disciples: Explain to us the meaning of this parable.

Jesus: Well, you see, it's an allegory. Each aspect of the parable is a metaphor for something in real life.

Disciples: We understand, Lord. Now if you can just explain to us what each metaphor represents, we'll be all set.

Jesus: No problem. The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

Disciples: Okay Master, that all makes sense. There's just one thing we aren't clear about. You said the enemy is a metaphor for 'the devil'. But what is 'the devil'?

Jesus: Why, it's a figure of speech; a metaphor!1

Disciples: Rabbi, let us see if we have this straight. In this parable, the sower, the field, the good seed, the weeds, the harvest and the reapers are all metaphors for concrete realities, but the enemy is a metaphor for another metaphor?

Jesus: It's a subtle concept, I know. Perhaps I can explain it another way. The devil is a symbol for sin.2

Disciples: Okay, let's just check if we have all this symbolism correct. The good sower symbolizes the Son of Man.

Jesus: That's right.

Disciples: The field symbolizes the world.

Jesus: Correct.

Disciples: The good seed symbolizes the sons of the kingdom, and the weeds symbolize the sons of the evil one.

Jesus: Absolutely.

Disciples: The harvest symbolizes the end of the age, and the reapers symbolize angels.

Jesus: Just so.

Disciples: And the enemy symbolizes... another symbol?

Jesus: I can see you are still struggling with this concept. Let me try one more time to express it to you. The devil is an elaborate parable.3

Disciples: Lord, are you saying that in this parable, each element symbolizes a concrete cosmological reality, with the exception of 'the enemy', which symbolizes another parable?

Jesus: I know it sounds confusing, but just keep thinking about it and it will start making sense.

A few minutes pass with the disciples deep in thought.

Disciples: Master, forgive our impudence - we're just thinking aloud here. Since all other elements of the parable symbolize concrete realities, and since the other characters working in the field (good sower and reapers) symbolize good supernatural beings ('the Son of Man' and 'the angels'), would it be reasonable to interpret the evil sower as symbolizing an evil supernatural being called 'the devil'?

Jesus: No! Your reasoning is not nearly subtle enough. In a future lesson I will clear this up using a picture of the final judgment which features the victorious coming of the Son of Man with his angels and the downfall of the devil and his angels (cf. Matt. 25:31-46).

Disciples: That sounds straightforward enough. We have a group of good angels led by a personal cosmic ruler (the Son of Man). Presumably, then, the second group consists of bad angels led by a personal cosmic ruler (the devil)?

Jesus: Again, no! You are correct that the first group are good angels led by a personal cosmic ruler. However, the second group are not actually angels but human 'messengers', and they are led not by a personal cosmic ruler but by a metaphor.

Disciples: So, Master, to sum up the general principle of interpretation: if we hear you talking about what sounds like cosmic dualism - good and evil supernatural beings opposing each other - we are to interpret the good supernatural beings literally but the evil supernatural beings figuratively?

Jesus: Correct. The fundamental presupposition is that evil supernatural beings do not exist, so you have a mandate to steer clear of any interpretation of my words that might suggest otherwise.


  • 1 'The "devil" is in fact a figure of speech, a metaphor. It is a symbol of sin in its various forms, whether in individuals or in human organisations, all of which tend to work against the will of God.' (Christadelphian Bible Mission Correspondence Course, Lesson 9: Bible Teaching about the Devil, p. 2.)
  • 2 'The devil is a symbol for sin like Uncle Sam is a symbol for the United States. God made sin look like an evil and powerful being in order to show how powerful it is. There is no fallen angel devil.' (Dawn Christadelphian Bible Course, Part 1, Lesson 30.)
  • 3 'The subject of Satan and demons – or the devil and his angels – must be thought of as one elaborate, sustained New Testament parable.' (Watkins, Peter (1971/2011) The Devil - The Great Deceiver. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 34.)

Monday 9 June 2014

The Rich Man, Lazarus and Hell

Few parables of Jesus have fostered more theological debate through the centuries than the parable of the rich man (often referred to as Dives, the Latin word for 'rich') and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The theological debate is mainly about what this parable teaches about the fate of the wicked. There are basically four views, and they are about as different as can be.

The first view, which might be called the traditional one, holds that this parable provides a literal depiction of the fate of the wicked: what befalls Dives in the parable is very much like what awaits those who behave like him. The second view holds that the parable was intended to teach what the fate of the wicked is not like (by parodying the view held by some of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries). The third view holds that the parable was not intended to teach anything about the fate of the wicked. The fourth view holds that this parable does teach something about the fate of the wicked, but the details of the parable cannot be pressed as a literal description of that fate.

The first view has little credence among scholars today. Snodgrass remarks that "in most scholarly treatments we find the caution that the parable is not intended to give a description of life after death."1 In his commentary on the parables of Jesus, Hultgren agrees that revealing the conditions of the afterlife is not the purpose of the parable.2 Even Yarbrough, a proponent of the traditionalist view of hell, cautions that "It is widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell."3

As to the second view, it has been defended by the lay Christadelphian writer Thomas Williams, who concluded that "Jesus told the jealous, self-exultant Pharisees the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to confound them using their own false doctrines concerning the afterlife."4 More recently, Papaioannou proposed in scholarly fashion that the parable's description of Hades contained absurdities and theological discrepancies designed to undermine the credibility of contemporary Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.5

In Jeremias' commentary on the parables, he identified four "double-edged parables" (including the Rich Man and Lazarus) and argued that in each case the emphasis falls on the second half.6 Hultgren further notes that the emphasis naturally lies at the end of a parable.7 In this case, the second half (and the end) is Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers, and Abraham's reply. This part of the parable is about the sufficiency of Scripture and the futility of a resurrected messenger trying to convert Dives' brothers; it is scarcely about the afterlife at all. If the parable's main message is not about the afterlife, then both the first and second views would seem to be excluded, since both of these views suggest that the parable was intended primarily to teach about the afterlife (whether positively or negatively).

Papaioannou acknowledges that the parable's main thrust is at the end. However, he argues that the first part of the parable had an element of surprise that would "arrest the attention to the second part of the parable where the main message of the parable is delivered."5 This is unconvincing since a surprise unrelated to the main message - indeed one that reduced the story to absurdity - would be more likely to distract than to focus the audience's attention on the serious message at the end of the parable.

A number of scholars have defended the third view. Fudge, a leading Evangelical proponent of conditionalism (sometimes known as annihilationism), states that this parable "likely was not intended to teach anything" on the subject of hell torments.8 Wright (not N.T.) concludes that "In this parable Jesus no more provides information about the intermediate state than, in other parables, does he provide instruction on correct agricultural practices or investing tips."9

Two main arguments have been made in defense of the third view. Firstly, as Bauckham showed in his extensive discussion of extra-biblical parallels, this parable draws on two narrative motifs familiar at this time in history: (1) a reversal of fortunes experienced by a rich man and a poor man after death; and (2) a dead person's return from the dead with a message for the living.10 Wright argues, like Papaioannou, that Jesus deliberately subverts these motifs.9 The denial of Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to his brothers seems an obvious subversion of the second motif, but it is not clear that the first part of the parable subverts the reversal of fortunes motif. Papaioannou points to 'absurdities' in the description of Hades, such as the idea that a tongue engulfed in Hadean flames could be soothed with a drop of water carried on a fingertip.11 Yet this is better explained as hyperbole than as an attempt to render the story absurd.

Other 'absurdities' Papaioannou sees in the story, such as the use of a term for mental anguish (odunaō) for what should be physical pain, are exaggerated.

The theological discrepancies in the story (noted by Papaioannou12 as well as Fudge13) include the location of the abode of the righteous within earshot of the abode of the wicked, and the setting of the story in Hades, which in the New Testament is usually a temporary place of confinement until the resurrection.14 This implies that Dives undergoes fiery torment immediately after his death, whereas elsewhere Jesus teaches that the fiery punishment of the wicked occurs after the final judgment, in Gehenna (e.g. Matthew 13:42; 18:8-9; 25:41).

Both of these 'discrepancies' can be explained as adaptations necessary for Jesus' didactic purposes. Situating the two abodes within earshot allows for the dialogue between Dives and Abraham (with Lazarus), while situating the story in the intermediate state allows for Dives' attempted intercession on his brothers' behalf while they are still alive.

Thus there is nothing in the parable's depiction of Hades that suggests Jesus intended to subvert contemporary ideas either about the reversal of fortunes motif in particular or eschatological punishment in general. Indeed, Jesus' teachings elsewhere in this Gospel are consistent with the reversal of fortunes motif (e.g. Luke 6:20-26; 13:28-30; 14:8-14). Moreover, his teachings about eschatological punishment contain both fire imagery (see passages cited above) and the idea of duration (Matthew 18:34 and probably Luke 12:59). Lehtipuu states that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."15

The second argument in favour of the third view is that, as was mentioned above, the main thrust of this parable is at the end, in Abraham's response to Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers. Since this part of the parable is not about the afterlife, it is contended that the parable does not teach about the afterlife. However, just because the primary emphasis is on the closing section (vv. 27-31) does not mean that the earlier part of the parable was not intended to teach anything.

Because the parable in Luke 15:11-32 is another "double-edged parable" and closes with the elder son's resentment, some scholars argue that this bears the parable's main message. But few would argue on this basis that vv. 20-24 were not intended to teach about the value of repentance and God's great compassion and mercy.

The didactic content of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus lies in Dives' two requests to Abraham and Abraham's two refusals (vv. 24-31). We must therefore ask what teaching Jesus intended to convey with the first exchange in vv. 24-26. One observes that the parable would still cohere if this section were omitted. Suppose that v. 24 read, "And he called out, 'I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father's house...'" and then continued from v. 28. The message conveyed in vv. 28-31 would hardly be compromised. We are thus compelled to conclude that Jesus' intended to convey another message with the first request and refusal in vv. 24-26. And that message could only be about the fate of the wicked. In short, the denial of even the most pathetic of requests from the rich man highlights the total, uninterrupted misery of the damned and the absolute, irrevocable reversal of fortunes that has occurred in contrast to Dives' and Lazarus' earthly lives. The severity of Dives' fate is declared to be just.

Hence, other scholars - rightly, in my view - argue for the fourth view, namely that the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked. As Snodgrass puts it:
“Are any conclusions about the afterlife possible? Although the caution about reading the details too literally is needed, the parable’s eschatological relevance cannot be wiped away. The themes of reversal and judgment must be given their due. The parable is a warning to the rich and emphasizes the importance of what humans do with the present, and it still teaches that humans will be judged for the way they lived and that the consequences will be serious.”16
Similarly, Lehtipuu writes that
"the audience of Jesus (as well as the readers and listeners to the gospel) naturally are appraised of the severe otherworldly consequences of an undesirable lifestyle, which is the main point of Luke’s description."17
Furthermore, as Peterson points out,18 the parable unmistakably equates fire with enduring torment and in this respect it sheds light on Jesus' use of fire imagery elsewhere when depicting the fate of the ungodly.

On the whole, then, while it cannot be said decisively that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches a doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, it does favour a traditional view of hell as a place of enduring misery.

1 Snodgrass, K. (2008). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 430.
2 Hultgren, A.J. (2002). The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
3 Yarbrough, R. (2004). "Jesus on Hell." In Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, ed. C.W. Morgan & R.A. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 74.
4 Williams, T. (1906). Hell Torments: A Failure, a Fallacy and a Fraud. Christadelphian Advocate Publications.
5 Papaioannou, K.G. (2004). Places of Punishment in the Synoptic Gospels. Ph.D. dissertation, Durham University, p. 155.
6 Jeremias, J. (1972). The Parables of Jesus. Charles Scribner's Sons, p. 131.
7 Hultgren, A.J. op. cit., p. 85.
8 Fudge, E. (2011). The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 148.
9 Wright, T. 2008. “Death, the Dead and the Underworld in Biblical Theology: Part 2.” Churchman 122(2), p. 114.
10 Bauckham, R. (1991). "The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels." New Testament Studies 37, pp. 225-246.
11 Papaioannou, K.G. op. cit., p. 153.
12 Papaioannou, K.G. op. cit., p. 154.
13 Fudge, E. op. cit., p. 153.
14 Bernstein, A.E. (1993). The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 139.
15 Lehtipuu, O. (2007). The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Leiden: BRILL, p. 299.
16 Snodgrass, K. op. cit., p. 432.
17 Lehtipuu, O. op. cit., p. 302.
18 Peterson, R.A. (1994). “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37(4), p. 559.

Monday 12 November 2012

The Accuser of our Brethren, Part 7: Is the devil an allegory?

Christadelphians believe the devil is an allegory - a personification of sin. Is this position supported by the biblical record? In this five minute video we look at two of Jesus' parables which have a bearing on this subject.