Capstone Analysis of The Rich Man and Lazarus Trajectories

In Dr. Gowler’s Religion 373RQW seminar, “A Chorus of Voices” Honors Seminar: The Afterlives of the Parables I along with three other students began independent research on the critical reception of a parable of my choosing. Although I wasn’t particularly familiar with all of Christ’s parables, I knew immediately that the parable I was most drawn to was Luke 16: 19- 16:31, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. As someone sincerely interested in ethics and moral responsibility, I knew that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus would be one that quite naturally aligned with my interests; yet the more I became invested in the research the more and more I realized how often the message of this parable still manages to be ignored even today.


First trajectory: The Folk Song Dives and Lazarus

The first trajectory was by far the most extensive component of my research in which I analyzed the lyrics of a 16th century Worcestershire English folk-song titled “Dives and Lazarus”. Originally, I found a modern cover of the folk-ballad in my search for any sort of musical employ of the parable. I learned that the song was a standard in the United Kingdom’s folk-music scene because it was as much tied to the parable as it was tied to the land itself. I truly became cognizant of the folk-ballad’s lasting influence in the culture because it had become such a subliminal component of English musical history that the famous 20th century classical composer Ralph Vaughnan Williams used the song’s melody in a thematic orchestration of musical variations of the songs. As the conclusion of his collection of orchestral pieces centered upon the glorified illustration of the individual’s experience in 16th Century Elizabethan England society, Five Tudor Portraits, I was given my first clue as to the origin of the folk-ballad’s lyrics. Although Williams juxtaposed the melancholic and intimate “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” against his other choral arrangements rife with a sometimes melodramatic bravado depicting a sometimes hyper stylized and romanticized English society, I would learn that this harsh contrast in tonal setting between that of the compositionally grand Tudor Portraits served an explicit purpose. Whereas some members of that harsh Elizabethan landscape were able to relish the Epicurean rewards reserved for those in the upper echelon, such as “meat and drink” this stark contrast in phenomenologies experienced by the destitute and the bourgeoisie perfectly matched the ecclesiastical setting of the parable itself; as my research into the historical framework of the English Reformation and Counter Reformation would later illustrate, perhaps no culture was better suited for the “reform” of the Lucan parable itself.

By tracing Ralph Vaughnan William’s academic foray in which he specialized in the analysis and catalogue of English folk-songs and folk-ballads, I would find that the pre-eminent 19th century folk-song expert, Sir Francis James Child, discovered that the lyrics were licensed in 1557 to a Mr. John Wallye and Mistress Toye from a 16th century proto-copyright document in the London Registers of the Company of Stationers. Although very little was known historically about Mr. John Wallye or his compatriot “Mistress Toye” who records indicate was the local printer, Dr. Child discovered that Wallye had some established connection to Worcestershire and therefore concluded that this would explain the localization of the folk-songs knowledge prior to Williams orchestration. This connection would later become extremely critical to my interpretation of the folk song itself because as I became more familiar with it’s specific spatio-temporal place of origin, I was able to focus in on a very specific historical events to understand the social pressures that catalyzed the folk-ballad’s creation.

Interpreted out of historical, cultural and social context—something somewhat antithetical to the very nature of critical receptions—the folk-ballad may appear to lack any salient differences from the parable itself. This in itself however is incorrect as within the lyrics there appeared to be a much greater emphasis on the setting and encounter between Dives and Lazarus prior to their deaths and in many ways the very inclusion of explicit dialogue between the poor beggar and the rich man is a conspicuous attempt to “flesh out” the characters. By making these characters more human and baptizing them in both the positive and negative character traits of humankind, I noticed that the folk-ballad really became focused on the prevention of such injustice by means of empathizing with their plight as fellow human beings. The verses in which Lazarus begs at Dives feet for some source of food are excruciatingly drawn out to instill in the reader Lazarus’s very own prolonged suffering. As the verses continue to display Dives transition from mere apathy to conscious neglect, the reader becomes aware of the corrupted heart of Dives in that it is not merely elitist, but simultaneously wicked. Even without the specific socioeconomic context to ground one’s interpretation, one can clearly see the breadth of the economic disparity and then the extreme perspectives such socially corrupt systems create in their constituents. The folk-ballad, even if interpreted in a form abstracted from any specific place of origin, retains the original intent of the Lucan parable because it illustrates quite vividly the manner in which Dives iniquity is caused not by his actions, but his critical inaction.

However when contextualizing the folk-ballad in the specific social milieu in which it was created, I noticed that some of the specificity of the lyrics were associated with very particular practices of the time period and this lent itself to perhaps a multitude of more culturally relevant interpretations. For instance, the folk ballad emphasized the strict classism if the fiscal inequality experienced in the 16th century English context as opposed to the perhaps more individualized economic scale of the Lucan parable. In the English context, certain behaviors—for instance, wearing purple or the consumption of meat and bread—were opportunities available only for the highest socioeconomic classes and as such there was actually written legislation enforcing this parable. Moreover, there appears to be implicit references to the schism between the Anglican Church and that of the Roman Catholic Church during the time period in that certain behaviors like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist and the almsgiving on the poor’s behalf were constant topic of dissent between the respective denominations. I noticed that in some ways Lazarus could conceivably be interpreted as the Protestant shunned by the Catholic Church as unworthy. Finally, perhaps my most interesting proposed thesis stemmed from the historical tragedies of the Counter-Reformation in which Bloody Mary Tudor ordered the execution of Protestant ministers who refused to perform the religious rites in accordance with the papacy. Two such “Oxford Martyrs”, John Hooper and Hugh Latimer, were integral to the Worcester community as former Anglican bishops renowned for the hospitality and graciousness that they extended towards the poor. They appeared to be living foils to the narrative role of Dives and so I hypothesized that perhaps implicitly there was a sense of disillusionment with the Catholic queen, Mary Tudor, who would rob the lower class of the few truly moral stewards for the sake of certain political/religious affiliations and in effect robbed the world of the few good “rich men” that chose not to let Dives lay dying at their gate. The exploration of these themes in both a somewhat objective and historical context was quite interesting because it truly showed that for the most part the critical themes of the original text were the most important to the English culture that would revisit them a few centuries thereafter.


Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermon “The Impassable Gulf”

My second trajectory in the critical reception of Luke: 16:19- 16:31 centered on the sermon Dr. Martin Luther gave on the parable at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Since I was relatively familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King’s social positions as explicated in certain written works like Letters from Birmingham Jail and also some of his other theological and ethical concerns, I was interested in hearing whether he saw the “Rich Man and Lazarus” to be merely a parable relaying the perils of not freely helping those that lack fiscal wealth or whether Dr. King’s interpretation would be aimed at any person in a socially privileged position who failed to bestow some of their unfairly won rewards upon others. Dr. King, too, emphasized that the parable was not meant to be interpreted as a divine admonition with regards to eternal salvation or penalty per se nor a metaphysical elucidation of the afterlife. Instead the parable was firmly an exhortation with regards to one’s ethical actions and the consequences they garner in this life.

Another thing that Dr. King quite astutely acknowledged was the manner in which based on certain societal standards of charity and morality, Dives might not necessarily be perceived as an altogether “evil” person by the “world’s accepted standards”. He might still give to charities, pay his taxes and go to church, but when it came down to an actual moment of ethical crisis where he prove his moral worth he chose not to. It was not his wealth that was the source of his iniquity as MLK notes if there’s a hell “there’s plenty of poor folks in it” too. Dr. King did a fantastic job of breaking down the three major components of Dives behavior that in essence explicated the manner in which Dives’s sense of self absorption precluded him from “seeing others” since all he could focus on were his own goals and desires. Moreover, Dives lost his capacity to empathize with Lazarus because he considered the circumstantial position that consigned the beggar to a live of squalor to be an unavoidable law of the universe where some are forced to lose that others can win. He accepted these terms as universal qualities that manifested in absolute relationships whereas they really were socio-historical contingencies that could be changed. Dives didn’t realize his own immoral actions because he thought there always had to be beggars dying and preventing their death would be fruitless.

Finally, Dr. King noted that the parable was not merely limited to the pecuniary sphere in which the disparity in salaries and incomes clearly manifests in injustice and different living conditions. Instead, he extended the parables application to any form of injustice; whether it be racial, ethnic, political, religious and noted that the parable was clearly salient in the social sphere of America circa 1955. Dr. King explained the manner in which the White citizen was in a position analogous to Dives and Lazarus the person of color to illustrate that the White man sees the inequality and it is simultaneously his duty to extend his hand to help the Person of Color transcend their circumstances onset by the racial stigmatization and discriminatory practices. If the White Man or the Brahman allow the gulf to exist when they themselves are powerful enough to chance the circumstances and dissolve the distance, Dr. King argues that they ossify the previously malleable gulf because now the gulf is a moral one as opposed to one relative to certain social characteristics. Finally, Dr. King brilliantly concluded his sermon by noting the inherent hypocrisy in the person who espouses the world view of Dives; for in many ways God was in a similar position with the impotent position that humankind had as sinful. Yet, God sent his only begotten son to serve as a form of salvation for man.


Critical Reception of Oxford College


The critical reception of the parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” with my fellow students here at Oxford was an enlightening experience to say the least because it demonstrated the manner in which we take our own cultural backgrounds and perspectives for granted. It was my final trajectory and the procedure was essentially that we would present the parable to a student, ask them their thematic analysis of the parable, whether it espoused applicability or a lack thereof and whether or not it reminded them of anything that they had experienced directly or through art. Interestingly their responses varied among a wide range of topics, everything from political corruption in the Chinese national government, the judgments students make directed at other students who earn leadership positions and even the epistemological challenges of moral choices that in some ways appear contingent whether there is an arbiter who can bestow divine penalty or reward.

Overall, most of the different perspectives all stressed the similar themes of Luke in that they considered the inaction of Dives as reprehensible in any context whether the moral inaction was failing to do good for another in the collegiate community such as holding open a door or lending a hungry friend money. One critical reception in particular struck me though because the interviewee failed to understand exactly how the parable was applicable in the modern context and suggested that it sounds “unfair for it wasn’t his fault that he was rich, just like it isn’t my fault that I’m a Caucasian female. Why should other students of Color have access to scholarships from which I myself am excluded?” I explained to her that the problem was exactly in her perspective; the students who had access to such products of affirmative action policies were not robbing her of her “meat and drink”. Instead, they were tacitly asking those in power to rectify the psychological bias that unconsciously cause harmful discrimination against people of color in academics and employment. For the privileged position of the Caucasian in American society was a historically contingent reward and not a truly earned position. The advantage granted to these Caucasians students was an unfair one just as it was unfair that Lazarus was a leper and incapable of working, whereas Dives was perfectly healthy. By attempting to bridge the gap in the access to higher education, one is acting in direct accordance with Christ’s intent in Luke 16:19-31.