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).
Like the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, this parable is unique to Luke. This parable is clearly directed at the Pharisees. From the time Luke’s journey to Jerusalem began at 9:51 – “he set his face towards Jerusalem” – Jesus’ teachings have been directed to three different audiences – the crowds, his opponents (typically the lawyers and Pharisees) and his disciples. When Jesus says that service of both God and Mammon is impossible (16:13) the Pharisees mock him (16:14). This parable then is Jesus’ response to their mockery. “It is appropriate to see in this exchange, therefore, a continuation of the theme of the rejection of the prophet by the religious leaders, with Jesus’ response suggesting as well their own rejection by God” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 254).
“The editorial comment in 17:1 reminds us that the audience for this parable is still the Pharisees; there has in fact been no break in the teaching of Jesus since v. 15. Two themes are combined in the parable. The first is the reversal of fortunes in the next world for the rich and the poor; this sums up the theme found in 1:53 and 6:20–26 and the warning against covetousness in 12:13–21. The earlier part of the parable indicates that the rich man did not go out of his way to help Lazarus; the latter received only the left-overs from the table as they casually fell on the ground, and was not the object of any decent charity. The poor man is not specifically stated to be righteous or pious, but this is perhaps to be deduced from his name and from Luke’s general equation of poverty and piety. Thus the rich man may possibly be intended as an example of the misuse of wealth over against the example of the proper use of wealth earlier in the chapter” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978, 632).
rich man: Clearly, we are given the description of an unlikeable person. He dines “sumptuously everyday and wears “purple and fine linen”, making the point that this is a very wealthy individual. Luke’s Gospel makes frequent references to “the rich” and they are never complimentary. Listen to some of those: in Mary’s hymn of praise we are told that “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53); “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (6:24-25); “As for (the seed that) fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14); there is the parable of the “rich fool” (12:13-21); then there is this interaction with Jesus: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ …. Jesus said to him: ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’. But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’.” (18:18-25).
a poor man named Lazarus: “The name ‘Lazarus’ is the Greek form of Eliezer, ‘My God helps’” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 252). The “rich man” remains nameless, though tradition has given him the name, “Dives” which is the Latin for “rich”.
Hades: “‘Hades’ is the Greek place of the dead, the nether world of shades, equivalent to the Hebrew sheol (cf. LXX Gen 37:35; Ps 6:5)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 168).
Abraham: John the Baptist has already warned his audience that it will not be enough to claim “Abraham as our father” if they do not show the fruits of repentance (metanoia) (3:8). In particular, the rich man is requesting the mercy he was unwilling to show Lazarus.
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, op cit, 253).
It is tempting to see in this story of the rich man and Lazarus, a simple contrast between wealth and poverty – poverty is good, wealth is bad. This parable – like all the parables – is in fact much more complex than that would imply. There are paradoxes and surprises. It demands careful exploration before we draw conclusions. In any case, we should not judge others.
Consider this observation of Theodore H White, American political journalist and historian, from his book on Richard Nixon: “Poverty soiled Nixon; he grew up to be hard – and vulnerable. And, as in all those who grow up so vulnerable, the instinct for control, for control of one’s circumstances, and perimeters of dignity, would grow” (Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975, 60). There is no necessary relationship between poverty and goodness. Indeed, in Jesus’ story there is no claim that Lazarus is a virtuous man. And haven’t we all met rich people who are very generous and decent human beings?
Yet, why would Pope Francis choose St Francis of Assisi as his patron? And why would he call for “a Church which is poor”? His own words in response to such questions, give us a context within which we can begin to grasp something of the deeper meaning of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Three days after his election, on 16 March 2013, Pope Francis spoke to representatives of the communication media: “Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man . . . . How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” Note the link between “poor”, “peace” and “the man who loves and protects creation”.
When the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, he told her that “the Lord God will give to him (ie her son) the throne of his ancestor David. …. and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33-34). The devil tempted Jesus by showing him “all the kingdoms of the world” (Luke 4:5). At the end of that same chapter in which Luke tells us of the temptations, we read the following beautiful and revealing piece: “At daybreak he departed (Capernaum) and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose’. So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea”(Luke 4:42-44).
Like all of Jesus’ life and teaching, this parable is about the Kingdom. It asks: Who or what has sovereignty in your life?