Commentary on Luke 16:19-31
The Gospel of Luke has much to say about rich men and lovers of money, many of whom are “religious” individuals (see Luke 12:13-21; 15:11-32; 16:1,14; 18:18-30; 19:1-10; 21:4).
I do not know if this focus on the wealthy and wealth is based on the author’s consciousness of how wealth is predicated on the creation of a large underclass of poorly paid laborers and enslaved persons or mass poverty. Is the author whom we call Luke both a Godfearer, as I believe, and a wealthy patron? Is he thus an insider and a conscientious man (or woman) of empathy, attempting to warn members of his social class of the peril of their ways? According to the prologue, the narrative is written for the “most excellent Theophilus” (1:3-4) who perhaps is a wealthy patron (or group of patrons) and Godfearer interested in the life and teachings of Jesus, especially as it impacts him/them.
This short story about a man named Lazarus surely might challenge and convict, or repulse and anger, an audience of rich Godfearing men. The naming of the poor man and the anonymity of the rich man throughout the narrative is telling. The narrative mentions the poor man by name four times; he is called Lazarus (16:20, 23-25). In this story about Lazarus and the rich man, characterizations of the latter seem stereotypical. Stereotypes dehumanize, even though they contain truths. Love of money above people is self-dehumanizing. The socioeconomic chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is clear.
Lazarus lives in poverty, which is marked by food and shelter insecurity. Food and shelter insecurity can cause or exacerbate disease; open sores tattoo Lazarus’s body (16:20). Every day the rich man arose from his bed, bathed his body, dressed in clean fine purple clothes indicative of his royal and wealthy social status, “feasted sumptuously” three times a day, and discarded any leftovers that he did not feed to household pets and stray dogs.
The rich man performed his daily ritual knowing (and perhaps seeing) that a food- and shelter-insecure poor man was loitering around his gates in hopes of receiving edible bits of compassion or salve for the sores that tattooed his body. But the only mercy Lazarus received came from the dogs that licked his sores (16:21). We do not know if this rich man hosted an occasional banquet for the poor (see also 14:15-24), but people like Lazarus struggled to eat and find shelter daily.
From the narrative sequence, Lazarus dies first and the rich man later. The latter has a (lavish) burial, but the angels claim Lazarus’s body and transport him into the intimate presence of Abraham, their common ancestor (16:22; see also 3:34). The rich man’s genealogical relation to Father Abraham is tenuous given his failure to repent and demonstrate compassion toward the poor (3:7-9). Poverty kills; longevity is often attributable to access and wealth. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people died and are dying without normal burial rituals; some funeral homes must refuse service. Even before the pandemic, the poor could not afford the rising cost of funeral and burial services.
Despite the burial rituals the rich man’s wealth afforded him, he does not rest well in Hades; he is tormented by the hot flames (basanois, 6:23, 28; see also Matthew 4:24). The rich were not normally tortured while living. In life, the poor and enslaved suffered torture (basanos); the legal testimony of an enslaved man was only received and considered truthful under torture (basanos).
When the rich man looks up and catches a glimpse of Abraham in the distance, he begs for the mercy that he denied Lazarus. Like most Christian slaveholders or rich plantation owners in the US antebellum South, the rich man believes that the same social class division he enjoyed in life remains in the afterlife. Thus, he commands (pempson) Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him. He wants Lazarus to water his dry, hot tongue with his fingers (16:24). The rich man died believing himself superior to the poor whom he does not regard as human or worthy of mercy. He died believing the underclass exists to slave for him and not to eat from his table (see also 17:7-10).
Abraham responds to the rich man, addressing him as a child (teknon) in recognition of a hierarchical kinship (16:25). The rich man enjoyed good things (ta agatha) during his lifetime. Conversely, Lazarus experienced evil/bad things (ta kaka). In the afterlife, they each experience status reversal (16:25; see also 1:46-55). I caution against consoling the poor with a reversal-of-status/fortune-in-the-by-and-by theology that relieves the wealthy, powerful, privileged society and the world from the responsibility and possibility of alleviating poverty in this life. It is a terrible thing if one’s hope is predicated on the torture of one’s enemies in an afterlife rather than the promise, potential, and labor for justice, equality, and equity in this life.
In Hades the chasm between the once rich and previously poor remains vast (16:26). Abraham rejects the rich man’s command; Lazarus will not cross the chasm to serve him. The huge housing, health care, educational, wage, and employment disparities we create and support based on class, gender, culture, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and so on must be closed in our lifetime. This repair requires truth-telling, introspection, risk, and strategic intentional change by individuals, nations, governments, and businesses.
When the rich man realizes that his existence in Hades is an eternal reversal of the life he lived on earth, he pleads for Abraham to send Lazarus (like a slave) to his father’s house to warn him and his five brothers so they do not also end up in Hades (16:27-28)! He still does not get it; Lazarus is not his slave! Abraham responds, in essence, that they better read the Torah and the prophetic literature differently than you did. Moses and the prophets call the people to do justice, to love God and love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself (16:29). Treat others as one desires to be treated (6:31). Again, the rich man is anthropologically and theologically tone deaf. He retorts: but if you send them somebody who has died, they will believe and change their minds and behavior (repent) (16:30).
It was the living Jesus who visited Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector, in his home, where he convicted him to give away half of his possessions to alleviate poverty and make restitution to people whom he defrauded. Salvation visited Zacchaeus’ house during his lifetime; he demonstrated himself to be a son (huios) of Abraham (19:1-10). Jesus came to call people to repentance (5:31-32); repentance is always possible during one’s lifetime and should never be denied the wrongdoer/sinner (17:3-4). While Moses and the prophets are dead, through their words or prophetic oracles they still speak (16:31). Jesus said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
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