Listen: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Sixteenth Week after Pentecost
Sixteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 16:19-31
1) Last week we explored Jesus’ first parable in this chapter, a story exhorting us to be wise, creative, resourceful, and even audacious in our use of “dishonest wealth” for the sake of building up the beloved community (Luke 16:11). In this week’s parable, Jesus continues this line of thought, now zeroing in on what generous, just economic life looks like in practice.
2) The overall theme here - economic generosity and justice - is at the very heart of Luke’s Gospel. It’s Luke who reports that Jesus is born in a makeshift shelter in a poor, backwater town. It’s Luke who features Mary’s song celebrating how God “fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). It’s Luke who declares that Jesus describes his mission as first and foremost “to bring good news to the poor” - and then later, in the Sermon on the Plain, says both “Blessed are you who are poor” and “Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 4:16-21; 6:20,24). It’s Luke, too, who includes Jesus’ stories of the rich fool who builds ever-larger barns; the rich ruler who turns away from discipleship because “he was very rich;” and the story of Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who promises Jesus he will give half his fortune to the poor and pay reparations to those he’s defrauded (Luke 12:13-21; 18:18-27; 19:1-9). And it’s Luke, as we saw last week, who underlines that what we do with our money is an important indicator of our spiritual maturity, or lack thereof. Accordingly, in the Book of Acts, Luke writes that the earliest Christian communities pooled and shared resources, eschewing the whole idea of personal wealth (Acts 4:32-34). This isn’t a side show in Luke’s Gospel, but rather a consistent, organizing theme. And in the midst of all this comes this week’s story of the rich man and Lazarus.
3) The stark contrasts and high stakes of the parable signal that it’s meant to come across as a kind of fable, and at the same time as a vivid, urgent warning. This isn’t a treatise on the afterlife. On the contrary, it’s a graphic morality tale meant to focus our attention, and if necessary, to rouse us from slumber: Wake up - and listen!
1) In all of Jesus’ parables, Lazarus is the only ordinary character who is given a proper name - a name that literally means El-azar, “God has helped” (no apparent connection, by the way, to the Lazarus in John 11). This humanizes him, of course, and continues to establish Jesus’ solidarity with the downtrodden. And at the same time, it also sets up a key dynamic later in the story.
2) The rich man merrily feasts (Luke uses the same word, euphrainomenos, to describe the merriment of the rich fool in Luke 12:19). And Lazarus lies, hungry and sick, at the rich man’s gate. Does the rich man notice him? Is he oblivious inside his palace, protected by his privilege? Or does he pass by Lazarus in his comings and goings through the gate, actively ignoring or refusing him any help?
3) We get our answer in Hades: the rich man pleads with Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” (Luke 16:24). He knows Lazarus alright - and still thinks of him, with patronizing contempt, as a servant. The plea speaks volumes about the rich man’s outlook: not only his lack of generosity, but also his clueless entitlement, even in Hades. The very person he routinely refused to help, he now asks Abraham to dispatch to help him!
4) Abraham’s response - and in particular, the initial word, “Child” - is a blunt word of warning. The rich man may well be a “child of Abraham,” but that alone won’t do. At the end of the day, it’s action - doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God - that matters most, not membership in any supposedly entitled club (for example, the Christian church!). It’s an idea reminiscent of John the Baptizer’s admonition to “bear fruits worthy of repentance:” “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…” (Luke 3:8).
5) The parable is told in such a way as to position listeners not in the role of Lazarus, nor in the role of the rich man - but rather in the role of the rich man’s brothers or sisters (the Greek word, adelphoi, “siblings,” can mean either). The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family, but Abraham is unmoved. If they haven’t yet listened to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to a new messenger raised from the dead, either. This response places Jesus’ teaching about wealth, generosity, and justice squarely in the ancient stream of Jewish tradition. Listening to Jesus means listening to Moses and the prophets. You have the guidance you need already. Listen!
6) Finally, this last line from Abraham also alludes to Jesus’ resurrection (already mentioned in Luke 9:22), and in particular foreshadows that not everyone will be convinced by it to follow Jesus and his teachings. But note, too, the remarkable implication of this allusion: in effect, Jesus is saying, Even my resurrection won’t add to what you’ve already received in Moses and the prophets. For Luke, Jesus doesn’t move “beyond” Judaism, much less supercede it or leave it behind; rather, Jesus stands within that ancient tradition, and the Jesus movement is about making its core wisdom, the ideas already made perfectly clear by Moses and the prophets, available to Jews and Gentiles alike.
1) Last week, Jesus made the case that money’s purpose is to help build up - with creativity and chutzpah! - God’s dawning realm, the beloved community of neighborly care, with “not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). What does this look like in practice? This week’s parable provides a sharply-drawn portrait: it looks like neighbors taking care of each other, and in particular, it looks like enriched neighbors concretely sharing resources with the wider neighborhood.
2) But it also looks like dignified respect between neighbors, as opposed to the rich man’s patronizing contempt for Lazarus. Jesus is obviously criticizing the rich man in the parable for not sharing resources, but the parable spends just as much time (arguably more time!) exposing the rich man’s entitlement and presumptuousness. If the parable is an urgent warning to the rich man’s siblings (in other words, to anyone with resources to share), the exhortation is not only to extend more neighborly care; it’s also to extend more neighborly respect, more neighborly courtesy, more neighborly dignity - in short, to see one another as equals, as children of God called to live together in love. Even the fact that Jesus calls the impoverished man, “Lazarus,” and not simply, “the poor man,” underscores the theme of neighborly respect.
3) And finally, speaking of neighborly respect: Against the long and sordid history of Christian anti-Judaism, this parable is a shining example of how Jesus (and Luke) had the opposite in mind: a deep respect for Jewish wisdom, and an explicit refusal to move “beyond” it. Christians should listen to Jesus, yes - but when we do, we aren’t listening to teachings that outpace Moses and the prophets. On the contrary, when we listen to Jesus, we’re also listening to the cascade of tradition going all the way back to the beginning. Even Jesus’ resurrection, radiant as it is, shouldn’t obscure this lineage and kinship. Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, the prophets and Jesus - Listen to them!