Even though the story of a rich man and a poor man has given life to several fables and apparently granted license for reports about death, Luke 16:19-31 is concise and conclusive Christian teaching about unbelief. The twists and turns of this fascinating parable do not obscure our Lord’s concluding remarks.
The challenges in interpreting this passage include the absence of God, the conclusions of the authority figure of Abraham, the contradiction about communication between the living and the dead, and the notion of rewards at death. Evangelicals are on some kind of theological crack drug which allows them to believe and make idols of fantasies that have been written by once-trusted pastors and thinkers.
Consider the fable that one is said to die (depart this life) and immediately unite with Christ but not with the resurrection body. If one knows anything about the Lord’s promises about the end of the age and the final victory the report is immediately filed under fabulous and phony. Death unites man with his origins not his destiny. There is no theology behind the “absent – present” deception. Believers are already seated with Christ in heavenly places. Resurrection unites man with his immortal body and this unites him with Christ who already has (is in fact the only person who does) an immortal body.
No one is departing this life to be with Abraham because that would be a godless destiny. This is a well placed jab at the notion of sleeping with ones fathers. Here one gets to sleep it the father of the nation.
Still it is Abraham who is the authority in the parable. He pronounces judgment on the tormented rich person, affirms the unbridgeable gap between the dead and the living, and denies request for the poor man to be messenger to the rich person’s siblings, reminds the tormented rich person of the pivotal roles of Moses and the prophets, and seals the fate of those who had not listened to Moses and the prophets by pouring cold water on the notion of someone returning from the dead as convincing evidence.
Since they had not listened to Moses a resurrected person would be of no effect. This was the other hit on the audience’s fun (vs 14).
To properly interpret this parable the gospel must be the workbench. There is no Abraham’s bosom in the gospel. There is no tormenting fire at death in the teaching of the apostles. Abraham is not the judge of humans neither in this life nor the next.
For the Jewish audience Moses and the prophets were the authority. For people who follow Christ the gospel takes the place of Moses and the prophets and unbelief has no excuse once one has heard the message of Messiah and the kingdom of God.
The stories about life in death seem to be grounded in the life “you shall not surely die”. If people can be directed to ignore God’s earliest warming then there is no reliable foundation for belief in a quality life in fellowship with God.
If creative and figurative language about human destiny can ignore the evidence about death and dying then we have no chance of being convinced about Messiah. The whole of Judaism’s pride was phony and ineffective. Belief in Moses was rare. Unbelief irrevocably sinks the boat every time and this parable sinks Judaism’s floating juggernaut. Yet Christian commentators have bought Yeshua’s creative genius but have rejected what He taught through the mouth of the fictitious Abraham. The love of money and the demise of the Law and the Prophets (vss 14-18) are the reasons for this parable and we will miss the benefit of a Living Witness if we are going to focus on fables and traditions. The risen Christ appeared only to chosen witnesses and there was only one Jewish official among them, Saul of Tarsus, whose witness established the sad unbelief of his Jewish contemporaries. Faith in God’s Son is still the only way to avoid torment .
Elbert Joseph, PhD
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