When I was a kid, as is the case now, I loved learning. For a while it was biographies and stories of peoples and cultures, then art and artists, and at one point simply reading the dictionary to learn new words. My problem was not being able to learn but to keep sorted all the new information that I had gained. Quite often, stories ran into one another and words were the opposite of what they really meant.
Case in point, it took me the longest time to get the difference between modest and arrogant. I constantly used one as the other and made silly statements about someone being so modest when I meant arrogant and vice versa. Of course, I also learned the meaning of irony and then claimed that I was being ironic when I got it wrong. Such is the life of know-it-all kid.
So often in the gospels, we read stories of Pharisees and picture them as misguided religious fanatics on one end of the spectrum and hateful, jealous monsters on the other end. I have, in keeping with Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, seen them in the story as theology professors, living on the wealth of information and understanding from those before them, desperate to keep it, and hiding behind a wall of traditions, etiquettes, and formalities that separate them from the rest of the people around them. Not that there is anything wrong with being a professor, but like any profession, there are good ones and bad ones. For my version of the story, we’re talking here about the bad ones.
Some of these professors have come to Jesus and yet again, ask him about a point of the law they hope to trip him up on. Jesus has just told a parable about a shrewd money manager who impresses his master by cunning and generosity, even though it is to save his own skin. Jesus says about this parable,
“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:10-13)
The response, according to the writer of Luke, is predictable: “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” (Luke 16:14) Jesus replies to them,
“You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out. Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:15-18)
It is at this point, we get to the parable at hand and I would like to reiterate what a parable is for clarification. The word parable literally means a “comparison, illustration, analogy” or a “juxtaposition”. In other words, it is a story told to illustrate something else. In this case, Jesus is referring to his words in verses ten through eighteen and reiterating the point with greater clarity for those who are apparently not getting it.
In keeping with our study, “Signs of Lent”, we find an interesting set of signs in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. So often, this text is taken as a literal explanation of the afterlife and the torment of Hell. The truth is parables do not work this in this way as they are not meant to be literal but allegorical explanations to make the point in a simple way. They are usually directed to a specific situation and the people who are hearing them. Professor David Gowler once wrote,
“…parables stand in fundamental relationship to the story as a whole and cannot be “properly interpreted” apart from it; they function primarily as a kind of “mirror” to assist the reader/hearer.” (Gowler 2005, 249)
In the verses leading up to the parable, Jesus is speaking directly with the Pharisees about their love of money and their tendency to see others as being useful only when they have financial or personal value to them. Notice Jesus saying, “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much” and “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God” followed Jesus comments on divorce, a rebuke of the Jewish practice of divorcing women because they are ‘unpleasing’ to the husband in some way. The point Jesus is making before the parable is one of recognizing the value inherent in all people, or truly loving your neighbor as yourself, even if that neighbor offers no financial or personal gain to you.
Which brings us to the parable itself, an explanation of the previous comments for those who ‘just didn’t get it’ the first time. The parable is itself, taken from an old Egyptian or Rabbinic folktale, retold with a Jewish emphasis, and offered as a means of clarifying a point. Fred Craddock writes, “The first part of the parable…is a much-traveled story, forms of it being found in several cultures” (Craddock 1990, 195). Think of it in the same way we have variations on stories in early American history about Honest Abe or George and the cherry tree. They are stories meant to illustrate a truth about a time, a place, or a person or people. About this one, Alyce McKenzie says, “The story is a three-act play. The first act portrays the earthly contrast between the wealthy man and Lazarus. The second act describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife. The third act depicts the rich man’s request to Father Abraham for a sign so that those still living can avoid his torment, a request that Abraham refuses” (McKenzie 2013) With this in mind, I see several helpful elements which will, I hope, shed some light on this oft misinterpreted parable: those who seem to have much, those who seem to have little, and Hell as a state of being. Each of these elements speaks to something beyond the normal interpretations that most of us have heard over the course of our lives.
He who seems to have much – Wealth has long been divisive in culture, separating the world into those who have it and those who have wished for it or suffered for their lack of it. In Jesus day and the centuries before it, the divide was greater than we can imagine in modern times. The ‘one-percent’ that so many people talk about as being the wealthy making decisions and ruling the world through financial control of the markets, the economies, and the resources of the world, was more like the fraction of one percent. In the world of Jesus day, a story like this would have been a common expression of that divide. Ronald Hock writes,
“…the rich and poor were a favorite subject for the advanced declamations of rhetoricians (V. Soph. 481). In other words, not only the subject of the parable but the very treatment of it by comparison of extreme examples and by further characterization of the rich man through dialogue would be familiar to audiences and readers throughout the Greco-Roman world…The rich and poor were not the sole preserve of rhetoricians, however, since the subject occupied philosophers, too, but especially Cynics.” (Hock 1987, 456-457)
In this parable, the wealthy man has everything he could want. The writer of Luke says about him, “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day.” The description speaks to the level of wealth the rich man has. The fine fabrics of his clothing could only be afforded by the extremely wealthy, especially the idea of purple fabrics, commonly known as Phoenician Purple (Hatcher Spring 2012, 278). The idea that he ‘feasted’ every day or better translated ‘having a merry state of mind because you are feeling the sense of inner triumph.’
The wealthy man also has little regard for his poorer countryman. As the rich man came and went each day, Lazarus the beggar (ptochos) would have been sitting in plain sight at the edge of his lands or better said perhaps, on the fringes of his wealth and security. The rich man’s concern is his riches and his celebrating according to the parable as well as other stories of this kind from the time period. In this case, he is symbolic of one who is selfish, greedy, and above all uncaring for those in need around him. He has forgotten the poor, the sojourner, the hurting and needy among his brethren.
He who seems to have little – This leads us to the beggar, Lazarus. According to George Knight, “The description of Lazarus as “poor” (ptöchos) implies one who depends on others and often refers to a beggar, although the term could focus simply on Lazarus’ state of poverty. In this condition he has been “dumped” at the gate of the house of luxurious celebration” (Knight 1997, 279).
“Hunger and poverty cannot be separated in analyzing the biblical material. Hunger accompanies poverty. Famine can strike an entire land, rich and poor alike, but it is still the poor who go hungry while the well-to-do buy food from other lands (cf. Gen. 12:10; 42:1-2). In both the Old and New Testaments hunger is linked with other terms describing those who have been forced by societal conditions into a marginal existence — the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed.” (Birch 1975, 593)
In the worst times of my life, I have never been hungry for more than a few hours, never slept out in the elements unless by choice, and never had to go without reasonable medical care unless I was just too stubborn to go to the doctor. Lazarus has none of these options. As previously stated, Lazarus is completely dependent on someone else to care for him, someone else to step in and provide for him. Being unceremoniously ‘dumped’ at the rich man’s gate, it is most likely that Lazarus was in poor health and those closest to him were hopeful that the wealthy man would remember the Jewish laws and customs about caring for the poor.
Hell, as a state of being – As we said earlier, the background of this parable is most likely a tale from Egyptian folklore or from Jewish rabbinic literature but the subject is not just about the rich and the poor but about the reversal of fates and fortunes after death (McKenzie 2013). In these stories, as in our parable, the point is not that there is or is not a place of torment in the afterlife but that the person who experienced good in this life at the expense of others is being punished for mistreating those they hurt. The idea is that it should be a cautionary tale to remember those who are less fortunate around us, to realize that we are not so far removed from our own reversal of fortunes and fates.
As Christians, or followers of the rabbi Yeshua, we are called in this parable to see others and their needs as being as important as our own needs. For those of us who have neglected those in need, it is a warning. For those of us who are aiding those in need, it is an encouragement. In either case, it is an invitation to live a life devoted more deeply to those cause of taking care of those in need, in their time of need, with whatever we have to do so and not assume that someone else will deal with it. In short,
“The parable presents a disturbing critique of today’s global money economy, which creates an ever-widening chasm between the poor and the prosperous. With satellite television, the Internet, and news broadcasts incessantly streaming images of the indigent, the privileged can hardly claim ignorance. It is rather complacency that turns a blind eye to each Lazarus languishing on the back stoop of our gated communities or the 1.2 billion inhabitants of our global village living on less than one dollar a day. Conditioned by a consumerist culture, American Christians in particular are at risk of contracting “affluenza” and the attendant spiritual malaise that leaves them “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).” (Hatcher Spring 2012, 281)
So, what do we do about it? What do we do with these symbols of the wealthy man turning a blind eye to his countryman, a poor man suffering needlessly before him, and the idea that God sees this treatment of the poor as hellish?
I think we go to the experience of God that others had before us as they recorded them in what we call Scripture. Isaiah 58:6-7 declares, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?” And Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them.”
And finally, the words of Jesus from a few chapters ago,
“A certain man hosted a large dinner and invited many people. When it was time for the dinner to begin, he sent his servant to tell the invited guests, ‘Come! The dinner is now ready.’ One by one, they all began to make excuses. The first one told him, ‘I bought a farm and must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen, and I’m going to check on them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ When he returned, the servant reported these excuses to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go quickly to the city’s streets, the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’ The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’ The master said to the servant, ‘Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled.” (Luke 14:16-23)
So let us go, preach and live this gospel, and if necessary use words. Amen.
Birch, Bruce C. “Hunger, Poverty and Biblical Religion.” The Christian Century, 1975: 593-599.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Gowler, David B. “”At His Gate Lay a Poor Man”: A Dialogic Reading of Luke 16:19-31.” Perspectives in Religious Studies | Journal of the NABPR 32, no. 1 (2005): 249-265.
Hatcher, Karen M. “In Gold We Trust: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31.” Review and Expositor, Spring 2012: 277-283.
Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447-463.
Knight, George W. “Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Review and Expositor, 1997: 277-283.
McKenzie, Alyce M. Edgy Exegesis – The Rich Man and Lazarus: Reflections on Luke 16:19-31. September 22, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Rich-Man-Lazarus-Alyce-McKenzie-09-23-2013 (accessed March 21, 2017).
 (Craddock 1990, 195), (Hock 1987, 451)