A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost ( September 25, 2016): Luke 16:19-31

Luke 16:19-31

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, 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.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He 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.'”

A question or two:

  • Why does the rich man wind up in Hades?  Hades is part of pagan mythology.
  • Why does the rich man know Lazarus’s name?
  • Since he knows his name, why does he not ask Lazarus to come and help him?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are some things to notice about this parable.

First of all, notice that the rich man in question is dressed in purple.

This is not a fashion choice.  The color not only identifies him as rich and powerful.  It marks him as linked to Roman royal power.  In this parable, Jesus (like the prophet Amos), does not pull punches.  The parable has no intention of making sure that no rich feathers are ruffled, or that no Roman feels “reverse-discriminated” against.  Deal with it.

Next, notice that the rich man knows Lazarus’s name, though it seems that he never fed him with the scraps from his table.  

It sounds like the rich man demonstrated his “solidarity with the poor of the city” by making sure that people heard him call the man lying in the street by his given name.  “Poor people are just people like you and me,” he would say to his colleagues and business acquaintances as they winced at the smell of Lazarus and his oozing sores.  He probably had made quite a name for himself  as a man who was thoroughly “decolonized.”  Never did give him food, though.  Oh well.  You can’t do everything.  It was quite sufficient that he had a pet poor man to call out to.  He probably had even trained Lazarus to call him by his first name, rather than calling him “Boss” or “Master.”

That was quite helpful.

It is worth noting that the tormenting of the rich man is odd.

This motif is not typical of texts from the period, but became common much later. Such themes are not unheard of in the 1st century, but their use is reserved for those that REALLY need punishing, or correcting, for the world to be brought into balance.

Again, no punches are pulled.  The rich man with his Roman connections is revealed for what he is.  

Notice the way Jesus tells the story of the rich man’s death.  

Lazarus gets angels who escort him to Abraham’s lap.  The rich man also died and was buried. That is all.  Note the frankness. No lap of Abraham for him.

Note also that though rich man and family are expected to listen to Moses and the prophets, there is no question of them being Abraham’s children.

 If they were, they would be gathered to father Abraham.  They are not, and will not be.

And note that Hades is a pagan notion.  

The word comes out of pagan mythology, not Jewish story.  This is fancy storytelling.  The argument appears to be that if you want to live like a pagan, you can just as well die like one, too.  Good luck with that.

A note in passing: almost all translations have Lazarus being comforted after his death.  

The word παρακαλεῖται, however, understands “comfort” as being a kind of encouragement.  Παρακαλεῖται means “he is being called upon” and is not a word for sleepy snuggling in the lap of Abraham.  The image is of exhausted runners being “called on” (or encouraged, a better translation) to keep going.  Lazarus does not need to run anymore, so if we try to translate παρακαλεῖται as “comfort,” the image fails.  

The word, however, is also used to refer to the way witnesses are “called upon” to testify in court.  So should we translate this word as “comfort” or shall we imagine that Lazarus is called to testify as to the character of the rich man? The answer seems clear enough, at least to me.  At the least, this second meaning shapes the way we should hear the word, no matter how we translate it.

And if Lazarus is “called upon” to testify, that explains one reason why the rich man (who has no name in the parable) is in agony.

Finally, note that this parable assumes that the real world is really a Jewish world, no matter what the rich man thinks.  

This argues against the casual Realeconomik (to coin a knock-off version of Realpolitik) of the bash and crash world of The Deal.  Pagan programs for winning at life ultimately fail, according to this parable.  The rich man wins all his life long by following the best pagan advice he could find.  

The reward? 

He wins the pagan booby prize for collaborating with the enemy: Hades and agony.

Again, this is no mild little story that behaves itself.  Luke has Jesus tell stories of gracious kindness in other chapters.  In this little parable, playing to win like a pagan has harsh consequences.  Deal with it.

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