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Luke 16:1-31 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 16. THE CONTEXT
This chapter begins with the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (vv. 1-13), last week’s Gospel lesson. That parable calls us to “make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents” (v. 9). That this means caring for the poor and vulnerable is reinforced by its proximity to verses 19-31, our Gospel lesson for this week.
In verse 14, Luke established that the Pharisees were lovers of money who responded to Jesus’ teaching about money with ridicule. Their Deuteronomic theology persuaded them that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a sign of God’s displeasure. They would consider a person like Lazarus to deserve his suffering—to be guilty of some heinous sin. Jesus challenged this belief with the statement that “which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).
Jesus spoke of the law, the prophets and the proclamation of the kingdom of God (v. 16), warning that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tiny stroke of a pen in the law to fall” (v. 17). His warning about divorce (v. 18) speaks to men who tithe faithfully (11:42) but cast their wives adrift with little thought or provision. They not only ignore the poor and vulnerable, but they also create poverty and vulnerability.
While this parable seems to be about money, it is really about values. It is possible to be wealthy and to enjoy God’s favor—Abraham, David, and Solomon serve as examples. The question is not whether we have money, but whether we love money (see 1 Timothy 6:10)—whether we share God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable—whether we are too preoccupied with personal concerns to notice the Lazarus in our midst?
The parable makes two points. The first has to do with “the reversal of fortunes of this life in the hereafter.” The second is that “even the return of a messenger from the dead will not bring about reform among the obdurate rich” (Fitzmyer, 1126).
This parable challenged Albert Schweitzer and persuaded him to leave his comfortable life in Europe to establish Lambarene Hospital in Africa (Buttrick, 289).
LUKE 16:19-21. A CERTAIN BEGGAR LAID AT HIS GATE
19“Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, living in luxury every day. 20A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Yes, even the dogs came and licked his sores.“
“Now there was a certain rich man” (v. 19a). Jesus doesn’t tell us the name of the rich man. He has sometimes come to be known as Dives, which is the Latin Vulgate for rich (Stein, 423).
Because Lazarus is named (the only person who is named in any of Jesus’ parables), some scholars consider this a true story rather than a parable, but the presence of the Greek tis—a “certain” rich man—suggests that it is a parable.
Jesus establishes the extent of the rich man’s wealth and the ostentatious quality of his lifestyle. He was “clothed in purple and fine linen” (v. 19b). Purple symbolizes wealth and power. Purple dye is expensive, restricting its use. He also wears fine linen—another mark of wealth.
“living in luxury every day” (v. 19c). Today we need not be wealthy to engage in this kind of self-indulgence. Business executives with expense accounts often feast sumptuously every day, and all-you-can-eat menus and super-sized portions have all of us gaining weight.
“A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores” (v. 20). The gate serves both as a sign of the rich man’s wealth and as a barrier to unwanted visitors—insulating the rich man from the harsh realities of the world outside his gate. The gate also symbolizes the distance that separates Lazarus from this rich man’s world. Lazarus not only has no gate—he does not even have a house. Lying just outside the rich man’s gate, he is physically separated from the rich man’s house by only a few meters, but the rich man’s world is no more accessible than the moon.
How must Lazarus feel to be so poor while seeing such wealth? Today, wealth and poverty often co-exist in close proximity, fueling great anger on the part of people who have neither money nor hope.
Lazarus is the only person named in any of Jesus’ parables. His name is a variant of Eleazer, which means “God heals” or “God helps.”
While the rich man’s body is covered with purple and fine linen, Lazarus’ body is covered with sores.
“and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21a). Lazarus’ condition is exactly opposite that of the rich man. He is sick—covered with sores. He is hungry—longing for the scraps from the rich man’s table. At banquets, people wipe grease from their hands onto a piece of bread and then throw the bread on the floor. To long for such soiled bread is the height of misery—of degradation. We are reminded of the prodigal son, who longed to eat the slop that he was feeding the pigs.
Can you remember being on the outside looking in—needing a bite to eat—or warm shelter—or a tank of gas—or a kind word—and nobody gave you anything? Many of us, like the rich man in this parable, have never had such an experience. However, millions, like Lazarus, daily suffer intense want.
“Yes, even the dogs came and licked his sores” (v. 21b). Another measure of Lazarus’ misery! The only creatures that notice him are dogs who lick his sores. Lazarus would not see them as performing ministration but as nuisance. He is unable to keep them at bay.
The rich man is surely aware of Lazarus lying at his gate, but does nothing to help. He may consider himself charitable not to have forcibly removed Lazarus from his property.
LUKE 16:22-23. HE SAW ABRAHAM FAR OFF
22“It happened that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. 23In Hades, he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom.“
“It happened that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (v. 22a). We are not surprised to learn of Lazarus’ death. Poor people who are sick and who have no access to medical care die early.
“The rich man also died” (v. 22b). We are surprised to learn of the rich man’s death, because his resources provided him access to good food, housing, and health care. In the end, however, we all die.
“and was buried” (v. 22c). The poor man died, but no mention was made of burial. In that culture, people considered a proper burial to be very important. Not to receive a proper burial would be the final indignity for a life filled with indignity.
The rich man dies and is buried, surely with great pomp and ceremony.
However, Jesus tells us that the poor man “was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” The Great Reversal has begun! (See 1:46-55).
“In Hades, he (the rich man) lifted up his eyes, being in torment” (v. 23a). In Jewish thought, Hades or Sheol is the abode of the dead, a place of torment where one would feel abandoned by God (Acts 2:27). It is associated with death, but Jesus holds the key to its door (Revelation 1:18).
The rich man “and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom” (v. 23b). In his life, the rich man gave no evidence that he had ever seen Lazarus. Even now, he sees Lazarus only as a subordinate figure, glimpsed only by his peripheral vision.
LUKE 16:24-26. THERE IS A GREAT GULF FIXED
24“He cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25“But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish. 26Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ “
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me” (v. 24a). The rich man is accustomed to dealing with influential people, so he addresses his comments to “Father Abraham,” the ranking person, rather than to Lazarus, the person from whom he hopes to receive relief. His words, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t begin to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (3:8).
“and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame” (v. 24b). The rich man knows Lazarus’ name. We are left to wonder whether he knew Lazarus’ name while Lazarus was lying at his doorstep.
Even now, in his diminished circumstances, the rich man sees Lazarus only as an errand-boy. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus with a drop of water. In verse 27, he will ask Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.
There is great irony here. Lazarus once coveted the scraps from the rich man’s table. Now the rich man covets a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger.
“Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things” (v. 25a). Abraham acknowledges the rich man as his child, but is unable to render assistance. Verse 25 makes it seem as if the rich man is punished for being rich and the poor man is rewarded for being poor. The rich man’s sin, however, was not his wealth but his hardness of heart. Lazarus’ presence at his gate gave him opportunity to render an important service, but he felt no compassion and took no action.
“you received your good things” (v. 25a). The rich man has enjoyed his wealth–has had a full and rich life.
“and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things” (v. 25b). Likewise, Lazarus’ poverty is not the key to his salvation although, in this Gospel, Jesus does show a deep affection for the poor and vulnerable.
“But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish” (v. 25c). Their circumstances are now reversed, but there are subtle differences:
• In life the separation was one-way. Lazarus could not approach the rich man to plead for help, but the rich man was free to render assistance. In death, however, they are separated by a great chasm that cuts off access from both directions. Even if Lazarus wants to help, he cannot do so.
• In life, the rich man wanted to avoid all contact with Lazarus. Now he is tormented by the gulf that separates them. Be careful what you pray for!
The Pharisees can hardly miss that the parable is aimed at them. They regard their prosperity as God’s reward for their good conduct. Instead, the parable warns that, if they are like the rich man in life, they will be like him in death. It portrays a great reversal that challenges their theology that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of God’s displeasure.
LUKE 16:27-31. IF THEY DON’T LISTEN TO MOSES AND THE PROPHETS
27“He said, ‘I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house;28for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment.’ 29“But Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ 30“He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31“He said to him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.'”
“I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house” (v. 27). Again the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus in a servant-role—this time to warn his brothers. Having exhausted the possibility of helping himself, he finally begins to think of others—but only of his brothers. He shows no concern for neighbors—and certainly none for down-and-outers from the wrong side of the tracks.
“for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment” (v. 28). “The rich man has five ‘brothers’ but should have had six—the one he did not acknowledge was Lazarus” (Hoyer and Roth, 57).
“They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them” (v. 29). “Moses and the prophets” include numerous provisions for decent treatment of the poor and vulnerable:
• Jews are not to mistreat aliens, widows, or orphans (Exodus 22:21-22; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33; Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
• They are to leave gleanings to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22).
• They are to bring tithes to support Levites, aliens, the fatherless, and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12-15).
• They are to cancel all debts every seventh year and to be generous to the needy (Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
• They are to include aliens, the fatherless and widows in their celebrations (Deuteronomy 16:9-15).
• They are to observe justice (Isaiah 5:7-10; Micah 3:1-3).
• They are not to exploit workers (Isaiah 58:3).
• They are to plead the case of the fatherless and to defend the rights of the poor (Jeremiah 5:25-29).
• They are warned about using dishonest scales (Hosea 12:7-9) and taking advantage of the vulnerable (Amos 2:6-8; Malachi 3:5).
“No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). The rich man protests because he knows that the brothers are unlikely to respond to scripture more faithfully in the future than they have in the past. His use of the word, repent, shows that he understands that his present sufferings are a consequence of his own failure to repent.
“If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead” (v. 31). We can assume that these men have been versed in scripture from their childhood. If they will not heed the word of God, they will not heed a man whom they know only as a beggar—even if he returns from the dead to warn them.
Luke writes this Gospel many years after Jesus’ resurrection. He has seen the Jewish leaders respond to the resurrection of another Lazarus by plotting to kill Jesus (John 11:1-53). He has seen that, even though Jesus rose from the dead, people still refuse to believe. Those who refuse to heed the call of Moses and the prophets to care for the needy and vulnerable are the same ones who killed Jesus—and who continue to oppose the church in spite of the resurrection.
We are left to wonder how people could fail the test of compassion so completely—how they could fail to respond to the resurrection—how they could be so blinded by love of money. Then it occurs to us that we are not Lazarus but the rich man. We too pass by the needy without seeing. We too fail to obey Moses and the prophets. We too fail to put our full confidence in the resurrection. We too are lovers of money.
This parable is not a bedtime story but a warning. “Christ is somehow waiting for us there in poor Lazarus” (Wallace, 156).We need to ask ourselves if we are willing to see Lazarus in our midst. We need to ask ourselves what we have done lately to provide food, clothing, shelter, and human kindness to the Lazarus in our midst.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated. We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.
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