Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16.19-31: Rock-a My Soul

There was a rich man. So begins the gospel reading for Proper 21C/Ordinary 26C (Luke 16:19-31). By the end of the text, though, being rich isn't going to help anything. Instead, it is a poor man named Lazarus, who probably knew little or no peace in his earthly life, who will find peace at the last. He will find peace because at his death he is carried away by the angels to be with...Abraham.

Yes, Abraham. We might know the concept as the "bosom of Abraham" (ohhhhh, rock-a my soul). The translation might be a bit misleading to our ears. The Greek term is kolpos, and it refers to the side or lap of a person. At the last supper, the beloved disciple reclines en to kolpo tou Iesou (in the bosom of Jesus...John 13:23). This place of repose was an honor and a favor.

The idea of Abraham welcoming the faithful who died is found in 4 Maccabees 13:17: For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (NRSV) The place to which the dead were welcomed was Gehenna (from the Hebrew Gehinnom, literally the valley of Hinnom), traditionally considered a place of punishment for the ungodly because of pagan practices in the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In scripture, the word for the place of punishment is Sheol, so Gehenna might be better characterized as a place of judgment. For those who had nothing judged against them, there was no punishment. So the bosom of Abraham was a place of happiness, though not perhaps perfect happiness. In the parable it is conceivable that Lazarus and the rich man are in the same general place. In the place where one goes after death, Lazarus finds rest, but the rich man is judged (and punished) for his earthly life.
Paradise with Jesus on the lap of Abraham. German. c. 1239. Tempera and gold leaf on vellum. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Over time, the bosom of Abraham became synonymous with Heaven itself. In the picture above, it is the infant Jesus who sits on the lap (in the bosom) of Abraham and both child and patriarch find themselves in Paradise. Clusters of dates are so plentiful that the branch bends down with the weight. Water comes from the four corners of the illustration. Paradise, indeed. It may be that the equating of Abraham's bosom with Paradise is seen in Matthew 8:11: I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. And some hear the promise of being in Abraham's bosom in Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross: you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).

For thoughts on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, click here.

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