Commentary on Luke 16:19-31
How far may we push a parable? Should we regard parables as helpful fictions that open our imaginations to new possibilities, or should we approach them as condensed pedagogical vehicles designed to carry specific teachings?
The matter of limits for interpretation has dominated the conversation concerning parables for over a century.
We could push the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus very far. For example, the parable might reflect Luke’s view of what happens after we die. At the moment of death, it seems Lazarus journeys to Abraham’s bosom while the Rich Man descends into torment. Does death deliver us immediately to our eternal fate? Such a view would seem to contradict that expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. In those early letters, Paul regards death as, well, death. The hope for life resides only in the resurrection. (Paul may voice a different view in Philippians 1: “to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”) Luke’s story of the thief on the cross also suggests an immediate transition into the afterlife: “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). Moreover, does this parable teach that the wicked suffer torment in the afterlife? Few mainline preachers devote significant pulpit time to that distressing prospect.
How far should we push? The parable does not explicitly explain why the Rich Man suffers torment in Hades while Lazarus reclines at Abraham’s bosom, though one might read 16:25 as such a justification. Through verse 23, all we know about these characters is that their fates have been radically transformed. The Rich Man descends from luxury to suffering, while Lazarus is promoted from pain to blessedness. Do we push too far if we speculate that the reason for these changes lies in the juxtaposition of obscene luxury and abject poverty? (The daring preacher is willing to name luxury as obscene.) In this life, Lazarus lies at the gate (the Greek suggests Lazarus is “thrown” or “dumped” there; 16:20), affording the Rich Man an opportunity to intervene. In the next life, a great chasm divides the two and cannot be crossed (16:26).1 Do we take seriously Luke’s Jesus: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:20, 24)? The Greek noun translated consolation in 6:24 shares the same root as the verb describing Lazarus’ comfort in 16:25.
Luke places the parable in a context dedicated, in part, to money. From the Widow’s coin and the Prodigal’s inheritance in chapter 15 to the Dishonest Manager’s handling of debts in 16:1-13, Luke has been engaged with the topic. The transition between the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus involves Luke’s characterization of the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (16:14). Our ancient sources do not confirm this characterization of the Pharisees; to call one’s opponents money lovers was a common means of denigrating their character. Nevertheless, this description suggests we should take the parable’s depiction of wealth and poverty very seriously.
The parable does not exactly depict a reversal of fortune — blessedness is not the opposite of luxury. People seek comfort in luxury, and certainly we are happier when we have enough. Yet, research shows conclusively that luxury has little to do with long-term happiness. More importantly, luxury is no substitute for blessed comfort.
This parable invites meditation into what wealth and poverty look like, perhaps in your own locale. The story begins with word pictures of the Rich Man’s clothing and sumptuous feasting, on the one hand, and Lazarus on the other, hungry, diseased, not even capable of fending off the dogs. Only the gate divides them. Rather than cite statistics, preachers might draw word pictures that dramatize the truth of our lives. At the moment, our culture features a powerful resistance to the truth about consumption and poverty; people prefer to remain ignorant. Perhaps a visit to contrasting classrooms, supermarkets, or clinics in the same urban area might help preachers paint the picture. One might narrate a walking survey of the church building in its environment. If one really wants to be bold, one might name the patterns of consumption and recreation that mark one’s own congregation. The point is not to stand apart from the congregation but to speak out of one’s own implication in the divide between rich and poor.
Famously, the Rich Man never does get it. He understands the message about wealth and the poor, but he approaches Abraham as if Abraham were his peer. Lazarus remains an inferior who can be “sent” to comfort the Rich Man or to preach to his ancestors. The parable turns from the changed fortunes of the Rich Man and Lazarus to the question of people who do not get the point. Surely Moses and the prophets supply enough reason to treat other people with dignity. If people still do not repent, even Lazarus’ miraculous return will not convince them. (Despite the possible allusion to Jesus’ resurrection in 16:31, the request for Lazarus’ return prompts the saying.)
The dismal prospect that people may reject the word concerning wealth and poverty poses a difficult problem for preachers. The parable calls us to confront ourselves and our communities concerning our own practices, but do we really change? What is the function of preaching if people do not act on the word they already know? Preaching dwells in the hope that we might repent before the great chasm finally divides us. It does happen.
1 Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 423-24, 725 n. 152; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina 3; Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), 252.