The Two-Lazarus Problem

Update: I was pleased to see that Catholic convert and blogger Mark Shea chose these scriptural passages as the inspiration for column at Inside Catholic.  Check it out here.

This post is about what seemed to me to be an inconsistency in the Gospel, but is not meant to be a debunking of Christianity or an explanation of why I do not believe (I’ll be trying my hand at that later in the day).  Therefore, I’m not trying to start an argument about the truth of the Bible in this post, I’m just curious what explanation Christians have for this conflict.

Yesterday, at Mass, I was mystified by the reading for the service.  You can refer back to all the readings for Sunday here, but the one that confused me was the Gospel passage from Luke 16:19-31.  The passage isn’t long, so you may prefer to click through, but here’s the quick summary.

Jesus’s Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man
A rich man lives in comfort, ignoring the beggar Lazarus who aches for even the scraps from the rich man’s table.  After they both die, Lazarus is with Abraham, while the rich man sufferers torments.  He asks if Lazarus could offer him any comfort, even a drop of water, but Lazarus cannot cross the gulf that separates the wicked from the righteous.  The rich man then asks if Abraham would send Lazarus to the world of the living to warn the rich man’s brothers, so they might avoid his error.  Abraham tells him that he will not.  “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them,” Abraham says.  The rich man pleads, saying that surely they will believe if they see a man return from the dead.  But Abraham says again, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

And then. eight chapters later, Jesus rises from the dead.

Perhaps this is a outsider/atheist thing to be perplexed by, but I was extremely confused by this passage.  My questions were not answered in the sermon, which dwelt on sins of commission versus sins of omission.  I wanted to know more about the rich man after death, not why he had been sent there.  If miracles and resurrections are a crutch for the faithless, why did Jesus need to be publicly resurrected at all?

I understand that there could be a lot of reasons offered for why Jesus is a special case, and I’m perfectly willing to concede that Jesus might not be a reasonable counterexample to his own parable, but I’m still aware of a couple others.  After all, when the parable began, I assumes the Lazarus that Jesus referred to was the only Lazarus that I had heard of: the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead in John 11:1-45.

Why should the people who had rejected Jesus’s teachings when they heard them get the encouragement that the rich man was refused?  Why should Paul get a personal appearance from Jesus on the road to Damascus, when his colleagues were allowed to go on persecuting the Christians.  If the answer is “God moves in mysterious ways,” why bother telling the parable?

I look forward to your responses on this question, but I have another favor to ask.  When I was turned down from RCIA, I was disappointed because I was looking forward to the discussions of the week’s readings.  Does anyone have an email list or websiter that offers interesting commentary/background on Sunday’s reading?  Thanks!

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  • re:why bother telling the parable?: I don't think that it's fundamentally about the question you're raising. It's about "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." Because the gospels REALLY REALLY hate economic injustice.In terms of your first question: Jesus was NOT first and foremost an evangelist. He was the savior of mankind, the exemplar of perfect love and sacrifice. He died and was resurrected not so that he could convince people to follow his path (though if they did, all the better), but because he loved even those who wouldn't follow him SO MUCH that he had to give them the choice.I think the parable might be acknowledging that Jesus' death and resurrection aren't going to convert the Pharisees. Even if they saw him bodily post-Resurrection, they wouldn't have been convinced. It's possible to live a wholly moral life within the guidelines/with the inspiration of the Mosaic law. The people who rejected and/or distorted that law when it was the only thing they knew won't be convinced by the fulfillment of the law.As for why Paul was converted on the road to Damascus: I thought about this all summer and I still don't really know. I think I can make the statement that Paul's faith was MUCH deeper as a result of his past sins. Maybe God needed a missionary who knew what it was like to be converted. idk.(btw, I have not had any coffee yet, so if none of what I said make sense, ask me about it later.)

  • I would concur mostly with the first poster. However I don't think you can bring Paul into this as the two are unrelated, Jesus was not presumably foreshadowing Paul. What I can say is that the resurrection of Jesus is not supposed to be special for him, according to Christians we will all be resurrected. Also the resurrections of Lazarus(2) and the mention of disbelieve in this story of Lazarus(1) are specific signs foreshadowing the resurrection Jesus, and of everyone else.The majority of the commentary I can find (in 5 minutes of searching mind you) on this passage seem to focus on the socio-economic message that is more obvious from the text than the issue you raise, but I do see some pointing to the point that those who are blind to the beggar in the street will be blind to the resurrection as well. (I only searched for commentaries that claimed to be 'Catholic')

  • The third message from heaven…If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

  • About the Resurrection of Christ, we can say that it was not only a sign, but also an important reality in its own right. The Resurrection is Christ's conquest of death, and is not merely an expression of that victory. This is the most obvious reason why Jesus is not a counterexample to his parable.The resurrection of Lazarus (and other miracles in the Gospels), might seem to be. I don't think they are. According to one traditional understanding of the miraculous signs worked by Christ, they were intended not to awe unbelievers into belief, but to represent to believers something about the content of that in which they believed. It's noteworthy for this reason that Christ, for the most part, works miracles only for those who have already demonstrated their faith in him.Now I happen to think that miracles are a very suggestive corroboration of Christianty — but they don't work on everyone. The miracle of the sun at Fatima was witnessed and testified to by all manner of atheists, but they generally managed to find some explanation for it that didn't require the intervention of the Mother of God. For all we know, there were a hundred Sauls of Tarsus who were struck temporarily blind on the road to Damascus, and only one who resisted the temptation to write it off as heatstroke or attribute it to those sketchy-looking kebabs they'd eaten along the way.This is what Christ means when he says that signs will not convince those for whom the law and the prophets are not enough. And on that note, I want to tell a parable myself (which was told to me as a true story, but I haven't been able to find a trustworthy source for it):Émile Zola, in an anticlericalist mood, decided to take a trip to Lourdes to write a characteristically realist account of what was to be seen there. He reveled in it. The innumerable shops and booths selling kitchy images of the Virgin; the hucksterism of the preachers; the decrepit of France preferring, in their ignorance, magical water to modern medicine; and the waters themselves: frigid, brackish, and contaminated with the pus and blood of the thousands of wretched souls who came there to take the plunge.There was enough in these grottoes to satisfy Zola's taste for grotesquery. And he found one woman who he knew would find a place in his exposé. Ravaged by lupus, her face — on the few occasions she lifted her veil — was a nightmare of running sores and swollen flesh. Zola pointed the triumphal finger of doubt: "I will believe," he pronounced to the pious doctors of Lourdes, "when this woman is made beautiful."And as it happened, a few days after that woman took to the waters, her sores ceased to run, and her face showed real signs of being on the mend, and the pious doctors concluded that she who had been incurable was miraculously on the mend.Naturally, one of them brought her to Zola, and pointed the triumphal finger of faith: "See, M. Zola — you who would test God — what has been done here. The woman is cured!" And it was hard to disagree. New skin had grown over the wounds, and the swelling had subsided enough that one could detect the woman's smile.But Zola averted his eyes: "No, no," he said, "she is still too ugly."

  • I have never thought about that passage like you presented. Quite interesting! I do find it odd… gentiles, who were preached the message of the gospels but who did not follow explicitly the Jewish teachings of Moses and the prophets, would seem to prove that individuals were believers purely for the sake of the resurrection who were not convinced earlier by the messages of Judaism alone.I would also like to state the obvious that if Jesus appeared to me and many other skeptics, stated personal facts about our lives that no one else knew, spoke multiple languages simultaneously, created an immense feeling of having a "god shaped hole" filled and we were later able to objectively confirm unanimously that we had all seen and heard the same thing… I would believe. The same group of people would probably not be convinced by reading the prophets and having it explained why so-and-so prophecies really happened via convoluted stories or why any of the extraordinary tales of Moses should be believed.

  • The two Lazarus’ are not the same. It is very possible that the story Christ is telling did not happen, but is rather a story to illustrate a point. The name Eleazar (the Hebrew name for Lazarus) was a very common name, so it is much less likely that this was the same person, than that it wasn’t.

    2) The prefix for the Greek word used for “rose,” as used in Luke 16:31 most often means “repetition,” or “repeatedly,” which could imply that what Abraham is actually saying (according to Christ’s account) is, “neither will they be persuaded though people HAVE AND WILL REPEATEDLY RISE from the dead.” In the past (the Old Testament) both Elijah and Elishah raised people from the dead, and in the future another Lazarus, and Christ Himself WOULD rise. Christ is saying, “I’ve got that covered, and it’s still not going to sway them.”

    3) You said you “wanted to know more about the rich man after death, not why he had been sent there.” I’ll give you a quick breakdown of my understanding of what Christians call “the millenium,” or more commonly known in evangelistic circles as “The Lord’s Day.” One of my main problems on my way to becoming a Christian was that I used to ask ministers if a little African boy who grew up in the jungle and never had the opportunity to hear or learn about Christ would go to hell. 100% of the people I asked said “yes.” This was not my interpretation of a loving God. Curiously enough, it’s not the Bible’s interpretation of God either.

    God does not punish man for ignorance. There are many passages that support this statement. I’m not going to go into this in detail, but feel free to write me and request a more extensive explanation if you so desire. God’s law is not like man’s law. God does not hold you accountable for what you do not know. He holds you accountable for what you do with what you do know. And herein lies “The Lord’s Day.” This particular day is a thousand year period where anyone who did not have the opportunity to learn about Christ can and will. God does not condemn in ignorance, He condemns the corrupt actions of one who is properly informed.

    4) Always look to the subject and object when you’re studying Scripture. In order to understand the story Christ is telling, and what He intends to convey by it, you must take into account what He is responding to (when His teaching is a response). Just prior to the telling of this story, the Pharisees were deriding Him because He had just said, “No servant can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and mammon.”

    The telling of the story of Lazarus and the rich man is Christ instructing these Pharisees on how God does judge man: i.e. by his charitable, and loving works – not his possessions. This is a major misconception among non-christians and Christians alike. Christ was not against wealth – He was against the worship of it. Christ does not say this man went to the far side of the gulf because he was wealthy, but because of how he behaved with that wealth.

    Moreover, in the other instance where Christ speaks of the camel and the eye of the needle, Christ was responding to a rich man who refused to give away his belongings and follow Christ. If you read that account, money was what the man worshipped. If the man had worshipped something else, Christ would have asked him to give up that thing – whatever that thing was to get into heaven. Why? Because whatever you’re unwilling to give up to enter heaven, is what you worship, which is an immediate breach of the first and highest commandment.

    So why does He refuse the resurrection of the rich man at the end of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16? 1) God does not play favorites – He treats all men equally according to the order He has created. A good parent doesn’t favor kids. A good parent raises all children by the same rules – in human terms, mainly because it causes divisions and strifes to play favorites. 2) These men, to whom He was telling this story to, were “religious men.” They had heard the telling of Jonah and the whale; they had heard the telling of the resurrections of the Old Testament; they had heard the prophecies of the Messiah, and surely the rich man’s brothers had heard all of these too. The point Christ is making, to quote the final line from The Song of Bernadette: “For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof will suffice.”

    Here is the crux of the issue: What atheists refuse to believe is that belief is required to see truth. The atheist says to God, “Why don’t you just tell me already?!” while the believer says to God, “I know nothing, please teach me.” It’s not that God isn’t able to tell the atheist, it’s that, much like an impatient child, atheists tend to want to demand God on their terms, and that is an inverted principle. God knows that you will not be able to hear Him until you submit, because when you’re convinced of untruths, and believe you are right, you cannot hear truth. This is why arrogance darkens wisdom.

    When speaking of history, people generally say something like, “Gee, throughout time pretty much every generation believed they had all the answers and boy were they stupid. I mean they bled people with leeches, and thought the world was flat, and so on and so forth…” But the arrogance they then possessed that kept them from moving forward is the same arrogance we now possess that keeps us from it.

    Bill Maher said on Religulous, “If I was God, I just would’ve taken that hole out of my chest to begin with…” But where is love in that equation? Love must generate from free will. If you demand love, it isn’t real. But true love demands faith. In order to give your life to someone, you must trust them, else you will not completely submit. In my opinion most divorces occur from a mutual lack of submission. Most marriages are based on both people saying, “You need to change this, this and this, but I’m going to stay exactly as I am and you’re just going to have to learn to live with it.” But without mutual, free will reciprocity, eventually the relationship will crumble and disintegrate.

    I would request that you ask yourself a question and sincerely consider it: It’s around the year 1850 and you live in France. Your friend Louie comes to you and swears he’s discovered invisible particles in the air that cause illness and can even cause death. Would you believe him? Because the majority of the “educated medical community” of the day did not. Is it possible that God is all science and reason, but we simply don’t have the wisdom to understand it yet? A submission to God is submitting to the fact that we don’t know everything.

    In order to tell whether something is true or false, we must have all the information, or are research is conditionally accurate at best. It may well be that the proof you’re asking for is not available yet, but you insist that you will not believe until it’s shown to you. The thing is: it’s not about you, or me. It’s about a perfect society where all are loved, no one is hurt, no one is scared, and no one is nervous, because no one steals kids, no one lies, no one abuses one another, etc. But in order to have that, everyone who is a part of that society must agree (through free will) to live by the same codes, laws, and standards. Because if we’re forced into it, it’s bondage, and bondage creates oppression, and oppression breeds contempt, and contempt breeds war, and then the whole darn thing collapses.

    You said you wanted to know more about the rich man after death? Here is a suggestion for your research: In the Apocrypha, read 2nd Esdras 7:67-99

  • “The god whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals.” – William James –