mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Notes on Luke 16 19-31

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 24 is Luke 16:19-31, Jesus’ story of “the rich man and Lazarus.” Here are my notes on the text:

Background and Context

This is another familiar text. Most people have heard it before; at our church, we might even have seen it dramatized in a “chancel drama,” if we’re old enough. (That particular project took place about 20 years ago, though, so it’s harder to be old enough than it used to be.) The story uses familiar stock characters and scenes: the rich man, the poor beggar, a fiery hell, Abraham as the personification of blessedness. We all presumably know what the story means before we even read it – we are supposed to share, we should not be selfish.

This might make us feel reading it is superfluous. We probably need to resist that feeling.

Luke’s gospel is part of a larger work (Luke-Acts) that is distinctive in several ways: very polished Greek; an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly in equipping people for ministry; pointed references to women (e.g., Luke 1, 2:36-38, 8:1-3, 10:38-42); the inclusion of Gentiles (see, e.g., Luke 4:25-27; 7:1-10; 10:25-37; Acts 10); a recurrent emphasis on money and an association of earthly wealth with misplaced priorities (see, e.g. Luke 1:53, 6:20-26, 12:13-21, 14:12-14). This story, which continues the emphasis on money and earthly inequalities, follows the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-9), the follow-up discussion that includes Jesus’ statement that no one can serve God and money, and the Pharisees’ rejection of this teaching, and Jesus’ pointed rebuttal to that rejection (Luke 16:14-15).

If our story followed immediately afterwards, it would make perfect sense – we would just read it as an elaboration on Jesus’ response to these Pharisees’ inability to get the point about serving God and money. It doesn’t, alas. It’s separated by a few verses that we need either to think of as having something mysterious to do with the theme of not having one’s priorities right, or as being out of place (“this is a job for text criticism!”), or as something (but, what would that be?) else. It makes the issue of context a little more complicated: the story seems to be a commentary on the problem of serving God and money, but perhaps in a way that is related to the nature of the kingdom of heaven, how people enter it, how that is related to God’s commands, and possibly how human faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to humanity might be symbolized by the image of marriage and divorce.

Another little contextual note: Jesus has already told the story of “the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) by the time he has this long exchange with these Pharisees who love money so much, so anyone reading this gospel like a book would have that story in mind by the time they got to our text.

Closer Reading – the Set Up

We might be able to think of the story in episodes. First there is the “establishing shot” (vv19-21) that sets up the situation; then the plot complication (v22-23); and then the dialog between the rich man and Abraham, which involves two distinct requests and responses (vv24-26, vv27-31).

This seems to be one of those stories that requires us to know a lot about the context of the ancient world just to really picture the scene Jesus is setting up – vividly – in the first couple of sentences. Because the first few verses create a stark contrast, in part through the use of distinctive Greek vocabulary.

The first character is an anthropos, a “human being.” The emphasis in anthropos is on the humanity. We could use it for a person of any gender rather than a specifically male person, so for a second there (before the gendered adjectives and verb forms of Greek grammar show up) we could even get the impression that this guy could just as easily be a gal.

A rich one. A rich person who “dresses himself” – using a specifically different verb from “clothes” or “wears,” and might itself connote some elevation – in the most expensive clothes money can buy. Both “purple” and “fine linen” indicate not just wealth, but extravagant, conspicuous consumption. Purple, in particular, was a stock “symbol of extravagance” in the first century Roman world.1

A rich person whose delight is in self-indulgence. This person “feasts” – literally “gladdens, cheers” himself, indulges himself in comforting pleasures – every day, in “splendor,” a description that might be akin to “flashy,” and which in the context of food gets translated “sumptuous.” So, he enjoys life to the max, and he does so very openly and maybe in an “in your face” kind of way. “Living well is the best revenge.”

If we made this story into a movie, in today’s world, we might open with a shot of someone walking out of an exclusive 5-star restaurant, wearing a designer suit and Rolex watch, while the valet brings around the Alfa Romeo.

An aside: the woman of worth in Proverbs 31(:22) also wears fine linen and purple. She, however, is a personification of Torah wisdom. So the fine linen and purple may not be a problem per se. But the woman of worth “opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:20). That’s not what we see happening in this story.

Instead, we see a poor beggar lying neglected in the gateway of the rich person’s house.

This poor beggar has a name. In other words, perhaps, he is a real human being, too. Perhaps even more so than person #1. He is named Lazarus, which seems to be the Greek version of a Hebrew name, Eleazar, that means “God is my help.”

Lazarus “desires” or “longs” for something minimal: the scraps, literally “the fallings” or “what had fallen,” from the rich guy’s table. That is, not only would he have been satisfied with the garbage, the verb “to desire” suggests he might have been hoping for that kind of hand-out. Maybe this is why he is lying – literally, has been thrown – in the gateway of the rich person’s town house in the first place, where he can presume feasting is going on.

He is loathsomely poor, being covered with “sores.” [These “sores” seem to be lesions that are called elsewhere in the Bible “boils.” In the New Testament, they only show up again in Revelation 16, as one of the horrors of the end times; they afflict people who have worshipped the beast. In the Hebrew Bible, they afflict the Egyptians in Ex 9:9, Job in Job 2:7, and Hezekiah in Isaiah 38. They are specifically NOT the same as leprosy (see Leviticus 13:18-23). A person could be healed from them, although as the Hezekiah case suggests, a person could die from them, too. But they are gross, and presumably painful, and an affliction.]

And then dogs come and lick the sores. Thanks for that image, Jesus. Some readers like to point out that dog spit has antiseptic properties. But in the first century … really? Others mention that dogs are symbols of Gentile grossness in Hebrew discourse at that time. Others (including me) recall that Jesus himself calls Gentiles “dogs” and goes along with them eating scraps from the children of Israel’s table in another gospel story (Mark 7:24-30, Matthew 15:21-28 – so maybe this is Luke’s version of that comment, since Luke with his pro-Gentile sensibility may not have wanted to tell that particular story on Jesus).

So, from a symbolic standpoint, it is conceivable that Jesus is setting up his listeners to imagine Mr. Rich as Jewish and Lazarus, with his Hebrew name, as having fallen among, or fallen in with, Gentiles, if not being almost, or actually, a Gentile himself. If so, it is conceivable that one subtext of this story is the riches of the relationship with God enjoyed by Israel, vs. the poverty of the ignorant nations, and what charitable responsibility might be entailed in that situation by loving God and your neighbor [even your poor one, or your Gentile one]. Again, a message like this would be consistent with the pro-Gentile emphasis of Luke’s gospel.

And then they die. What a reversal! Particularly if we were imagining Mr. Rich as Jewish and Lazarus as ambiguously Gentile, we might have expected Lazarus to go to Gentile Hades and Mr. Rich to go recline in a place of honor in the bosom of Abraham at the heavenly banquet. [The image of Lazarus in the “bosom of Abraham” probably presupposes that we know about how first century Roman dinner parties were organized. Everyone would be stretched out on comfy couches, and the best seat in the house would be right next to the host. I confess that before I found this out, I always imagined a giant Abraham cradling Lazarus in his arms, the way we would hold a child or a puppy.] But in this story it’s just the opposite.

Plus, Lazarus got an angelic escort. Mr. Rich got buried. From an earthly standpoint, that might have seemed luxurious, since burial cost money, which Mr. Rich had. God knows what happened to Lazarus from that perspective. What Jesus’ story may suggest is that there is an unseen dimension to the order of things that upends the order we see on earth. (He did just say precisely that, in Luke 16:15.)

The “Hades” where Mr. Rich lands seems to be a sector of Greek afterlife where endless torment takes place; the humanists would call it Tartarus, and would remind us of Tantalus (with the ever withdrawing grapes), Sisyphus (with the ever slipping-back stone), and their companions. Evidently, Mr. Rich is being tormented by flames. (Why, I wonder? Could it have anything to do with the flashiness of his earlier life? Or is it for some other reason? Flames do not seem to have been a standard feature of Hades/Tartarus.)

The “torment” he is suffering is related to a Greek word for “touchstone,” which gave its name to the legal procedure of torturing witnesses, in particular slaves, apparently to make sure they were not simply giving testimony favorable to their owners, but were telling the real truth. [As Augustine pointed out in The City of God, this is a stupid legal procedure if you actually care about truth. Why would you think someone would tell the truth under torture? They’ll tell you want they think you want to hear. What kind of truth is that? “Fake news.”]

Another aside: the relationship of torture and legal testimony in the ancient world helps explain further our understanding of “martyrs,” literally “witnesses,” as people who have been tortured. It might be important to note that typically torture was not applied to people of higher social standing.

In short, the fact that Mr. Rich is undergoing torture tells us something more about his social standing in the social order of the afterlife. This is assuming that Jesus’ description of the afterlife would have been intelligible to his first century listeners, and would have been intelligible to them precisely because it reflected their own social world. [I think that’s a safe assumption. An implication of that assumption, however, is that this story tells us more about the first century ancient world than it tells us about eternity.]

Closer Reading – the Conversation

Mr. Rich, seeing how things stand now, starts a conversation with Abraham.

Asking for Father Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool Mr. Rich’s tongue (v24) serves as a pitiful parallel to the opening scene, in which Lazarus suffered and hoped for next to nothing from the oblivious Mr. Rich.

Mr. Rich’s use of the “Father” address might reinforce the impression that he considers himself a descendent of Abraham’s. Or it might only be an expression of honor appropriate for an exalted figure.

Another aside: why does Mr. Rich think to ask Abraham to send Lazarus on the mission of mercy in the first place? Desperation, maybe? Or is he still acting like he has some kind of “standing”? Or is he still considering himself “above” Lazarus, although the “above/below” structure in the story has clearly gone against him by this point? He is clearly hoping for a little mercy from Father Abraham, anyway.

In response, Abraham calls him “child,” which is a strict parallel to the use of “anthropos” earlier – that is, an offspring or young person of either gender.

Abraham’s response also includes a frightening suggestion that there is a finite distribution involved in the parceling out of goods and bads. Mr. Rich, he says, you received “your good things” already, so now, we are left to conclude, he’s getting his bad things.

What’s fair is fair.

Plus, there’s “nothing Abraham can do,” because of the mega-chasm that separates the two sectors of this new afterworld order, the blessed and the cursed, or the rewarded and the punished, or the embraced and the rejected, or maybe, the helped-by-God and the helped-by-everythingthatmakespeoplesuccessfulinlife.

So now Mr. Rich asks for Abraham to send Lazarus (still with the sending Lazarus) to his “five brothers.”

One reading of this phrase has Mr. Rich here definitively revealing himself to be “Judah,” the namesake of the remnant nation of Israel, one of the children of Israel (Jacob) by Leah, whose “five brothers” would be Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, and Zebulun (Exodus 25:33). On this reading, however, it would be more than a little difficult to send Lazarus to these five brothers, since they have been scattered among the nations for several centuries by this time.

What seems clear is that Mr. Rich and his five brothers have all this time been part of the community that has access to “Moses and the prophets” (v29).

Mr. Rich says they will “change their minds” (v30) if someone goes to them “from the dead.” Abraham says he’s wrong; they will not be “persuaded” even if someone rises from the dead. All this talk of returning from the dead seems to foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection.

If this were a prediction that preaching about the crucified and risen Christ will continue to encounter opposition from the Jewish community, it would make great narrative sense in the context of Luke-Acts, where opposition to the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus leads up to the crucifixion/resurrection in Luke, and where the gospel proclaimed by Peter, Stephen, and Paul encounters persistent opposition from the Jewish communities they address from one end of Acts to the other.

A Concluding Partly Personal Comment

Probably most Christians have a “favorite gospel.” The too-easy anti-Judaism in Luke is what keeps me from joining the lots of people who identify Luke as theirs.

Nevertheless, I don’t accept that Luke is as anti-Judaic as it is possible to read him. Mr. Rich may be Jewish, but a guy named Lazarus is probably Jewish, too. The difference between them seems not to be their nationalities, but who they rely on. Lazarus, remember, is named “God is my help.”

I suspect the references to wealth and its linkages with Torah instruction in this story have something important to do with the ancient prosperity gospel preached in Proverbs (“wisdom will make you wealthy,” “wisdom is as good as silver, gold, and rubies,” “don’t be lazy, or you’ll be poor,” and so on). That way of thinking underwrote the attitude that those blessed by God do well in this life, so those who do well in this life have some justification for looking down on those who are suffering in this life, on the assumption that they very likely have only themselves to blame.

We are as familiar with this attitude in our twenty-first century world as Jesus’ listeners were in their first century one. We use different language to describe the Lazaruses and Mr. Riches and to justify our responses to them (“bad choices,” “personal responsibility,” “fixed mindset vs. growth mindset,” “learned helplessness,” “enabling,” “grit,” “education,” “meritocracy,” “trickle-down”), but after all these centuries we can still relate to entitlement and privilege, and to the idea that we are justified in restricting what help we give the poor to the “deserving” while kicking the “undeserving” to the curb.

People tend to read this as a story about how important it is to be compassionate, to share what we have. Of course, no doubt, we should be compassionate, and we should share what we have.

But I suspect that if we fail to read this story as a story about entitlement and privilege, and what is liable to happen to those who feel themselves entitled to their privileges, and who assume that others are less entitled to the same privileges, we are missing one of Jesus’ main points here.

If any anthropos was ever really entitled to “his good things,” it was Jesus. And we know how he dealt with it. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11.)

[1] Richard Bauckham, “Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18” in Alexander Loveday ed. Images of Empire JSOT (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament) Supplement Series 122, Sheffield: JSOT Press, Sheffield Press, 1991. 47-90, 62.

mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

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