471 Commentary

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This page forms part of the resources for 471 Rich Man and Lazarus in the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation

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Kenneth E. Bailey

Drawing on his many years of living and teaching in Beirut, Kenneth Baily offers some fascinating insights into the Gospel traditions as he draws on a combination of ancient Arabic commentaries and contemporary Middle Eastern peasant perspectives.

In "The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man" (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies and the Gospels. ch. 30. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), Bailey offers a fresh reading of this week's Gospel passage. He assigns it to the category of "pearly gate story" that continues to be popular in modern Middle Eastern societies, but which have more to do with humorous reflection on "the ambiguities of public life in the Midle East" than providing a detailed outline of the speaker's view of the afterlife.

For those without easy access to his book, this essay is also available online.

For these notes, it may suffice to highlight three of the points Bailey offers in relation to the rich man, to Lazarus and to the friendly dogs:

  • Bailey notes that the first scene features a self-indulgent rich man, who feasted sumptuously every single day of the week (and thus ignores the Sabbath requirements for his servants to rest from their labours). This man is decked out in the most expensive purple robes and enjoys underwear made from the finest linen. Conspicuous consumption par excellence.
  • Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus' parables who is named. And his name means, "the one whom God helps." Watch this space, for blessed are the poor!
  • Then there are the dogs. Presumably there as savage guard dogs to patrol the rich man's estate (it boasted both door and gates), the dogs befriend Lazarus while their master ignores his plight as his pampered guests arrive each day to share his banquets. Bailey observes:
The rich man will do nothing for Lazarus, but these wild guard dogs, who attack all strangers, know that Lazarus is their friend and do what they can—they lick his sores. Lazarus lay each day in the heat and flies of the village street. The dogs gathered to help him.

Bailey then cites the comments of Ibn al-Tayyib, a medieval cleric, biblical scholar and medical doctor from eleventh century Baghdad:

I understand the licking of Lazarus's sores gave him relief and eased his pain. This reminds us that the silent, unspeaking animals felt compassion for him and they helped him and cared for him more than the humans. He was naked without medical attention other than what he received from the dogs.

John Dominic Crossan

Crossan [In Parables, 65f] considers this parables as one of several "Reversal Parables:" 447 The Good Samaritan, 474 Pharisee and Publican, 459 Place at Table (Wedding Guest), 460 Inviting the Outcasts (The Proper Guests), and 095 The Feast, and 465 The Prodigal Son. He begins the discussion of this saying with a reference to the literary unity of 16:1-31:

Whatever may be the redactional activity of Luke himself in all this it is clear that the positioning of 16:19-31 within this larger literary complex places the emphasis on the proper use of worldly goods and on the failure of the rich man to do so. But if 16:19-31 is isolated from this context furnished by the tradition and the focus is placed on its own internal content, what could such a story have meant for the historical Jesus?

Crossan dismisses the concluding section in 16:27-31 as originating with the early Church rather than with Jesus himself. He identifies four specific reasons for this view:

First, there is the theme of disbelief before the resurrected one in 16:31, "neither will they be convicned if someone should rise from the dead," and in 24:11,25,41, "and they did not believe them ... 'O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe' ... And while they still disbelieved." Second, there is the double mention of Moses and the prophets in 16:29,31 and 24:27,44. Third, the resurrected one is mentioned in 16:31, "one should rise from the dead," and in 24:46, "on the third day rise from the dead." Finally, the use of "they will repent" in 16:30 will reappear in Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; and 26:20 in kerygmatic contexts. Methodologically, Luke 16:27-31 cannot be taken as part of the original parable of Jesus. Most likely it is pre-Lukan and is a post-ressurectional application of the parable. It allegorically alludes to the Jewish refusal to accept either Moes or the prophets as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, or even to accept the risen Jesus himself. When one reads 16:31, "He said to them, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead,'" in its present context one thinks of Jesus and not the rich man.

Having separated the polemical conclusion from core parable, Crossan places the original saying in the context of ancient wisdom:

What is striking, especially against this background, is Jesus' omission of any moral preparation for the reversal or any ethical judgment on the earthly status of the participants. In a situation where riches were often construed as God's approval, and sickness often understood as God's curse or punishment, it cannot be immediately presumed that 16:19-26, as told here, would automatically beget moral judgment for Lazarus and against the rich man.
It seems best, then, to take 16:19-26 as an actual parable of Jesus. Its literal point was a strikingly amoral description of situational reversal between the rich man and Lazarus. Its metaphorical point was the reversaal of expectation and situation, of value and judgment, which is the concomitant of the Kingdom's advent. As the judgments which have to be made on the clerics as against the Samaritan are forcibly reversed, so also those which be expected concerning the sick beggar and rich man are turned upside down. Jesus was not interested in moral admonition on the dangers of riches--the folktale had already done this quite admirably--but in the reversal of human situation in which the Kingdom's disruptive advent could be metaphorically portrayed and linguistically made present.

Jesus Seminar

The commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 361) notes the divided opinion of the Fellows on the authenticity of this story, as reflected in the voting figures. While the votes were evenly split between Red/Pink and Gray/Black, the weighting system used by the Seminar resulted in a definite Gray outcome.

Factors weighing against the authenticity include:

  • the motif of reversal of the fortunes of the poor and the rich in the next world is widely-attested in the ancient Near East;
  • characters in Jesus' parables do not usually have personal names;
  • an interest in the fate of the poor is a key Lucan theme.

On the other hand, there are some aspects of this story that do fit with Jesus as storyteller:

  • the focus is on the extreme indifference of the wealthy man, not his wealth as such;
  • there is no judgment scene;
  • the reversal of their fates is similar to the reversals seen in 095 The Feast.

While half the Fellows were inclined to retain the core story within the historical Jesus database, there was near unanimity on the post-Easter origins of the conclusion in verses 27-31.