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

What does Jesus have against rich people (especially in Luke’s gospel)? Problems for rich people start before Jesus is even born. In Mary’s song in chapter one, she declares that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). In Luke 6:24, Jesus pronounces one of his woes on the rich, for they have already received their “comfort.” By the way, that’s the same word Jesus uses in Luke 16:25 to describe Lazarus’ postmortem situation.

In his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, Jesus calls the concerns and riches and pleasures of this life thorns that choke out the life-giving power of the word. We’ve read the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. The punch line for that joke is stark and simple. The rich man’s pointless life and empty death is the fate of all “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God” (Luke 12:21, NRSV). That’s true because our life does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15, my emphasis).

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In Luke 18, we hear the story of the rich ruler. We won’t get that story this year, since it is covered in other lectionary years.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks Jesus. “Sell all you own and give the proceeds to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus says, “then, come and follow me.” That was a nonstarter for the guy. “He went away sad because he was very rich.” Jesus then declares that a camel can go through the eye of a needle easier than a rich person can enter the Kingdom of God.

We get some exceptions to this worry about wealth in the Lukan account. But the question stands. What does Jesus have against rich people? Klyne Snodgrass notes that simply based on the number of mentions in the Gospel accounts, “more focus is given specifically to money than to any other subject in Jesus’ teaching” (page 137).

In fact, the basis of Jesus’ mission, as he describes it scripturally in Luke 4, is to proclaim good news to the poor. It seems to go without saying that this may also involve proclaiming bad news to the rich. “There is no place to hide from the strength and confrontation of Jesus’ words on money,” Snodgrass writes, “Nor can we say that the stringent commands are only for the clergy or those of a higher spirituality” (page 139).

In the parable, Jesus doesn’t accuse the rich man of any particular sin. Nor does he commend Lazarus for any particular virtue, Father Abraham simply describes the Great Reversal so characteristic of the Lukan account. “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things,” Father Abraham calls across the chasm, “but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25, NRSV).

Maybe I’ve gotten the question wrong. Jesus has nothing against rich people. Wealth, by itself, is just stuff. What matters is my relationship to riches. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” we read in 1 Timothy 6:10 (NRSV), “and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

In fact, Jesus wants to save rich people just as much as Jesus wants to save poor people. It’s just that the realities of riches apparently make that saving a lot harder. “[I]f the world could have been saved by successful living,” Robert Farrar Capon observes, “it would have been tidied up long ago” (Kindle Locations 4017-4018). It remains true that the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

It isn’t that Jesus has something against rich people. Instead, he’s worried that wealth will deprive us of the very life Jesus wants us to have – the abundant life of being rich toward God. Snodgrass comments on the Parable of the Rich Fool in this regard. “Jesus’ words directly contradict our society’s assumption that our identity is determined by our possessions. The parable serves to illustrate,” Snodgrass continues, “that possessions are not life and provide no secure basis for life…The vulnerability of life,” Snodgrass concludes, “shows he has no permanent relation to his things. They are not really his” (page 140).

The rich man in our current parable hasn’t gotten the memo on this one. Here’s a clue, I think, to help us hear the story. The rich man is still giving orders! Did you notice that? “Father Abraham,” the rich man calls, “do me a favor and send Lazarus over with a bit of cool water. You may not have noticed, but it’s pretty hot over here.” Even in Hades, the rich man expects that poor Lazarus will wait on him. He expects that the values and structures at work in this life are all that matter.

That’s a symptom of the rich man’s spiritual illness. Now, I don’t want to make Lazarus and the rich man equal in this story. They are not. If I do that, I cooperate with the rich man and victimize Lazarus all over again. But the parable shows how the rich man lost his humanity in this life. In that way, there was really nothing left to save in the next life.

The philosopher Samantha Vice describes “the ordinary vices of domination.” She is writing as a white person in post-Apartheid South Africa. But I think her insights are applicable to any and all of us who live privileged lives of any sort. One of the benefits of privilege is that we see ourselves as “normal” and as the center of existence, the objective standard for what it means to be an authentic human being. Our privilege is most powerful when it wears the cloak of invisibility that domination provides.

Our rich friend in the parable demonstrates no sense that anything is “wrong” in his earthly life. His wealth and comfort seem “normal” to him. In fact, it would be “wrong” not to enjoy all the good things of this life. The rich man’s lifestyle is habitual, unquestioned, and even (at least in his view) unremarkable. Of course, this renders Lazarus just as invisible to him as the rest of his life is.

Samantha Vice wants us to see that the impact of such privilege is anything but unremarkable. In fact, we who are privileged suffer profound and ongoing moral damage in our positions as oppressors. Not that we should feel sorry for the rich man (or for our privileged selves). The habits of privilege damage us, personally and generationally. We can confront those habits personally and structurally and begin to redress the damage.

Or we can remain in blissful ignorance as our humanity, our real life, ebbs away into nothing. This blissful ignorance will look quite ordinary. Samantha Vice points to “indifference or callousness, cowardice or dishonesty, the failure of imagination and empathy, or just plain laziness” (page 327). We could apply that list as a diagnostic in our text. While the rich man is not guilty of any particular sin or heinous crime, these ordinary vices are draining him of his remaining humanity, leaving only a self-absorbed husk to be consumed by the flames of Hades.

“Discipleship in the kingdom of God requires a major redirection of how we think about and use material possessions,” Snodgrass writes. “We should not be unintentional about anything related to faith, and therefore, possessions are tools for living, not something to amass. There is no basis for or wisdom in hoarding” (page 142). Nor, we should add, is there any basis for or wisdom in selfish squandering while ignoring the needs of others.

Snodgrass raises several final issues for our consideration. Do we get our identity from God or from our stuff? Do we find our security in God or in our stuff? Are we wrapped up in anxiety over stuff rather than bathed in the peace of God? Do we operate based on greed or generosity? We cannot claim to follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. “Money is a wonderful tool,” Snodgrass summarizes, “but a terrible lord” (page 143).

It’s not often that the second lesson offers as much support for interpreting the gospel reading as it does this week. But the closing paragraph of our second reading offers counsel and encouragement in response to the parable. I wonder now if perhaps it would be best (as is often the case) to read the gospel prior to the second lesson.

In any event, we who are rich are called to resist the temptation to set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches. Succumbing to that temptation results in ruin and destruction (see 1 Timothy 6:9). That catastrophe is not likely to be a material one since we who are rich can buy our way out of such troubles. It must be a moral and spiritual crisis, one that deprives us of the life which the Lord wishes would be ours.

God provides for our enjoyment and for doing good works (which we should enjoy too!). In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life.” That’s what is at stake in our parable. Our rich friend had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end of the game, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us.

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/3261067.

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

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

Rossing, Barbara. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Westview Press, 2004.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “Jesus and Money—No Place to Hide and No Easy Answers.” Word & World 30, no. 2 (2010): 135-43.

Somov, Alexey, and Vitaly Voinov. “” Abraham’s Bosom”(Luke 16: 22–23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” The catholic biblical quarterly 79, no. 4 (2017): 615-633.

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

Van Eck, E., 2009, ‘When patrons are not patrons: A social-scientific reading of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–26)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 65(1), Art. #309, 11 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.309.

Vice, Samantha. “How do I live in this strange place?.” Journal of Social Philosophy 41, no. 3 (2010): 323-342.

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