Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife

Adapted from Chapter 4 in Heaven for Skeptics by Bert Gary, Copyright 2010 for FaithWalk Publishing

Luke 16:19-31

Did you notice that a character in this parable has a name? Lazarus. Did you know that there are only two named persons in any parable told by Jesus in your Bible? And both are in this parable. They are Lazarus and Abraham. In none of his other parables are characters named. As my Australian friends say, “Funny that.”

Now it could be a coincidence, I suppose, but one of Jesus’ best friends just happens to be named Lazarus (mentioned 13 times in John 11:1-12:17); he had sisters named Mary and Martha; they lived in Bethany (near Jerusalem); and Jesus frequented their home. I count maybe a half dozen visits to their house recorded; I think there were more (not recorded) because I believe Jesus stayed over the years at their home when he visited nearby Jerusalem for festivals. John called Lazarus “the one whom Jesus loved.” (John 11:3) Obviously they were close. Mary and Martha’s scenes with Jesus always show that they too shared close friendships. (Luke 10:38-42; Mark 14:3; John 11:1-12:17)

I don’t think that Jesus named only one of his main parable characters (excluding Abraham’s supporting role) for nothing. I think Jesus’ sense of humor was in high gear. I believe the setting for the telling of this parable was in Bethany, in Jesus’ well-to-do friend Lazarus’ presence, perhaps in his very home, around his table, with Martha and Mary present too, and many disciples. Why? I think Jesus was being creative and having fun. (Gasp!)

In the context of Lazarus’ home, the naming of this character in the parable makes perfect sense. Lazarus of Bethany is probably well off financially. He has a spacious home able to accommodate many visitors at once. About $30,000 worth of nard happens to be stored in the cupboard. (John 12:3) Lazarus’ funeral drew a crowd of dignitaries, Judean officials from Jerusalem. (John 11:19) He was buried in an expensive rock-cut tomb similar to the one in which Jesus was buried---also a rock cut tomb made by another wealthy man, Joseph of Aramathea. (Matthew 27:57-60 and John 11:38) So, to give the name Lazarus to the poverty-stricken character would have brought a smile to everyone’s face, especially the way Jesus set it up.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19)

Everyone at the table probably looked at the host, Lazarus, at that point, making a quick assumption that Jesus was connecting his beloved friend, Lazarus, with the wealthy man in the story. But they were too quick to judge. There’s a zinger in the second line.

I can imagine Jesus saying, And every day right there at the rich man’s gate, there was a poor man named . . . (Everyone probably got quiet. He’d never named a person in a parable before. Whose name will he choose?) . . . let’s see . . . what shall I call the poor man . . . oh, I’ve got it. His name was . . . Lazarus!

You know they all laughed. Lazarus was the poor man, not the rich bloke? There's a twist! They had to have laughed. Now they were glued to the story. (When were they not glued to Jesus’ stories? I would have been.) Jesus used the name of his rich best friend whom he raised from the dead for a “parable character” who is poor, lonely, diseased, defiled, licked on by dogs, and right away dies. What a whopper! You know that they laughed and loved it. But that was just the set-up.

Then the rich nameless guy in the parable also dies. And—get this—they don’t “go” to the same place after they die, says Jesus’ tale. In fact their afterlife experiences are a hodgepodge of Hebrew scripture and Greek mythology, both of which, as we will see again, Jesus was very familiar with, and his listeners must have recognized too—all the more reason not to take his story literally. Those present for the telling never would have.

Let’s start with the parable character Jesus named Lazarus after his buddy. He dies, but Jesus says, Poor Lazarus was carried away by angels to be with Abraham on the far side of a canyon (chasma in Greek – chasm in English – meaning a wide space).

Jesus may have been drawing on an image from a popular apocryphal scroll called today 4 Esdras:

4 Esdras ..7:36.. The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell (gehenna) shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.

Whether Jesus was familiar with and using 4 Esdras, he pictures the afterlife in a similar way. Gehenna (see my blog: Hell Defined 2), the burning Valley of Hinnom, is viewed by Esdras as a burning pit. On the far side of the burning valley is a paradise.

But Jesus’ parable throws in two curve balls. 1) Jesus doesn’t say that the canyon is burning. He says that on one rim or side of the canyon there is tormenting fire, and on the other rim or side there is paradise. And 2) Jesus doesn’t call the buring side Gehenna (the term 4 Esdras chose); he calls the burning side Hades, the boring mythological underground abode of the dead. Both of these details created strange, dare I say playful, contradictions. We’ll get to these in a sec.

Notice this irony too. Jesus’ listeners would have. The real Lazarus of Bethany was buried. The parable-Lazarus was not. He was carried away to the rim of the canyon by angels. (John 16:22).

So what is Lazarus doing in his new paradisaical location on the canyon rim? Nothing, it seems. He’s more being than doing. He’s standing next to Abraham—“in his bosom” means by his side or in his embrace. Parable-Lazarus does nothing in the afterlife. He says nothing. He’s just there, seemingly content in proximity to (in close relationship with) the Patriarch Abraham. Perhaps true contentment doesn’t have to do or say anything.

Then, Jesus said, the rich man, unlike Lazarus, was buried. Yet while his body is buried, somehow he’s also present in the Greek mythological underworld called Hades. Incredibly, Jesus places Hades on the opposite side of the aforementioned canyon. Jesus doesn’t place Hades underground! Which brings up the aforementioned contradictions.

When Jesus wants to speak of a place of suffering and fire, he always uses the word “Gehenna,” not “Hades” (see the blogs: Hell Defined 1 and Hell Defined 2). When he uses the word Hades, he is either referring to “the grave” paralleling the word “Sheol” in the Old Testament, though once he also referred intentionally to the Greek pagan mythological underworld. He did this at Caesarea Philippi:

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you (that Jesus is the Messiah), but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (italics mine) (Matthew 16:17-18)

Caesarea Philippi was the ancient city of Paneas named for the god, Pan. Jesus would have seen the temple of Pan standing in front of a cave from which the headwaters of the Jordan River flowed. I’ve taught at this ruin many times, pondering the yawning cave that once greeted Jesus and his disciples. Within the cave there stood a huge statue of Pan. Pan is in the cave because it was his job, according to the myth, to guard the entranceway to Hades—the Greek mythological underground abode of the dead. Get the connection?

In Caesarea Philippi, a city dominated by the view of the temple of Pan—a Greek god who guarded the entrance to Hades--, Jesus refers to the gates of Hades as a metaphor for the church’s power to prevail even against death and the grave. One more time:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (italics mine) (Matthew 16:17-18) [a[|dhj hades {pronounced hah'-dace}]

All this is to say that when Jesus said Hades, even at Caesarea Philippi, he meant the grave. He was saying that his church will be victorious over death and the grave, using Hades in the Old Testament sense of Sheol (see Hell Defined 1 and Five Coincidences at Caesarea Philippi)

The term Hades occurs only ten times in the New Testament (Matthew 11:23, 16:18..; Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27; 31; Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13; 14—eleven if you include 1 Corinthians 15:55, which you can’t). In all but one of those ten occurrences Hades means the grave. Guess which one is different? That’s right. The one that’s different is in the Parable of Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man. There, as in all his parables, Jesus gets creative. There Hades means the abode of the dead, meaning the equivalent of Greek Mythology’s underworld.

Does Jesus believe in Hades, the Greek mythological underground abode of the dead? Of course not. And he proves it. He places Hades not underground in his imaginative story, but on the far rim of a canyon. And he does more.

To me what’s most peculiar is that Jesus adds the notion of tormenting flame being in the rich man’s Hades, which is downright humorous. Hades wasn’t a place of fiery torture in Greek mythology and philosophy. “Punishment for wrongdoing in the old (Pre-Plato) Greek stories . . . was not generally an after-death affair.” (Turner, 28) Hades was just drab.

Later, however, Plato did introduce some elements of suffering to Hades. While good souls went to the Elysian Fields to ride horses, play games, and play lyres in flowered meadows, bad souls went to a place in the basement of Hades called Tartarus (mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4—see Hell Defined 2). (29)

In utter contradiction to this dualism (good/bad; Elysian Fields/Hades), however, Plato sometimes sounded very Hindu or Buddhist, speaking of souls proving themselves worthy through a series of reincarnations to go finally up (!) to “the true Hades” to be bodiless forever with the gods. But bad souls are reincarnated as donkeys, wolves, ants, wasps, or the like. (31) The punishment in this sense is on earth.

Yet, back to the dualism, Plato saw souls that were neither particularly good nor bad being sent to Hades to be purified for a time. This may be where the concept of Purgatory comes from, though the Zoroastrian hell is also for purifying, and the Islamic hell is also purifying for some at death. It’s hard to tell who was borrowing from whom. But Plato claims that very bad people are thrown into Tartarus in the depths of Hades where the Titans are chained (32). It’s a prison. But he adds at the end of The Republic that in Hades sinners are met by wild men who “drag them off and flay them with scourges and thorns.” (33) But a fiery Hades? It’s not to be found.

“The Greek underworld is more like a musty closet than a furnace; it is a dark, sterile, and humorless realm, where the departed wander about aimlessly as shades of their former selves—the dead seem more devitalized and bored than tormented.” (Lewis, 174)

Gehenna [ge,enna geenna {pronounced gheh'-en-nah}] is a New Testament word that Jesus used just eleven times (and James once). It is definitely a place of fire. (On this 4 Esdras agrees.) No wonder. It was Jerusalem’s burning dump. Gehenna, or ge-hinnom in Hebrew, meaning The Valley of Hinnom, is a ravine that runs from the west side down and along the south end of Jerusalem’s Old City wall. Even though it’s not the safest place in the world today, I’ve walked its length. In biblical times, it is the place where garbage and sewage were burned. Continuously burning garbage and sewage is the perfect metaphor for a wasted life in a hellish existence, don’t you think?

Jesus—being intentionally and playfully contradictory in his Lazarus parable—places the rich man not in a fiery Gehenna Valley but in a nonsensical fiery Hades on a canyon rim. Why a fiery Hades for the rich man? You will not believe this:

Hades was the lord of the underworld and of the dead. His realm was also called Hades, and his name means unseen. But the ancient Greek god had two other names, both prominent in Roman times—the time of Jesus. The Romans called him Pluto, which means wealthy. Borrowing from the Celts, the Romans also called him Dives Pater (shortened to Dis Pater or just Dis). Dives Pater means Father Rich Man. (Turner, 36)

Hades/Pluto was equated with Dis Pater probably because in mythology he mined the earth for gold and such. Being the god of mining and underground wealth connected him to the underground abode of the dead. Therefore the god of mined wealth also became the god of the dead.

So let that sink in. Hades is Dives Pater, Father Rich Man. Jesus’ parable, “Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man,” is traditionally called, “Lazarus and Dives.” Folks, that is not a coincidence. Jesus put the rich man in his parable in Hades, a place in mythology that is ruled by the god Hades who is also called Father Rich Man! Are you getting this?

Upon death, the rich man (Dives) in Jesus’ parable is sent to Hades, the realm of Father Rich Man (Dives Pater). This playful parallel is not accidental. The layers of Jesus’ creativity and humor are astonishing.

But look at the many contradictions that occur when you literalize this parable. Lazarus dies. His burial isn’t mentioned, and he is transported by angels over to Abraham’s side of a canyon. He’s asked later in the parable to dip his finger in water, so wherever Lazarus is, Jesus portrays him as a physical being throughout, not a disembodied soul. The rich man’s body is buried, however. No transport is mentioned for him at all. Suddenly he’s in two places at once, in the grave and in Hades (which biblically should be the same thing, since Hades is the Greek word for Old Testament Sheol, meaning the grave). The rich man is definitely not a disembodied soul in either place. And note that Jesus’ parable-Hades isn’t underground. It’s on the opposite rim of the canyon from Lazarus. And the rich man is being tormented by flames physically in Hades, which introduces other inconsistencies. Hades is not known for flames. Moreover, Greco-Roman Hades was a place specifically for souls, not bodies. The rich guy asks for water on his tongue. So he definitely has a body in Hades, but he’s also buried—two bodies?

None of this is very sensical, is it? Taking it literally pushes it to absurd contradictions. But what if that is Jesus’ exact intention. It’s a clever parable, remember, a cartoonish and playful parable, just as Jesus meant for it to be. His listeners no doubt delighted in its colorful, comedic paradoxes and plays on words.

Does that freak you out? Sorry. But it’s clear to me that Jesus meant for his parables to be instructive and entertaining, not internally consistent and logical and factual. (Can a camel literally go through the eye of a needle?) Jesus’ audience that day, an audience of friends and disciples, probably enjoyed the hodgepodge of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman afterlife names and concepts as much as they enjoyed the use of rich, real life Lazarus’ name for a fictional poor man.

Why have we (in the church) intoned Jesus in somber voice and projected his image in super-seriousness on the screens of our minds? Take a deep breath and lighten up, for goodness sake. Relax. It’s a playful parable! Enjoy Jesus’ salty teaching at its best.

Jesus continues, From Hades the rich man looked way across to the other side of the gorge,* and there stood poor Lazarus (Now the rich man recognizes Lazarus! But he never recognized or acknowledged him, ironically, on the sidewalk of his own home while they were alive!) with Abraham.

But Bert, you might complain, it says that the rich man looked up to see Lazarus and Abraham, doesn’t it? Nope. The Greek New Testament reads evpa,raj tou.j ovfqalmou.j auvtou/, which literally translates as “he lifted up his eyes.” Those who interpret this parable literally assume that this means that the rich man literally looked up into the sky to see Abraham and Lazarus “in heaven.” That’s a misunderstanding of the phrase.

Yes, evpai,rw epairo {pronounced ep-ahee'-ro} can mean literally lift up, raise, or elevate. But frequently the term is used figuratively. Here are some examples from our New Testament Gospels. In Luke 11:27 a woman “raised her voice.” This cannot mean that she took her larynx from her throat and lifted it over her head! No, it’s an idiom, an expression that means something beyond the literal words. To raise your voice is to shout or cry out. In Luke 21:28 Jesus tells his listeners to “lift up your heads.” Does he mean to take your head off and hold it in the air? Does he even mean literally to look up at the sky? No on both counts. It’s an idiom. It means have courage or take heart, similar to our idioms in English to “hold your head up high” or “keep your chin up.” In John 13:18 Jesus said, “He who is eating the bread with me, did lift up against me his heel.” (YLT) Does Jesus mean that one of the disciples is going to stomp on him? Again, no. It’s an idiom. It’s often translated into English as “turned against me.” He’s speaking of Judas’ betrayal. Now look at Matthew 17:8:

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (italics mine)

By “looked up,” did Matthew mean literally that they looked up into the sky? No. Again, it’s an idiom. It means to look closely or to notice. It’s the same in our parable. Here’s Young’s Literal Translation of Luke 16:23:

YLT Luke ..16:23.. and in the hades having lifted up his eyes, being in torments, he doth see Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom, (italics mine)

Now we see that “having lifted up his eyes” is an idiom meaning to take notice. Besides, he can’t be literally looking up to the sky because Jesus places the rich man and Lazarus on opposite sides of a canyon. The characters are at eye level. Jesus is simply telling us that in his tale, the rich man looks around and notices that Lazarus and Abraham are over on the opposite rim of Jesus’ much misunderstood and much literalized gorge. (Friberg Lexicon; Thayer’s Greek Lexicon)

And the man cries out, “Mr. Abraham, sir, I beg you, show me a little compassion. Let Lazarus dip his finger in some water and come over here to cool my tongue. Man, it’s hot as hell over here!

This is ridiculous—intentionally. First, if you’re really on fire, you don’t use reason to try and talk your way out of it. Second, how much help is one drop on your tongue when your whole body is blazing? Third, how do Lazarus and Abraham hear him at such a great distance? Maybe it’s a really small chasm! Either that, or their cell phones have a good signal, for Abraham responds to the rich man’s finger-in-water request with a resounding No:

Son, remember how you had it good during your lifetime, and Lazarus had it really bad? But now he has it good here, and you have it really bad there. And this grand canyon separates us so that if anyone wants to cross from here to you, he can’t, and if you want to come over here, you can’t. [As if the rich man hadn’t already noticed all this! Maybe the reason he wants water is not to cool his tongue but to get the abundant life on the other side, referring to the “living water” mentioned by Jesus in John’s Gospel (4:10-14, 7:38) and in the Book of Revelation (7:17, 21:6, 22:1-2 and 17).]

So the rich man says, Sir, again I beg you, let me run home real quick and warn my five brothers so they won’t end up here. [Is he really concerned about his brothers, or is this another excuse used to escape his place of torment, or maybe just another attempt at a reprieve from the heat? Jesus’ listeners were probably saying, No, Abraham, No! Don’t let him go. He’s making an excuse to escape!]

Your brothers don’t need you, said Abraham to the rich man. They’ve got Moses and the prophets to show them the way.

No, Sir Abraham, I know those guys. They aren’t going to read old laws and prophesies. But I truly believe that if you let me go to them personally, when they see that I’m raised from the dead, I think they’ll believe me and change their minds. [That’s what repent means literally—mind-change.]

Here comes the zinger. Don’t you know Jesus’ friend Lazarus loved this last line?

Hey, Rich Boy, if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone were to rise from the dead! said Abraham. THE END.

Look at the levels of meaning. Not only had Lazarus of Bethany been raised from the dead causing many notables to believe (John 11:43-48 and John 12:10-12), but Jesus himself would rise. And Jesus cleverly ends the story with a humdinger referencing coming back to life. He tells the truth. Even the resurrection won’t impress or convince everybody. Obviously so, even today.So what’s this story about? You choose. Multiple choice. Luke 16:19-31 is:

A.     a literal description of a historical event.
B.     an eyewitness report from heaven and hell.
C.     a parable about failure to love your neighbor.

I go with C. It’s a parable about the danger of failing to love your neighbor. If you can’t love now, when are you going to do it? This parable says love today. Don’t blow your present opportunities to love. Because a compassionless existence is a living hell, though one may not realize it until it’s too late.

“The choice is between a living death and a dying life.” (Kreeft, p. 164)

The purpose of the parable is to awaken Life-filled, self-sacrificing compassion now, and to fulfill the law and the prophets by loving your neighbor now:

. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . (Leviticus 19:18)

As you probably know, this parable is often touted as a documentary on the afterlife. Why? Because there are too many humorless literalists in the world today, and because of them, the church has all but missed the fun. And moreover, the literalists are desperate for afterlife material, as there is much less afterlife emphasis in the Bible than people have been led to believe.

In the Parable of Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus has given us a crafty afterlife cartoon designed to tickle and tease the imaginations of those who have ears. Jesus is piercing the heart with a playful drama. It’s a life and death caricature of the failure to love. How desperate must you be for afterlife “data” to turn this delightful, intimate, love-your-neighbor farce into an unsmiling eyewitness report on the hereafter news channel?

The chasm between greed and generosity, between callousness and compassion, between neighborly neglect and neighborly love can and must be crossed in this life.

Plain Truth Magazine published this article as The Lazarus Parable--Just for the Hell of It?

For more on Jesus' parables see my blogs The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.