Message for Luke 16:19-31

16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022

Last week we read the hardest parable in the Gospels. This week we read the easiest one. The main point of this parable is clear. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. If I follow Jesus, then how I treat my neighbor in need must matter to me.

The story is simple. A rich man spends all his wealth eating, drinking, and partying. He’s rich enough to do that every day. Outside his front gate lies Lazarus. Lazarus is desperately poor, chronically ill, and painfully hungry. Every day the rich man celebrates. Every day Lazarus suffers. Nothing changes.

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Both men die. Then everything changes. Lazarus arrives at “the bosom of Abraham.” The bosom of Abraham is the best seat at the paradise party. The rich man arrives in the fiery depths of Hades. Lazarus celebrates. The rich man suffers. Nothing changes.

So, that’s it, right? If I don’t take care of poor people, I burn in hell. It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? I could argue that I’m no Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. That’s certainly true. But I know I’m richer than most other people on the planet. I know I’m richer than millions of my American neighbors. I know I’m richer than thousands of my neighbors in the city where I live.

Pleading my poverty relative to the super-rich won’t work. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. That takes some of the fun out of that used camper we bought last week.

Is that the purpose of the parable? Does Jesus try to literally scare the hell out of me, so I’ll part with some of my moldy money? I think that is the purpose.

But why does that matter to Jesus? Does Jesus hate rich people? I don’t think so. Jesus wants the best for me. Jesus comes to make me the person God created me to be. That’s what it means in this life to be saved. Jesus tells this story to make me better, not to scare me to death.

Last week, I invited you to compare a parable to a Bugs Bunny cartoon. This week I want to compare this parable to Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I think that will help us understand a bit better.

Ebenezer Scrooge loved money. No, that’s not quite right. Ebenezer Scrooge hated generosity. He hated giving of any kind. He hated sharing himself or his stuff with others. He hated Christmas giving. He hated giving to the poor.

Scrooge hated anything that connected him to the needs of another person. Dickens described Scrooge as “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Even the rich man in our parable sounds good compared to old Ebenezer, at least for the moment.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets a ghostly visit from Jacob Marley – Scrooge’s business partner, dead seven years that night. Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit the old miser. Those spirits will bring Scrooge the chance and hope to be a different person. We travel with Scrooge on the journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

This journey connects Scrooge with other human beings. Each spirit hammers on the hard shell of that man who was “secret and self-contained, as solitary as an oyster.” We meet Scrooge’s beloved sister, Fan. We party with dear old Fezziwig. Scrooge falls in love and out of love. As his fiancé ends their engagement, she says, “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you, [Ebenezer] in the time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

The “idol” Scrooge’s fiancé mentioned was his love of money. That great love of his life tolerated no rivals. Scrooge was left alone, just as he wished.

Only human connection, compassion, and community could save the old skinflint. The spirits bring him to the stool of Tiny Tim. In spite of himself, Scrooge begins to care for the boy. Without help and support, Tiny Tim will soon die. Suddenly Scrooge has an unfamiliar feeling.

“Spirit,” he says, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” Unlikely, the Spirit says, if nothing changes. “What then?” the Spirit proclaims, “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge, to his shame, had spoken those very words just a few hours before.

We come to Christmas Future. Scrooge witnesses the aftermath of his own death. He has died neither missed nor mourned. Some of his wealth enriches the poor whether he likes it or not. Tiny Tim has also died, but his memory is cherished.

As Scrooge faces the open mouth of his own grave, he shouts his repentance. “Spirit!” he cries, “hear me! I am not the man that I was. I will not be that man I must have been except for this intercourse. Why show me this,” Scrooge demands, “if I am past all hope!”

Now we come back to our parable. Lord Jesus, why show me all this, if I am past all hope! The most important character in the parable isn’t the rich man. The most important character isn’t Abraham or even Lazarus. The most important characters are those five brothers, still alive, still able to repent.

I am the sixth brother in the story. Why show me all this if I am past all hope!

Scrooge’s story has a happy ending, unlike the story of the rich man. After his Christmas Eve travels, Scrooge is still alive. But he gets more than a reprieve. Scrooge really is not the man that he was. He gets a new life. That new life means connection, compassion, and community. He finds family with Fred, his nephew. He finds friendship with Tiny Tim, who did not die after all. He finds the joy of giving as he pays for the relief of the poor.

As Dickens puts it, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the old city knew…” Scrooge became the person he was made to be. And he was truly happy.

How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. Jesus loves my neighbor in need and wants the best for my neighbor. Jesus also loves me and wants the best for me. Jesus longs for me to become as good a person as the good old city knew. Jesus wants that for you too.

We cannot follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. Money is a wonderful tool but a terrible lord.

In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life,” as we read in our second lesson. That’s what is at stake in our parable. The rich man had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us. Jesus wants us to have the life that really is life. Will we accept that gift and do the giving?

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.

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.

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

Last week, I spent time comparing the Unjust Steward to Bugs Bunny. This week, it’s time for Christmas!

My spouse is ready for Christmas all the year round. We begin thinking about Christmas gifts in February. We begin securing those gifts in earnest starting in July. We are thinking about Christmas decorations in September. We even have a Christmas tree currently masquerading as a “fall tree” in our living room. We leave the lights and decorations up until the Presentation of Jesus in February, when it’s time to begin thinking about the next Christmas!

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I don’t share my spouse’s enthusiasm for all the signs of the season as year-round realities. However, I am never far from making a textual connection to some element of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Brief and brilliant, this novella is an unending source of illustrations and quotations. This week the connection is more than incidental. Instead, Dickens’ story gives us an interpretive key to our text and, for me at least, a way into preaching it in worship.

“With its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, this parable fits the form of an apocalypse,” Barbara Rossing writes in her 2016 commentary, “An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it is too late.” Rossing wrote in greater detail about our text in her 2004 book, The Rapture Racket. Page numbers in my references will refer to that book.

Rossing reminds us that apocalyptic accounts are not limited to ancient sources. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has all the features of an apocalypse. “The threat to Scrooge was not that he would end up dragging literal chains made of cash-boxes, keys, and padlocks,” Rossing writes, “He was bound by the chains in his life and his heart. The vision’s realism made them fearful,” she continues, “but not as literal predictions of the future” (page 85). Instead, the experiences gave Scrooge and urgent call to change his life while he still could.

As Rossing notes, the most important question Scrooge asks is, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” The rich man in our story is, indeed, past all hope. But we, as listeners and readers, are not.

Our story has the characteristics of an apocalyptic tale. What we see on the surface and in the earthly realm is not an accurate picture of how things really are. The true nature of things is revealed, uncovered, as the story unfolds. That is the meaning of the word, “apocalypse:” to uncover or unveil something that is hidden. An apocalypse lifts the covers and allows us to see the real story.

Journeys to the heavenly realm and to the underworld are also features of apocalyptic tales. These descriptions highlight both the blessings Lazarus now experiences and the agonies the rich man suffers. The contrast is elevated because the rich man can see the difference. But he can’t get there from here. Abraham serves as the supernatural guide for the journey, another feature of apocalyptic tales.

As the guide, he reminds the rich man that in his earthly life, he had already received his good things. Lazarus had received evil things. I can almost hear the voice of Jacob Marley amid the rattling of chains and the wailing of spirits. “These are the chains I forged in life!”

“The purpose of Jesus’ story is not to predict the details of actual future sufferings or blessings,” Rossing writes. “Abraham’s bosom is not a literal place, after all!” (page 86). We’ve examined the symbolism of that description in a previous post. “Jesus tells the story as a wake-up call for those who are still alive,” Rossing continues, “helping us to see the poor at our gate and do something before it is too late, before the terrifying chasm is fixed” (page 86).

In our literary context, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. They turned their noses up at his criticism of their hypocrisy. That’s the literal meaning of the verb translated as “scoffed at.” They were “lovers of money.” The literal meaning of that word is “friends of silver.” While Jesus urges us to “make friends with unrighteous Mammon,” the Pharisees in the text had developed too deep a friendship with wealth and couldn’t see the consequences of that cozy relationship.

If I mention the Pharisees in this regard in my message, I will take some time to make sure I don’t perpetuate several anti-Semitic tropes. It is too easy for Christians to portray Jews as greedy and corrupt money-grubbers. It is even easier to use any resistance to Jesus’ message as a subtle reminder of the “Christ-killer” label Christians have placed on Jews for millennia. I think we have to say as forcefully as possible that the Lukan author is not talking about “real” Pharisees. Unfortunately, the gospel writers, and especially the Lukan author, use the Pharisees as stand-ins for wealthy Christians who need to get their priorities straight. We need to be clear about that.

“Where does Luke intend the audience to see itself in this parable?” Rossing asks. Not in the bosom of Abraham – that seems clear. Instead, Rossing – in her commentary – tells us to look at Abraham’s responses to the rich man. Three times, the answer is “no,” even though Abraham acknowledges the rich man as one of his “children.” It is too late for the rich man.

Therefore, that’s not where the Lukan author intends the audience to see itself in the parable either. Instead, Rossing argues, the audience should see itself as the five siblings who are still alive. They “have time to open their eyes,” Rossing writes, “They have time to see the poor people at their gates, before the chasm becomes permanent.” The frightening apocalyptic tale is meant to be a wake-up call for the living, not a prediction of postmortem realities.

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” Rossing suggests, “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation…We have Moses and the prophets,” she continues, “we have the scriptures, we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and the hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is,” Rossing concludes, “Will we – the five sisters and brothers – see? Will we heed the warning before it is too late?”

If that’s where we end up in our reflection, then the parable seems to be all threat and no promise. But, in her book, Rossing doesn’t leave us in that desperate place. Instead, she goes on to describe the role of Christian prophecy, which she describes as “God’s word of salvation and justice for the world” (page 88). Our parable is not a prediction of the future. Instead, it is a desperate plea for our repentance and conversion. After all, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

Rossing points to the example of another (fictional) apocalyptic prophet, Jonah. Jonah predicts quite clearly that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. The king and people of Nineveh hear the word of the Lord, and they change. In response to their change, God changes. “The goal of prophecy is…to turn the world to God, to lift up a vision, so that threats of destruction will not be carried out,” Rossing writes. “God does not want to hurt or destroy the world,” she continues, “and God certainly does not determine the script in advance” (page 91).

I am thinking of the relationship between Scrooge and Tiny Tim in Dickens’ tale. As Scrooge’s journey progresses, he sees Tiny Tim. A spark of compassionate concern is kindled in Ebenezer’s heart of stone. Scrooge wonders if Tiny Tim will survive. “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost [of Christmas Present], “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge is cut to the heart when he hears his own words quoted back to him. This is the real warning in the story. It is not merely Scrooge’s life which is at stake here. Without a change in Scrooge’s heart, Tiny Tim will not live to see another Christmas. This is a life-and-death matter not merely for old Ebenezer but for any and all who might benefit from his compassion and generosity.

It is this kindling of compassion which opens the door to Scrooge’s salvation. Yes, Tiny Tim is saved and becomes best friends with the old man. But the one who’s life is really saved – and really saved in the here and now – is Ebenezer Scrooge. In his conversion to generous compassion, Scrooge finds his humanity once again, a humanity he had sacrificed in his love of money. Unrighteous Mammon may give us a world of wealth, but it will be at the price of our souls, Dickens says.

An apocalyptic tale raises the stakes to cosmic heights. Yet, I face this reality every day. Lazarus is always outside my gate. Will I share my table with him today?

References and Resources

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

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

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

One way I am thinking about this parable is as a “Tale of Two Tables.” Somov and Voinov examine the image of “the bosom of Abraham” in their article, and assist me in this line of thinking. In Luke 16:22, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “to be with Abraham.” In Luke 16:23, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “by [Abraham’s] side.” Neither rendering captures the intensity and intimacy of this image or the real impact of the two tables in our text.

Somov and Voinov argue that this metaphor of Abraham’s bosom “plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31…we argue that it represents a complex concept involving fellowship at a banquet/feast. Luke makes an opposition between two banquets,” the authors continue, “although there is no place for Lazarus at the earthly banquet at which the inhospitable rich man feasted, he is granted the most honored position at the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality” (page 616).

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The article reviews the theories which stand behind the work of the authors. That’s interesting, but if you read the work, you might want to jump to the second section, which deals specifically with our text (and you might want to skip over the diagrams based on the theories). The theories upon which the work is based help us to identify the system and structure of the metaphors used in a piece of text. In translation, we can then try to replicate not only the denotation of the words themselves but also the structure of the metaphors being employed.

In our text, the metaphor system is primarily spatial. According to the authors, we get lots of “up-down” imagery in the parable. The gate is lower and the rich man’s table is higher. The food scraps fall down from the rich man’s table while Lazarus looks up, hoping to (at least in his fond desire) catch some of the scraps. Lazarus is carried up to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man finds himself in Hades, the underworld.

In addition to the spatial imagery, the parable uses banquet imagery to show the reversal evidenced in the text. In this life, the rich man feasts every day, and Lazarus is in want. In the next life, the rich man is in want (for water). The parallel would be that Lazarus is the one who is satisfied. “In other words,” they summarize, “the opposition of hunger and satiation plays an additional role in the reversal of fates in this story” (page 621).

The authors note, along with most other commentators, that this parable illustrates the proclamation Jesus makes in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26. ““Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled (v. 21) …Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (v. 25, both NRSV). The Lukan author uses the banquet imagery throughout the middle section of the Gospel account. We have encountered those descriptions of “kingdom table manners” in the previous weeks of the lectionary readings.

The authors remind us that Abraham is mentioned frequently in the Lukan account – at least twelve times. In seven of those cases, Abraham is described as the “father” of Israel. He shows up in the afterlife both here in in Luke 20:37-38.  Lying in Abraham’s bosom, they argue, gives us a complex of three images. It describes what it means to be gathered with the righteous ancestors of Israel. It also shows a child lying in a parent’s loving embrace. And it illustrates the closeness of a guest to the host at a banquet (see page 626).

Lying in the bosom of a father is the image and language the Johannine author uses in John 1:18 to describe the relationship between the Son of God and the Father. This is more than an emotional experience. The image is intended to show physical proximity and intimacy. The Son, in John 1:18, is not just close to the Father’s heart in emotional terms. That imagery shows physical proximity and connection.

More to the point the image of “reclining next to the host at the same dining couch in the closest and most honored position” appears in John 13:23. This is the position of “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is the position of highest honor at a first-century banquet. This is, perhaps, the very kind of position for which people jockeyed when Jesus made his observations about seating charts earlier in the Lukan account.

Therefore, the imagery in our text may well indicate that Lazarus is now in the position of highest honor at the messianic banquet. This does not exclude the idea of close connection and intimacy. In fact, the two ideas are related and give structure to the parable, according to the authors. The fact that Abraham is known for his hospitality toward and intimacy with strangers (in Genesis 18:1-8) makes Abraham the ideal dining partner for Lazarus.

So, the parable is a tale of two tables. At the earthly banquet of the rich man, he is hospitable only to himself and to his guests. Lazarus is far away from (and far lower than) the rich man, who is the host of the banquet. The rich man is satisfied with physical food, while Lazarus hungers and longs to be filled.

At the heavenly banquet, Abraham is hospitable to Lazarus, as one would expect of the host of the banquet at Mamre (whether Lazarus is to be seen as a representative of God in the parable, therefore, is another conversation). Lazarus is close to Abraham, the host. The rich man is far away (and far lower). Lazarus is filled and satisfied. The rich man thirsts and longs to have something to drink. The use of the banquet metaphor makes the realities of the reversal much clearer and sharper (page 630).

The authors are translators, and their task is to render the text accurately into a variety of human languages. The question for them is, how to do that. It is possible to do a simple one-to-one exchange of the Greek “kolpos” for “bosom” or “lap” or “breast.” The authors worry that most of the available terms (in English and other languages) evoke associations with maternal care, something that doesn’t work as well with the male Abraham.

I’m not sure that’s an issue in the first-century context as much as it is in the twenty-first century context, but I’m not a professional translator. That is precisely the option, for example, which Martin Luther chooses for his translation of the New Testament. The German term, “Schoss,” means “lap” or “womb” or “bosom.” It fits in idioms that have to do with resting in the care, for example, of one’s family or of the Church. It can have a sense of physical intimacy as well. A Schosshund, to illustrate, is a “lap dog,” a close family pet.

That being said, the “bosom” option may not convey the fullness of the connection portrayed here. We can go the NRSV route and use phrases like “beside” or “be with.” But, the authors argue, “such a rendering misses the idea that Lazarus is in the most important place by Abraham’s side as the guest of honor” (page 632). Some translations go ahead and fill in that detail. The CEV reads that Lazarus is brought to “the place of honor next to Abraham.”

The Kiswahili rendering is “kifuani,” which means “chest.” This word carries the sense of close familial connection and intimacy. An “urafiki wa kifuani” is a “bosom friendship.” That’s a dimension worth considering in our interpretation, with its sense not only of intimacy but of positive regard and fellowship. The term can also be used in Swahili to describe a chest cold. Translation is tricky business at best. Nonetheless, the emphasis here is on emotional closeness and connection.

The fullest translation (and interpretation) is going to include the senses of closeness and physical intimacy, the place of honor, and the setting of the feast or banquet. While it’s not clear to me what sort of rendering could accomplish this, we certainly have the opportunity as interpreters to make this clear to our listeners and readers as we grapple with this text.

The authors summarize their work in a concluding paragraph. I’ll quote portions of that paragraph here. “In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position.” This opposition “makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable” (page 633).

As an interpreter, I don’t have to work out how to translate “eis ton kolpon Abraam” into English or any other language. But knowing the range and depth of this metaphor in our text does challenge me both to explain that structure fully and to wrestle with how that impacts the meaning of the parable in my preaching. If anything, this fuller understanding makes the proclamation of this parable more challenging and painful (at least for those of us who are more like the rich man than we are like Lazarus).

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.

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.

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.