The conclusion of this series on dead metaphors brings to the fore the issue of biblical interpretation. Hopefully this is not a surprise. Identifying what is or is not metaphor is central in how we make sense of the Bible. For this post, the question will be around a parable.
Luke 16:19-31 presents us with a parable from Jesus about two men: a nameless rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. I turn to this parable because many of the parables give a signal that they're a simile with phrases along the lines of, "the kingdom of heaven is like." This parable, however, does not.
So how do I know this passage is a parable? To be honest, I don't, but this passage functions like a parable in that Jesus tells a story to make a point that would be harder for us to hear if it were directly stated. So I think Luke 16:19-31 is a parable because it feels like one when I hear it or read it.
I also turn to this parable when thinking about dead metaphors because of the image of heaven and hell Jesus presents. How we make sense of this image is all about biblical interpretation—do we read this image of heaven and hell literally or as metaphor?
Surprise! I think it's a metaphor. Why? Because the Bible presents different images of heaven and hell that if taken literally would contradict each other—starting with whether or not there is a hell.
The afterlife described in this passage sounds like torture for those on both sides of the chasm. Those in hell want help, but cannot get it. Those in heaven want to help, but cannot give it. Understood literally, this passage is a nightmare for both the rich man and Lazarus.
This drives me to the conclusion of the parable, the message we would not otherwise hear, that those who are comfortable in this life will not change their ways even if someone comes back from the dead to warn them.
We know this because Jesus has come back from the dead to warn us, and the issue is still how comfortable we are. Do we have everything we could hope for and so look to earthly things for happiness? Do we hope for something that we cannot attain because only God can give it? Are we willing to change for the sake of God's work in others? Questions like these seem to me to be more faithful than questions about a literal chasm between heaven and hell.
Ineed, if the claim of Christianity (and many other religions) has any efficacy, then what God wants for us is to be willing to change for others because of the hope God has given us.
I believe that a big part of God's call into relationships finds new life in rediscovering the metaphors in our language of faith so we can rearticulate what we believe in a way that makes sense to others today.