Commentary on Luke 16:19-31
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus Jesus confronts his listeners with a message that is difficult to hear for those who have more than they need.
This is the third Lukan parable involving “a certain rich man” (see also Luke 12:16-21; 16:1-9) whose relationship to wealth gets him into trouble. Among those listening are the Pharisees, who are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14).
Opposites in story
We learn more than usual about the two main characters in this parable. One is rich, the other poor. One is named, one is not. One feasts while covered in fine linen, the other starves while covered in sores.
The Rich Man has so much and Lazarus has so little.
The Rich Man’s purple garments signify affluence, an outward and visible sign of his wealth and privilege.
Just as visible is the plight of Lazarus. The Greek word for sores (elkos) is the same as the boils in the sixth plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 9: 8-11). One wonders about the contrast between the fine, purple clothing of the Rich Man and the oozing, purple sores covering Lazarus’ body.
The Rich Man’s pantry overflows with enough for a daily feast (euphraino; compare to the Rich Fool, Luke 12:19). The Greek word means to rejoice or celebrate, as in last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father kills the fatted calf and they “celebrate” (euphraino) at a great party with plenty of food (Luke 15:23, 24, 29, 32)
Lazarus, for his part, would be grateful to receive a few of the leftovers.
The contrasts continue after death. The Rich Man is buried in the earth, while Lazarus is carried up by the angels; the former is tormented by thirst, the latter rests in comfort with their shared ancestor, Abraham. It is too late when the Rich Man realizes that he could have made different life choices in how he treated his neighbor.
The parable is not primarily a lesson in what happens to people after they die — though it contains an inescapable element of caution regarding ways that money obscures our vision of both this world and the God who gives us life. It illustrates a reality made possible in the reign of God. The parable suggests that Jesus, the one raised from the dead (Luke 16:31), proclaims a worldview not bound by cultural assumptions of value or worth. Those who embrace this good news are empowered for repentance (Greek metanoia), that is, a change of heart and mind — a change particularly regarding their vision of what (and who) matters.
It is for this reason that the Rich Man wants to send a message to his family; so that they will live differently in the present.
Gates, Walls, and Chasms
Gates facilitate repeated passage from outside to inside, and vice versa. They suggest the possibility (although not the necessity) of welcome.
The mention of a gate at the rich man’s house suggests the presence of a wall around his compound. Unlike gates, walls separate the home from threats, perceived or real, that lurk on the other side. As the parable plays out, listeners discover that the one who protects himself inside the wall eventually lands on the wrong side of an impassable chasm.
Right at the doorstep, neither inside nor out, is the poor, homeless man. The verb to lay (ballo) at the gate is used for throwing worthless salt (Luke 14:35), or throwing something into the fire (Luke 3:9). From the Rich Man’s perspective, Lazarus is a throwaway person.
He is not hidden out of view, however, like someone sleeping under a highway overpass, or lying on a grate on the other side of town. He is out in the open. The Rich Man steps past him daily. But his poverty and lack of status render him virtually invisible to the one who has more than he needs.
When what is up is down
It was common in ancient cultures to assume that a person’s economic standing resulted from his or her moral standing. The rich are good (which explains why they are rich) and the poor are bad (which explains why they are poor).
Jesus upends that all-too-common view.
Unlike the world’s assessment of success (then and now), which often depends on the numbers in one’s zip code or bank account, Jesus’ parable makes the radical claim that God’s graciousness and attention extends even to the world’s castoffs.
The poor and outcast are objects of God’s mercy and recipients of blessing (Luke 6:20). They are the ones for whom Jesus’ message is especially good news (Luke 4:18).
Indeed, Lazarus ends up in the arms of Abraham, even though nothing in the parable says that he was good, righteous, or faithful.
Those who have more than enough in this life risk being distracted from the things of God and placing themselves under judgment; “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:24).
Unable to get even the scraps from the table in life, Lazarus is carried away by the angels to feast with Abraham in the afterlife (Luke 16:22).
The Rich Man, on the other hand, winds up in Hades.1 There he discovers that his privileged status counts for nothing. He looks up to see Lazarus far away at Abraham’s side. The image mirrors Jesus’ words: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out (ekballo). Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:28-30).
Will the followers of Jesus’ trust in the things of God? Or will they trust in the things of the world (Luke 16:13)? For where their treasure is, there will their heart be, also (Luke 12:33).
1 Greek and Hebrew use a number of images to represent the fate of the dead. Hades is an underworld locale where all people “go” after death to await the final judgment. Hades is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew “Sheol,” a place that represents the chaos of separation from God: “Out of the belly of Sheol [Greek: Hades] I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
You sent Moses to speak law to the people and bring order to chaos. You sent prophets to speak repentance and bring hope to the hopeless. You sent your son, Jesus, to become your living Word. Open our ears to hear your word, and our hearts to reflect the light of your truth to others, for the sake of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God so loved the world, Robert Chilcott