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THE IRREVERSIBLE REVERSAL

Read­ing Time: 12 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Amos 6:1a.4–7; Ps 145146; 1Tim 6:11–16; Luke 16:19–31)

I do not believe in a fate that falls on men how­ever they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act” (Buddha). Poverty is not a vir­tue. It is a piti­able an unfor­tu­nate con­di­tion…. Again, poverty is not among God’s cre­ations. It is the fruit of injustice, selfish­ness, greed­i­ness, neg­li­gence, unjust eco­nom­ic policies and reli­gious fanaticism.”

Introduction

Ori­gin­ally, the incid­ent of the rich man and the poor man was spe­cific­ally addressed to the Phar­isees. Today, it is addressed to us, so that we should not repeat the unfor­tu­nate mis­take of the rich man. Luke remains faith­ful to his claim of present­ing an orderly account (cf. Luke 1:3). This is true because in every instance, Jesus spe­cifies the audi­ence or recip­i­ent of his teach­ing. For instance: In 14:3, he addressed the Law experts and the Phar­isees; in 14:7, he addressed the invit­ees to a weed­ing feast; in 14:25, he addressed the crowd fol­low­ing him; in 15:2–3, he addressed the Scribes and the Phar­isees; in in 16:1, he addressed the dis­ciples; in 16:15 he addressed the Phar­isees. What about this Sunday Gos­pel? Judging from the con­text, it was also addressed to the Phar­isees (since the dis­ciples were also present, they must have listened attent­ively). In fact, Luke 17:1 spe­cifies that Jesus con­tin­ues to address the dis­ciples again. Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion this con­tinu­ation and didact­ic order is essen­tial for an adequate com­pre­hen­sion of the Lukan teach­ing and theo­logy. Our life should fol­low the same sequence of these mes­sages. A dis­ordered life is not worth living.

Understanding Luke 16:19–31

In Luke 16:9, Jesus advised his dis­ciples to make friends with their unright­eous wealth (mamōna tēs adiki­as), so that when such wealth fail, their friends will wel­come them into etern­al dwell­ing. Again, in Luke 14:12–13, Jesus made a list to the rich con­cern­ing those they should not invite (v.12) and those they should invite (v.13), whenev­er they give lunch­eon. Unfor­tu­nately, the rich man of Luke 16:19–31 ignored these advices. He could not befriend the poor man with his wealth so as to be wel­comed by him when even­tu­ally his riches fails. Secondly, Luke 16:20–21 indic­ates he invited only his fel­low rich men to his con­tinu­ous feast­ing, thereby, ignor­ing Jesus’ advice in Luke 14:12–13. If he had kept to this instruc­tion, what Jesus said in Luke 14:14 would have been ful­filled in him. That is, he would have been blessed and would have been repaid on the resur­rec­tion of the right­eous. Luke 16:19–31 is a reply to the Phar­isees’ reac­tion to Jesus’ teach­ing in Luke 16:1–13 (cf. Luke 16:14). This shows that the Gos­pel mes­sages are not mere theo­lo­gic­al for­mu­la­tions to be mem­or­ised ran­domly. On the con­trary, they are prac­tic­al guides on how to inter­act and live a life worthy of believ­ers. They are meant to change our life style, our vis­ion and approach to people, to things and to self. As the name implies, they are good news. And good news is meant to bring joy to the recip­i­ents because it glad­dens the heart. The rich man’s heart who feasted on daily basis was not gladdened because in place of good news, he received a troub­ling news due to his inab­il­ity to listen and adhere to the instruc­tions of the Gospel.

Reversal of fortune

Besides the gor­geous dress­ing of this rich man, Luke observes that he equally feasted sump­tu­ously on daily basis (Greek: euphrain­o­menos kath’ēmeran lamprōs). Both the purple (Greek: por­phura) and the lin­en tex­ture (Greek: bus­sos) worn by this man were gar­ments for prom­in­ent and rich people. While the former is an out­er gar­ment, the lat­ter is an inner gar­ment. It is because the man was rich that he could afford such costly gar­ments with which, he cus­tom­ar­ily (see the imper­fect ene­didus­keto, from endiduskō) dressed him­self. In the book of Esth­er (1:1–8), we read that king Ahas­uer­us who had also in his pos­ses­sion por­phura and bus­sos gave two ban­quets which las­ted one hun­dred and eighty days, and sev­en days respect­ively. As regards the rich man in Luke 16:19, the evan­gel­ist spe­cifies that the feast was nev­er inter­rup­ted since it was held every day (kath’ēmeran). To the splend­our of the rich man, fol­lows the piti­able con­di­tion of the poor man. Two dif­fer­ent worlds. Two oppos­ing groups of every soci­ety. While the rich man has no name, the poor man is rightly named Laz­arus, a name that reflects his poor status. The name Laz­aros derives from the Hebrew laʽez­ar, a rab­bin­ic abbre­vi­ation of ’elʽaz­ar, mean­ing “God helps” or “he/one whom God helps.” While the rich depend and entrust them­selves to their wealth, the poor depends and entrust them­selves to God. rightly did the psalm­ist say “I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heav­en and earth” (Ps 121:1–2).

Accord­ing to the book of Eccle­si­ast­es (9:2–3), every­one shares the same fate and the same fate awaits every­one; the right­eous and the wicked, the good and the bad; all share the same sort – death. In this com­mon lot, the rich man and the poor iden­ti­fied as Laz­arus were equal. How­ever, there is a big dif­fer­ence. Luke notes their con­di­tion is now reversed: the poor Laz­arus enjoy­ing what he could not enjoy while on earth, and the rich man pay­ing for all that he enjoyed dur­ing his earthly life (cf. vv.22–23). In oth­er words, it is now the poor Laz­arus who is feast­ing sump­tu­ously on daily basis while the once rich man now suf­fers ter­ribly on daily basis. Remem­ber, wealth and poverty are not respons­ible for their vari­ous con­di­tions. That is, the earthly rich man is not lan­guish­ing because he was rich, and the earthly poor man is not enjoy­ing etern­al bliss because he was poor. Des­pite the rich man’s sup­plic­a­tion (cf. v.24), it was not pos­sible to help him for two reas­ons. First, each is being rewar­ded for his oper­a­tions dur­ing his earthly exist­ence (v.25). Secondly, there is an enorm­ous gap between them (cf. v.26). Exactly the same gap that sep­ar­ated the two dur­ing their earthly sojourn. Luke has always sus­tained that the last will be first while the first last. Luke 16:19–31 is a true veri­fic­a­tion of such say­ing. While the rich man was first on earth, now he is last. On the oth­er hand, the poor Laz­arus was last on earth, but now he is first. Those who believe in life after death should learn the les­son. As Jesus will always say, let him or her who has ears hear.

The adverse effect of wealth and poverty

How­ever, it must be cla­ri­fied that the rich man was not tor­men­ted in Hades simply because he was rich, nor Laz­arus com­for­ted simply because he was poor. Some com­ment­at­ors (e.g. Mat­thew Henry) identi­fy the prot­ag­on­ists as the wicked rich man and the godly poor man. Luke nev­er says they were wicked or godly. After all, poverty does not make one godly, and wealth in itself, does not make any­one wicked. Fur­ther­more, it is not wicked­ness that led the rich man to the place of tor­ment, neither was it god­li­ness that led the poor to the place of bliss. Wealth did not make the rich man wicked and poverty did not make the poor man godly. There­fore, wicked­ness and god­li­ness have noth­ing to do with this story. Luke only wanted to cor­rect the unjust and unne­ces­sary clas­si­fic­a­tion of human beings into the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-not. These are products of injustice. They are human making.

Hav­ing noticed hope­less­ness of his con­di­tion, the once rich man (now poor), inter­ceded for his five broth­ers who were still on earth. Prob­ably, they lived like him. Even this request was not gran­ted. They have enough teach­ers and guidelines to live right­eous and just life. If they do not under­stand the lan­guage of their fel­low human beings, how can they under­stand the lan­guage of someone from the under­world? Hence, it was not neces­sary send­ing Laz­arus because they will cer­tainly ignore and reject him, the same way the rich (poor) man rejec­ted and ignored the teach­ings of Jesus and the rules of the Lukan community.

Luke 16:19–31 and 16:1–13

As indic­ated earli­er, Luke 16:19–31 should be read bear­ing in mind 16:1–13. In both epis­odes, Jesus con­tin­ues to under­line and, in some sense, con­demn the vir­us called injustice por­trayed in social and eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences, which lingered then among the bib­lic­al pop­u­la­tion, and which con­tin­ues to propag­ate in the con­tem­por­ary soci­ety. In fact, this Gos­pel exposes the immense gulf between the haves and the have not. The clas­sic­al offend­ing and dis­crim­in­at­ory for­mula ‘the rich and the poor’; ‘the developed coun­tries’ and ‘the third world nations’, under­line the massive injustice in the world. The author of the book of Gen­es­is explains that God cre­ated male and female (man and woman). But since we are more intel­li­gent(?), we have cre­ated the rich and the poor, and this is the way cit­izens are grouped in every nation and in the entire world.

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