For the last two Sundays, the lectionary has offered us parables of Jesus (Luke 15:1–10; 16:1–13). This coming Sunday, the lectionary leads us to another parable of Jesus—that of the rich man and the poor man (Luke 16:19–31).
Interestingly, in this parable, whilst the rich man in not named, it is the poor man whose name is noted: Lazarus. This is a latinised version of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God is my helper”. (It is only in later developments that the rich man acquires a name—Dives. This occurred in the Vulgate, an early Latin translation; the word dives simply means “rich man”, so it’s not really an actual name, just a shorthand descriptor.)
This parable is found only in Luke’s Gospel—one of many such parables. Some of them are much-beloved (the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the Prodigal Son in Luke 15); some are pointedly provocative (the two parables about banquets in Luke 14) or challenging (the parables of the widow and the judge, and of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in Luke 18); this one is deeply disturbing. Once again, Jesus is addressing the responsible way to use the resources at our disposal. The rich man was selfish in his use of all that he had; he did not ever deign to offer some of his wealth and resources to the poor man, Lazarus.
In Luke’s Gospel, there are many places where Jesus talks about the use of money and resources. Some replicate Mark’s Gospel, namely the encounter between Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10:17– 27; Luke 18:18–30), and the story of the widow in the temple (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 211–4).
Other passages, however, are added into Luke’s narrative. For Luke, the ministry of Jesus is characterized by “preaching good news” to the poor (4:18; 7:22). In his preaching, Jesus reassures the poor, “yours is the kingdom of God” (6:22), and promises the hungry, “you will be filled” (6:23). He contrasts this with the punishments due to the selfish rich and powerful who do not share their blessings (6:24–26).
The desperately poor (those who are desperate, with no home and no regular source of income—and no social security net, such as we know today) are very prominent throughout Luke’s “orderly account”. They are the ones who benefit from the message preached by Jesus: “he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (4:18).
Such teachings are reminiscent of the hymn sung by Mary, before the birth of Jesus: “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Those words themselves evoke many of the proclamations of the prophets of earlier eras. See
Subsequently, as an adult, Jesus tells parables in which the poor are reassured of their invitation to share in the feast of the kingdom (14:21; 16:19–31). The instruction is to be deliberate in broadening the groups of people who are to be welcomed at table: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13); “go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (14:21). The reason for this is made crystal clear by Jesus: “they cannot repay you, [but] you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14).
Jesus sends his followers out with minimal possessions (10:4), tells a parable of the rich man and his barns (12:13–21), and commands his followers to “sell your possessions” (12:32–34). He advises his followers, “you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13) and later commends Zacchaeus for giving half of his possessions to the poor (19:1–10). All of this, as we have noted, had long ago been sung out loud by his pregnant mother (1:52–53).
A simple statistical analysis shows that Jesus in Luke’s Gospel makes more references to the poor than in the other canonical Gospels. Alongside this, he also makes more references to people drawn from the upper classes of his society. They have a responsibility to share their resources with those who have much less. One such well-to-do person, a ruler with wealth, is instructed to “sell all that you own and distribute the moment to the poor” (18:22); soon after that, Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, who is transformed by Jesus to the extent that he says, “half of my possessions I will give to the poor” (19:8).
In the second volume of his orderly account, Luke reports that Joseph Barnabas from Cyprus “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). This exemplified the way that within the community of believes in Jerusalem, “as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold”, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34; so also 2:45).
As we read the story which Jesus tells of these two men—one rich, one poor—if we identify with Lazarus, the parable offers abundant grace. If we (as people living in the richest nation in the Western world) identify with the rich man (as we undoubtedly should), then the parable offers profound distress and enduring pain. It is a challenge!
Cover illustration: Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the 11th century Codex Aureus of Echternach
Top panel: Lazarus at the rich man’s door
Middle panel: Lazarus’ soul is carried to Paradise by two angels; Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom
Bottom panel: The rich man’s soul is carried off by Satan to Hell; the rich man is tortured in Hades