As I sit here, trying to derive a homily for Sunday, I sometimes find it helpful to do some exegesis on the passage. I wrote out my notes, and they follow.
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day…."
Why did the Lord tell this parable to the Pharisees? Was he speaking to a particular group? Was he visiting someone’s house, looking around at the guests at a meal? What might the Lord have seen as he approached the house?
If you look at the larger section of the Gospel, to discover the setting for this, the only hint you get is back at Chapter 14, it begins, "On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully." Whether all that follows took place at that dinner is not clear, but it’s possible.
"And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,"
—note the vivid contrast in what "covers" each: "purple garments"…"sores."
"who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores."
The contrast—between what a dumb animal does and what a human being fails to do—is striking.
"When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,"—
Was poor Lazarus not buried? Why not? Was this part of the Rich Man’s failure, that he didn’t even notice, or care, about a corpse at his doorstep? Or was he not buried because the angels carried him away? If he was not buried, that of course would be a noteworthy injustice, as burying the dead is a very fundamental act of mercy, a duty we owe one another.
"and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'"
Note: the Rich Man recognizes Lazarus! He knows his name.
"Abraham replied, 'My child,"—
This comment makes clear that the Lord’s parable is about a Jew, not a pagan.
"…remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."
We might here ask the question: just what did condemn the Rich Man to torment? Was it merely because he was rich? The text might be read as saying something like that--or even, "you were fated to have your good times in time, and bad in eternity--that's how it works sometimes!" But that would be very hard to reconcile with the rest of what is revealed to us by God. Being rich, per se, is not a sin, but it can be a snare.
The parable seems to raise the question: what was the Rich Man's responsibility regarding Lazarus? The details of the story suggest that the Rich Man's sin was the total lack of concern, his complete passivity: he didn't even provide scraps of food, worthless to himself; he provided no help to a sick man, so that only dogs could be counted on to provide comfort; and--if this is the meaning--he neglected a corpse. There is nothing to suggest the Rich Man had to divest himself of his wealth, in order to be saved. But he ought to have done something for Lazarus, but he did absolutely nothing.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’"
The reason someone might wish to go from torment to Abraham’s bosom is obvious; but for what reason might anyone wish to take the opposite journey?
"He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'"
Interesting: the Rich Man shows some concern for his fellow man. One could take that a couple of ways: (1) Does this reveal that someone in hell can still have a decent impulse? Or (2), does it serve rather to advance the narrative—to prepare for the final part of the story—and therefore, should not be read as suggesting someone in hell is capable of such impulses. I tend to the latter, because it seems to me the nature of damnation—of being "lost"—suggests the sparks of decency have been extinguished. But that reflects my own view of salvation and damnation.
"But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.'"
This is worth noting here. You will hear people make rather breezy comments about the Four Gospels, trying to contrast them one from the other, and in doing so, will create oppositions between them, and their messages, that the texts themselves don’t support. So, for example, folks will say, "Oh, Mark emphasizes the humanity of Christ, John the divinity." Well, there’s a kernel of some truth in that, but really, that’s so misleading: they both present our Lord as very much God, and very human.
Or, someone will say, "Oh, Matthew is very Jewish, while Luke—who was a Gentile—goes the other way." So many flaws built into such a facile contrast. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall anything definite on whether Luke was ever a Jew—i.e., he might have converted to Judaism or been on the way to doing so. But in any case, folks who say such things haven’t read either Gospel closely enough. Matthew, for example, begins with the genealogy, which many people skim past.
It is very revealing, including the highlighting of many Gentile ancestors of our Lord, who—if you look closely—was adopted: i.e., he is presented as belonging to Joseph’s lineage, and yet, the text makes crystal-clear that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception of Jesus. Of course, this doesn’t call Jesus’ Jewishness into question, but in the context of the genealogy, with several Gentiles included, it presents the picture of the Church that St. Paul preached: of the Gentiles being "grafted in." And if you go carefully through Matthew, you’ll find lots more—i.e., all in anticipation of Matthew’s closing scene, where Our Lord says, "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…"
Then, here, in Luke, you have something like this phrase, which is remarkable—Our Lord is saying, the Law and the Prophets are sufficient. Our Lord would say many times that they point to him, that he is the Message of the Law and the Prophets. Sounds like something that was supposed to be in Matthew! Yet here it is in "very Gentile" Luke.
My point is not to deny contrasts and differences among the Gospels, but to point out that many make far too much of them; and many try to come up with shorthand descriptions of the individual Gospels that distort the picture.
"He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"
Many have noticed the following. First, of course, that we know Our Lord will die and rise from the dead—and many will still not be persuaded.
Second, some find very interesting that there was a Lazarus, who died and rose from the dead, and yet folks were not persuaded by that. They note additionally, Abraham did not actually refuse this latter request.
This is fascinating, no question, but I should note, however, a caution on the latter point: the raising of Lazarus from the dead is part of the Gospel of John, not Luke; Luke nowhere mentions it, or that Lazarus, if memory serves. So while there may be an historical connection, there is no textual connection—we cannot assume, without other evidence, that Luke is expecting his reader or hearer to know that other story, because it may not have been written yet, and we don’t even know if Luke knew about that other Lazarus. Yes, it’s a spectacular story, but so many things Our Lord were spectacular, and he raised others from the dead. We know Luke doesn’t include the story, but we don’t know why. If John did write his Gospel after Luke—we really don’t know—but if he did, it’s possible he had this parable in mind. But since John doesn’t include this parable, one might wonder—did he know about it?
For some, this may seem too esoteric; but many mistakenly combine different stories into one, or assume that if someone named "Lazarus" is mentioned more than once in the Gospels, then of course they all must be the same person. In fact, the Lazarus described in John is not a poor beggar, abandoned by all, but a man of some means, with many friends. I am at a loss to reconcile the two Lazaruses; if someone knows how that is done, please share. In the meantime, it seems better not to try.
Now, above I faulted those who make too much of each Gospel’s particular features, so I want to be careful not to do so myself. But this parable—which only appears in Luke—shows one of the things he is known for emphasizing: the reversal of rich and poor, mighty and lowly. Some find Luke the most "revolutionary" Gospel—if Liberation theologians preferred Luke, I could see why.
(By the way, "liberation theology" is not entirely bogus—it has many valid points. It’s error lay in focusing far too much on salvation in this world’s terms, through political or social change. And that is usually how it is with teachings that are deemed error or heresy—it’s not that they aren’t true, as far as they go, but rather, they don’t go far enough. Or they aren’t broad enough—they make too much of a true insight, but in isolation from the broader truth, and thus arises their error.)
This Gospel, along with the first reading, are naturals for a homily on social justice, as were last week’s readings. FYI.
A few more notes.
Somewhere or another, I've seen Catholic apologetics use this passage to support praying to the saints, i.e., asking the saints to intercede for us. They point to the following details: the Rich Man seeks Abraham's help (i.e., Abraham is a saint, although we are not accustomed to calling him that), as well as Lazarus'; and it shows people in eternity well aware of, and concerned for, people in this life. I.e., those who don't pray for the dead, and/or don't seek the intercession of the saints, often say, "I wonder if people in heaven know anything about what's going on here." Because, of course, if they did, you'd have a hard time explaining why they don't pray for us...and if they know, and pray, then merely thinking about someone in the next life, and wishing they would pray for you...oops! you just prayed to someone in heaven, asking for intercession!
While you can make these points, I'm not sure you can go further, and assert that Our Lord, or Luke, intended this parable to address these questions.
Finally, someone may wonder why the Rich Man is sometimes called "Dives." If memory serves, that is a Latin word for "Rich Man."