Context and Continuity

This coming Sunday is the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Lectionary Cycle C. The gospel is the well-known parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). It is perhaps good to pause and consider the flow of the Sunday gospels which have brought us to this point. Can you recall them?

  • 22nd Sunday – concerns about status at banquets and the admonition: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (14:13)
  • 23rd Sunday – with a focus on counting the costs of discipleship in that following Jesus places the concerns of the Kingdom above all other concerns, including family. (14:25-33)
  • 24th Sunday – the great parables of the “lost” from chapter 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.
  • 25th Sunday – the parable of the dishonest steward (16:19-31)

Especially in the last two Sundays we have heard the parable of the Prodigal Son followed by the story of the Dishonest Steward – both stories featuring rich men and concern the handling of money (among other key topics). This week our reading again features a rich man but this time in contrast to the poor Lazarus. But all the gospels share a theme about being concerned with the things that do not matter to God: status, self importance and earthly wealth. But the gospels also share another feature: the audience.

The disciples are ever on the scene, but there have been no “markers” to indicate a change in location and so the Pharisees present at the beginning of Luke 14 remain on the scene listening. At this point, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him. And he said to them, ‘You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.’” (Luke 16:14-15)

What began as simple listening eventually became grumbling (15:1–2) and has evolved into ridicule. In mocking him, they disassociate themselves from him completely. Their response is geared towards eliminating any possibility that others will regard Jesus as a legitimate agent of God and interpreter of the Scriptures. To the degree that an echo of Ps 22:8 (All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me) can be heard, however, such scorn is ironic, self-defeating, for this is just the sort of behavior expected of those who resist God’s righteous one.

Jesus describes these people as an “abomination” (bdelygma) before God (v.15). Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina, 255) writes about this word: Its first and most obvious reference is to “idolatry” in the biblical tradition. But the term is also used in two other important connections in Torah, once in condemning financial misdealing (Dt 25:16), and once in condemning a divorced man cohabiting again with his former wife (Dt 24:4). Idolatry, money, and divorce are joined by the term bdelygma.

This directly speaks to the Pharisees as ones who are ignoring the warning of v.13 “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Since they love money, they are not serving God.

Perhaps our parable is better titled “Rich Men and Lovers of Money” in order to convey its thematic unity and serve as an apocalyptic warning to those who pursue the treasures of earth; they are “an abomination in the sight of God” (v.15).  Certainly that is the fate of the rich man in our parable and the fate that awaits his five brothers.  Tempting as the title is, the title then also runs the risk of losing sight of Lazarus, the parable’s protagonist who never speaks a word. While such an emphasis points to the rich man’s torment as a fulfillment of the earlier warning: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17) one may lose sight of the fulfillment that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the hungry (6:20-26).

Image credit: Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the 11th century Codex Aureus of Echternach, Public Domain at Wikipedia

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