The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke

fyodorBy Ched Myers, on Luke 16:19-31 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

Note: This post is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during Year C, 2016. As was the case last week, this is a longer post, because of the importance of Luke 16 to those of us suffering from “Affluenza.” For a recording of a recent webinar Ched did on this gospel text, go here. [Right: Fyodor Bronnikov, “Lazarus at the rich man’s gate,” 1886.]

This Sunday’s gospel completes our journey through Luke 16. How rare it is that the lectionary allows a sustained look at Luke’s narrative argument! Last week’s text was Jesus’ subversive tale of the “defect-ive” discipleship of the beleaguered middle manager of a “filthy rotten system” (16:1-13). I read it as a poignant fable for those who would try to monkey-wrench the dominant economic system to provide a modicum of Jubilee justice for themselves and others.  The “paired” story of Lazarus and the Rich Man represents, in turn, a warning tale about the dark consequences of failing to deconstruct the systems of vast social and economic disparity that hold our world hostage.

We should note at the outset that for the second week in a row, the lectionary includes readings from Amos (last week, 8:4-7; this week, 6:1, 4-7). These are two of the sharpest, most unequivocal denunciations of the rich as an exploitive-yet- leisure class to be found in the prophetic corpus—and exceedingly appropriate to read alongside Luke 16.

It is also important to recognize that neither of Luke’s stories in this chapter are explicitly named as parables (I used that term improperly last week). Luke stipulates some twelve parables throughout his gospel, but these are not identified as such. Perhaps it is better to read this sequence of “Two Rich Men and a Beggar” (like its “twin” sequence in 18:18-19:9) as real world warning tales—object lessons about the cruel world of inequality. These stories are all deeply interconnected, and together represent the heart of Luke’s theology of economic justice. Thus Luke’s pedagogy here, aimed as it is primarily at the wealthy, is crucial to those of us doing popular education concerning economic equity in our First world churches (for which, as always, we commend our Sabbath Economics resources)!

Luke’s refreshing “clarity about disparity” as a defining ethical problem is articulated succinctly in the punchline to last week’s gospel, in which Jesus asserts the absolute incompatibility between the social ethos of God and “Mammon” (16:13). Or as the late great Clarence Jordan put it (cue the Southern drawl): “It doesn’t say you shouldn’t serve God and Mammon; it says you cain’t!” And to underline this point, Jesus—after calling out “lovers of money” who forever “ridicule” such pronouncements while working hard to “justify” their social privilege (16:14-15)— turns to yet another story about “a rich man who…” And this episode could not speak more plainly about the ravages of Mammon on both haves and have-nots.

A bit of sobering context for both text and us contemporary North American readers. Five years ago this blog reported:

Between 1997 and 2007, inequality in the U.S. grew by almost 10 percent, making it more unequal than Russia, infamous for its powerful oligarchs. The U.S. is not faring well historically, either. Even the Roman Empire, a society built on conquest and slave labor, had a more equitable income distribution. To determine the size of the Roman economy and the distribution of income, historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Friesen pored over papyri ledgers, previous scholarly estimates, imperial edicts, and Biblical passages. Their target was the state of the economy when the empire was at its population zenith, around 150 C.E. Schiedel and Friesen estimate that the top 1 percent of Roman society controlled 16 percent of the wealth, less than half of what America’s top 1 percent control.

Indeed, a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office about income inequality over the last three decades shows that while total family wealth has more than doubled to $67 trillion in the U.S., “most average families haven’t seen a nickel of that gain”:

In fact, the typical American family… actually lost wealth between 1989 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation. Families in the upper reaches of the American economy, by contrast, have done just swell. Families in the top 10 percent, the CBO calculates, have seen their net worth increase an average 153 %. Families in the top 1 percent have done the best of all. Their overall share of the nation’s wealth has jumped from 31 percent in 1989 to 37 % in 2013…. Some put the current top 1 percent share of the nation’s wealth as high as 42 %...

Even the CBO admits that U.S. income inequality is vast, and growing. (To follow this thread I recommend you consult the stats, analysis and narratives posted regularly by our friends at And it long ago outstripped the disparity of ancient Rome. So ironically (and tragically), the polarization between rich and poor—and all the social ills and conflicts associated with it—is the context for both the ancient gospel and contemporary North American readers of it. Except in our case, more so.

cartoonRemember that the story of Lazarus is a warning tale, not a parable. In fact, I would call it more of a political cartoon (after all, as Pablo Picasso famously put it: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth”). The contemporary cartoon at right (which I often use in workshops) brilliantly employs archetypal symbols of wealth and poverty in the context of a political narrative (the mid-1990s Federal bail-out of banks while regular folk lost their homes, a scandal repeated 15 years later).

Luke’s version of the caricature opens with a similar portrait of decadent wealth (16:19). Tradition has called the first character Dives (Latin for “rich”), though in fact Luke’s story leaves him nameless (perhaps as a generic cipher for his class?). He “always clothed himself” (imperfect middle) with “purple and fine linen.” Both were luxury imports, equivalent to today’s high end Italian power suits—which is perhaps why they (Gk porphuran kai busson) are again named together in Revelation 18:12 as part of the doomed cargo mourned by the profiteering merchants of burning Babylon.

This rich man is, moreover, “feasting sumptuously every day.” This would have been a slap in the face to the original peasant hearers of this tale, for whom feasting only took place occasionally and always in shared community festivals. This vignette is surely meant to remind us of the “solipsism of Affluenza” portrayed earlier by Luke in Jesus’ parable about a wealthy landowner, whose singular concern was with how to store and consume privately the divine gift of agricultural surplus (Lk 12:14ff; see my comments on that text here). After all, that cautionary story similarly cut short such presumptive “feasting” (12:19 is only other use of euphraino in Luke) with sudden death-as-judgment!

The contrasting character in Luke’s political cartoon has nothing except a name (Lazarus is derived from the Hebrew Eleazar, “God is my help”). The difference (anonymous vs. named) may mean to symbolize the kind of power redistribution that this story will narrate. Lazarus’ positioning “at the gate” is, moreover, oppositional, a spatial contrast as well as social one. His description is equally archetypal of those at the bottom of the social pyramid: invisible except to street dogs, wounded and suffering, hungry and desperate (16:20-21). Interestingly, the Roman writer Juvenal (roughly contemporary with Luke) alludes to the “welfare” system in antiquity of patronage by the rich when he writes in Satires (1.128): “By attending the door of the rich, a poor client might get a sportula—either a basket of food or some money to buy food for the day.” But Lazarus isn’t a doorman; he is “roadkill” in a punishing system, unable even to access crumbs from the rich man’s table.

Having established a setting of radical social disparity, Luke’s plot commences simply: both characters die. This fate is stated matter-of-factly, as are their respective “destinations,” reiterated twice (16:22f). The initial spatial opposition is now intensified cosmically: “Abraham’s “bosom” (Gk kolpon, a symbol of intimacy, cf Jn 1:18) vs. Hades (in classical antiquity, the underworld, place of the dead).

I think it most helpful to interpret this “split screen” vision thru lens of apocalyptic discourse, the literature of popular resistance to ancient Mediterranean empires. The Greek word apocalypsis means unmasking or unveiling, and has to do with a kind of insight that is able to “see through” the dominant stories of empire: its self-aggrandizing fictions of entitlement and sovereignty, its militaristic triumphalism, seductive delusions and severe orthodoxies of law and order. Apocalyptic decodes what Morpheus, in The Matrix, calls “the world that has been pulled over our eyes.”

Apocalyptic endeavors to pierce through that veil in order to see reality from the standpoint of redemption, and does so in two ways:

  1. By stripping away layers of denial and propaganda that keep us distracted, to expose realities of suffering and injustice—seeing the world as it really is from the perspective of the poor and victims of violence; and
  2. By transfusing our dulled and dumbed-down imaginations with visions of the world as it really could and should be from the perspective of divine love and justice.

I call this “apocalyptic double vision”: to see the world enslaved, and to envision it liberated. Therefore, I believe that what appears in Luke’s story to be a “reversal of fortunes” (which would merely connote the crudest form of divine retribution-in-kind) is actually the cartoon trying to jolt us into apocalyptic “eyes that see.” Alas, there is nothing funny about this “Trading Places” story; it is a severe warning that we will all ultimately become victims of the social barriers we erect if we don’t deconstruct them in this life.

The rich man screams across the gulf at “Father Abraham.” Here an important theme in Luke’s gospel receives its most elaborate treatment (Abraham is invoked eight other times in Luke apart from this story, more than any other gospel). The narrative thus far has problematized who really belongs to the Abrahamic family. Early on John the Baptist warned: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8 see my comments on that text here). Later, a poor woman crippled by debt is healed and welcomed back into the family by Jesus, against the objections of the synagogue authorities (13:16; see my comments here). And in 13:28, Jesus warns that many of those who presume entitlement will not sit at table with Abraham and the prophets for the eschatological banquet. Yet at the end of Luke’s ministry narrative, as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the final showdown, a rich man is finally embraced as a “son of Abraham” (19:9)—but only after he redistributes his wealth (a text we’ll look at next month).

Luke now hits notes of high sarcasm in his critique of the entitlement of the ruling class. “Dives,” despite his demotion, persists in class presumption as he tries to enlist Abraham’s help in dispatching Lazarus on a servant-errand—not once, but twice (16:24,27)! The Great Ancestor’s response is curt, addressing him repeatedly as a “child,” and directing his attention back to the unjust world over which he once ruled. In verse 25, “good” and “evil” are defined in clearly material terms; the shoe now on the other foot, it is the formerly rich man who is experiencing the pain of deprivation, while Lazarus is “comforted” (Gk parakaleō, which can also mean consoled or encouraged; see note below on “Purgatory”).

Abraham goes on to affirm that the “great chasm” (Gk chasma mega, only here in the N.T.) between the “haves” and “have nots” is indeed impassable. It is almost as if the wise elder is holding up a cosmic mirror to the insolent child: insofar as Dives abided by the social architecture of extreme structural disparity in his world, he must also live by it in next, learning about its truth from its other side. There is restorative justice logic here. If inequality is criminal, then perpetrators (or accomplices) can only comprehend the violation by experiencing what it felt like from a victim’s perspective.

[Parenthetically, Elaine and I wonder whether the traditional Catholic notion of “Purgatory” needs reconsideration as an alternative to the retributive notion of “eternal fires of hell.” A liminal, temporary state of afterlife could be understood as a period in which those complicit with oppression (which to different degrees includes all of us) must face the testimonies of those who were harmed—a kind of restorative justice process for making things right and healing both victims and offenders. If this has any credence, it might help make sense of the “flames” image in 16:24! We are told that Dives is in “agony”—but the Greek odunaō (only used by Luke in the N.T.) is more associated with anxiety (Lk 2:48) or sorrow (Acts 20:38) than retribution, suggesting the pain of remorse. Indeed, Elaine has worked with offenders in the criminal justice system who told her that facing their victims was “like a fire…the hardest thing they’ve ever done…”]

But sometimes perpetrators refuse to be moved, and Dives seems to be such a “hard case.” Undeterred and unrepentant, he now intensifies his demands to “Father Abraham” (16:27f). Here is another portrait of patriarchal entitlement: he presumes that just as his wealth will be passed on through the patrilineal family line (the very issue that provoked Jesus’ parable of the rich farmer in 12:13-15), so do his brothers deserve “fair warning.”  But his idea to dispatch Lazarus to “bear solemn witness” to his kin (16:28; Gk diamarturomai) is poignantly ironic. Lazarus would only be able to attest to the pain of his marginalization in the world of disparity—which Luke is, by implication, paralleling to Dives’ “place of torment.” (This is another indicator that “Hades” here symbolizes a “restorative justice mirror” for the purpose of repentance rather than a place of irreversible divine retribution.)

Now comes the punch line to this cautionary tale. Abraham suddenly invokes the testimony of scripture—specifically Moses (think Sabbath Economics) and the prophets (e.g. Sunday’s Amos reading). These more than suffice to warn us of the dire implications of structural inequality. But Dives now moves from special pleading to full blown argument: “No! But if only…” (16:30a). What a dramatic illustration of our defiance of the biblical witness—a moment that is surely reproduced every week in our churches (and may be happening silently even as you preach this text)! We, the children of privilege and piety, could care less about the clear prophetic ethos of justice—despite our professions of the “Bible’s authority.” Instead we want a miracle, a special circumstance, a divine intervention on our behalf. We will only change our behavior (“repent,” 16:30b; see 11:32; 13:3) “if someone should come to us from the dead.” Again, irony: it is Dives who is in the place of the dead, not Lazarus.

There is so much just in these exchanges between the rich man (self-referential and defiant to the bitter end) and the Ancestor (equally stubborn in defending Lazarus and insisting on biblical literacy). It is enough to undermine every theology of privileged entitlement and exoneration from the responsibility to deconstruct social disparity in our world! But it is Abraham’s closing argument that really stuns us: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).

To “convince or persuade” (Gk peithō) is a key verb in Luke’s narrative of the Apostle Paul’s evangelization in Acts (used more than a dozen times), especially his arguments from “Moses and the prophets” (Acts 28:23)! But the allusion to “rising from the dead” here is no longer to Hades; rather it is to the Resurrection of Jesus (Gk anastē). This, of course, is how the gospel narrative ends (or rather, continues). Yet here, almost dead middle in the arc of his overall story, Luke insists that the scriptural vision of justice trumps Resurrection. Christians are not exonerated from the work of deconstructing disparity by Jesus’ Resurrection; only empowered for it. The Great Miracle does not overturn the prophetic imperative.

This astonishing assertion (especially for those who regard the Resurrection as a dogmatic litmus test of faith and/or as a “get out of jail free” card) anticipates how Luke will conclude his gospel. In fact, his Resurrection account is uniquely filtered through the famous Road to Emmaus narrative (24:13-49), in which an unrecognized Jesus exhorts disillusioned disciples to study “Moses and the prophets” (24:27, 44; see my comments here). Luke’s Resurrection Christology does not rescue us from history, but points us back to the discipline of biblical literacy in prophetic faith.

This is why I contend that the story of Lazarus and Dives represents the “hermeneutic key” to Luke’s gospel. On one hand, it holds up a cold mirror to our social realities, challenging us to either “live against” or “die with” the inhumane disparities that divide our social landscape. Then it invites us—like the epilogue of Emmaus—to reread the Bible, reread our history, and reread our own social maps, and then dedicate our discipleship to justice and equity. This, for Luke, is the key to “salvation” (see e.g. 19:9). And Christians who would rather daydream about the “hereafter” will be in for a rude awakening about how the “here” persists in that “after.”

Our society is more than twice as disparate as was the one to which Luke originally addressed his gospel.   The obvious questions provoked by this tale are: Where, who and how are Dives and Lazarus today? Why do we aspire to the Affluenza of the former and scapegoat (or ignore) the misery of the latter? And how long will we live peaceably with the chasma mega, the great divide?

This deeply archetypal tale haunts Christian history, appearing ubiquitously in the art of Christendom over 1500 years. It truly afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted;, as Phyllis Trible would say, a “text of terror.” And it’s coming at us Sunday. Let’s not miss the opportunity to talk about inconvenient truths—and let the gospel do the heavy lifting.

9 thoughts on “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Warning Tale and Interpretive Key to Luke

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