This coming Sunday is the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we took a moment to consider the flow of Sunday gospels leading to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. There is a continuity of teaching which collects thoughts on misplaced priorities, earthly wealth, being truly lost, counting the cost, and what fate awaits those who are lovers of what matters not to God. With all that in mind, today, we look at the details of the first movement of the reading.
Culpepper well describes this parable as a drama in three acts (Luke, 316):
- Act 1 – a tableau during which the characters are introduced and their way of life is described, but nothing happens
- Act 2 – the rich become poor and the poor become rich as each character has died and received their eternal reward
- Act 3 – narration give way to dialogue, but between the rich man and Abraham, in three exchanges:
- about the finality of judgment
- about the witness of Moses and the prophets
- about the blindness that prevents even the Resurrection from leading to conversion
Act 1 – The Tableau
The first three verses contain a sharp contrast in description between Lazarus and the unnamed “lover of money.”
- The rich man is clothed in purple and fine linen where Lazarus is covered with sores or ulcers
- The rich man “dined sumptuously each day” while Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the table, but can’t.
- The rich man lives a privileged life while Lazarus ebeblêto pros ton pulôna, literally, “had been thrown before the gate” of the rich man’s house.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the first word in a Greek phrase is a position of stress, as is the last word in a phrase. Even the Lucan grammar seems to stress the contrast between the two men:
- The first word in v. 19 is anthropos = “a person” and the last word in the phrase is plousios = “rich”
- where the first word in v. 20 is ptochos = “poor,” the last word in the phrase is “Lazarus,” a name meaning “God helps”
Perhaps Luke is making the point that “the poor” were not considered “people;” as well the rich depend upon themselves whereas the poor depend on God.
The rich man is splendidly robed and feasts on the finest foods (see Note below re: v.19) – a clear echo of the parable of the Rich Fool who is well satisfied: “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” (12:19). As the parable makes clear the flash and pomp of the rich man’s life in no way reflects the eternal glory that awaits the faithful.
Lazarus is the only character ever named in a parable. As mentioned above, the name means “God helps” and thus foreshadows Lazarus’ liberation even as its ironically contrasts his life – no one in this life helps Lazarus. He has been cast away at the rich man’s gate. He is a cripple beggar covered with sores and in the end dies. Green  comments about names:
… the fact that this poor, crippled man has a name at all is highly significant. The poor man’s only claim to status is that he is named in the story; this alone raises the hope that there is more to his story than that of being subhuman. The wealthy man, on the other hand, has no name; perhaps this is Jesus’ way of inviting his money-loving listeners to provide their own!
In our tableau the two characters live with a “stone’s throw” of each other and yet they never meet, never speak, nor are in any way neighbors. One is reminded of Jesus’ question to scribe (scholar of the law) in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which of these three [priest, Levite, Samaritan], in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?’ He answered, ‘The one who treated him with mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Our two main characters lived entirely separate lives, divided at table and divided by a gate.
Some interesting notes on some technical aspects of the text. In opening verses (19-20) there is much revealed in the words used:
- rich man: The oldest Greek manuscript of Luke dating from ca. A.D. 175–225 records the name of the rich man as an abbreviated form of “Nineveh,” but there is very little textual support in other manuscripts for this reading. The rich man is popularly known as “Dives” which is the Latin Vulgate’s translation for “rich man.”
- lying at his door: The Greek is ebeblêto pros ton pulôna, literally, “had been thrown before the gate.” The verb is passive, thus others (unnamed) dumped Lazarus at the rich man’s gate – perhaps other rich people who did want Lazarus at their gate? friends of Lazarus?
- poor man: the use of the word ptōchós (poor, destitute) in such close conjunction with ploúsios (wealthy, rich) gives us the suggestion that this parable is a narrative rendering of the first Beatitude and woe of Luke 6:20-24.
- Lazarus: The name of Lazarus, an abbreviated transcription of El-azar (“God helps”), appears in the NT only in the gospel of John and this parable. It is the only proper name to appear in a NT parable attributed to Jesus.
Image credit: Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the 11th century Codex Aureus of Echternach, Public Domain at Wikipedia