Hell 16: Lazarus and the rich man

Posted: April 17, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

450px-Meister_des_Codex_Aureus_Epternacensis_001There’s no mention of Gehenna in John. There’s just one unique reference to Hades/Gehenna in Luke – and that one is quite extraordinary. It’s one that believers in ‘hell’ often look to for evidence. Let’s take a look:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  Luke 16:19-21

Two absolute extremes of the social spectrum – at the same address! But now the scene shifts:

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  16:22-24

Where are the two men now? Both have died. One goes up, carried on angels’ wings to Abraham’s side: a traditional post-mortem destination for the deserving (cf. IV Maccabees 13:17). Abraham was seen in the Talmud as having some sort of caretaker role in the afterlife.

The other is buried in the earth, which is Hades, the place of the dead. But he is not just in Hades: he seems to be in that part of Hades reserved for the wicked: Tartarus, or Gehenna, the traditional place of torment. There he suffers ‘agony in flames’.

These post-mortem destinations correct the extreme imbalance experienced in the land of the living:

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.   v.25

The idea that the poor would be comforted after death and exempt from Gehenna, was a common enough rabbinic teaching; e.g.:

Three kinds of persons do not see the face of Gehenna. These are they: the destitute, one who is afflicted with bowel diseases, or by the [Roman] government. (Bab. Talmud, Eruvin, 41b)

There was also a common idea in the Talmud that Israelites were either exempt from Gehenna, or else Abraham would rescue them once they were there.

…the saying of Reish Lakish to the effect that the fires of hell cannot gain access to the bodies of the sinners in Israel…

Reish Lakish: “Those sentenced go briefly to Gehinom, and Abraham takes them out, except for a Jew who had relations with a foreigner… 

 Babylonian Talmud, Book 2: Tracts Erubin, 19a

The rich man asks Abraham for some of this help:

‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

By Jewish standards, he’s not asking much: just one drop of water. But even this is denied him:

…between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’     v.26

Let’s stop and take stock of what we’ve seen. Much of this story is absolutely traditional. The details are drawn from similar stories in rabbinic and intertestamental literature. Jesus sets up a scene of an intermediate state of judgement, after death but before the final judgement and resurrection. This was commonplace. The idea that the righteous and the damned could see each other’s fate, was also normal. Most of the details of his story would hold little challenge for the average Jew.

But there are aspects of Jesus’ version that were far from traditional, and may have shocked his hearers.

First, the idea that a Jewish man might end up in Gehenna was controversial. The majority rabbinic view seems to have been against this.

Second, the idea that once a Jew was in Gehenna, he was stuck there for good, was even more controversial. As we have seen, even of those who thought Jews might enter Gehenna, it was generally only for a short time, typically one year. Abraham would come and fetch them out. (Except in extreme cases.) But in Jesus’ version, there is no coming back from Gehenna, not even for Jews.  This makes it a much more terrible prospect.

But perhaps the most shocking of all was the idea of a rich man being punished for being rich and not caring for the poor.

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.   v.25

Traditional sins that consigned one to Gehenna were pride, anger, idolatry, sexual immorality – not wealth! Wealth was generally considered to be a sign of God’s favour. There was a strong tradition of the virtue of alms-giving. But the idea of punishment for not giving – that was counter-cultural. Jesus, however, has this man being judged merely on the basis of his wealth and (implied) lack of generosity!

How can Jesus justify this departure from the standards of his society? It seems a bit unfair to go consigning people to Gehenna, when they were living within the accepted boundaries of decent conduct.

This parable functions as a concluding illustration and climax to the preceding discourse about the dangers of wealth. In it Jesus has criticised the Pharisees for preferring wealth and status over care for the poor.

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.    v.14-15

It seems it is not just this one rich man who has a problem: rather he is a representative or typical Israelite. Jesus is describing the divergence between God’s standard and that of contemporary Judaism. To illustrate this more clearly still, Jesus sets up a devastating conclusion to his story: he introduces the rest of the family:

The rich man said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—  for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’   He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”    v.27-31

The rich man may have fitted in comfortably with his culture – but Jesus alleges that he had departed far from the covenant with Moses. Is Jesus right?

Yes he is. Mosaic law had a strong and extensive tradition of mercy for the poor and homeless: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jesus’ point here is that this central aspect of the covenant has been suppressed in the Judaism of his time. Compassion has come to be seen as an optional extra creating virtue, rather than as a debt owed to God, an essential part of belonging to God’s people. In turning their backs on the poor, the rich in Israel had also turned their backs on the covenant. The rich man’s brothers, then, would not be helped by another messenger from God – they have already rejected all the messengers.

In this way, the wealth which is so prized by the Pharisees and others, has become an abomination to God.

And this is the point of the parable. This is the topic Jesus is teaching about, here and through the whole preceding discourse. He is not teaching about hell, but about riches and abomination. Significant sections of Judaism has gone dangerously wrong in this area. And being Jewish will not protect you them from judgement. If you are greedy and close your heart to the poor now, nothing will be able save you from God’s wrath, later. That’s the message.

Why then does Jesus introduce this after-life, ‘intermediate state’ experience, a concept apparently unknown in the OT and in the rest of his teaching? For this parable is unique in Jesus’ opus. Why does he transform Gehenna from the place of final destruction it is in Matthew’s gospel, to being a holding-place prior to the final judgement, as it is here? Is this a hint of a whole other strand in Jesus’ teaching, unknown to us except in this parable? Of tensions or contradictions within his message?

This is unlikely. It is important to distinguish what Jesus is teaching, from the form in which he teaches it. The form here is entirely traditional: a tale of afterlife recompense for the deeds of this life. But the content is radical. This parable is an example of a genre something like parody: “an imitative work created to mock or comment on an original work” – in this case not to mock but to comment on and challenge. Jesus employs this traditional tale as a frame in which to set his radical message: a message of confrontation between the values of Israel’s leaders, and the values of God’s covenant and kingdom. The traditional elements here form a background against which the new elements stand out all the more sharply.

It would be a mistake – a genre error – to attempt to learn anything about Hades or Abraham’s side from this parable. Jesus neither confirms nor denies the traditional cosmology of his tale: it is not his interest. He rather employs it for his own purposes. That’s how parables work: everyday material used to say something about the dynamics of God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ farming parables, no one would imagine he was wanting to teach a message about agriculture. When Jesus describes the eye’s task of shedding light (Luke 11), he is not endorsing or promoting the Platonic model of eyesight, commonly held in the ancient world. He is using traditional images and categories as the vehicle within which to say  something new. The same applies in this parable. To seek to learn about the nature of Gehenna from this parable would be to mistake the form for the content.

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