- Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 & Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
- 1 Timothy 6:6-19
- Luke 16:19-31
Introduction: Riches and Reversal
This week’s Gospel works with popular themes in the religious tradition: the fate of rich and poor, and hopes of an eventual reversal in ther fortunes in the next life.
The details of the story are sometimes drawn into service when people speculate on the “geography of eternity”—the existence and form of heaven and hell. This makes little more sense than using the story of Good Samaritan to prepare a map of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, or the parable of the Sower to reconstruct ancient farming methods. Such details are not the point of the story, and may not do anything more than reflect popular conceptions among Jesus’ listeners.
There are many parallels in world literature to this kind of tale that contrasts the fates of a rich man and a poor person in the next life.
Samuel T. Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 312ff] cites the following Jewish parallels as of special interest:
Two godly men lived in Ashkelon. They ate together, drank together, and studied the Law together. One of them died and kindness was not shown to him [i.e., nobody attended his funeral]. The son of Ma’yan, a tax collector, died and the whole city stopped work to show him kindness. The [surviving] pious man began to complain; he said, “Alas that no [evil] comes upon the haters of Israel [i.e., the wicked in Israel].” In a dream he saw a vision, and one said to him, “Do not despise the children of your Lord. The one had committed one sin and departed this life in it, and the other had performed one good deed and departed in it. What sin had the one committed? Far be it that he had ever committed a sin. But once he put on the tephilim for the head before the tephilim for the hand. And what good deed had the other performed? Far be it that he had ever done a deed. But once he had arranged a meal for the bouleutai [municipal councillors] of the city and they did not come. And he said, “Let the poor eat that it not be wasted.” Others say, He once went through the market-place, and he dropped a loaf, and a poor man picked it up, and he said nothing so as not to make him blush or shame. After some days the pious man saw in a dream his companion walking in the Garden under trees and by wells of water; and he saw the tax-collector, and his tongue sought to drink at the brink of a river; he tried to reach the water but he could not. [TJ Sanh. 6.9,23c]
Consider two wicked men who associated with one another in this world. One of them repented of his evil deeds before his death, while the other did not, with the result that the formers stands in the company of the righteous,while his fellow stands in the company of the wicked. And beholding him he says, “Woe is me … is there then favor shown here? We both of us committed robberies, we both of us committed murders together, yet he stands in the company of the righteous and I in the company of the wicked!” And they reply to him and say, “You fool! You were despicable after your death and lay for three days, and did not they drag you to your grave with ropes? … And your associate understood and repented of his evil ways, and you, you also had the opportunity of repenting and you did not take it.” He thereupon says to them, “Permit me to go and repent!” And they answer him and say, “You fool! Do you know that this world is the Sabbath, and the world whence you have come is like the eve of the Sabbath? If a man does not prepare his meal on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?” [TJ Hag. 2.2, 77d]
Tarif Khalidi [The Muslim Jesus] provides the following traditions relevant to this cluster.
 They asked Jesus, “Show us an act by which we may enter paradise.” Jesus said, “Do not speak at all.” They said, “We cannot do this.” Jesus replied, “Then speak only good.” [late Ninth Century CE]
 In the time of Jesus, there was a man nick¬named Mal’un (Damned) because of his avarice. One day a man who was going on a military campaign came to him and said, Mal’un, if you give me some weapons to help me wage war, you will be saved from hell-fire.” But Mal’un shunned him and gave him nothing. As the man turned away, Mal’un regretted his decision and called him back to give him his sword. When the man returned home he was met by Jesus, accompanied by a devout man who had worshiped God for seventy years. “Where did you get this sword from?” Jesus asked. The man replied, Mal’un gave it to me,” and Jesus was pleased with his charity. The next time Jesus and the devout man passed by, Mal’un, who was sitting at his door step, said to himself, “I will go and look upon Jesus’ face and the face of the devout man.” When he did so, the devout man said, “I will flee from this Mal’un before he burns me with his fire.”
Then God inspired Jesus to say, “Tell this sinful servant of mine, ‘I have forgiven you because of your charity with the sword and your love for Jesus, and tell the devout man that you will be his companion in heaven.” The devout man replied, “As God is my witness! I do not want heaven with him and I do not want a companion like him.” God Almighty inspired Jesus to reply, “You are not content with my decree and you have denigrated my servant. Thus, I will see you damned in hell. I have exchanged your places, and have given your station in heaven to my servant and his station in hell to you.” [Tenth Century CE]
Gospel: Lazarus and the Rich Man
Kenneth E. Bailey
Drawing on his many years of living and teaching in Beirut, Kenneth Baily offers some fascinating insights into the Gospel traditions as he draws on a combination of ancient Arabic commentaries and contemporary Middle Eastern peasant perspectives.
In “The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies and the Gospels. ch. 30. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), Bailey offers a fresh reading of this week’s Gospel passage. He assigns it to the category of “pearly gate story” that continues to be popular in modern Middle Eastern societies, but which have more to do with humorous reflection on “the ambiguities of public life in the Midle East” than providing a detailed outline of the speaker’s view of the afterlife.
For those without easy access to his book, this essay is also available online.
For this week’s lectionary notes, it may suffice to highlight three of the points Bailey offers in relation to the rich man, to Lazarus and to the friendly dogs:
- Bailey notes that the first scene features a self-indulgent rich man, who feasted sumptuously every single day of the week (and thus ignores the Sabbath requirements for his servants to rest from their labours). This man is decked out in the most expensive purple robes and enjoys underwear made from the finest linen. Conspicuous consumption par excellence.
- Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is named. And his name means, “the one whom God helps.” Watch this space, for blessed are the poor!
- Then there are the dogs. Presumably there as savage guard dogs to patrol the rich man’s estate (it boasted both door and gates), the dogs befriend Lazarus while their master ignores his plight as his pampered guests arrive each day to share his banquets. Bailey observes:
The rich man will do nothing for Lazarus, but these wild guard dogs, who attack all strangers, know that Lazarus is their friend and do what they can—they lick his sores. Lazarus lay each day in the heat and flies of the village street. The dogs gathered to help him.
Bailey then cites the comments of Ibn al-Tayyib, a medieval cleric, biblical scholar and medical doctor from eleventh century Baghdad:
I understand the licking of Lazarus’s sores gave him relief and eased his pain. This reminds us that the silent, unspeaking animals felt compassion for him and they helped him and cared for him more than the humans. He was naked without medical attention other than what he received from the dogs.
The Jesus Seminar [The Five Gospels, 361] was divided on the authenticity of this story. While the votes were evenly split between Red/Pink and Gray/Black, the weighting system used by the Seminar resulted in a definite Gray outcome.
Factors identified as weighing against the authenticity include:
- the motif of reversal of the fortunes of the poor and the rich in the next world is widely-attested in the ancient Near East;
- characters in Jesus’ parables do not usually have personal names;
- an interest in the fate of the poor is a key Lucan theme.
On the other hand, there are some aspects of this story that do fit with Jesus as storyteller:
- the focus is on the extreme indifference of the wealthy man, not his wealth as such;
- there is no judgment scene;
- the reversal of their fates is similar to the reversals seen in 419 The Vineyard Laborers and 095 The Feast.
While half the Fellows were inclined to retain the core story within the historical Jesus database, there was near unanimity on the post-Easter origins of the conclusion in verses 27-31.
John Dominic Crossan
John Dominic Crossan [In Parables, 65f] considers this parables as one of several “Reversal Parables” — 447 The Good Samaritan, 474 Pharisee and Publican, 459 Place at Table (Wedding Guest), 460 Inviting the Outcasts (The Proper Guests), and 095 The Feast, and 465 The Prodigal Son. He begins the discussion of this saying with a reference to the literary unity of 16:1-31:
Whatever may be the redactional activity of Luke himself in all this it is clear that the positioning of 16:19-31 within this larger literary complex places the emphasis on the proper use of worldly goods and on the failure of the rich man to do so. But if 16:19-31 is isolated from this context furnished by the tradition and the focus is placed on its own internal content, what could such a story have meant for the historical Jesus?
Crossan dismisses the concluding section in 16:27-31 as originating with the early Church rather than with Jesus himself. He identifies four specific reasons for this view:
First, there is the theme of disbelief before the resurrected one in 16:31, “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead,” and in 24:11,25,41, “and they did not believe them … ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe’ … And while they still disbelieved.” Second, there is the double mention of Moses and the prophets in 16:29,31 and 24:27,44. Third, the resurrected one is mentioned in 16:31, “one should rise from the dead,” and in 24:46, “on the third day rise from the dead.” Finally, the use of “they will repent” in 16:30 will reappear in Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; and 26:20 in kerygmatic contexts. Methodologically, Luke 16:27-31 cannot be taken as part of the original parable of Jesus. Most likely it is pre-Lukan and is a post-resurrectional application of the parable. It allegorically alludes to the Jewish refusal to accept either Moses or the prophets as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, or even to accept the risen Jesus himself. When one reads 16:31, “He said to them, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead,'” in its present context one thinks of Jesus and not the rich man.
Having separated the polemical conclusion from core parable, Crossan places the original saying in the context of ancient wisdom:
What is striking, especially against this background, is Jesus’ omission of any moral preparation for the reversal or any ethical judgment on the earthly status of the participants. In a situation where riches were often construed as God’s approval, and sickness often understood as God’s curse or punishment, it cannot be immediately presumed that 16:19-26, as told here, would automatically beget moral judgment for Lazarus and against the rich man. It seems best, then, to take 16:19-26 as an actual parable of Jesus. Its literal point was a strikingly amoral description of situational reversal between the rich man and Lazarus. Its metaphorical point was the reversaal of expectation and situation, of value and judgment, which is the concomitant of the Kingdom’s advent. As the judgments which have to be made on the clerics as against the Samaritan are forcibly reversed, so also those which be expected concerning the sick beggar and rich man are turned upside down. Jesus was not interested in moral admonition on the dangers of riches–the folktale had already done this quite admirably–but in the reversal of human situation in which the Kingdom’s disruptive advent could be metaphorically portrayed and linguistically made present.
- 471 Rich Man and Lazarus: (1) Luke 16:19-31
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.