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Archive for the ‘Luke’ Category

Considering Lazarus

During a recent discussion in our church’s training school, I commented that in all of Jesus’ parables, he never once names any of his characters.  The people are always generic:  son, servant, master, builder, Samaritan, etc.  I was quickly corrected, however, and reminded that there is one parable wherein Jesus names some of his players.  The parable is found in Lk. 16:19ff, and is commonly called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  You can read the full text here.

Why is Lazarus named in this parable?  Tim Keller makes the claim that Lazarus’ name is significant in that it makes the contrast between Lazarus and the rich man all the more stark:  the rich man, who by earthly standards is ‘somebody,’  has no name in the parable, whereas Lazarus, a poor man (‘nobody’), has a name.  Even more, Lazarus means “God is my help.”  Perhaps this suggests, however subtly, that the rich man is one who trusts in earthly status (i.e., wealth) for help.  Jesus is speaking among Pharisees, after all (c.f., 15:2, 16:14), whom Luke reminds us are lovers of money (16:14).  We should also note that Biblical names very often speak to the character and identity of the individual.  The poor man’s character and identity are wrapped up in God, whereas the rich man has no character or identity outside of his wealth.

Jesus’ parable ends with the Rich man’s plea to Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead so he may warn his brothers of their impending judgment.  Abraham’s reply is that “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if somebody rises from the dead” (16:31).  I had always taken this verse to be foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  Says Jesus,  “You Pharisees are so hard of heart that even if I rise from the dead, you won’t believe me.”  Fast forward to Acts 4, and you can almost hear Jesus saying, “See?”

But perhaps v.31 is referring to the actual  Lazarus whom Jesus did raise from the dead (Jn. 11:38-44).  Note again the response of the Pharisees:  Not only do they want to kill Jesus (11:47-53), but they want Lazarus dead, too (12:10).  The resurrection of Lazarus is certainly a hinge point in John’s gospel, not unlike Peter’s confession in is a hinge point in Mark (Mk. 8:27-30).  Both are centerpieces in their respective gospels, and mark the beginning of Christ’s road to the Cross.

Because of the importance of Lazarus’ resurrection in John’s gospel, some have wondered why the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) do not include it.  It has been speculated that one of the reasons why the synoptics do not mention Lazarus is precisely because of Jn. 12:10, i.e., Lazarus is a marked man.  Since the synoptics could have circulated when Lazarus was still alive, the writers engaged in a “witness protection program” of sorts.  John, which is widely believed to have been written later than the synoptics, retells the story because by then Lazarus is dead.

The conservative exegete in me wants to limit the importance of Lazarus’ naming in the parable to a literary device created to contrast his character with that of the rich man.  This stays closest to Luke’s text and immediate context.  I am more cautious about taking v.31 to refer to the real Lazarus simply because it requires some speculation, however well-informed.  We could also play the “both/and” card here, and make the claim that v.31 refers to Lazarus and Jesus.  Thankfully, the referrant of v.31 brings little to bear on the point(s) of the parable itself, so I’m ultimately content to let it rest there, and perhaps add it to my list of questions to ask the Lord when I meet Him face to face, or at least to the list of reasons why I need a good commentary on Luke.

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Whenever I encounter a new (to me) interpretation of a familiar passage of Scripture, I’m generally skeptical of its validity.  I hope that this reticence is due less to my arrogance and more to my understanding that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  That doesn’t mean I’m not open to hearing it out, because something may be new to me but not actually new, but I’ve studied enough to know that novel ideas are generally bad ideas when it comes to biblical interpretation.

But when my friend Lacey came up to me some time ago and mentioned a new take on Luke 21:1-4 that she had heard in a Matt Chandler sermon (date: 8/9/09), I’ll admit I was intrigued.  Let me give you the verses (TNIV):

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins, “Truly I tell you, ” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

These verses are generally taken as praising the woman for her sacrificial giving.  If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve heard it preached that way quite a few times.  I’d venture to guess that many a building campaigns have been helped by preaching this passage.

Chandler, however, offered a different take on it.  Rather than praising the widow for her giving, Jesus was actually lamenting that she gave (note: the word “praise” doesn’t show up here).  If you read the passages immediately before and after this one, you’ll see that Jesus denounces the teachers of the law in part because “they devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (20:47) and then goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple in chapter 21- the same Temple the woman was supporting with her offering.  Chandler argues that given the surrounding context, Jesus couldn’t have been praising the woman for giving her money to the very Temple he was denouncing.  Instead, he was lamenting.  I don’t remember if Chandler specified if Jesus was upset at her or upset at the Temple authorities for bilking this woman out of what little money she had, though my guess is the latter.

Chandler likens this passage to the televangelists who guilt old ladies into giving up their retirement checks to fund their lavish lifestyle- surely a practice Jesus detests.  (Side note: whether or not his exegesis is right, I’m loving Chandler’s hermeneutics here.)

What do I make of this?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I’m a huge fan of reading passages in light of the surrounding context.  You can see an earlier post here of how I think the biblical writers can use narrative to make their point rather than stating things explicitly.  So Chandler has that going for him here.  But, I think literary context could possibly work the other way, too.  Is it possible that what we have here is actually a juxtaposition (one of my favorite words in studying the Bible, by the way)?  Is it possible that Jesus is purposely contrasting the widow’s sacrificial life with the greed of the teachers of the law?

Let me address a couple other points Chandler uses in his favor.  One, he states that in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus commends someone for a righteous act, he follows it up with a statement like “go and do likewise” or something along those lines (see the Good Samaritan).  Such a statement is missing here, which Chandler claims works in favor of his interpretation.  However, that isn’t entirely true.  The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is one example where Jesus praises someone’s action without telling others to do the same.

Two, while it’s true that Jesus declares the impending destruction of the Temple, he also commanded a man healed of leprosy to go tell the priest and make the proper sacrifices (5:14).  As far as the widow is concerned, the Temple is the place where the righteous go and worship.  The Temple had not been destroyed; Jesus had not died and risen from the dead.  Shoot- even Paul went to the Temple and even intended to make an offering (before he was arrested) in Acts 21:26.

After listening to the sermon I popped open some commentaries to see what they had to say.  I only own 1 Luke commentary, but I own a few on Mark, who records this same story in Mark 12:41-44 along with the same surrounding passages.  None of the commentators took the interpretation that Chandler did.  That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, because commentators are capable of rehashing traditional but wrong exegesis, perhaps especially prone in a case like this where the interpretation seems “obvious”.  It does make me wonder what sources Chandler used, though (side note: I’d love it if pastors shared this kind of information once in a while; I wonder if he ever has).

So, I’m not convinced.   Yet.  I’ll admit that Chandler has successfully convinced me that his interpretation is possible, if not plausible.  The immediate context does lend him support, though as I noted above I think it could (perhaps not ‘should’) be understood differently.  I’d be very interested to hear what others have to say about this, so feel free to leave any comments you might have.  I may very well be missing something that a different set of eyes might pick up.

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