The other day I was talking with a friend about the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). She had been trying to understand the Church’s teaching about prayer to the dead (and coming to believe it was true) when she hit a difficulty. Her Dake’s Commentary said of this parable: “This is the only example of praying to dead saints in Scripture. Let those who do so remember that prayers to other dead saints will avail as much as this one did…NOTHING.” So what, she wondered, was the Catholic reply to this?
One reply is that it is rather disturbing that a biblical commentary from a reputable publishing house is incapable of making a distinction between a parable and a historical account. What Dake’s has utterly forgotten is that the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is just that: a parable. The basic story is that the poor man Lazarus dies and goes to “Abraham’s bosom” while the Rich Man goes to torment in Gehenna. In anguish the Rich Man sees Abraham far away and begs him to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn them to repent and avoid his fate. Abraham replies “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them listen to them.” The Rich Man says “No. But if somebody rises from the dead, they will repent.” To which Abraham delivers the punchline: “If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not believe though one rose from the dead.”
The first problem with Dake’s analysis is that it appears to take this story as a historical record of a failed attempt at prayer to the saints intended as a condemnation of the practice. The Rich Man did not get his prayer to Abraham answered and so–we are to infer–the practice is futile. But this is exactly like saying that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a record of a real domestic dispute which occurred in first century Judea and that the main lesson to be learned is that older brothers are always resentful and younger brothers are always contrite. It is to radically misread the parable.
In reality, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man it is not “about” prayer to the dead, but about the refusal of Jesus’ contemporaries to listen to their own Law and consciences. The point of the parable is not “prayer to the dead is futile” but “hard hearts will not be impressed even by the greatest miracle.”
A second difficulty with Dake’s analysis is that it proves too much. For by the logic employed by Dake’s, the parable not only “proves” that prayer to the dead is futile but that prayer to Jesus is as well. After all, the Pharisees came to Jesus asking for a miraculous sign too, and they too were refused. By the logic of Dake’s, this must therefore imply that Jesus should not be prayed to any more than Abraham. If the editors of Dake’s were to reply (quite rightly) that the point of the parable is not that Christ cannot receive prayers, they must at the same time let in the fact that it also not the point of the parable to say that Abraham cannot. The parable simply is not about that. It is, rather, a crushingly ironic condemnation of disbelief in Christ which only gained force in the aftermath of his Resurrection and the subsequent disbelief of many in Israel..
That said, the parabolic nature of the text should not distract us from the fact that it does reflect some real aspects of Jewish tradition just as the parable of the Prodigal Son does. Just as it really was the case that pig food was unclean and family reconciliations really were celebrated by killing a fatted calf, so it really was the case that certain strains of Jewish tradition believed in prayer to the dead. The parable remains a parable, but it clearly draws on and endorses these beliefs by assuming their validity, just as elsewhere Jesus assumes the validity of the Pharisaic belief in resurrection. Likewise, the Jewish veneration for Father Abraham, and particularly the common Jewish belief in the love and concern of Father Abraham for his children on earth (such as Lazarus) is assumed by Jesus in this parable in a way which is perfectly consonant with Catholic teaching. So strongly is this assumption reflected in the parable, in fact, that another commentary, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, is forced to do severe gymnastics to avoid facing it. The relevant passage in Unger’s reads as follows:
To be in Abraham’s Bosom signified to occupy the seat next to Abraham, i.e., to enjoy the same felicity (quality or state of being happy) with Abraham. Jesus, accommodating his speech to the Jews, describes the condition of Lazarus after death by this figure (Luke 16:22-23). “Abraham’s bosom” is also an expression of the Talmud for the state of bliss after death. Father Abraham was, to the Israelites, in the corrupt times of their later superstitions, almost what the Virgin Mary is to the Roman Church. He is constantly invoked as though he could hear the prayers of his descendants, wherever they are; and he is pictured standing at the gate of paradise to receive and embrace his children as they enter, and the whole family of his faithful descendants is gathered to his arms.
The wonderfully entertaining thing about this commentary is the way in which it essentially “corrects” Jesus’ assumption of the validity of Jewish belief about Abraham in order to fit the theology of its editors. The process seems to be as follows: “The Jewish veneration of Abraham looks uncomfortably like something akin to the Catholic veneration of saints and Mary. Like Catholics, Jews also spoke of Abraham as though the blessed dead can hear and receive prayers and as though they are concerned for the happiness of those on earth. Since this is far too Catholic for our tastes, we will simply declare this belief a product of ‘corrupt times’ and ‘later superstitions’ and say Jesus ‘accommodated his speech to the Jews’ rather than open ourselves to the possibility that Jesus ratified the faith of the Jews and laid the foundation of the Catholic idea of the communion of saints.”
Oddly, Unger’s does not say Jesus ‘accommodated his speech to the Jews’ when he spoke of resurrection, though this too was Jewish belief which was not formulated explicitly until about the same time that belief in the communion of saints begins to emerge in Jewish writings (2 Macc 7; 12:38-45; 15:11-16). Apparently only late developments in Jewish tradition which are not shared by the editors of Unger’s are “corrupt superstitions.” And they remain corrupt even when the Son of God takes them as seriously as he takes the belief of the Jews in resurrection.
Most problematic of all, however, is the fact that all this discussion of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man constitutes a vast distraction from the texts which much more strongly imply the communion of saints. The editor of Dake’s is evidently utterly unaware of these texts since he definitively declare this parable to be “the only example of praying to dead saints in Scripture.” In so doing, he completely overlooks the fact that Moses was quite dead when he appeared to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet, Moses is both aware of and concerned about earthly doings. So are the denizens of heaven, both human and angelic, in the visions recorded in the Apocalypse.
Perhaps the editors of Dake’s and Unger’s are confused by the word “prayer” which means not “worship” but merely “request.” Perhaps they are forgetful that Jesus tells us we shall do what he does (including intercede for one another in prayer). Perhaps they forget that Moses is “in glory” (Luke 9:31) and therefore a full “participant in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) who is more like Jesus now than he ever was on earth. Not realizing this, it would perhaps be understandable for the editors of Dake’s and Unger’s not to see that those like Moses who share in this gift of glory would be more able to love, more empowered to pray, more desirous to be like Jesus and intercede for their struggling brothers and sisters than they ever were on earth. For the glorified saints know now better than ever that we are truly “members of one another” as St. Paul says (Rom 12:5) and that our membership in the one body of Christ cannot be severed by a little trifle like death.
If it is the case that the editors of Dake’s and Unger’s simply have never thought about these verses, it is perhaps more understandable why they have not really thought very clearly about the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But it would be no reason at all for Catholics to doubt the reality of the truth of the communion of saints or to feel an obligation to correct the Incarnate Son of God when he takes seriously the Jewish traditions of veneration for and belief in the intercessory prayers of Father Abraham.
My friend saw the reasonableness of this. And so she has continued on her journey to the Catholic Faith past yet another difficulty, ten thousand of which do not amount to a single doubt.