There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.’
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. 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.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’ (Luke 16:19-31 – NRSV)
This parable – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son – is unique to Luke. He is the master storyteller! In Luke 7:25 we have heard Jesus contrast John the Baptist with the rich: “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces”. The greedy and those who make idols of possessions are clearly in the sights of Luke, as are the religious authorities.
feasted sumptuously every day: Luke drives home the point: this man does not only “feast sumptuously”, he does it every day! Luke places Jesus very much in the prophetic tradition here. See for example the words of the prophet Amos: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (Amos 6:4-7).
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus: The name “Lazarus” is the Greek form of Eliezer, “My God helps”. We must hear the words of the Beatitudes in this parable: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20-25) The life of the poor man is described in stark contrast to the life of the rich man. The fact that the dogs lick the poor man’s sores is the ultimate expression of this man’s dereliction – dogs are unclean! (See for example Elijah’s prophetic condemnation of Jezebel in 1 Kings 21:19 and 24. See also Psalm 22:16 and Mark 7:27–28.)
In Hades: Hades is the Greek word for the “nether world”, the “world of the dead”, roughly equivalent to the Hebrew sheol. Luke uses the word one other time in his Gospel – see 10:15. In Acts 2:24, Peter, speaking of the death of Jesus, says, “Men of Israel ….. you killed him but God raised him to life, freeing him from the pangs of Hades”. Peter then goes on to quote from Psalm 16:8-11: “I saw the Lord before me always, for with him at my right hand nothing can shake me. So my heart was glad and my tongues cried out with joy; my body too will rest in the hope that you will not abandon my soul to Hades” (2:25-26).
Later tradition gave Hades a particularly fierce representation, however, that is not present in the original Greek concept. (We find the word Hades used in Matthew twice – 11:23 and 16:18 – not at all in Mark or John.)
Father Abraham: The rich man uses this expression of intimacy twice in the parable. The reader of Luke’s Gospel has already heard the warning of John the Baptist: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7-9). In other words, the rich man’s show of intimacy with Abraham is just that – a show. Abraham will not fall for it!
Moses and the prophets: “The phrase refers to the Scriptures in their prophetic force. Above all, in this context (cf. 16:16), to their demand that the poor be cared for in the land (e.g., Exod 22:21–22; 23:9; Lev 19:9–10; 19:33; 23:22; Deut 10:17–19; 14:28–29; 15:1–11; 16:9–15; 24:17–18; 26:12–15; Amos 2:6–8; Hos 12:7–9; Mic 3:1–3; Zeph 3:1–3; Mal 3:5; Isa 5:7–10; 30:12; 58:3; Jer 5:25–29; 9:4–6). This fundamental obligation of covenantal fidelity is the unmistakable teaching of Torah in each of its parts.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 253.)
they will repent: The Greek word is metanoein. This is an absolutely fundamental theme in Luke, as in the other Synoptics. The implication is that the rich man actually knows what is the right response to the prophetic call but – for whatever reason – he was unwilling to make himself available to that grace.
At the core of all our inappropriate and destructive behaviours is self-centredness, in one or other of its forms. Adrian van Kaam puts it succinctly: “Self-centredness, the refusal to be human and not God, is the core of the demonic in human nature.” (Adrian van Kaam, The Demon and the Dove, Duquesne University Press, 1967, 46-47.) Today’s Gospel is – before it is anything else – is a story of self-centredness.
We are made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:27). We are expressions of God’s very being. I came to be because God wanted it that way. I may have been an accident on the part of my parents, I was not an accident on the part of God. My very being – as this person – proclaims the glory of God because God’s glory is expressed in everything God does. I am a sign of God’s presence. I am a word of love spoken by God. I am a beautiful creature because God is the source of all beauty and God does not make anything that is not beautiful.
That’s the reality! Sadly, however, the reality too often does not shine forth. Why? Because we all have a natural brilliance for unreality and a natural anxiety about reality. Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 inaugural speech as the first President of the new South Africa, alluded to this:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
When I know in my bones that I am created by God, intended by God, cherished by God, I have no need to be self-focused. In fact, if I ever catch myself being self-focused I will be deeply embarrassed, even disgusted. It is not natural! The more I know myself as an expression of the very life of God, the more I will begin to experience my best possibilities, the source of my deepest delights. I will begin to see the world, with its rich array of people, events and things, as God sees them.
What is it that prompts me to be self-centred? Why would I ever forgo my best possibilities?