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Nazareth Revisited


The Parables


The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke xvi. 9). -- There are two questions to be considered in the study of this parable: first, the significance that Jesus intended to convey by the use of it; and secondly, the light it may throw on the state of the dead. These are totally distinct questions, and it is important they should be kept separate.

The first question presents no difficulty. The lessons of the parable are apparent on its face, especially when viewed in the light of the circumstances that called it forth. It was evoked by the opposition shown by the Pharisees to the teaching of his previous parables -- those considered in the second half of our last chapter. Jesus had especially emphasized the doctrine that it was impossible to serve God and mammon; and that the way to use riches to spiritual advantage was to make use of them as a means of abundant well-doing. We are told that "the Pharisees, who were covetous, hearing all these things, derided him." This drew his attention directly to them. They were in great reputation with the people for superior sanctity; which made their opposition particularly galling in view of the light way they treated the obligations imposed by Moses and the prophets, and the selfish objects with which they used their influence, and the hypocritical arts they employed to keep up that influence. This was the first point he touched: "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men, but God knoweth your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (verse 15). The second point was their trifling with the law of Moses and the prophets to make room for their own traditions. This he condemned by affirming that "the law and the prophets were (in full force as the binding expression of the will of God) until John; and that since then," the preaching of the kingdom of God by himself and his disciples, which was resisted by the Pharisees as an innovation, had been attested as the latest manifestation of the will of God, with the result that thousands of the common people accepted it gladly, though the Pharisees held aloof. As for the law of Moses, with which they trifled, it was easier for heaven and earth to pass than for even the smallest of its provisions to fail The laxity of the marriage law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, was in direct violation of the Mosaic precepts, though so popular with the Pharisees and their disciples.

This was the situation which the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was introduced to illustrate, and on the true nature of which it throws the light of a divine interpretation. The Pharisees had one view of that situation, and this shows another. They thought themselves the righteous of the earth, and monopolised the fat things of life as their just portion from God, regarding with a supercilious contempt the low class to which Jesus, in their eyes, belonged. The parable shows them a tolerated class for a time merely, and the Lazarus class as the beloved of God, to be exalted in due time when the triflers with the Scriptures would be brought down and made suppliant at the feet of the Lazaruses they now despise. But suppliant in vain, for a wide gulf will divide the rejected of God from the accepted in that day, rendering it impossible for one to render good offices to the other if ever so disposed, which will not be the case when the day of opportunity and mercy is passed. "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." This is the great lesson of the parable put into the mouth of Abraham. Jesus considers the claims of Moses and the prophets to be established on such grounds, that the submission of true and docile reason is inevitable, and in effect says that a man standing out against those claims is beyond reach of conviction. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." This declaration ceases to appear extravagant when we become acquainted with the character of Moses and the prophets, and with the facts involved in the existence of their writings.

The lesson of the parable is quite evident. The question remains as to the form in which it is propounded. Does Jesus by this teach the existence of the dead as conscious beings in a disembodied state? It is universally assumed that he does; and certainly such is the impression that any one would receive from a rough and casual reading of the parable. But second thoughts will show many reasons against this view. In the first place, it was not the nature of "the future state" that was at all in question between Christ and the Pharisees when he uttered the parable. The question was as to God's estimation of the position and teaching of the Pharisees and of Christ respectively. Jesus dogmatically defined this, and then, as was his wont, uttered this parable in illustration of what he said. In the doing of this, he might employ figures drawn from ordinary literal experience (as when he spoke of a man losing a sheep); or from the views entertained by those around him without any reference to their truth (as when he discussed the abstract possibility of his doing miracles by the power of a mythical god -- Beelzebub); or from imagination of the impossible (as when he spoke of keeping the left hand ignorant of what the right hand was doing, or the stones crying out). Which of these it was we must decide by investigation of what is true outside the parable itself. This is not the place for such investigation. It has been fully entered upon in other places (Man Mortal; Christendom Astray, &c.) The result is to show that the dead are truly in a state of death, not only having no capacity for any rational function whatever, but having no existence of any kind, except in the history which their life has written in the book of God's indelible memory. It is the great doctrine of the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, that on the foundation of this history, their existence will be resumed by the Resurrection power God has given to Christ, at whose command the dead will be re-organised and come forth for judgment in accordance with what he may deem the deserts of mortal life; incorruption of nature and consequent deathlessness, with every attendant circumstance of glory, honour, and joy, being awarded to those of whom he approves; and condemnation to second death, corruption and final perdition to those whose case in his judgment calls for so terrible a fate.

This being the unanswerably demonstrated literal truth in the case, it is inadmissible to put such a construction on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as would make the dead alive, the soul immortal, and the occurrence of death the occasion of a man's experience of the judicial issues of life. We must look for such an aspect of it as will harmonise with Christ's own doctrine that man is mortal, and resurrection at his coming the time for every man to receive "according to his works." Such we find in the second and third of the above-indicated classes of the parables he used. The parable bears a precise resemblance to what the Pharisees believed concerning the state of the dead, as anyone may see who reads the treatise on Hades, by Josephus, himself a Pharisee, and living in the same age of the world. That their view was untrue is nothing to the point in the way of its employment. Christ was addressing them, and it was natural and effective that he should make use of their view of how the dead are affected by death, when he wished parabolically to introduce the testimony of Abraham, in whom they boasted. If it confirmed them in a delusion, we must remember that this was one of the objects of the employment of parable, as Jesus himself declares in answer to the question of the disciples, "Wherefore speakest thou to them in para bles?" "That seeing they might see and not perceive, and hearing they might hear and not understand" (Luke viii. 10; Matt. xiii. 10-13). Such an idea may shock modern critics; but modern critics must not shut their eyes to the fact of Christ's promulgation of that idea when they make it an objection to a particular interpretation of a parable, that it would tend to perpetuate a delusion.

His employment of an erroneous view of the death state in conveying a denunciation of Pharisaic morality and pretentions, was admissible on the principle of the second mode of constructing parables, referred to above, viz., the use of impossible incidents in the figurative enforcement of a lesson. The things believed by the Pharisees were impossibilities, but this was no bar to their employment in a mode of teaching which made frequent use of such figures. The sea making a declaration, for example (Is. 23:4); the elements verbally repudiating the possession of wisdom (Job xxviii. 14-22); the floods clapping their hands (Ps. xcviii. 8); corpses making a stir and talking when the King of Babylon dies (Is. xiv. 9), are all examples of representing the impossible as occurring. Still more striking in this respect are the parables of Jotham, the son of Abime lech; of the trees sending a deputation and proposing a government (Jud. ix. 8), and of Joash, King of Israel, imputing marriage and political achievements to the thistle (2 Chron. xxv. 18); also Joseph's dream of the planets and sheaves of corn doing him homage, and Pharaoh's dream of corn eating corn. They are all instances of a beautiful and rich poetic drapery of literal truth, which is not mistaken for literal truth in these cases, because the nature of the literal truth is recognised on all hands. That a similar figuration of speech and movement in the case of the dead should be literally construed, is due to the existence of a philosophical belief that the dead are not dead because incapable of death, and alive and active in another state. Jesus gave no countenance to this philosophical view in his plain teaching, but on the contrary, taught doctrines subversive of it altogether. That he should speak one parable appearing to countenance the philosophical view is not a wonder in all the circumstances. It is the part of wisdom to discriminate an accident of truth from the truth itself.

The meaning of the parable, as in the case of some of the parables, has been the subject of a variety of laboured elucidations. The labour and the ingenuity have only helped to perplex a simple subject. As already remarked, its lesson is on its surface. The context shows that the rich man personates the opulent Pharisee whom the common people held in high estimation for sanctity. Lazarus stands for those on whom they looked with a lofty disdain -- Jesus and his brethren -- who in their eyes were no more than beggars frill of sores. What happened when the two died exemplifies the relation of parties when the two classes are on the other side of death by resurrection -- the Lazarus class comforted in the bosom of Abraham: the rich man class tormented in the affliction that Jesus told them awaited them when they should see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God, and they themselves be thrust out, with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There may at that time be some detail corresponding to the five brethren; but that is not essential to the purport of the parable as a whole. It belongs to the practical lesson that Jesus wished to enforce on the Pharisees, and which has had a current application ever since -- that men must look to written revelation, and not to personal illumination, for the understanding of the ways of God. The enforcement of this lesson required the supposition of the existence of the rich man in death -- a supposition which Christ's employment of the view of the Pharisees as the basis of the parable made easy and natural. The "great gulf" belonged to the literal frame work of the parable (it is expressly mentioned by Josephus). If it have a specific counterpart in the actual truth shadowed by the parable, it may be found in the fact before alluded to, that in the state that separates the rejected from the accepted, it is impossible for the latter to render any service to the former then, or for the rejected to pass into communion with the accepted; an impassable gulf divides them. The great lesson of the parable in a sentence is to be found in the literal declarations with which Jesus prefaced it: that men and things as God looks at them are very different from the estimation in which they are humanly held: that it belongs to the divine family to be now in affliction, but that a great reversal will ensue in the day of death's ending; that the right rule of conviction meanwhile is enlightenment in Moses and the prophets: and that men who are impervious to the evidences that cluster around them would be deaf to the voice of a person restored to life.

The unjust Judge (Luke xviii, 1-8). This arable is directed against the view of some, that prayer is of no use. The indicated lesson of it is that "men ought always to pray, " which is the frequently inculcated precept of Scripture. That men should think it is of no use is natural in the absence of immediate apparent results, and in the absence of any power on their part to feel how God regards prayer. It is because of this that it was necessary that the Spirit of God should teach us, as He has done, by Christ and the apostles and prophets, what the truth is on the subject, that in the faith of it we might do what is wise and needful in the case, "Pray without ceasing." Jesus gives us to understand by this parable that it is not only regarded by the Father, but that it is effectual in leading to results -- always pre-supposing that the prayer is by an acceptable supplicant. The argument of it evidently is -- if an unjust man is moved by continual entreaty to do what is requested, that he may get rid of the troublesomeness of importunity, how much more will God, who is kind and just, be moved by the continual requests of those he loves.

But there is a caution against impatience. He may "bear long" with those who are afflictions to his people. There are various reasons for this. God may by them be accomplishing the very purposes of his love in subjecting his people to needed chastisement. But whatever the reason may be, we are not to be discouraged at the apparent want of response, but to persevere, praying and waiting, in the confidence that God will do what is best, and cause "all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose." It will at last happen that God will refresh his people by a great and visible interposition on their behalf, delivering them from all enemies, and bestowing goodness upon them, above all that they can ask or think.

The Pharisee and the Publican. -- This immediately follows the other parable about the duty of prayer, and seems designed to bar the way against the extravagance that might be run into with regard to the subject, and that as a matter of fact has been and is run into. Though "men ought always to pray and not to faint," there are qualifications to be observed. Men are not to suppose they will be "heard for their much speaking" (Matt. vi. 7); neither is the mere offering of prayer acceptable unless it is offered in an acceptable mind. What constitutes this acceptability of mind is variously revealed. This parable is one of the revelations. It was spoken we are told in the verse introducing it, concerning "certain who trusted in themselves t ha t they were righteous, and despised others;" and it is concluded by the declaration on the part of Christ, that "everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." The language of the two men in the parable shows what is meant. The Pharisee, who had a powerful backing of favourable human reputation, was well pleased with his attainments; the publican, whom the Pharisee and Jews in general regarded in an odious light, realised his dependence on the divine clemency for permission even to live Their prayers were tinged with these sentiments respectively; and, in consequence, the one was acceptable, and the other obnoxious.

Why did the Pharisee think so well and the publican so ill of himself? We get the clue in that other expression of Christ's, "Thou blind Pharisee." A man whose eyes are open -- a man who understands things as they are -- has such a sense of the eternal power, greatness, and holiness of God, and the ephemerality and weakness and sinfulness of man, that his own attainments, however excellent by comparison with bad men, must always appear as nothing in his eyes. His own righteousness must appear to him as filthy rags in the light of the purity and power and correctness of the Spirit-nature. This is the estimate that the Scriptures always put into the mouths of acceptable men. And it is the language of reason and not of cant, though canting use has been largely made of it in the ecclesiastical ages.

The Unmerciful Servant. -- A servant owes a large sum to his lord, which he is unable to pay. He entreats his lord to give him time, promising to pay all. His lord forgives the debt altogether. The servant afterwards demands of a fellow-servant the payment of a small debt. The fellow-servant is unable to pay, and asks time. The servant refuses to wait or to forgive, and has the fellow-servant imprisoned. The lord of the servants hearing of it, sends for the first servant, reinstates the forgiven debt, and orders him into prison and affliction till the debt is paid.

The application of this is both clear and important. Its meaning is established by the occasion of the parable, and by the comment which Jesus makes on the action of the lord of the servants in reviving the debt and imprisoning the man who had shown no mercy. The occasion was a question of Peter's: "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Till seven times?" Jesus said unto him, "I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven." A parable intended to illustrate a saying like this must be a parable enforcing mutual forgiveness as a paramount duty among the servants of Christ; but it goes further than this, and shows that a failure to render this duty will be a very fatal affair to the offender. His own forgiven sins will be revived against him if he assume an exacting and unforgiving attitude towards others. The importance of the matter is shown by the way Christ binds it up with the petition he puts into the mouths of his disciples for the forgiveness of trespasses: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us." By this association of words he confronts us with our duty to others every time we ask forgiveness for ourselves. It is a good test of our standing in the matter, whether we are able to make our forgiveness of others the measure of the forgiveness we request for ourselves. The remark with which Jesus concludes the parable is decisive. "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you (as the lord of the parable did to the servant) if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses."

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