Commentary on Luke 16:19-31
The opening verse of this pericope, 16:19, has the same phrase as 16:1, the opening of last week’s text; “There was a rich man …” The repetition of the phrase, in a Gospel full of references to wealth and its use, suggests engagement with this figure is important for faithful proclamation.
This text follows the parables in Chapter 15 of the lost sheep, coin, and son, which are addressed to the Pharisees and scribes in response to their grumbling about Jesus’ choice of company: tax collectors and sinners. Chapter 16 shifts Jesus’ audience to the disciples, his followers and potential coworkers, and he tells them the parable of the dishonest steward. This, too, elicits criticism from the Pharisees, who are identified in verse 14 as “lovers of money,” a label linking them to Jesus’ words in verse 14 about serving two masters. Jesus’ follow-up response to the Pharisees includes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
It is common to equate wealth with virtue, whether today or in the ancient world. Good people who work hard and live righteously can expect to be rewarded with means; likewise, people with means are seen as good (smart, hardworking, righteous) because they were able to acquire wealth. In the ancient world, concepts like wealth, virtue, and masculinity worked together and reinforced one another to solidify elite status.
The idea that the rich man is a good man is directly challenged by Jesus’ parable. The rich man, who is not named here, overlooks Lazarus who sits with his sores at the rich man’s gate. The fact that the poor man is named, and the rich man is not, is an interesting reversal. But the rich man and his actions are still the focal point of the story. Humanizing Lazarus with a name draws more attention to the inhumane way he is treated by the rich man.
The text does not say if the rich man’s cruelty toward Lazarus is intentional or not; neither is particularly defensible. It was part of the role of the wealthy in the ancient world to provide alms for the poor in their community. Even if it was largely self-serving, patronage was an expected means for some of the poor to be fed while the wealthy reinforced their status with virtuous action.
Often there was a bench outside homes where the poor could wait for assistance. A beggar who sat on this bench at the gate could expect some sort of attention, especially from a feasting host and guests. And, as verse 19 says, this particular rich man feasted every day, meaning Lazarus was denied many times as the rich man repeatedly ignored the unwritten codes of honor. Further, verse 21 makes clear that Lazarus is not asking for much. Scraps and leftovers from the sumptuous feasting would have made all the difference. Those waiting benches are still present in the excavated site of Pompeii outside the large homes of the wealthy, a reminder of the established practice and the rich man’s neglect.
The interrupted association of wealth and virtue gets particularly vivid in verse 23, as the parable states directly that the rich man has gone to Hades after his death. This is contrasted with Lazarus, who had gone to be with Abraham. The dynamics of power now come into focus. During Lazarus’ lifetime, the rich man’s power was absolute and unquestioned; he had authority. In exchange, he was supposed to play a role, which he did not fulfill. Now, his power is gone.
Even in this situation, however, the rich man tries to assert some authority. In verse 24, asking for relief from his suffering, he addresses Abraham as Father (implying a close relationship with obligations). And then he asks that Abraham send Lazarus, whom the rich man repeatedly neglected, to help.
Abraham’s response reinforces the reversal in the men’s situations as deserved, and establishes that, regardless of desire to help, any such power is ultimately limited by the great chasm fixed between them. Now the rich man and Lazarus are separated by much more than awareness, or the gate at the front door. The rich man makes another plea on behalf of his brothers, to spare them his torment. Abraham’s answer is important. Everything to be done has already been done. Their response is up to them.
So where is the Good News here? The idea of “it’s all up to us” doesn’t sound like the Gospel. Theologically speaking, reassurance based on Jesus’ death and resurrection and God’s promises in baptism can surely be offered; it is Jesus who speaks here and that matters.
But the text focuses elsewhere, on the authority and power that are given to each of us, if not in equal measure. The parable serves to refocus the hearer on what we do with what we have, how our vocations serve our neighbors. Virtue is not determined by wealth, type of employment, gender, immigration status, or body type. Virtue is borne out in deeds.
In her work on beggars in the ancient world, Zhenya-Gurina Rodriguez imagines what might happen if a man whose physical injury had turned him into a beggar happened upon a bench outside of a meeting of early Christians.1 How would this beggar be treated? How would he hear the stories of Jesus’ healing? Of his words of blessing to the poor? How, if at all, would his life change as a result of choosing that bench?
The answers to these questions, both then and now, are likely messy. There are some needs that can be met, and others that cannot. There are things we can and things we cannot control. Regardless, alleviating the suffering of our neighbors is a clear calling for those who wish to follow Jesus. Our responsibilities to one another in this life are real. Fear may not be a good motivator. But compassion, vocation, stewardship, and gratitude can be. Everything to be done has already been done. We have been given all we need.
- Zhenya Gurina-Rodriguez. Begging for Their Daily Bread: Beggar-Centric Interpretations of Matthew 6. (Minneapolis, MN: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2022), 63-4.
September 25, 2022