Charles Dickens

I was watching a movie version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with my wife recently when I had a strong feeling that I’d encountered this story before.  No, I’m not talking about earlier film versions of Dickens’ classic, but something far more ancient. 

Growing up the son of a minister and ending up teaching Biblical studies as a career, I shouldn’t have been surprised when it dawned on me that Dickens’ famous Christmas story has a lot in common with a parable of Jesus.  That parable is found in chapter sixteen of Luke’s gospel, where Jesus tells the story of a rich man and Lazarus, a poor man who begs near the rich man’s house.  

The parable shifts almost immediately to a scene in the afterlife where Lazarus, the beggar, is pictured enjoying paradise while the rich man suffers in hell.  Father Abraham hears the plea of the rich man for a drop of cool water from Lazarus.  When this plea is denied, the rich man asks that Lazarus be allowed to return to earth to warn the rich man’s brothers about the sin of greed.  That plea is also denied. 

The more that I think about this parable of Jesus, the more I think it likely that Dickens had Jesus’ parable in mind when he wrote his famous story.   

In both the parable and A Christmas Story, a greedy man is at the center of the drama.  In Dickens’ story, Scrooge belittles the poor people he encounters, even blaming them for their poverty.  In Jesus’ parable, the rich man, obsessed with money, is blind to the needs of Lazarus, the poor man he passes every day.  If there is a Hebrew equivalent of “humbug,” that would have been quite fitting on the rich man’s lips.    

Another similarity between the parable and Dickens’ story is that the rich man in each story needs a supernatural visit from beyond the grave to realize how horribly greed has distorted his soul.  But it is in these visits from beyond the grave where the two stories deviate the most.  The rich man in Jesus’ parable doesn’t realize his sin of greed until he dies.  However, Scrooge, through the three ghostly visitors, is given the chance to change before he dies.   

Jesus’ story and Dickens’ story are, in the end, both parables.  That is, they are clever stories that pull us in before we realize that the stories are not, despite what they seem, stories about a rich man in Jesus’ day and a greedy businessman in Dickens’ 19th century London.

No, Jesus’ and Dickens’ stories are about you and me, and they are stories of warnings.  Isn’t it interesting that the poor man in Jesus’ parable has a name—Lazarus—but the rich man is anonymous?  It is as if Jesus invites us to fill in the face of the rich man with our own reflections.  

And despite how we tend to reserve reading or watching Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the Christmas season, Dickens would be disappointed if we ignored the ending of his story.  Scrooge’s conversion doesn’t change his heart for one day or for one holiday season, but for the rest of his life. 

This is where Dickens’ classic and Jesus’ parable converge to offer the same warning.  It is good to show generosity and compassion at Christmastime, but Christmas isn’t really meant to be a day or even a season.  Christmas is meant to be a permanent change in the heart—mine and yours.  

May we not miss the point of Christmas this year.