Sunday Gospel Commentary by Fr Randy Flores SVD on 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Sometime last week, I took the plane for Leyte. Since there were no newspapers nor in- flight music, part of the entertainment on board was a game hosted by the flight attendants. A prize was at stake for the first passenger who could produce a picture of a sad person. I don’t think I had one nor the rest of the passengers do–who would ever face the camera sad? But then someone pulled out his wallet and produced a 500 peso bill with Ninoy’s “sad” face on it.
Whoever thought that there’s sadness in money? Even the book of Proverbs says “Wealth adds many friends” (16:4).
Luke Chapter 16
Luke chapter 16 is famous for being the gospel on wealth. Four times the word “rich” is mentioned and three times for “wealth”. The chapter begins and ends with stories that opens with the phrase “there was a rich man” (v. 1 &v. 19).
Two Parts of the Parable
The last part of the this chapter, the Gospel reading, narrates the famous parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (vv. 19-31). We should take notice here of Jesus’ addressees of this parable– the “lovers of money” (Gk. philarguroi v. 14)
The parable can be divided into two parts: the first is the story of the reversal of fortunes of two men (vv. 19-26) and the second is the story of the five brothers (vv. 27-31). This latter part is often missing in many homilies.
Part I: Reversal of FortuneLuke’s first example of reversal of fortune is found right at the beginning of his gospel, in the Song of Mary (or Magnificat). The “lyrics” are bold:
“He [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53).
With this, Luke initiates an important theme of his gospel: reversal of fortunes.
The Anonymous Rich Man
In the Parable, the rich man’s lifestyle is enviable: “dressed in purple and fine linen” (v. 19a) — signature clothes at that time, only royalties could afford (see Esther 1:6); and “feasted sumptuously every day” (v. 19b).
To have an idea what a sumptuous feast is like, we can read from a Roman novel written in the first century A.D. on a dinner hosted by Trimalchio, member of the Roman nouveau riche. Food is endless. Eat all you can. There’s a set of dish each representing every sign of the Zodiac which is served course by course by fleet of servants. Name it and Trimalchio has it, including live birds sewn up inside a pig. Even their names speak of pomposity. His wife’s name is Fortunata and Trimalchio means “thrice-blessed”.
The name of the rich man in Jesus’ parable is known in the Latin translation as Dives (“rich”). But this is missing in most older manuscripts. Perhaps, Luke intends that the rich man is anonymous an open figure so any any rich person should be a candidate.
Lazarus, the Poor
The poor man (Gk. ptochos) has a name, “Lazarus” meaning , “My God help”. It sounds like a prayer more than a proper name. Indeed for his situation described in the story, he would need a lot of divine intervention. He is dumped right at the gate of the rich man, probably a cripple. He is covered with sores. In the book of Job, when the three friends saw that Job was covered with sores, they did not recognize him so they wailed, tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:12-13).
Lazarus was hungry, longing something from the rich man’s table. The picture is not of Lazarus wanting to fill his empty stomach with crumbs as often portrayed by artists and preachers. Lazarus is at the gate, just few meters from the scene of feasting. We wonder why the rich man is never aware of the presence of a poor man at his very own gate. Perhaps, the phrase “what fell from rich man’s table” (v. 21) is a metaphor for help that is expected of a rich man. This was the point of last Sunday’s Gospel reading–sharing of possessions (Luke 16:1-13) and this is also the point of Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, another rich man (see my blog on this, please click).
In any case, no help comes to Lazarus but dogs that come to lick his sores. Here’s the best example of that expression, “The dog is man’s best friend.”
Reversal of Fortune
Finally both of them died. Here begins the reversal of fortunes. Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” Very often, in the old Testament, the reward of a righteous life is to be buried with one’s ancestors. That’s why death is described as “being gathered to one’s ancestors” (see, among others, Gen 49:33; Num 27:13).
When the rich man died, he is buried, period. No adjectives nor qualifications used to describe his burial, no gathering to his ancestors. The parable says he is in Hades, the Greek place of the dead; and he is being tormented (Gk. hyparchon, v. 23). Now the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus from a distance.
The ironies continue. He now notices the poor man though far away while when he was alive he never bothered to see the poor man at his own gate. He calls out for Abraham for mercy while he himself was merciless.
Notice that the rich man still thinks he is the boss. He’s got no nerve to command Lazarus to come to his aid or to be a messenger. Abraham, however, shows him the real status now. He had received “good things during his life” (Gk. ta agatha) while Lazarus received only bad things (Gk. ta kaka). “But now here” (nun de oude, strong contrast in Greek) he is being comforted while the rich man is “in agony” (v. 25).
As there was a wide economic gap between rich man and the poor man, so there is NOW a great eschatological divide between the two. Part I of the parable ends reaffirming the reversal of fortunes (v. 26).
Part II: The Fate of Five Brothers
The second part is short, eleven verses only, and almost like an appendix to the story. But then this part is the essential part of the parable.
It begins with a short prayer of the rich man (now turned “poor” man) address to Abraham, practically to raise back to life Lazarus (cf. the raising of another Lazarus in John 11:43). He wants him to warn his five brothers. Readers of Luke assume these five brothers are also rich, “dressed in purple and fine linen” and “feast sumptuously everyday”.
But then there is no need for any resurrection, “They have Moses and the Prophets“. Obviously Jesus is referring here to the Old Testament (Pentateuch and the Prophets). With this statement, we see that Old Testament is seen as restoring justice for the poor (the Hebrew concept of mishpat). In fact this is the main function of a prophet. Note that Moses is the greatest prophet (see Deuteronomy 34:10).
We have a very clear example in prophet Amos (first reading) who is condemning the wealthy ruling elite of Samaria of their luxuriously lifestyle at the expense of the poor:
4 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;
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
6 who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:4-7 from NRSV).
In this text, Amos lists four activities of luxurious living:
eating, singing, drinking, and perfuming oneself.
Furthermore, the beds are made of ivory (v. 4a);
food is special (v. 4b);
cups are huge (“bowls”, v. 6a);
perfume is very expensive (6a);
song is accompanied by various instruments (v. 5).
With all these, they ignore the suffering of the “ruin of Joseph” (v. 6b). Amos alludes here to the destruction of a certain territory perhaps because of natural disaster (earthquake?). The point is the insensitivity on the part the rich; enjoying while many others are suffering.
Listening to the prophets is enough (Luke 16:29). Karl Marx is then not correct when he taught “religion as opium of the masses” — heaven anesthetizes any striving to make life better here on earth, for the poor simply have to wait for that eschatological reversal of fortunes.
But this is not the point of the last part of this parable. Instead, the hope to be in the bosom of Abraham is practiced by the rich in the sharing of their possessions. In theological terms, this is the ethical dimension of eschatology; in simple terms, simple lifestyle.
1) For the meaning of simple lifestyle / spirituality of simplicity, see my post, click here.
2) For a synthetic study of wealth and poverty in Luke-Acts, see Carlito C. Reyes, “The Poor and the Rich in Luke,” in Led by the Spirit: Festschrift in Honor of Herbert Schneider, SJ on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday , ed. M. L. Locker (Manila: LST, 2002), pp. 141-153.
3) For a survey of poverty in the bible, see Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Longer Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), see esp. 69-72 (on Amos), and pp. 150-156 (on Luke).