‘You received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things’
The Rich Man and Lazarus (2)
Luke 16: 19-31
‘Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. No, I have not come to destroy them, but to fulfill them’ (Matthew 5:17). Thus Jesus declared in the Sermon on the Mount. He did so ‘in dialogue’ with the sacred writ, clarifying its meaning and correcting false interpretations.
When Jesus referred to the Scriptures, he meant of course the Hebrew Bible, or what we Christians call the Old Testament. One of the most important books to him was Deuteronomy. It is therefore worthwhile to examine one of its key teachings, if we want to clarify some misunderstandings raised by the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Deuteronomy, which means in Greek the ‘second law,’ is the fifth of the five books of Moses found at the very beginning of our bible. It is a restatement by Moses of the statues and ordinances of God which he presents in three sermons to the Israelites as they are about to cross the Jordan into the the Promised Land.
What concerns us here are the two chapters of Deuteronomy (28 and 29) in which Moses concludes his second sermon with a litany of good things, or ‘blessings’ that will occur to anyone who heeds the statutes and commandments of God, together with a list of bad things, or ‘curses’ for those who do not. Consider these blessings for the obedient
The Lord will make you abound in prosperity…The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. (Deuteronomy 28: 11-12).
This sounds very much as though the Rich Man in our parable was truly blessed! Does that mean he had been obedient? Now consider this curse for violators of the law, and ask if it does not indeed apply to Lazarus
The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. (Deuteronomy 28:35)
One way to understand these passages (and it seems that the Pharisees who disputed with Jesus took it this way) is to say: if someone is blessed with wealth and success, it is a sign God approves of him. Likewise, someone is sick or impoverished, it is because he has been sinful and God has judged him.
Is this the right way to understand the blessings and curses of God? One of the purposes of the parable is to warn us against this misunderstanding of Scripture. In our next reflection, we will try to fathom how Jesus would have us see this teaching.