For freedom, Christ has set us free

Sunday 26C19
Gospel Commentary
for smart phones and tablets

29 September 2019

Luke 16:19   “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’”

Initial observations

This parable is the highpoint of the teaching on wealth in chapters 15 and 16. The story is found only in Luke and shows signs of being edited by him so it seems to be pre-Lucan. Although, from the Latin, the rich man has a name (Dives), in reality Lazarus is the only character in such a story to receive a name (a name, moreover, which means “God helps”). Although the other Lazarus (John 11) also dies, there is really no connection at all, because of course that Lazarus comes back, unlike our man here! This type of story, contrasting the destinies of the rich and the poor, is known in Jewish and Egyptian literature of the period (see below).

Kind of writing
The story is only apparently a parable, because it lacks the puzzle element of a real parable. Instead we have here an “example story”, an exemplum familiar from classical rhetoric. It has all the elements of an example story:

Exposition 19-22—two characters, two contexts (earth and heaven)
Argument 1 23ff—argument from reversal and finality of destiny
Argument 2 27ff—argument from sufficiency of the scriptures
Conclusion 31—both warning from the past and opening in the present

At one level, the story illustrates the Lucan Beatitudes. Notice that the attention has shifted at the end from the lives and destinies of the two characters to the steps that will lead to a happy outcome of your life. Jesus’ resurrection, of course, is in view, but as understood in the light of the Word of God. Luke 24 has much the same theme.

The theme of “reversal of fortune” was well-known in Egyptian and Greco-Roman stories. The story of Setme and Si-Osiris concludes thus: ‘He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.’

Curiously, there is a second parallel in a later second or third century work telling the story of two magicians who opposed Moses. One of the magicians, Jannes, dies and is summoned up by his surviving brother Jambres. The message from the dead to the living is stark: “Make sure you do good in your life to your children and friends; for in the netherworld no good exists, only gloom and darkness.” As the various comparisons make clear, the Lucan story in its richness is on an altogether higher, more complex level.

Old Testament background

I said: In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. (Isaiah 38:10)
For he afflicts, and he shows mercy; he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the earth, and he brings up from the great abyss, and there is nothing that can escape his hand. (Tobit 13:2)

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.” (Wisdom 2:1)

New Testament foreground

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. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:20–25)

‘For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ (Acts 2:27–31)

St Paul
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.

As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:8–15)

Brief commentary

Verse 19 Purple suggests royalty; fine linen suggests Egyptian-style underwear, expensive and a special sign of wealth. J. Fitzmyer translates the last phrase thus: “splendidly making merry daily.”
Verse 20 The contrast could hardly be sharper. Lazarus is named and, as a result, is more personally real to the reader. In Luke, “poor” already means someone open to God.
Verse 21 Fell: i.e. not given! Dogs signify the outcast status of Lazarus. The Greek suggests “covered with sores.”
Verse 22 Both died, but one was “carried by angels” and the other “was buried”. A blunt contrast of destinies indeed! Cf. Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29 NET) For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (4 Maccabees 13:17 NRSV)
Verse 23 Hades is used not to mean what we would call hell but rather the intermediately abode of the dead before final judgement. (cf. Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31).
Verse 24 The appeal is complex, moving from a general plea (mercy) through a specific request (water) to a motive (flames). For thirst, cf. For just as the things that I have predicted await you, so the thirst and torment that are prepared await them. (2Esdras 8:59 NRSV)
Verse 25 The response from Abraham comes in two parts. First there is the contrast between material blessings in this life and spiritual blessings in the life to come. In the OT, the duty to care for the poor is clearly taught. Cf. the Beatitudes and Woes above.
Verse 26 The second response reflects the finality of destiny.
Verses 27-28 The rich man shows himself concerned for his family (as in similar stories from Egyptian and Jewish sources). He wishes Lazarus to be sent to make an impression on them.
Verse 29 Moses and the prophets, i.e., the Bible (cf. Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 26:22; 28:23).
Verse 30 So striking a proof would have to have an effect, the rich man thinks. The allusion here must be to Jesus’ resurrection and, therefore, this “application” reflects Christian tradition rather than the original story.
Verse 31 Because openness to the one leads to the other. In Luke 24, the risen Jesus uses precisely Moses and the prophets to teach the resurrection of the Messiah.

Pointers for prayer

1. The first of the faults attributed to the rich man is his insensitivity to the abject poverty of those around him. When have you discovered that it is when you are aware of the needs of those around you and seek to make some response that you bring out the best in yourself?
2. The second fault attributed to the rich man is the way he ignored the word of God coming through Moses and the prophets. How have the gospels, the scriptures or your faith opened you up to a deeper and more satisfying perspective on life?
3. Some people look to the spectacular for a sign of God’s presence and action. For Jesus, the lessons we need are not to be sought in the spectacular, but in the ordinary things of everyday life. Where have you found sacraments of God’s presence in the world around you?


O God of justice, hear our cry and save us.

Make us heed your word to the prophets; rouse us to the demand of the gospel and impel us to carry it out.

We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Thought for the day

Irony and sarcasm somewhat resemble each other, with some notable differences. Sarcasm, easily enough achieved, is often wounding. On the other hand, irony, using “cognitive dissonance”, prompts insight and triggers memories. There is a good example in today’s Gospel: “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Will they really? By the time of writing, Jesus himself had already risen—and still conversion was as remote as ever. With all our convictions and doctrines, what is holding us back?


God of all life, you have given us the greatest assurance of your love in raising Jesus from death. Help us to live every day from your reassuring love.