Below is a rough translation of Luke 16:19-31, the gospel reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Before looking at the details of the parable, it might be worthwhile to take a larger view of where this parable is located in Luke’s gospel:
- The previous chapter had three stories about precious things lost and found, including a younger son. The setting of those parables indicate that they were contrasting the expected joy of finding the lost with the religious leaders’ grumbling that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them.
- The sixteenth chapter begins with the puzzling parable of the “dishonest manager” followed by some equally puzzling comments.
- This teaching was followed by ridicule from the Pharisees who, the narrator says, “were lovers of money.”
- Verses 16 and 17 make explicit reference to ‘the law and the prophets,’ which will return in our pericope as “Moses and the prophets.” However, it is a bit of a curious text in itself: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”
- Curiouser and curiouser, v.18 talks about divorce and the ensuing adultery. Honestly, what if we started reading the story that begins in v.19 with the phrase, “Here is how Jesus expounds on the topic of divorce and adultery?” Topically, we can’t do that because v.18 and vv.19ff seem entirely unrelated. Yet, there they are, right next to each other in Luke’s redaction. What can that mean?
- After our pericope, there is a collection of teachings that leave the Bible translators and framers puzzled when trying to offer subtitles. The NRSV throws in the towel and starts chapter 17 with “Some Sayings of Jesus.”
I don’t know quite what we have learned from looking at the literary context. But, here are some things to consider:
- The rich man and Lazarus may be symbolic of the Pharisees (lovers of money) and the tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus welcomes. The problem with that analogy is that tax collectors were often despised because they were rich at the expense of others.
- The rich man of this parable might be another expression of the owner of the previous parable. That owner is usually depicted as an a-moral character, just doing what he is supposed to be doing, even at the point of offering grudging praise. If we suppose that the rich man of our text is the owner of the previous parable, we might be inclined to see the “
steward as someone who is finding ways to “make friends” with the rich
man/owner’s dishonest wealth.
- If that’s too much of a stretch, the obvious culpability of this rich man ought to staunch the tendency that interpreters often have of assuming that any ‘king, owner, lord, ruler, father, rich man,’ etc. in parables is a figure of what God is like.
Okay, enough of that. On with the show!
19 Ἄνθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος, καὶ ἐνεδιδύσκετο πορφύραν καὶ βύσσον
εὐφραινόμενος καθ' ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς.
Yet a certain man was rich and was clothing himself in purple and linens being delighted each day sumptuously.
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐνεδιδύσκετο: IMI 3s ἐνδιδύσκω, 1) to put on, clothe, to put on oneself, be clothed in
εὐφραινόμενος : PPPart, nms, εὐφραίνω, 1) to gladden, make joyful 1a) to be glad, to be merry, to rejoice 1b) to rejoice in, be delighted with a thing
1. The rich man’s clothing is indicative of his wealth, as well as his agency in this story. The verb ἐνδιδύσκω is in the middle voice, so "clothing himself." That is worth noting because there are few active or reflexive verbs describing Lazarus in this story. Instead of demonstrating agency he is quite passive, making him – in my mind –more of a two-dimensional example than a real character in this story.
20 πτωχὸς δέ τις ὀνόματι Λάζαρος ἐβέβλητο πρὸς τὸν πυλῶνα αὐτοῦ
Yet a certain poor man named Lazarus having been cast at his gate, who was covered with sores
ἐβέβλητο : PluperfectPI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls 1a) to scatter, to throw, cast into
εἱλκωμένος: PPPart, nms, sores (full of), to ulcerate, transitive. Here, passive particularly, full of ulcers
1. The word βάλλω has many uses, but primarily means ‘to throw.’ That is not suggest that people literally threw Lazarus down at the rich man’s gate, but since the verb is passive it implies that he was unable simply to go and sit there to beg of his own accord. He is destitute and he seems helpless. So, he is put at the gate of one person who is more than able to assist him.
2. It should be true in every culture, but in many near east cultures it is shameful not to show mercy to the poor or the ailing. Unlike certain pockets in modern "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" culture, Luke’s audience would have no trouble seeing Lazarus as a victim and the rich man as cold-heartedly ignoring even the rudimentary acts of mercy by not assisting him.
3. The passive verb indicates Lazarus’ dependency, rather than his own agency, in determining where he sits.
21καὶ ἐπιθυμῶν χορτασθῆναι ἀπὸ τῶν πιπτόντωνἀπὸ τῆς τραπέζης τοῦ
πλουσίου: ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ.
and longing to be satiated from the droppings of the table of the rich man; but even the dogs which were coming were licking his sores.
ἐπιθυμῶν : PAPart, nms, ἐπιθυμέω, 1) to turn upon a thing 2) to have a desire for, long for, to desire 3) to lust after, covet 3a) of those who seek things forbidden
χορτασθῆναι APInf, χορτάζω, 1) to feed with herbs, grass, hay, to fill, satisfy with food, to fatten 1a) of animals 2) to fill or satisfy men 3) to fulfil or satisfy the desire of any one
πιπτόντωνἀπὸ : PAPart, gnpl, πίπτω 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower 1a) to fall (either from or upon) 1a1) to be thrust down
ἐρχόμενοι: PMPart npm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἐπέλειχον: IAI 3pl, to lick, the surface of, lick over
1. Olubiyi Adeniyi Adewale, in “An Afro-Sociological Application of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” says this about the phrase that I have translated “longing to be satiated”: “The expression έτπθυμών χορτασθήναι ... is a typical Lukan construction to indicate an unfulfilled desire. It also occurs in Luke 15:16; 17:22 and 22:15. It is used to make the readers or listeners understand that Lazarus was unable to lay his hands on even the leftovers that could have been described as waste. It has to be pointed out that the similarity and the proximity of the usage of ετπθυμών χορτασθήναι to that of Luke 15:16 had made some scribes insert the phrase και ouδέis έδίδου αύτώ (and no one was giving anything to him) into the verse here as attested to by f and the vg.”
2. Adawale further makes the argument that the reference to dogs licking Lazarus’ wounds sounds like the lowest of the low in western ears, but in African culture – and evidence shows that this was true in the ancient near east as well – dog saliva is known to have beneficial effects for wounds and open sores.
3. The dogs’ assistance would be in strong contrast to the rich man’s lack of assistance. “... even the dogs” is my way of making this contrast evident.
4. Lazarus’ “longing to be satiated” is about the only hint of agency or will that we see of him in this parable.
Don’t hate me for this: A parable can say what a parable says, but I think one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the way Lazarus is depicted in this parable is that the poor person becomes a type, a pitiful helpless victim, with no genuine will, no agency, no say in the matter, and who is just sitting there as people of power decide what he ought to be told to do. I much rather prefer that moment when Jesus meets a blind man and asks, “What would you have me do for you?” At least in that encounter the blind man gets to speak for himself.
22 ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν
ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ: ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη.
Yet it happened that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels into the bosom of Abraham; Yet the rich man died also and was buried.
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, 2) to come to pass, happen
ἀποθανεῖν : AAInf ἀποθνήσκω, to die out, expire, become quite dead.
ἀπενεχθῆναι : API, ἀποφέρω, 1) to carry off or bring away
ἀπέθανεν: AAI 3s, ἀποθνήσκω, to die out, expire, become quite dead.
ἐτάφη: API, 3s, θάπτω, 1) to bury, inter
1. This is a difficult sentence to translate literally because ‘the poor man’ and ‘him’ are in the accusative and not the nominative case. The subject is the implied 3rd person singular of the verb “it happened.” I have modified my original translation because my aim to be as literal as possible ended up just too awkward for my satisfaction. In some ways, the syntax seems to add to the idea that this story is not about Lazarus, but about the unnamed rich man’s fate.
2. Now Lazarus, having been put at the rich man’s gate before death, is carried to Abraham’s bosom after death.
3. The brevity of the rich man’s fate – “and was buried” – is in contrast to Lazarus’ angelic flight to Abraham. Likewise, Lazarus is named, but the rich man remains anonymous. Just the way Jesus tells this story inverts the way people would have regarded the two men in life.
23καὶ ἐν τῷ ἅ|δῃ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ, ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις,
ὁρᾷ Ἀβραὰμ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν καὶ Λάζαρον ἐν τοῖς κόλποις αὐτοῦ.
And, having lifted up his eyes in hades, where he is being in torment, he sees Abraham from afar and Lazarus in his bosom.
ἐπάρας : AAPart, nms, ἐπαίρω, 1) to lift up, raise up, raise on high 2) metaph. to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one's self
ὑπάρχων : PAPart, nms, ὑπάρχω, 1) to begin below, to make a beginning 1a) to begin 2) to come forth, hence to be there, be ready, be at hand 3) to be
ὁρᾷ: PAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know 3) to see, i.e. become acquainted with by experience, to experience
1. There is a tradition at work in this parable that is not evident (as far as I know) in the Old Testament. It seems to be part of that rich theological development that happened around the 3rd century BCE, particularly with respect to the afterlife. It shows an influence of Greek religion – as evidenced by the reference to ‘hades,’ the Greek god of the underworld.
2. An interpretive question is whether one can build a theology about life after death based on a parable. One approach to an answer may be to determine whether the description of Hades, Abraham’s bosom, the great gulf in between, etc. are the point of the parable or simply a storied context for making a different point.
24καὶ αὐτὸς φωνήσας εἶπεν, Πάτερ Ἀβραάμ, ἐλέησόν με καὶ πέμψον
Λάζαρον ἵνα βάψῃ τὸ ἄκρον τοῦ δακτύλου αὐτοῦ ὕδατος καὶ καταψύξῃ τὴν γλῶσσάν μου, ὅτι ὀδυνῶμαι ἐν τῇ φλογὶ ταύτῃ.
And having called to him, he said, “Father Abraham, mercy me and send Lazarus in order that he might dip (baptize) the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, because I am suffering in this flame.
φωνήσας: AAPart, nms, φωνέω, 1) to sound, emit a sound, to speak 1a) of a cock: to crow 1b) of men: to cry, cry out, cry aloud, speak with a loud voice 2) to call, to call one's self, either by one's own voice or though another
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐλέησόν : AAImpv, 2s, ἐλεέω 1) to show mercy (more than have compassion), to have the desire of relieving the miserable, to show kindness by beneficence or help.
πέμψον: AAImpv 2s πέμπω, 1) to send 1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one 1b) to send (thrust or insert) a thing into another
βάψῃ: AAS, 3s, βάπτω, 1) to dip, dip in, immerse
καταψύξῃ : AAS, 3s, καταψύχω, 1) to cool off, make cool
ὀδυνῶμαι : PMI, 1s, ὀδυνάω 1) to cause pain or suffering. Here, passive or middle, to feel pain, to suffer.
to pain, distress. In NT only middle or passive, to be pained or distressed
1. “mercy me” sounds more like Marvin Gaye than Luke, perhaps, but the ‘me’ is in the accusative case, hence the direct object of the imperative verb ‘have mercy’. Most translations, for clarity, make ‘me’ an indirect object, “have mercy on me.” It could also be “show me mercy,” I suppose. I like "mercy me" because it forces me to think of mercy as a verb.
2. The rich man says to Abraham “mercy me” in the imperative voice, perhaps a sign that he has long been accustomed to giving orders and seeing it done. However, Luke uses “mercy me” 4x (here, 17:13, 18:38 and 18:39), each time in the aorist imperative, so it could imply desperation more than arrogance. Still, it is interesting to see someone use the imperative voice on Father Abraham, which the rich man does repeatedly here.
3. There seems to be a strong cultural criticism implied in the rich man’s presumption that Lazarus ought to be sent (after having been put at the gate then carried to Abraham) to do an act of servitude to the rich man.
4. If this is a true depiction of life after death, then we should get ready to listen to a bunch of whiny rich people trying to comes to terms with justice. Or, maybe “1st world” people in general ought to prepare to be the whiners.
25 εἶπεν δὲ Ἀβραάμ, Τέκνον, μνήσθητι ὅτι ἀπέλαβες τὰ ἀγαθά σου ἐν τῇ ζωῇ
σου, καὶ Λάζαρος ὁμοίως τὰ κακά: νῦν δὲ ὧδε παρακαλεῖται σὺ δὲ
Yet Abraham said, “Child, be reminded that you received your good things in your life, and Lazarus likewise the bad things; yet now he is comforted here but you suffer.
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
μνήσθητι: APImpv, 2s, to think much of a thing, and so to remember, to recall to one's mind, to begin to remember, remind.
ἀπέλαβες : AAI 2s, ἀπολαμβάνω, 1) to receive 1a) of what is due or promised παρακαλεῖται : PPI 3s, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon - every kind of speaking to which is meant to produce a particular effect, for example exhortation, comfort, encouragement.
ὀδυνᾶσαι: PMI 2s, to cause pain or suffering. Here, passive or middle, to feel pain, to suffer
1. Abraham’s use of “child,” corresponds with the rich man’s use of “Father Abraham.” It also seems to deflate the rich man’s presumption a bit.
2. It is interesting that Abraham frames the distinction in what the rich man and Lazarus both “received” in life, not in their accomplishments. If what the rich man had were things that he received, rather than earned or was entitled to, it makes the case for generosity as a result, rather than living sumptuously and refusing the needs of a desperate poor man.
3. It is further interesting that Abraham does not say, “therefore he is comforted while you suffer.” A “therefore” would have stated clearly that having a comfortable life before death means suffering after, and suffering before death means having a comfortable life after. Based on the way the story was begun, I think the rich man’s lack of attention to Lazarus while living sumptuously is the reason why he is in flames after death.
26 καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τούτοις μεταξὺ ἡμῶν καὶ ὑμῶν χάσμα μέγα ἐστήρικται,
ὅπως οἱ θέλοντες διαβῆναι ἔνθεν πρὸς ὑμᾶς μὴ δύνωνται, μηδὲ ἐκεῖθεν
πρὸς ἡμᾶς διαπερῶσιν.
And besides this between us and you a large chasm has been fixed, so that those who wish to cross over from here to you may not be able, nor likewise they might pass over to us.
ἐστήρικται: PerfPI, 3s, στηρίζω, 1) to make stable, place firmly, set fast, fix 2) to strengthen, make firm 3) to render constant, confirm, one's mind
θέλοντες : PAPart nmpl, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend 1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose 1b) to desire, to wish 1c) to love 1c1) to like to do a thing, be fond of doing 1d) to take delight in, have pleasure
διαβῆναι : AAI, 3pl διαβαίνω, 1) to pass through, cross over
δύνωνται: PMS 3pl, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
διαπερῶσιν: PAS 3pl, διαπεράω, 1) to pass over, cross over, i.e. a river, a lake
1. I can't imagine why Abraham feels the need to explain himself to the rich man, rather than ending his first sentence with "... so shut up." Again the story appeals to a theological tradition that is not immediately evident in the theological traditions of the Old Testament or in many other stories from the New Testament. I suspect that it is also not evident to Luke’s audience, because it seems a bit odd for Abraham to point out the gulf between them to someone who is sitting there on the other side of it.
2. I suspect that this verse is, in part, an attempt to show that Abraham’s unwillingness to show mercy to the suffering rich man is not an indication of cold-heartedness on Abraham’s part (as was the rich’s man’s unwillingness to offer aid to Lazarus), but simply an impossibility. Still, I must admit that I am a little troubled by the description of 'mercy' in this story, as "just deserts," that are contingent on one's previous actions.
27 εἶπεν δέ, Ἐρωτῶ σε οὖν, πάτερ, ἵνα πέμψῃς αὐτὸν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ
Yet he said, “Then I beg you, father, in order that you may send him into my father’s house,
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἐρωτῶ : PAI 1s, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question 2) to ask 2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
πέμψῃς: AAS, 2s, πέμπω, 1) to send 1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one 1b) to send (thrust or insert) a thing into another
1. This verse is a curious hybrid of deference and hubris. It is clear that the rich man has cultivated an ability along the way to speak humbly and deferentially (yet still asserting his will) to his superiors, while assuming that his and his family’s needs are more important than “the help,” like Lazarus.
28 ἔχω γὰρ πέντε ἀδελφούς, ὅπως διαμαρτύρηται αὐτοῖς, ἵνα μὴ καὶ αὐτοὶ
ἔλθωσιν εἰς τὸν τόπον τοῦτον τῆς βασάνου.
For I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, in order that they may not also come into this place of torment.
ἔχω: PAI 1s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
διαμαρτύρηται : PMS 3s, διαμαρτύρομαι, 1) to testify 1a) earnestly, religiously to charge 2) to attest, testify to, solemnly affirm
ἔλθωσιν : AAS 3pl, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
1. In verses 24-29 Abraham and the rich man are talking about Lazarus, who is present, but not active. We never hear his voice, his opinion on what he is being told to do, or anything of that sort.
29 λέγει δὲ Ἀβραάμ, Ἔχουσι Μωϋσέα καὶ τοὺς προφήτας: ἀκουσάτωσαν αὐτῶν.
But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.”
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἔχουσι: PAI 3pl, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀκουσάτωσαν: AAImpv 3pl, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 2) to hear
1. I like how this story has Abraham referring to Moses and the prophets. It shows a unity of the tradition and an echo of vv.16-17.
30 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Οὐχί, πάτερ Ἀβραάμ, ἀλλ' ἐάν τις ἀπὸ νεκρῶν πορευθῇ πρὸς
Yet he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead were to go to them, they will repent.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
πορευθῇ: APS 3s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one's journey
μετανοήσουσιν: FAI 3pl, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent 2) to change one's mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one's past sins
1. Note to self. Whatever the afterlife looks like, arguing with Father Abraham is not a winning strategy.
2. The rich man is showing some compassion for his brothers. That’s an point to pursue – he knows how to be concerned about the welfare of others, but his perspective seems to be limited to his own kin. If he had just channeled that concern to Lazarus along the way, both of their lives could have been richer. But, even now, Lazarus is simply of instrumental value to his concern for his kinsmen.
31 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ, Εἰ Μωϋσέως καὶ τῶν προφητῶν οὐκ ἀκούουσιν, οὐδ' ἐάν τις ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀναστῇ πεισθήσονται.
Yet he said to him, “If they are not listening to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should arise out of the dead.
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀκούουσιν: PAI 3pl, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἀναστῇ: AAS 3s, ἀνίστημι, 1) to cause to rise up, raise up 1a) raise up from laying down 1b) to raise up from the dead
πεισθήσονται: FPI 3pl, πείθω, 1) persuade 1a) to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe
1. The use of the present tense, ‘they have Moses and the prophets’ and ‘listening to Moses and the prophets,’ indicate that the Words of God given via the law and prophets were considered dynamic and present, not just a set of historical writings. This reminds me a bit of how Jesus argued that God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” indicated that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not dead but had an ongoing relationship with God – an argument that belief in resurrection is latent and assumed in the Old Testament.2. It is near impossible not to read this part of the story as casting a sideward glance to the reception that people either have or do not have to the message of Jesus’ resurrection. If we’re willing to go there, we might read Luke surmising that the good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not readily received as one might think. Or, we might read Luke arguing that the phenomenon of resurrection is not different in kind than ‘having’ and ‘listening’ to Moses and the prophets.