Luke 16:19-31


Possessions – Not Recognising Solidarity

 Luke 16:19-31  -  A Rich Man and Lazarus

19 "There was a rich man.  
He wore purple and fine linen
and feasted sumptuously every day.
20 And there was a poor man, named Lazarus,
who had been put near his gateway.  
He was covered in sores,
21 and longed to be satisfied with the fallen crumbs
from the rich man's table.  
Dogs even came and licked his sores.

Luke continued to address Jesus’ teaching about wealth and its use. The scenario reflected more the life of the cities than that of the villages. [Sepphoris was close by, even though never referred to in the Gospel narratives. It had been for a time the seat of Herod’s administration, until he moved to Tiberias, a city built on the bank of the Lake. Both cities would have had their mix of wealthy Jews and Greeks.] In the honour system of the time the ostentatious display of wealth was common. Impoverished rural dwellers tended to move to the edges of the cities in the hope of finding occasional work.

Why Jesus chose to give the poor man a name is open to conjecture. 

Because the man was covered with disfiguring sores, he was regarded as ritually unclean, and to be avoided.

22 Eventually the poor man died;
and was carried away by angels to the intimate company of Abraham.
And then the rich man died
and was buried.
23 Tortured down in Hades,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham a long way off,
and Lazarus in his intimate company.
24 Calling out, he said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me.  
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water
to cool my tongue,
for I am being tortured in this fire.'
25 But Abraham said to him,
'My child, remember how you received good things in full during your life,
and likewise how Lazarus received bad.  
Now he is being comforted,
and you are feeling pain.
26 Not only that, but a great gulf has been placed between us and you,
so that those on this side who want to cross over to you cannot,
nor can anyone cross from there over to us.'

The story does not give Jesus’ version of life beyond the grave. The story simply made the point that a life lived in isolation or in denial - an illusory life - led to death. The way to life was solidarity, acquired through enlightenment and self-knowledge.

The rich man was not accused of having unjustly oppressed Lazarus. He had simply ignored him. The parable was not so much about punishment for injustice. It echoed, nevertheless, Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, that in its turn had emphasised the non-negotiable duty of charity and care for those in need [10:25-37]. 

The parable represented a literal application of the theme of reversal found in the Beatitudes [6:24] and in Jesus’ initial proclamation with which he inaugurated his public mission [4:18-19].

In the mind of Jesus, was such reversal of outcomes inevitable? 

Responsibilities Attached to Wealth. 

Positive Comment. Luke had mentioned earlier in the narrative the fact that some women financially supported Jesus and the band of close disciples while they were on mission: “Mary called the Magdalene... Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, Chusa, Susanna and a number of others who provided for them all from their own resources” [8:2-3]. 

They could have done so only because they had wealth and were prepared to keep on dispensing it. They had not given it all away.

Negative Comment. Yet Jesus had consistently repeated that the wealthy would be dispossessed in the undefined future:

    • Mary’s Magnificat had praised the God who sent the rich away empty [1:53]
    • Andrew, Simon, James and John “left everything” [5:11] when called to follow Jesus; and when sent on mission were told to “take nothing for your journey” [9:3]
    • Jesus had taught: sadness awaits you who are rich now because you have had your reward” [6:24]
    • In the parable of the rich fool, he had given the cautionary warning: “Fool, this very night they shall demand your soul back.  Then, all that you have prepared, who will get it?” [12:20]
    • Speaking to his little flock, he had said: “Sell what you have and donate it.  Make purses for yourselves that do not get old, treasure that does not fail, in heaven” [12:33]
    • In the sayings attached to his story of the dishonest manager, he had recommended: “Use wealth, tainted as it is, to make friends for yourselves, so that, when it runs out, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity” [16:9]. That was precisely what the rich man had failed to do to Lazarus at his door.

Luke had heard the message and had left his community in no doubt. Yet he was aware that there were people of wealth is his community. Much of the message intended precisely for disciples emphasised their responsibility to take care of the poor in their midst. It apparently took for granted that they were in the position to do so. Not much teaching was presented about the attitudes and responsibilities proper to the poor in relation to the rich.

Current Relevance. Whatever about Luke’s community, how do readers of the twenty-first century Western world make sense of the emphases of Jesus?

The advent of globalization has given new dimension to the question: Who is my neighbour? The parable of the rich man and Lazarus made clear that simply refraining from deliberate injustice was not enough. Perhaps in this modern world, people living in the West are inevitably caught up in the undeniable injustices of world trade arrangements simply by being citizens of democratically elected governments that collude in oppression and the abuse of power. The lifestyle of the Western world is sustained to a considerable extent by the oppression and abject poverty of peoples of the Third World. Like Jesus in Nazareth before undertaking his mission, all are unavoidably immersed in the objective structural sin of the world.

In the modern State it could well be irresponsible for people simply to give away their income and assets. They would either revert to poverty - which is not a good thing in itself - or become an unnecessary economic and social burden on their fellow citizens.

The issue seems to be the responsible use of wealth. For that to happen in any really radical sense, it is necessary to have a profound sense of solidarity with the poor of the world. For that to be genuine, a clear sense of one’s own, and everyone else’s, human dignity and its source in the creating love of God is needed. That in turn requires the inner journey of discipleship. In Jesus’ mind there was no alternative.

Luke had conveyed clearly Jesus’ deliberate “option for the poor”. It was not really new teaching on his part but expressed well the thrust of genuine Hebrew spirituality - as Luke had illustrated already by means of Mary’s Magnificat. 

The conclusion of the story added a new message, and a hidden reference from Luke’s point of view, that even Jesus’ resurrection did not seem to convince many. Disciples were few. People who did not have eyes to see simply would not see!

27 So he said, 'Father, I ask you.  
Send him to my father's house.
28 I have five brothers.  
He can forcefully warn them
so that they do not come to this place of torture.' 
29 But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets.  
Let them listen to them.'
30 He then said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone comes to them from the dead,
they will repent.'
31 But he said, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,
even if someone rises from the dead,
he will not persuade them.'”

The Message of the Prophets 

In calling Israel to repentance, many of the Hebrew prophets had a very specific sense of repentance. Theirs was not a generic call to “try harder”. Rather it was a consistent call to justice and to charity.

Amos in the eighth century castigated those in the Northern Kingdom:

...who sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way [2:6-7]

He had expressly included the women of the Northern Kingdom:

you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy [4:1] 

Hosea from the same period had warned those in the Southern Kingdom:

return to your God,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God. [12:6].

Micah in the seventh century had lamented:

They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. [2:2]
what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? [6:8]

After the return from the exile in Babylon, Malachi repeated:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; 
I will be swift to bear witness ... 
against those who swear falsely, 
against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, 
the widow and the orphan, 
against those who thrust aside the alien, 
and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. [3:5]

Perhaps more than all others, First Isaiah in the eighth century had proclaimed a constant call for justice:

cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. [1:17]
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth [10:1-3]

Third Isaiah, after the return of the exiles from Babylon in the sixth century, had repeated:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [58.6-7]
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness [58:10]

It was from this same Third Isaiah that Jesus had quoted his manifesto at the beginning of his mission:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor [61:1-2]

Across the centuries it has seemed to be a consistent tendency of religious people to focus more on the ritual requirements of religious practice than to live lives of justice, of kindness and of the solidarity that are the fruit of genuine humility.

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