Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part One)

16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022

Prior to this text, the Lukan readers are encouraged to use their positions (even if enslaved managers) to love their neighbors and subvert unjust systems. That’s the upshot of the Parable of the Unjust Steward. That’s made clear in Jesus’ commentary that follows. And the Pharisees and scribes, who have subscribed to the existing system of power and privilege, are not on the side of God’s justice in that choice. Instead, they have allied themselves with those who break God’s law for personal preference and gain (thus the side comment about divorce in 16:18).

Levine and Witherington draw our attention to connections between this parable and the previous two – the Lost Sons and the Unjust Steward. While they don’t suggest this, their analysis can lead us to apply a Rule of Three approach to these three stories. In all three parables, money is an issue. More than that, “the rich man in our parable is in the same structural position as the father in the first parable and the master in the second” (page 451).

If that structural parallel matters, and if we look through the Rule of Three lens, then the third story has a twist in contrast to the first two. As Levine and Witherington note, the father is generous and thus receives back at least one lost son. The master is duped into being generous and likely benefits from the enhancement of his honor. “In the third parable, the rich man refuses to give up his funds,” they write, “whether through compassion or coercion. Keeping his money,” they suggest, “he is damned” (page 452).

Given our journey through this section of the Lukan account, I think that’s an interesting connection we might draw in our messages. I don’t know that it stands up to any strict literary or structural scrutiny. And I want to be clear that I am suggesting the Rule of Three connection, not Levine and Witherington. Nonetheless, this connection helps us to feel the arc of the Lukan account and see a consistent emphasis in this section of the overall story.

In Luke 16:24, the rich man refers to Abraham as “father.” In verse twenty-five, Abraham reciprocates by referring to the rich man as “child” (Greek = teknon). As Levine and Witherington note, this is the term the father uses to address the older son in the Parable of the Lost Sons. Is this also a parable of two “sons,” one who is found and alive, the other who is now lost and dead?

Again, we can find structural and thematic similarities. In the Parable of the Lost Sons, the father is still able to save both sons, although we don’t know how that works out. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the steward is able to “save” both the debtors and the landowner (and himself, apparently) through the steward’s shrewd management of the crisis. In the third story, the outcome is different, as we might expect. The deed is done. Earthly life is over.

We can continue to draw parallels and make connections with the preceding parables. The older son complains to his father that he’s never even had a goat to make a feast with his friends. The older son wants to celebrate separately. The rich man uses his wealth and privilege to do precisely that. He feasts sumptuously, and by himself, every day. He is not inviting the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind to the feast (see Luke 14:13). We should note that in Luke 14:14, Jesus declares that those who do invite the oppressed will be “repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.”

“The rich man is,” Amy-Jill Levine writes, “a caricature; he is too rich even to be recognized and outside any system of social responsibility” (Short Stories, page 273). Both Roman and Jewish readers and listeners would have expected the rich man to participate in the patronage system that offered at least some support for those in poverty. “The rich man refused to give alms, even when a poor man was at his gate,” Levine continues, “Of course he will suffer in the afterlife. He had laid up nothing for it” (page 274).

Each of the preceding parables specifies a close connection between the two “sons” in the story. In the Parable of the Lost Sons, the sibling connection is literal, even though the older brother would prefer to deny it (“this son of yours,” he says to the father). The master and the debtors may have been strangers to one another, but they are intimately connected by money. And it seems likely, in the context of the story, that they did know one another.

In our text, the rich man knows Lazarus by name. The name means “God helps.” Lazarus is not a stranger at the rich man’s gate. “The rich man,” Levine and Witherington note, “has no plausible deniability” (page 455). The rich man “probably prided himself on knowing that name,” Richard Swanson muses, “This was not just some anonymous poor, sick man thrown at the gates of his house. This was his poor, sick man, thrown at the gates of his house” (page 203).

Swanson wonders about the previous relationship between the rich man and Lazarus. What if Lazarus had worked in the rich man’s household? It’s possible that, in the context of the story, Lazarus had been a free man working in that household. If we follow the logic of Roman social realities in the first century, however, we know that it would have been more likely that Lazarus had been enslaved in the rich man’s household. That certainly fits the way the rich man regards Lazarus later in the parable.

If we pursue this conjecture a bit further, we can come to a shocking realization. It was not unusual for Roman enslavers to free enslaved persons later in life. The enslavers regarded this as a generous gesture, worthy of honor and praise. However, the real reason for such manumissions was to free the enslavers from the costs of physically maintaining the lives of those who no longer produced economic value.

If Lazarus had a previous connection to the rich man’s household, poor Lazarus was now a discarded person. Unlike the younger son, he had not chosen to leave the comforts of the household and strike out on his own. Lazarus had been, literally, kicked to the curb when he began to cost more than he was worth. Swanson wonders if this is the meaning of the “sores” that cover his body. It may be, in the context of the story, that poor Lazarus (like too many people today) fell ill and as a result fell off the scale of demonstrable economic value.

“The outcome in the ancient world would be the same as the outcome now,” Swanson writes, “Lazarus would be finally let go, sores and all. He would be thrown out of his position,” Swanson continues. In this way, we should note, poor Lazarus was similar to the Unjust Steward. But Lazarus had no resources or relationships upon which to call for backup. He was a discarded enslaved person who would be best served by dying to reduce the excess population (thank you, Charles Dickens).

This doesn’t mean that Lazarus was tossed out like garbage, Amy-Jill Levine argues. The grammar suggests that someone cared for poor Lazarus and placed him at the rich man’s gate. “The anonymous people who placed the poor man at the gate may have put him there because they knew that the rich man had funds,” Levine writes in Short Stories by Jesus, “or because they knew that his friends and relatives would enter the gate and see him” (page 279). Of course, this does nothing to absolve the rich man, who clearly does not see Lazarus, until it is too late.

Three characters in our possible parabolic triad act as if they can presume upon their former privilege. The older son makes demands upon his father as if nothing in the household has changed and as if he can determine how the father’s love will be apportioned. The master assumes that, even after he has dismissed the manager, that the manager will continue to act in the master’s best interests. And the rich man assumes that Lazarus is still there to serve him, still there at his beck and call (as is Abraham, apparently), still a useful piece of human machinery for his convenience.

The three privileged characters in the triad share some other similarities. Both the older son and the rich man engage in hysterical hyperbole. The older son declares that he has “worked like a slave” for his father, without so much as a thank you. The rich man declares that he is in torment even though he “retains a remarkably eloquent and consistent appeal” (Levine and Witherington, page 455). Even the master in the Parable of the Unjust Steward jumps to judgment based on nothing but rumor and inuendo.

The three needy characters in the triad also share similarities. The younger son longs to eat the food for the pigs. But no one gives him a thing. The steward and the debtors are doing their best to stay out of the ranks of the impoverished. After all, the steward says, he’s too weak to dig and too proud to beg. Lazarus longs from scraps from the rich man’s table, of which there would have been many. It’s only the wealthy who have the luxury of wasting food, as we can see all too well in our own culture.

Whether these connections make it into a message is not clear at this point. However, this intertextual comparison brings some interesting light to our text for this week.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of John. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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