by Father Mike Stubbs
When retelling a story or joke, we often tweak it a bit, to fit the situation.
Sometimes when preaching, I will borrow a story or joke, but always adapt it so that it helps me to make the point of my homily. Maybe I will acknowledge recent events. Or perhaps I will take into account the audience that I am addressing.
Jesus possibly did the same thing. At times, the parables that he told could have been based upon real-life events. At other times, he might have been inspired by an existing story to tell his own. In that case, he would still have adapted it to make it fit his message.
Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 16:19-31, offers us a good example. Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus. When they die, their fates are exchanged. Lazarus enjoys paradise, while the rich man is sent to hell.
Stories involving a reversal of fortune in the afterlife were fairly common in the Near East. There are examples in Jewish and Egyptian literature of such stories, where the poor man receives happiness, while the rich man suffers extreme pain. For Jesus to tell such a story in itself is not strikingly original.
On the other hand, this parable does fit in well with the emphasis in Luke’s Gospel on the poor and the corresponding challenge to the wealthy.
In addition, the story is tweaked in such a way as to reflect its Christian context.
This comes out in the concluding line: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
In Luke’s Gospel, the audience that Jesus addresses in telling the parable is made up of his opponents. The concluding line of the parable implies that they, like the brothers of the rich man in the parable, do not listen to Moses and the prophets.
In that case, similarly, neither will they be persuaded even if Jesus rises from the dead. Their lack of belief in Jesus’ resurrection will simply continue their lack of real belief in Moses and the prophets.
This distinctive twist to the story makes it a weapon aimed at Jesus’ opponents, besides its basic point about the value of the poor in God’s eyes, compared to the wealthy and powerful.
Once again, Jesus is making the most out of the story, so that it fits his message.