A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part IV: “Lukan usage of ptōchos from the ‘L Source’ (16:20, 22)”

Posted: December 25, 2013 in General

Minolta DSCLanguage and society are intrincically connected. A dynamic way of reading a given text reveals this fact. M. A. K. Halliday and Ruquiya Hasan see an interconnection of language, context, and text. A text is a product of the environment. It is a product in the sense that it is an output, something that can be recorded and studied, having a certain construction that can be represented in systematic terms. A text cannot capture the society in its entirety, but it can guide the reader toward the societal phenomena. It is a process in the sense of a continuous process of semantic choice, a movement through the network of meaning potential, with each set of choices constituting the environment for a further set [1]. While the text functions as a ‘guide’ to the societal systems, it is the reader’s sole duty to advance further to develop the understanding through various other means. In Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus was not a mere fiction, but rather the exact social representation of Luke’s time. The language and the semantics within the semiotic framework are developed out of the social psychology of the underprivileged (cf. Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 10). Hence, both the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of reading are important [2]. If we press a little further, a semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic interconnection in which the ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ of the text are to be analyzed and perceived for extended results.

An extended study of the social world of Luke and his linguistic choices provides interpretative avenues. It is understood that the world of Luke was divided basically into two classes, the elite and the non-elite. As Green (1997: 605) says, “The stage of Jesus’ parable is set by the extravagant parallelism resident in the depictions of the two main characters”. The narrator uses his rich and typical style of language to make the social context obvious to the reader. The class structure is brought to the notice of the reader “first by the ‘gate’, then by the ‘distance’ (‘far away’, v. 23)”. The narrator depicts that “there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen” (v. 19). This is contrasted with the condition of Lazarus who was “covered with sores” (cf. Craddock, 1990: 194-196). On the one side, “the rich man is depicted in excessive, even outrageous terms”, on the other side, “Lazarus [3] is numbered among society’s ‘expendables’” (cf. Green, 1997: 605). The contrast between the rich man and Lazarus is sharpened with the help of the narrator’s socially intertwined stylistic and linguistic phenomena. While the rich man’s clothing gets adequate attention, the clothes Lazarus wore receive no mention. Lazarus is covered with sores—a condition that undoubtedly marked him as unclean [4]. These are two categories of people who live in two different circumstances in a society that is categorized by the claims of the ‘honourable ones’ and the ‘shameful ones’. The narrator’s ability to caricature the social situation in his own linguistic style receives adequate attention from the paradigmatic reader of the story.

While the rich man “feasted sumptuously every day”, Lazarus “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (vv. 19, 21). This is a significant portrayal of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ side by side. The narrator specifies that “even the dogs would come and lick his [Lazarus’] sores” (v. 21). Green (1997: 606) brings a parallelism between the story of the prodigal son and Lazarus. He says, “Just as the younger son had longed to fill himself with food reserved for pigs (15:16), Lazarus longed to eat what was apparently scavenged by dogs from the food that fell from the wealthy man’s plentiful table”. Third mention is made of their respective places of abode. While the wealthy man enjoys his life within the gated and safeguarded compound and in a splendid mansion appropriate to his station, Lazarus survives somehow as somebody thrown into the street. His life is outside of the wealthy man’s gate and is without any protection. As a ‘homeless’ and ‘crippled’ man (cf. Matthew 8:6, 14; 9:2; Rev 2:22), he undergoes a tragic situation [5]. Here, ptōchos means indeed not only those who lacking in money, but more comprehensively, the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated, and the one who is deprived of the basic necessities of the society living called food, clothing, and shelter [6]. A translation by the Greek word ptōchos, the strongest available Greek word for social poverty, speaks in favour of this interpretation (cf. EDBW, 2005: 743). Lazarus, as a representative of the ptōchos/oi, is rightly placed opposite to the plousios/oi. In that sense, the story remains as a performative art carved out of the social realities of the First Century.

The wider possibilities of the word ptōchos has to be underlined here. The word reveals the social circumstances of two different classes of people (cf. Davids, 1992: 701-710). It appears twice in this story (vv. 20, 22) to address Lazarus. He is pictured as one who is outside the gate as well as the house, fully dependent on the rich man, ulcerated (Greek, eilkōmenos) [7], licked by the dogs, crippled, hungry, naked, and regarded as less than human, unclean, thorough-and-thorough an outcast, and one who was unburied after death [8]. All these categories of expressions add strength to the ostracized situation of Lazarus. The word ptōchos is potential to absorb all these categories as an inclusive expression. Degraded persons such as Lazarus constituted a considerable group of the population and most lived outside the city walls (cf. Craddock, 1990: 194-196). They begged in the city in the daytime but were put out of the city at night when the gates were locked [9]. Luke’s social vision is deciphered here with reality effects. That further means, ptōchos recapitulates a wide spectrum of aspects of the vulnerabilities of human beings. But, at the end of the story Luke brings a reversal of societal order by lifting Lazarus up to Abraham’s bosom [10], the ultimate hope of every Jew, i.e., a place of ultimate honour, rest, and bliss. Luke’s use of ptōchos as a socially constituted terminology provides rhetorical and pragmatic significance to the text.

In the story, Luke attempts to portray the real social situation of the poor with the help of semiotic categories. He describes a society characterized by richness and scarcity; in that sense it was, on the one hand, an “affluent society”, and, on the other hand, a “limited goods society”. It was a societal system in which the resources were not accessible to those who were at the lower ladder of the society. The access is controlled through power structure of the society, made visible in the system of unequal exchange in the patron-client relationship [11]. The semiotics Luke uses to fulfill the purpose of bringing out the real picture of the society is discernible to the paradigmatic reader. Bultmann wrote: “every literary category has its ‘life situation’ (Sitz-im-leben), whether it be worship in its different forms, or work, or hunting, or war” [12]. The sitz-im-leben is described as a typical situation or occupation in the life of the community. In the passage, a wider and inclusive meaning is attributed to ptōchos as per the social requirements and order of the Lukan community. Jesus as a story-teller initiates bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. His message was a social critique with the help of all the available linguistic categories. Through this rhetoric, his ultimate aim was to introduce a society that takes up the values and virtues of the Kingdom of God (cf. Davids, 1992: 704-710; Craddock, 1990: 194-196). A double-layered reading, first, within the sitz-im-leben Jesu (i.e., the very own life situation of Jesus), and second, within the sitz-im-leben kirche (i.e., the community life situation of Luke), will ultimately inform us how Luke re-interpreted the aspects of the ptōchos for wider implication (cf. Dibelius, 1919). In short, the story reveals its semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic intentions both through the points of view of the protagonist and the narrator.

End Notes:

[1] M. A. K. Halliday, and Ruquiya Hasan, Language and Text: Aspects of Language in Social-Semiotic Perspective, Specialized Curriculum: Language and Learning (Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press, 1985), 10.

[2] The language setting and the valuable strategies of utilization are typically social and best analysed by sociolinguistics. On the one hand, an individual person’s mental setting is psychological and best analysed by psycholinguistics. But both dimensions are involved in the process of reading. Hence, the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects to reading. For the language setting is interpersonal context, while the mental setting is intrapersonal context. See Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 10.

[3] The Hebrew name Lazar is a contraction of Eleazar and means “God has helped”. It is a fitting name for the beggar in this parable, who was not helped by fellow human beings, but in his afterlife by God. The poor man’s only claim to status is that he is named in the story; this alone raises the hope that there is more to his story than that of being subhuman. The name Lazarus also occurs in Josephus (Jewish War 5:13; cf. Exo 6:23). The wealthy man, on the other hand, has no name; perhaps this is Jesus’ way of inviting his money-loving listeners to provide their own. By way of filling in this perceived gap P75 gives name as Neuēs; the tradition of interpretation gives him the name “Dives”, from the Latin translation of “rich man”.

[4] In language familiar to us from the common theology of Job’s friends, surely God blesses the wealthy man while Lazarus lives under the divine curse. Cf. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 605.

[5] Ibid., 606. Cf. Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom.

[6] Davids, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 704-709.

[7] It is related to the noun elkos, “abscess” or “ulcer”. T. W. Manson would have us believe that Greek ptōchos, “poor” = Aramaic miskena, used as a euphemism for “leper”. See T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus Recovered in the Gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke: Arranged with Introduction and Commentary (London: SCM, 1971), 298.

[8] “Carried away by the angels” means, left unburied by human beings, he was carried off by heavenly beings. This seems to reflect the belief found in Shepherd of Hermas and till later in Diogenes Laertins.

[9] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary, 295.

[10] This designation is unknown elsewhere in the pre-Christian Jewish literature, finding its way into late Midrashim and the Babylonian Talmud. Cf. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke, Vol. 28A, 1132.

[11] Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom, 94.

[12] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, tran. John Marsh (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), 4.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India


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