Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a Reimagining of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable recorded in Luke 16 that Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees, who were self-righteous and wealthy. Lazarus is a beggar who sits by the gate of a rich man’s estate. The rich man walks by Lazarus day after day, ignoring his plight.

Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels to be with Father Abraham. The rich man also dies and is in torment in Hades. He looks up, and sees Abraham and Lazarus far off, on the other side of a chasm that cannot be crossed. He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him something to quench his thirst.

Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received his comfort during his life, and that Lazarus is now receiving his comfort. The rich man also pleads for Lazarus to be sent to his father’s house to warn his family about this place of torment, but Abraham says that they wouldn’t believe even if someone were raised from the dead.

One can almost hear the chains of Marley’s ghost rattling. What would have happened if Father Abraham had said yes? Something very like a first-century version of A Christmas Carol.

The theological message of the parable is that the self-righteous teachers of the Law, rich with the Law and the Prophets, would not accept the message of salvation through Jesus, even after Jesus rose from the dead, let alone through His preaching. But Charles Dickens looked at it another way. He realized this parable was a story speaking of higher truths that could be applied to his time. So why not create a story where a dead person did come back from the grave and visit the rich man. And what if this visit even led to his repentance. This twist is what created A Christmas Carol.

Like many educated men of his time, Charles Dickens did not think much of organized religion. Despite an antipathy to organized religion, from 1846 to 1849 Dickens wrote a short biography of Jesus for his children, titled The Life of our Lord. Its purpose was to teach his children about the greatest man that ever lived, and to learn from him. He forbade that his small retelling of Jesus’s life should be published, until not only he, but also his children, had died. The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was one of eight stories of Jesus that Dickens chose to include in that volume. But in his story of Scrooge, Dickens was too much of a writer to leave Jesus’s parable as is, and his age too suspicious of Scripture to leave it “unbroken”.

A Christmas Carol unites the deliciously horrific sensibility of the Gothic movement with the powerfully simple narrative style, joined to moral concern, typical of parables. Surprisingly, the Sunday after Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey, Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, preaching on exactly this text, spoke of Dickens as the “parabler” of his age. Stanley said that “By [Dickens] that veil was rent asunder which parts the various classes of society. Through his genius the rich man … was made to see and feel the presence of Lazarus at his gate.”

I would go further: Dickens took the parable, and then retold and changed it, so that the rich man gets a second chance. As a privileged societal figure who had gone through financial difficulties and who cared about the poor himself, Dickens freely adapted Jesus to come up with a story that’s ultimately more about love than judgement.

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man isn’t meant to teach doctrine about the afterlife. It’s meant to give us the opportunity, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to change the way we live in this life. It uses fictitious, otherworldly imagery to draw us into the story, but the imagery and the characters are meant to invite us to change.

When we read A Christmas Carol, we don’t take it literally. In the same way, we shouldn’t take the parables of Jesus literally. We should, however, take them seriously. In fact, to take the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich man seriously, we mustn’t take it literally.

Dickens not only invented this Christmas genre, but imagined a happy ending for himself in it. He penned an enduring story about the second chance even a rich person can receive, if haunted by persistent-enough ghosts.