Commentary on Luke 16:19-31
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man anchors a series of parables — the lost coin (15:8-10), the prodigal son (15:11-32), and the dishonest manager (16:1-13) — each of which deals with money, with wealth, with the economy of right-relationship with God and one’s fellow human beings.
Even in the interlude of 16:14-18, in which Jesus challenges the Pharisees, pointing them to the law, the prophets, and the proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom, Jesus makes an issue of wealth, calling the Pharisees “lovers of money.”
Each of these parables addresses the issue of money a little differently, one celebrating an extravagant expense, another addressing the allure of wealth at the cost of relationships, and one challenging the listener to faithfulness, whether in much or little.
In and of itself, this series of parables emphasizes the significance of money in spiritual matters, in the life of faith. But as these stories are told, one following quickly on the heels of another, the tension around the role of money grows, until in chapter 17 Jesus says to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom they come!” (verse 1), and again, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (verse 33).
In a sense, then, the cumulative force of these parables may be in the danger that our own handling of wealth may be — not only to ourselves, but more importantly to others. It is not money in and of itself that is the danger, but our use of it, that may in turn become a stumbling block for others.
If the parable of the lost coin is about the true joy of extravagant rejoicing, the parable of prodigal son (in part) about the nature of the true wealth of family and forgiveness, and the parable of the dishonest manager about the true riches that are offered us in Christ, then the parable of Lazarus seems to be, on the one hand, about the danger of comfort in one’s wealth, and on the other about the comfort of the resurrection.
The Danger of Comfort in Wealth
It should be emphasized that wealth, by itself, is not evil in the biblical material. In fact there is a sense that wealth does to a large degree make faithful living in relationship with one’s neighbors (more? differently?) possible. We do well to remember that the sacrifice of our means is required not only of the rich, but of the poor, equally (cf. Exodus 30:15, here in terms of making atonement for sin).
The danger, here, is not in wealth; rather, the danger is that we become complacent, self-righteous, or uncaring in our wealth. The gifts that we are blessed with, from God, can become a snare for us if we are not mindful that these blessings do come from God, and that they are meant not only to bless us, but the world around us, through us. In this we are called, like Abraham, and like our Savior, to make of our blessings a blessing for others; as Paul puts it, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The Comfort of the Resurrection
It may be tempting, when working with this parable, to point to the results for Lazarus and the rich man, after their deaths. The poor Lazarus is rewarded with comfort, alongside Abraham, while the rich man is tormented in Hades. We might be tempted to make this an issue of 1 percent and 99 percent. But the final push of the parables is to the promise of the resurrection, not just as a “destination” or next-life issue, but as an agent of repentance that has impact and import in this life.
The rich man, recognizing that he has deserved his end, asks that Abraham send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them. Abraham’s response is to point the rich man to the Torah and the Prophets, which he and his brothers have had all along to guide their living, and to ask him why, if God’s word has not been enough for them, even the advent of a man risen from the dead will convince them to live into their wealth/blessing. This reference to a man rising from the dead is, of course, partly ironic in the parable. The move to resurrection language points forward to the first portion of next week’s appointed text in the Narrative Lectionary, in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection for the third and final time in Luke’s Gospel (18:31-34).
The point of this parable, and indeed of this series of parables, is address the “occasions for stumbling” that may confront us in our wellbeing. We are called by this story to remember during our lifetime the life that Christ has prepared for us all, the wealthy and the poor alike, and to live presently in the promise of that life to come.