How can Charles Dickens, a Victorian era fiction writer inform our reading of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man? I think in some important ways.
Lazarus & the Rich Man is a parable, recorded in Luke 16 that Jesus tells in response to being ridiculed by the Pharisees who were lovers of money. Lazarus is a beggar who sits by the gate of a rich man’s estate. The rich man walks by Lazarus day after day, ignoring his plight.
Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also dies and is in torment in Hades. He looks up, and sees Abraham and Lazarus far off, on the other side of a chasm that cannot be crossed. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him something to quench his thirst.
Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received his comfort during his life, and that Lazarus is now receiving his comfort. The rich man also pleads for Lazarus to be sent to his father’s house to warn his family about this place of torment, but Abraham says that they wouldn’t believe even if someone were raised from the dead.
This parable is often understood to be about heaven and hell, and the impenetrable chasm between the two. I don’t think it’s about that at all.
First, the rich man is in Hades. Hades is not hell. Hades is Greek for the Hebrew word Sheol, the place of the dead prior to the general resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns.
Also, Lazarus is said to be with Abraham, not God. How many southern gospel songs have you heard about going to heaven to be with Abraham? Not many. Or, how many near death experiences feature heavenly bliss with Abraham? Also, if this parable is about how to get into heaven and how to avoid hell, the only criterion seems to be caring for the poor. No faith required.
This is where Charles Dickens can help.
Dickens was a master at creating memorable, fictional characters. Jesus too, was a master at creating memorable, fictional characters. The parables of Jesus are works of fiction. You couldn’t go anywhere in the first Century Middle East to actually meet the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, but these characters comprise some of the most influential teachings of Jesus.
One of Dickens’ most loved works of fiction is A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from a crotchety old penny pincher into a generous benefactor.
In several otherworldly scenes, Scrooge is shown the past, present and future. During these scenes, Scrooge begins to see the error of his ways and cries out across a chasm that cannot be crossed, trying in vain to change his past in order to affect his future. Scrooge awakes from his last vision a changed man. He runs out on Christmas morning, buys the biggest turkey he can find and hurries to the home of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The otherworldly scenes and visions function in the story to help Scrooge see the error of his ways and change the way he lives in this life.
When reading A Christmas Carol we don’t try to extract any doctrine about heaven, hell or the afterlife from it. We understand that the visions and apparitions function in the story as a way of giving Scrooge the opportunity to repent and change the way he lives before he dies.
I think this is exactly what Jesus is doing in the Parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man.
1. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens constructs a story, which leads Scrooge to discover his biases and blind spots. In Lazarus & the Rich Man, Jesus constructs a story, which is intended to help the Pharisees discover their biases and blind spots. Even the biases and blind spots in their own Scriptures!
2. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge cries out across a chasm when he discovers the error of his ways, but the chasm can’t be crossed. In Lazarus & the Rich Man, the rich man cries out across a chasm when he discovers the error of his ways, but the chasm can’t be crossed.
3. In A Christmas Carol, the otherworldly visitations offer Scrooge the opportunity to see his own actions more clearly, and give him the opportunity to repent (change his thinking and actions). In Lazarus & the Rich Man, the otherworldly scene that Jesus constructs is meant to help the Pharisees see the error of their ways, and give them an opportunity to repent.
4. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge does change. He becomes gracious and generous with his resources IN THIS LIFE. In Lazarus & the Rich Man, Jesus leaves the ending of the story unwritten. It will be up to the Pharisees to decide how they will respond IN THIS LIFE.
The Parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man isn’t meant to teach doctrine about the afterlife. It’s meant to give us the opportunity, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to change the way we live in this life. It uses fictitious, otherworldly imagery to draw us into the story, but the imagery and the characters are meant to invite us to change.
When we read A Christmas Carol, we don’t take it literally. In the same way, we shouldn’t take the parables of Jesus literally. We should, however take them seriously. In fact, to take the Parable of Lazarus & the Rich man seriously, we mustn’t take it literally.
This blog was adapted from a longer message of the same name that can be found in its entirety here.