Last revised: December 10, 2022
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PROPER 21 (Sept 25-Oct 1) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 26
RCL: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
RoCa: Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022 this was the second week in a series of four stewardship sermons: Proper 20C, “Stewardship 101: ‘Making Friends’ with Wealth“; this week, Proper 21C, “Stewardship 101: The Dead-End of Hoarded Wealth“; Proper 26C (displacing the Proper 22C texts), “Stewardship 101: Living into a Citizenship of the Common Good“; and Proper 23C, “Stewardship 101: Living into Gratitude as Being Truly Human.” The strategy this week was to tell several similar stories to help interpret each other: the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Parable of the Long Spoons, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The three together help bring home the stewardship principle that is a foil to last week’s principle of making friends with wealth, leading to a socially just use of wealth for the Common Good. The latter is the positive side. The negative side of the coin is the dead-end of hoarding wealth. Both sides of the coin lead to next week’s principle of stewardship as living into a citizenship based on the Common Good.
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Opening Comments, Part 2: Last week, we began by noticing a change of addressees: Jesus directs the parables of Luke 15 to the “grumbling” Pharisees and scribes but then turns to his disciples to offer the parable of the “unjust steward.” The same large crowds seem to be assembled in the intervening verses before today’s parable, verses 9-18, a mysterious hodge-podge of shorter sayings. At the outset (v. 9), he is presumably still speaking to his disciples. But at v. 14 Luke tells us that the Pharisees object to Jesus’s sayings about money and begin to ridicule him. So when Jesus launches into the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he is once again directing the parable to them, the Pharisees.
But instead of parables of grace that invite the Pharisees to step into the world of debt-forgiving (Luke 15), Jesus now uses a parable of judgment that warns them about the consequences of failing to choose stepping into that new world of grace.
Within the theme of this site about healing tribalism, this parable addresses a central tribalism throughout human history once Homo sapiens moves past hunter-gatherer into larger communities: namely, class tribalism between the rich and everyone else. And here we see that healing doesn’t come without judgment — without truth telling about the consequences of neglecting the poor. While the theology of traditional cultures props up the power of those in charge — who progressively are able to turn this into massive inequality in wealth as societies grow in size and complexity — Jesus comes with a message about the “kingdom of God” that inverts the traditional power structure. The ultimate consequences lie with the rich neglecting the poor. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Subversive of traditional human cultures, the kingdom of God prioritizes caring for the last, the least, the lost, and the left out.
The treatments here of this parable largely deal with the connections within Luke’s framework (especially Luke 15-16 as a whole), as well as the background in the Hebrew Scriptures (especially the Jacob and Joseph sagas in Genesis). But I would like to close these comments with a reference to Matthew’s Gospel. I’d like to suggest that this parable in Luke is the closest he gets to the message of Matthew’s Jesus in the judgment on the nations in 25:31-46. Luke uses Charles Dickens‘ strategy in A Christmas Carol. He tells a tale about the consequences to one rich person to stand as an overall social critique. Matthew raises the stakes by portraying the judgment on a global, pan-historical scale. All nations in history are judged on the basis of caring for the least in Jesus’s family.
It seems that we prefer Luke’s strategy because we have mostly tamed Matthew’s version from the global to the individual. We change the sorting from nations to individuals by interpreting the pronoun in the translation — for example, the NSRV: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people [actually just the pronoun, “them,” whose reference is clearly “the nations,” not “people”] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt 25:32). What’s the difference? It places the decision for conversion on the level of individuals instead of entire societies. It’s nice that Ebenezer Scrooge chooses to change his life in preference to the poor. But if not enough of his real-life counterparts in British society undergo the Scrooge conversion, nothing really changes. Matthew places the decision for conversion on the level of entire nations. It’s the United Kingdom or the United States that need to have their politics and economics — the heart of their common life — to undergo a conversion of preferencing the poor. Otherwise, the judgment in Matt 25:31-46 bluntly states the consequences: an era of fiery violence, the usual conflagrations that bring an end to nations in history. For more on this reading of Matthew 25, which has become foundational to my own view as a disciple to the new king, see Christ the King A.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 30, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, chapter 5, “Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling,” pp. 129-162, with pp. 130, 143, 148-149 more specifically on Amos. The chapter as a whole gives a great introduction to a Girardian reading of the role of prophet. In suggesting that the basis for Hebrew kingship and prophecy are essentially the same, Williams notices the similarity of Amos 7:15 to 2 Sam 7:8:
In Nathan’s oracle to David concerning building a “house” for the LORD (temple) and a “house” for David (dynasty), the LORD says, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (2 Sam 7:8). The wording is strikingly similar to that in Amos’s account of his calling: “and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel”‘ (Amos 7:15). From this standpoint, clearly the role of the king is a calling that closely resembles a prophet’s call. (p. 130)
Williams’ further reflections on the career of Amos are:
Amos (prophesied c. 760-750 B.C.E.) was the first of the great prophets whose names are attached to books in the Hebrew Bible. He deals with the very core of the meaning of Israel as a people. It is this core that exemplifies the model of the emerging exception and that enables us to understand prophecy and kingship. It is the basis of Israel’s existence as the people of the covenant witnessing to the revelation of the God of Israel. Amos’s understanding of the beginnings of Israel is the very foundation of what he has to proclaim. YHWH has elected Israel and led it out of Egypt: that is the basis of Israel’s destiny but also of the danger in which it stands. “Hear this word that the LORI) has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities”‘ (Amos 3:1-2). The people that is known, chosen, loved, has a heritage originally the same as the structures of sacred violence among all the peoples. The one crucial difference in Israel’s case is that in its witness to the God of the oppressed it could never be at ease with sacred structures of violence. In Israel’s tradition of the exodus a community does not converge upon a victim, but God guides the victim away from the collective structures that marginalize, exclude, or slay the victim. But of course the one who is “led out” is, or is expected to be, very sensitive to the way victimization works. The chosen one has a special sensitivity to violence and sacrifice. The precarious status of the chosen one is such that the temptation is great to use the instruments of former oppression for both survival and power in the world. But standing outside the circle of all the others whose existence is permeated with sacred violence means that Israel has a special responsibility to the God of Israel. If Israel forgets this in imitating other peoples, then it falls. into the danger of losing its own special identity.
So if Amos proclaims God’s judgment on Israel, this judgment of military defeat and exile is something Israel brings upon itself, for Israel misunderstands its very beginnings. “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25). This rhetorical question concludes a well-known oracle in which YHWH says, “I hate, I despise your festivals,” spurning the outpourings from the sacrificial cult (5:21-24). It was not, implies Amos, God’s command to offer sacrifices in the wilderness. This is a remarkable insight. Amos is the first prophet or spokesperson of any sort in the scriptural texts who so unambiguously asserts this, although other prophets will reject sacrifice, and one, Ezekiel, sees the sacrificial cult in the wilderness as a kind of punishment of Israel (see below).
What was Israel supposed to do from the beginning? How was it to be constituted? Well, Amos is not very specific about that, although clearly from his standpoint it would have to do with letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). That is, the constitution of Israel has to do with concern for the victim. Not selling “the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6), avoiding indiscriminate licentious sex at the cultic shrine, and not drinking in a cultic sanctuary the wine of those who have been taxed or fined — here we see moral and cultic concerns brought together in a vision of justice. Yes, Israel is exceptional among the peoples (3:1-2) but not so exceptional that it can pretend to be the only people that God has cared for and guided to a land of its own (9:7).
It is no wonder then that the high priest expels Amos from the royal sanctuary of Bethel! Even If Amaziah had agreed with Amos’s moral concerns and advocated reform, he quite rightly senses that Amos’s message subverts the foundations of prevailing Israelite social order. Charity and purification of the cult were not enough for Amos; he held Israel’s very foundations had been misunderstood. (pp. 148-149)
1. Most scholars deny that Jesus told this parable. If they do attribute it to Jesus, they think that he took up a folktale; and most of these scholars would drop vs. 27-31 as a Lukan addition.
2. An element that squares with this being an adopted folktale is the mention of Hades, which is from Greek mythology, not from their own Jewish culture. More common from Jesus in Matthew and Mark is the word Gehenna (translated in the NRSV as “hell”), the name of a valley outside Jerusalem associated with sacrifice. Luke has one instance of Gehenna in 12:5 (par. 10:28): “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” See Gil Bailie‘s comments on this word for “hell” in Violence Unveiled.
3. David Buttrick suggests the following introduction to a sermon on this text:
Have you ever heard a joke about the “pearly gates”? There used to be stories about the Irishmen, Pat and Mike, meeting St. Peter at heaven’s gate. Well, guess what? There were stories about heavenly hereafter at the time of Christ. Perhaps Jesus borrowed one of them, for he told a story about a rich man and a beggar meeting Abraham in the afterlife. Listen once again to the strange parable of Jesus.
Why would we want such an introduction? Because we must get rid of any tendency to read literal references to an afterlife in a parable. The parable proves absolutely nothing about a hereafter; it does not document either heaven or hell. There are Christians in every congregation eager to establish hell, particularly for other “sinners.” No, if Jesus told the story he merely was playing around with a folktale tradition. (Speaking Parables, p. 218)
4. Buttrick then highlights the theme of a barrier. In this life, there is a wall between the rich man and Lazarus, but it isn’t yet a permanent divide. There’s a gate at which sits Lazarus. In the afterlife it becomes a barrier, a “chasm,” that no longer seems to have any gate, any means by which to pass from one side to the other.
5. Many commentators note that Lazarus being at Abraham’s bosom might indicate reclining next to him at a feast. This would fit the mention of the rich man feasting every day in this life; in the afterlife, Lazarus is the one who feasts.
6. I’m interested in whether the verses skipped over in the lectionary, Luke 16:14-18, might shed light on this passage. They are fascinating verses in their own right. Luke 16:14-15 — “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.'” — are also unique to Luke, as are all the surrounding parables. But Luke 16:16-18 are apparently from Q, though Luke seems to assemble them from completely different contexts than Matthew. Here is a chart of the strange parallels:
|Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.”
|Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
|Luke 16:17: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”
|Matthew 5:18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
|Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
|Matthew 5:32: “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
I suppose it is possible that Luke’s combination is the original one, but Matthew’s placement of these verses seem much more in place. In this section of Luke that is almost all material unique to Luke, it would seem that his combination of these verses from Q are also unique. What is he trying to have Jesus say by placing these mysterious verses in between these mysterious parables?
7. I’m especially interested in the parallel of Luke 16:16 and Matthew 11:12 because I believe the latter to be a pivotal verse for Matthew. See Advent 3A. As in Matthew, biazetai, “to force,” is in the middle voice and so can be translated as “to suffer force,” the passive reading. With the Matthew text, I argue for the middle being Walter Wink’s third way of choosing to suffer violence. Could that work here? It would be: “everyone entering it is choosing to suffer violence.”
1. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 90-91, anchoring Story 2, “Violence and Forgiveness,” Lesson 3, “Prodigal Son,” reading this parable as the inverse of the Prodigal Son. He says, for example,
Both the prodigal son and the rich man live sumptuously, but then lose everything. But the prodigal son “comes to his senses” while the rich man does not change his way of thinking. He still treats Lazarus like an inferior wanting him to bring him water with “the tip of his finger,” and then to warn his brothers. He is still thinking of his own status and social group, not of the poor.
. . .the divide between Lazarus and the Rich Man remains the final motif. “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” The essential point is that the rich man is the one who creates the divide, so that those on Abraham’s side of the chasm who “might want to pass” (i.e. act out of compassion) in fact cannot. The text clearly implies that the rich and privileged, those with status, create the divide, not God. Thus the parable is not a picture of medieval hell but of humanly created alienation and its suffering. Again the way to the kingdom is through our relationships with others, forgiveness, and care for the poor. What we do in this world constructs the way we relate to God’s kingdom.
2. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p. 208. He is commenting on the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) and follows it with a reference to hell and this parable:
So, for Jesus, the goal is not amassing capital; the goal is amassing a portfolio of good deeds, good deeds particularly identified with care for the poor. For Jesus, exclusive concern for one’s own self-interest qualifies one as “fool.”
The way of the kingdom of God calls people to a higher concern than self- or national interest: namely, concern for the common good. And for Jesus, achieving the bottom line of profit and financial success without concern for the common good qualifies one uniquely — not for the heaven of the Fortune 500 — but for hell.
With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:19) does not prescribe hell to those who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their “personal Savior.” Rather, hell — literal or figurative — is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day. As Jesus also makes clear in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), they fail to love their neighbors as themselves and fail to follow “what is written in the Law,” and therefore will not inherit eternal life. (Note: Again, in my understanding, eternal life doesn’t simply refer to heaven after death, but rather to life in the kingdom of God that begins in this world. Similarly hell doesn’t mean literal postmortem flames, but rather the experience of having God judge one’s self-centered way of life as wrong, destructive, misguided, and a tragic, missed opportunity.)
3. Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, p. 190. This book is about reorienting Christian practice toward hospitality, rather than an underlying hostility of us-against-them. It examines every aspect in doctrine, liturgy, and mission. In a chapter on music, examples of hymns are offered that express hospitality or hostility, or sometimes both. One example is the old hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” by Cecil Alexander in 1848. It seems to be a quite positive hymn, but that’s because most hymnals long ago dropped one of the verses, an overt reference to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Amazingly, it seems to assume that God has ordered some to be rich and some to be poor. McLaren writes,
The verse descends from distasteful to almost blasphemous as I notice how its language inadvertently parodies Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus.’ For Jesus, the rich man’s apathy about the poor man’s poverty was a damnable offense. But even the damned rich man wasn’t singing about his privilege as something beautiful and ordered by God! If Jesus were present at the singing of such a hymn, I could imagine him pulling the plug on the sound system in protest.
It makes me wonder whether, in Mrs. Alexander’s mind, this now-forgotten verse contained the real point of the song. Were all the cute little birds, tiny fluttering wings, pleasant summer sunbeams, and meadow-play just so much sugary distraction to make a nauseating theopolitical, theo-economic message easier to swallow? (190)
4. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, pp. 111-15. In week 24 of 52 homilies, this passage is listed as a reading for a reflection on “Jesus and Hell.” It isn’t explicitly mentioned in the body of the message but is in the discussion questions. And it implicitly figures in the main point of the homily:
Jesus clearly agreed that there was an afterlife. Death was not the end for Jesus. But one of the most striking facets of his life and ministry was the way he took the Pharisees’ understanding of the afterlife and turned it on its head.
Who was going to hell? Rich and successful people who lived in fancy houses and stepped over their destitute neighbors who slept in the gutters outside their gates. Proud people who judged, insulted, excluded, avoided, and accused others. Fastidious hypocrites who strained out gnats and swallowed camels. The condemnation that the religious elite so freely pronounced on the marginalized, Jesus turned back on them.
And who, according to Jesus, was going to heaven? The very people whom the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded, and condemned. Heaven’s gates opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick, and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone — multitudes and religious elites alike.
Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell as he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who condemns the poor and weak, nor is God the one who favors the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God! (112-13)
5. Matthew Distefano, All Set Free, pp. 104-5; it ‘anchors’ a chapter on “The Purpose of ‘Punishment'”:
As I mentioned earlier, parables are pedagogical — meant for teaching. Although many argue that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is “plainly” teaching eternal torment, I will offer my explanation as to why I believe this is incorrect.
First, this parable is not entirely original to Jesus; rather, it draws its origins from an Egyptian folktale. In the Egyptian version, Si-Osiris journeys to the underworld and discovers the reversal of fates for both a rich and poor man. The tale concludes with: “he who has been good on earth will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.” Sound familiar? In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19–31, a rich man who lives a life of luxury refuses to offer any aid to a poor beggar named Lazarus — who is described as “covered with sores” (16:20). When they die, however, the tables are turned (similar to the parable of the sheep and goats). Lazarus ends up in “Abraham’s bosom”; while the rich man cries out for water due to the agony he is in (16:23–24). Between them lies a “great chasm” that “none may cross over” (16:26). In the immediate context, what lends one to conclude some are lost forever? Is not the heart of the gospel the news that the “great chasm” was bridged when Jesus died for our sins?
There is a message here — a teaching that we must pay attention to. When we think ourselves worthy, or in this case rich and haughty, we will find ourselves “least” in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19) — included, but least. (104)
It is worthwhile to take in the larger context of the argument in this chapter.
6. Rob Bell, Love Wins, pp. 74-79, in the chapter on “Hell.” Bell retells the story with his usual flair and insight. A key insight is that, in asking to have Lazarus bring him water in Hades, the rich man continues to see him as a servant, someone below him. Bell’s main point in the context of this chapter on hell is:
Some people are primarily concerned with systemic evils — corporations, nations, and institutions that enslave people, exploit the earth, and disregard the welfare of the weak and disempowered. Others are primarily concerned with individual sins, and so they focus on personal morality, individual patterns, habits, and addictions that prevent human flourishing and cause profound suffering. …
What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.
7. Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, p. 175. In the Epilogue of a powerful book Bell recaps the movement in Scripture — and human history — of Egypt (rescue from bondage), Sinai (new identity and purpose), Jerusalem (entitlement), Babylon (exile). God hears our cries in Egypt and rescues us. But in Jerusalem will we hear the cries of those still in bondage? Bell writes,
…it’s hard to hear the cry when you’re isolated from it. In Proverbs it’s written that the rich man’s wealth is his “fortified city.” People fortify cities with walls meant to keep people out. But the problem with walls is that they also keep people in. Jesus told a parable about a rich man and a man named Lazarus, who was poor and sat outside the rich man’s gate each day. The rich man’s gate kept Lazarus out, but it also kept the rich man in.
8. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 145. The citation of this passage in a footnote is part of a crucial section where Alison is describing how Jesus understands the dilemma of human fallenness into skandalon — that Jesus, in other words, shows awareness of how Mimetic Theory elaborates mimetic rivalry and conflict through his use around the word skandalon. He writes,
It is quite clear from Jesus teaching that he considers humans to be locked into a certain sort of reciprocity, which it would be wholly consistent to identify with the skandalon, and that he teaches the way out of that sort of reciprocity into a wholly new sort of reciprocity. This new sort of reciprocity is made concrete in forgiveness and other acts of not being trapped by the skandalon, and in this way is able to begin to imitate the perfect gratuity of the heavenly Father, in whom there is no skandalon.
This becomes particularly clear in Matthew 7. There we have the commandment not to judge, and the explanation that the reason is that all our judgement is scandalous, because we have already tripped over the log in our own eye. This is a rigorous revelation of the way we are tied into each other by the skandalon, and the way we must detach ourselves from it (one so important that it is taken up by Paul in Rom 2:1). Our knowledge of each other is projective, and in its mode, already distorted. Only in the degree to which we allow our own distortion to be corrected will we be able to know the other with limpidity. In case it is not clear already that this reciprocal involvement in turning each other into stumbling blocks, which is at the heart of Jesus’ moral teaching, has, at its roots, an understanding of desire, a few verses later Jesus’ further teaching on prayer makes exactly this point. In Matt 7:7-11 prayer is shown to be a learning to desire without stumbling blocks in imitation of the Father who is without stumbling blocks. We must not let our desire remain at the stage whereby we think that we will not get what we want, but must learn to believe in one who gives gratuitously what we really want. Prayer is a constant re-education of desire out of a mode of stumbling blocks and into a mode of desiring and receiving gratuitously. And this is then directly referred back to our human relationality (7:12): we must treat others in the same way, learning how to substitute a gratuitous reciprocity for a reciprocity formed by the skandalon.
Jesus is under no illusions but that this understanding of desire is in fact an extremely difficult thing to grasp, and those who find it are few, and they find it with difficulty. Yet it constitutes the narrow way that is the way to life, while the wide way, in which we mostly live, is the way to destruction. Life within the skandalon is the way of mutually assured death (7:13-14). All this demonstrates that there is a specific content to the notion of skandalon, and one which goes back to Jesus himself. It might be defined by saying that all humans are locked into a reciprocity, what Girard refers to as an interdividual psychology, which is rooted in a desire which is fatally headed towards death, our own, and that of those we victimize. It is exactly at this level of our constitution in death-related desire that Jesus’ ethical teaching seeks to set us free by teaching a new, but no less reciprocal, form of desire, which will enable us to fulfil the Law and the Prophets from the heart. (144-45)
There is a footnote at this point which suggests that Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is consistent with what he has said about Matthew’s portrait. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is cited as an example of someone, the rich man, who is trapped in skandalon that leads to death. He has the same opportunity as anyone living to listen to the prophets and have God’s non-scandalous way to live written upon his heart. But he has not listened — and neither will his brothers, even if someone should rise from the dead to tell them, which Jesus is about to do.
9. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, p. 18. There is a passing reference to Lazarus as representing the poor.
10. Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Grace, ch. 15, “Death and Faith,” pp. 310-317 in the combined version of his parables trilogy, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. Here is a radical depiction of grace typical of Capon:
Death-resurrection stands forth as clearly in this parable as it does in any of the others. And the successful life is just as roundly condemned. Lazarus starts out as a loser, plays out his allotted hand, and then, in one stunning throw, wins the game with the last trump of an accepted death. Dives starts out as a winner, but because he never accepts death (witness his incessant handling with Abraham, his cooking up of one life-saving deal after another), he loses, hands down….
And the ending of the parable of Dives and Lazarus makes this point once and for all: “If they will not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” For those convinced that living is the instrument of salvation, death is such an unacceptable device that they will not be convinced, even by resurrection. From the point of view of those who object to the left-handedness of the Gospel, you see, Jesus’ mistake was not his rising in an insufficiently clear way and then sailing off into the clouds. That, if anything, was only a tactical error. His great, strategic miscalculation was dying in the first place: after such a grievous capitulation to lastness and loss, no self-respecting winner could even think of doing business with him.
It is not, of course, that we are to run out and actively seek a miserable life like Lazarus’s. Contrary to the misreading of the spiritual advice of earlier centuries (for example, the go-hunt-for-trouble interpretation of Donne’s “Be covetous of crosses, let none fall”), we are not to go searching for loathesome diseases and rotten breaks. Life in this vale of tears will provide an ungenteel sufficiency of such things (witness Keble’s, “The trivial round, the common task/Will furnish all we ought to ask”). The truth, rather, is that the crosses that will inexorably come — and the death that will inevitably result from them — are, if accepted, all we need. For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.
And so Lazarus is the Christ-figure in this parable. Like Jesus, he lives out of death. For those willing to trust the left-handed working of God already disclosed in the law and the prophets (it is the passion of Israel, not its success, that is the leitmotiv of Scripture), the mere assertion of Lazarus’s triumph, like the mere proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, is all the evidence they are going to get. For those who are unwilling to make a decision to trust such a proposition, however, nothing will be enough to persuade them. But then, that was obvious all along: because like Dives, they will always be in the untenable position of insisting on something in a universe where it is precisely out of nothing (at the end as well as at the beginning) that God brings all things into life and being.
The sense I get from Capon’s view is similar to someone like Richard Rohr‘s idea of the death of the false self needing to happen in order for the true self to be fully born (see, for example, Rohr’s book Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self). In any case, it is a different view than the one expressed elsewhere on this page of the rich man’s behavior leading unwittingly to death.
11. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, pp. 198-202. Wright gives his usual clear and insightful reading of this parable:
It is very like a well-known folk tale in the ancient world; Jesus was by no means the first to tell of how wealth and poverty might be reversed in the future life. In fact, stories like this were so well known that we can see how Jesus has changed the pattern that people would expect. In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn’t; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions that Jesus’ hearers, and Luke’s readers, were urged to face.
The parable is not primarily a moral tale about riches and poverty – though, in this chapter, it should be heard in that way as well. If that’s all it was, some might say that it was better to let the poor stay poor, since they will have a good time in the future life. That sort of argument has been used too often by the careless rich for us to want anything to do with it. No; there is something more going on here. The story, after all, doesn’t add anything new to the general folk belief about fortunes being reversed in a future life. If it’s a parable, that means once again that we should take it as picture-language about something that was going on in Jesus’ own work.
The ending gives us a clue, picking up where, a chapter earlier, the story of the father and his two sons had ended. ‘Neither will they be convinced, even if someone were to rise from the dead’; ‘this your brother was dead, and is alive again.’ The older brother in the earlier story is very like the rich man in this: both want to keep the poor, ragged brother or neighbour out of sight and out of mind. Jesus, we recall, has been criticized for welcoming outcasts and sinners; now it appears that what he’s doing is putting into practice in the present world what, it was widely believed, would happen in the future one. ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ remains his watchword. The age to come must be anticipated in the present.
The point is then that the Pharisees, being themselves lovers of money, were behaving to the people Jesus was welcoming exactly like the rich man was behaving to Lazarus. And, just as the steward was to be put out of his stewardship, and was commended for taking action in the nick of time to prevent total disaster, so the Pharisees, and anyone else tempted to take a similar line, are now urged to change their ways while there is still time. All Jesus is asking them, in fact, is to do what Moses and the prophets would have said. As Luke makes clear throughout, his kingdom-mission is the fulfilment of the whole story of Israel. Anyone who understands the law and the prophets must therefore see that Jesus is bringing them to completion. (200-01)
12. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 30, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
13. Russell Rathbun, The Hardest Question; a blog no longer available on the Internet, but here is my scanned copy of Rathbun’s essay on this Gospel Reading in 2010, “Something There Is . . .”
14. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Abraham’s Bosom“; a sermon in 2019, “Jesus, the Dishonest Manager“; Russ Hewitt, a blog in 2016, “Charles Dickens, Lazarus, and the Rich Man.”
Reflections and Questions
1. If this is borrowed from a folktale, and taking into account that Jesus mentions only Abraham and not God, can we make the Good News that Jesus is the only one who can bridge such a chasm through the forgiveness of the cross? Sin does create a chasm between us and God which no person can cross. Only God can bridge it by sending the Son into the world.
2. If we were to use a modern tale that fits, I would suggest Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol. It helps to bring out the fictional aspect of the parable. Because Dicken’s told this moving tale, we don’t now believe in ghosts, not that they forge chains in life by neglect of the poor. Because Jesus tells this parable, though, many people somehow come to believe that he is giving us a true picture of the afterlife. No, just as for Dickens, Jesus tells us a story of the future afterlife not to give us a true picture of that life but rather to move us to different choices in the present life. For any wealthy folks that heard Jesus tell the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, they might ask as Scrooge does of the third specter,
“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”
Scrooge is moved to change, as a model for the wealthy among Dicken’s audience. I believe that Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is meant to have a similar effect. It’s not a tale told to reveal secrets about the afterlife. It shows us that, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” (See also a video clip of this scene.)
Christians also have a habit of misunderstanding Jewish prophecy as being able to foretell certain fates. In her marvelous book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing uses A Christmas Carol as an example of Jewish prophecy’s goal of repentance, not locking people into certain fates. God sends prophets to compell us to choose differing paths from the ones we’re on. Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 is good Jewish prophecy. The picture of an unbreachable chasm between the rich and the poor in the afterlife is meant to call us to breaking down those walls in this life.
In 2016 I offered a sermon sounding the theme of these first two reflections, “Crossing the Chasm.”
3. Jesus’ grace goes beyond prophecy, of course, to the Messiah’s deliverance of humanity from the powers of sin and death. His death and resurrection are God’s healing power of reconciliation. Paul writes in Ephesians 2 of the breach between Jew and Gentile that is healed in Christ:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
Doesn’t that apply just as surely for all the ways in which humanity divides itself, such as rich and poor? In this time of growing tribalism, Ephesians 2 proclaims a Gospel of grace whose fruit is the healing of tribalism.
The gulf between rich and poor remains one of the chief and growing manifestations of tribalism. Two economists who are writing extensively on the widening inequality are Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) and Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them). If followers of Jesus are called to preach and work for the grace of healing tribalism, then we are compelled to learn the economics and politics of inequality and how to work for economic justice. A great model for doing so is William J. Barber II and his revival of ML King‘s Poor People Campaign (see also his book Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing).
4. We have been reading the parables in Luke 15-16 together, seeing their ties. N.T. Wright (above) suggests a parallel between the elder brother in the Prodigal Son and the rich man in this parable. Is the fate of the rich man here the picture of the eventual consequences for the elder brother if he refuses to go to the party? At the end of Luke 15 we are left hanging as to what the elder brother chooses. Perhaps here we see portrayed the choice of ignoring his brother — unwittingly choosing the way of death.
5. To borrow Walter Clark’s translation (from his “signature” on a COV&R listserve post): “You cannot serve Compassion and the bottom-line.” I assume this is a paraphrase of last week’s concluding words from Jesus (Luke 16:13). In 1998 the title of my sermon was “The Reign of Compassion.” I interpreted being faithful to God as being faithful to the reign of compassion, or mercy.
I see the parables in this section of Luke as illustrating faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the reign of compassion, with the reign of wealth, the “bottom-line,” being a stumbling block to compassion.
And I interpret 16:10 (“Whoever is faithful a very little…”) in this way: when the Prodigal Son was down-and-out, one of life’s losers in the bottom-line, he sought to rely on mercy from his father. He thought he could persuade his father to at least treat him like a hired hand. This very little faithfulness to the reign of mercy was greeted by a whole shower of mercy from his father, who preempted his plans by graciously welcoming him back as son. The Dishonest Manager also was trusting a very little to the reign of compassion. He thought he could ‘buy’ it by using his master’s resources to show mercy to clients, in the hopes that they would show mercy to him. This little bit of mercy also warranted him far greater mercy than he had bargained for: when his master found out about his show of mercy on others — a mercy that would have rubbed off on him, restoring the honor that the steward had previously degraded — the steward was commended and perhaps not fired after all.
Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus an example of this principal on the scale of “eternal homes” (16:9)? The Rich Man wasn’t even a very little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he is dishonest, serving the bottom-line. Lazarus, by contrast, is forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion in his life. One is tempted to say that what happens in death is a role reversal. But another way to see it is that their ways of life come to eternal consequences. In death, Lazarus, who was forced to live by mercy, is showered with a mercy beyond his imagining; he experiences “true riches” (16:11). And the Rich Man’s life without mercy has in death fixed a chasm between himself and the ultimate divine mercy. He has not even been faithful to the reign of mercy a very little, so he will never know the ultimate reign of mercy. His life lived without mercy will continue eternally without mercy.
5. All three lessons speak of the dangers of wealth. Is wealth dangerous in itself? One walks a fine line, I think, in saying anything positive about it. Let’s see if we can walk it.
A life lived in grace, which is what I think the Christian life seeks to be, is one that relies on all the blessings of creation as from God. Sin intervenes, however, and distorts the gifts of creation into our sacrificial economies in which some people are deemed by (false) gods to warrant the rewards of more blessings than others. When one is wealthy the temptation to fall into this distortion is even greater. The wealthy person needs to have a god who has rewarded him or her with extra blessings relative to others. They need to see their wealth as somehow deserved from God; they do not want to see that their wealth has only been deserved according to the rules of the human sacrificial games.
The only way that I can see wealth viewed positively is when it is viewed as something to share with others. And the only way in which to ward off the distortion of sin is to begin always as a forgiven sinner, as one who has participated in the sacrificial economies of human societies and received the ill-gotten gains of wealth as a by-product of sacrifice. Such a revelation, both of the sin and of God’s grace, brings with it the insight that the blessings of creation should be shared equally among all of God’s creatures. No creature is to be sacrificed. So while the reign of wealth still has its way with many people, faithful sharing of wealth can only be a little faithful to the reign of compassion (last week’s theme). For wealth itself would not exist as a status relative to poverty except for the continuing distortion of sin. When the reign of compassion in Jesus Christ is one day all-in-all, wealth as a relative status will disappear. It owes its existence to a sacrificial logic.
6. Luke 16:31: “Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” Why not even if someone rises from the dead? Jesus would rise from the dead, of course. But first he also did something else, that distinguishes his resurrection. He let himself be crucified as the sacrificial Lamb of God to reveal the futility of our sacrificial logic which divides the world into righteous and unrighteous, wealthy and poor, unblemished and blemished, healthy and sick, etc. As St. Paul puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Or: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Resurrection is what creates faith for disciples of Jesus Christ, but it is only as the resurrected Crucified One. In willingly letting himself be made unrighteous and poor, Jesus exposes our age-old games of dividing the world into friends and enemies of the gods. The true God, the Father of Jesus Christ, plays no such games. In Christ Jesus all people of this earth are potentially adopted children of God. And it’s only “potentially” because God does not force the divine love on us. We may still choose to live according to the chasms of our idols, as does the rich man in this parable. It is only in Christ’s breaking down of these chasms on the cross that we may rise with him to a new way of living, without such barriers between us. Ever since Abraham and Sarah were chosen to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, this has been the direction to which God’s message has been calling us, through “Moses and the prophets,” and finding fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
For many Jewish brothers and sisters of the apostles, the dominant view of resurrection had been shaped by the martyrdom of the Maccabees, and thus tainted with the same idolatrous thinking of dividing the world between righteous and unrighteous. For many Jews of Jesus’ time, even his rising from the dead did not therefore convince them that such chasms could or should be taken down. The same is true of many “Christians” today, is it not? How easy it is for us to continue to divide the world into the deserving and the undeserving! Doesn’t our economics still depend on it? Doesn’t the chief god of global capitalism continue to divide the world between productive and unproductive, wealthy and poor? Will we one day find that the chasm we have fixed between wealthy and poor, deserving and undeserving, continues in the life to come? Or is the glimpse of the future life in this parable a gracious prophetic vision meant to bring our repentance — as, for example, the specter of the Ghost of Christmas Future is for Ebenezor Scrooge?
7. Some might argue that capitalism has many advantages over other human economies of the sacrificial logic. It is true that the boundary between wealthy and poor, deserving and undeserving, appears more fluid than for most previous economies. We might see the influence of the Gospel, in close proximity with Western culture for many centuries, as having had an effect on those boundaries. There are many more stories of people crossing those boundaries — the poor becoming wealthy, and vice versa — within capitalism. Proponents of capitalism like to promote the idea that, potentially, all people have a fair opportunity to become wealthy.
But is this truly the case if our assumptions continue to be based on the idolatry of gods who choose between deserving and undeserving? What effect does the opposite assumption — namely, that the true God in Jesus Christ makes no such distinctions but blesses all children with life purely on grace — have on capitalist thinking? Are followers of Jesus Christ called to live eschatologically according to such an economy based on grace in the midst of economies still based on sacrificial logic? What would that look like within global capitalism?