Tuesday, October 10, 2006

AG: A Well-Told Story

Last Sunday morning I sat with my notes in front of me preparing to teach an adult Bible study class. The topic was THE OTHER SIDE, a look at life after death. For that class, I chose Luke 16:19-31, the rich man and Lazarus account. It's one of those passages that has something new for me each time I come to it. As I reread the passage, circling keywords, drawing lines of connection, highlighting some of the creative word choices Jesus used to tell this story, it hit me. I was not only reading a detailed account of two men who died, I was also reading a finely crafted short story.

There is increasing interest in flash fiction--stories told in a few hundred words. This is a two thousand year old piece of flash fiction.

Let me show you what I mean. Now, just so you know, I study out of the New American Standard Updated version and will use terms from that translation. So open your Bibles.
First, the pastor in me requires that I make this point. This passage is often called the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In point of fact, it's not a true parable. A parable is often defined as an "earthly story with a heavenly meaning." That's a good description. If this is a parable, then it is the only one in which Jesus uses a proper name: Lazarus. Most likely, Jesus is relating an actual account and telling it like a parable.

The tale begins with character introduction and contrast. First we meet the rich man. Tradition has named him Dives, but the biblical account gives no name. The rich man (RM) is 1) rich, 2) habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, 3) lived joyously and in splendor everyday. Lazarus (not the same man Jesus raised from the dead) is described as 1) poor, 2) laid (passive verb) at the gate of RM, and 3) covered in sores instead of fine linen.

Then comes the character connect. Lazarus is hungry and would love the crumbs from the rich man's table. His only companions are dogs.

Verse 22 is the first plot point. A plot point is an event that changes or intensifies the plot. In this case, the catalyst for change is death. Both men die and Jesus describes the mother-of-all-reversal-of-fortunes. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom. Remember, in life he was carried to RM's gate. RM's passing is brief and blunt: "the rich man died and was buried."

Now comes another character contrast, this time it is set against the backdrop of The Other Side. RM is in Hades (the New Testament word for the Old Testament Sheol) and in great torment. Note the torment is described in physical terms. The man of comfort now pleads for comfort. He can see Abraham and Lazarus across a chasm. They can speak. In a sense, RM has been laid at the gate of Lazarus. Lazarus is in a state of comfort.

The story has a single point of view, that of RM. We are not told what Lazarus thinks or feels, only that he is "being comforted." Why did Jesus choose RM's point of view? A couple of reasons come to mind. First, the story's action swivels on RM and his response to his situation. Second, Jesus is telling this story to the critical Pharisees. In other words, it's a bit of a slap down.

The second plot point is in verse 27 when RM realizes his condition is fixed and begins thinking of his five brothers. Interesting that RM thinks they need to be warned. It appears they were as bad as RM. "Send Lazarus to them." Abraham says no.

Now the moral--the heart of the story--is stated: "they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead." I wonder who Jesus had in mind with that statement. Actually, I don't. He performed several resurrections then was Himself raised from the dead.

In less than 450 words, Jesus tells a story of timeless spiritual truth. He also gives a great example of story structure: interesting backdrop; believable characters; a sympathetic hero; character contrast; a character connect; dialog; action point of view; two plot points; a beginning; a middle, and an end; and a moral lesson.


No, I didn't list everything. I wanted to leave a few things for you to search out. What else do you see?

Alton Gansky is a man of many hats, including pastor, novelist, computer whiz, and fireman. Check out his books at www.altongansky.com.


At 10:05 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post. Thanks for sending me into a second Bible study this a.m.

"What else do you see?"

1. Destiny is settled at death and irreversible.
2. No purgatory awaits.
3. People have sufficient warning now.

Another tidbit: Lazarus means "God is my help."

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Heather said...

I think this is a great story for our current culture: a culture fixated on corporate ladders, success stories, and keeping up with the Joneses.


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