Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
One of the main features of Luke’s Gospel is his collection of moving parables. This week we get the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The first two readings prepare us. The prophet Amos is writing just before the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered. He says, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” They are comfortable in their riches.
“Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” I think there is a double entendre here. In the prophet’s present, Joseph refers to the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons), the first and the final of the northern tribes to be conquered. But in history, it also refers to the poor brother sold into slavery. Amos argues that Israel will be conquered because they don’t care for their poor brothers.
“Like David, they devise their own accompaniment” on the harp: metaphorically, their actions form the accompaniment of their affections. Complacent hearts bear fruit in complacent lives.
Against that complacency, our final reading from First Timothy says, “pursue righteousness.” Paul reminds us that God gives life, and that Jesus gave testimony—two ways of saying we should be active, not complacent—and then points to the fulness of the commandments.
He concludes by reminding us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the King of Kings, whose Lordship we must recognize—and contrasts that to the God in “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” Its like Paul’s version of what First John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” It makes no sense to call God, or Jesus, Lord, if it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.
And it points us forward, to Matthew 25, “when did we see you hungry?”, and to Luke’s more colorful version of the same parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Where Matthew 25 moves directly from our treatment of the poor to our judgment when Jesus comes again, Luke’s version dwells in the human relationships.
The rich man has purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously every day. But he doesn’t have a name. He is depersonalized by his wealth.
The poor man has a name. Lazarus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar (or El-azar): God helps. He looks to the crumbs that fall from the man’s table, while sickness oozes from his own body. I always thought the dogs who licked his wounds were humiliating him, but I wonder if they are his only friends.
The poor man’s death is rich in relationships. The angels carry him, to the bosom of Abraham. I can’t find any other places where heaven is described this way—the parable is making a point about how relational heaven is. It’s not just individuals floating in the ether with a depersonalized God. Heaven is family.
Luke says that the poor man and the rich man see their fortunes reversed. But that reversal is not the whole story. It’s not just that accounts are balanced. It’s their quality of relationships that brings about the reversal. Lazarus isn’t in heaven because he’s poor, but because he leans on God.
The story takes a sophisticated turn when we see the rich man in hell. Again, we are not told directly why he is in hell—but it plays out in the story.
“Father Abraham,” he calls. A great theme of the Gospel is what it means to be a child of Abraham. Many of the Jews think it is their birthright. Jesus proclaims it a matter of faith. The rich man has one, but not the other.
In our translation, Abraham says, “My son.” But it’s important that he doesn’t say “my.” He doesn’t recognize him as a true son of Abraham. He just says, “child”—who knows whose child.
The rich man is pretending to have a relationship he doesn’t have.
Then he pretends to have another relationship. Again trying to call Abraham “father,” he says, “I have five brothers.” No surprise, he asks that Abraham make Lazarus his messenger boy, to warn his brothers. He cares, he says, about them, while instrumentalizing Lazarus.
But how often Jesus tells us that it is no love to love only those who give to you. If the rich man had no concern for Lazarus at his gate, Abraham is not impressed by this “love” for his brothers.
And we learn something about them: they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets. That means, first, that they aren’t true children of Abraham; they may have his blood, but not his faith. And it means, second, that they too are ignoring the call of Moses and the prophets to love your neighbor and care for the poor.
In short, Abraham calls him out on false love. It’s easy to say we love others. But the Gospel calls us to a more radical love.
And so too, Abraham says at the end, it’s easy to say you believe in the resurrection of the dead. But true faith means hearing the call of the Gospel and the call of the prophets, which includes the cry of the poor, and the call not just to love those who are convenient, but to love with the heart of Jesus. Only that love can welcome us into the family of heaven.
How do you fake love?