A Reflection on Luke 16:19-31
A parable is a tricky literary creature. It seems so innocent, so easy to understand, but it changes meanings like a chameleon with every change in our life contexts. It is quite possible that Emily Dickenson gave us the best description of a parable using her stunning gift of poetry:
Tell the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
This is exactly how Jesus uses a parable. He tells the truth, but he tells it slant. The truth Jesus offered comes at us from an angle, it catches us slowly, unpredictably, and often off-guard. If Jesus were to tell us plainly what he wanted to convey, we would close our eyes and shut our ears. The divine truth is like a blinding light or crashing thunder if offered unfiltered.
Our parable today is an excellent example of such slant-told-truth. It begins as all parables do with the conversation that precedes the actual parable. This is where we learn what inspired Jesus to tell the parable. If we can understand why he told it, then we have a clue as to what Jesus wants us to consider or learn. In this case, the key to unlocking the parable is Luke 16:13 –
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.
15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
Jesus then tells a story, a parable, that draws the listener in. We all empathize with Lazarus. We all can easily despise the man luxuriating in his palace while Lazaus suffers outside his gates. We can all feel good that the “Rich Man” receives what he has coming, and Lazarus receives justice.
Then comes the part which hits us slant. While we are thinking about other things, that parable slips back into our minds. It whispers “What happens when we take Lazarus out of the picture and replace him with people in our own community. What happens when we place ourselves in the Rich Man’s shoes?”
Then we begin to see that this parable has nothing to do with the after-life. This is a parable about justice. It is told to encourage us to consider the ways in which we live that foster injustice. We don’t have to hurt anyone personally to be living unjustly. We can participate in injustice simply by not working to bring justice to those in need. We might, like the Rich Man think that we are following the rules and the laws, but Jesus is here asking us, “Are you really putting God first, or does God actually come several steps lower than our personal economy?”
Then the stunning finish to the parable brings reality home to us. “They would not be convinced to change even if a man rose from the dead and told them…” What if Jesus is asking us to stand in the Rich Man’s family shoes?
Here is another thought that came to me slant. It is easy to replace Lazarus with another person, but what about replacing Lazarus in this story with the Earth? We live in a time when the climate is changing dramatically, and we all can still choose to make a concerted effort to reduce the heating of the earth; heating which disproportionately hurts the poorest people in the world. Knowing that how we live affects people all over the world, we can choose to live in ways that will allow other people to simply be able to live.
We can also choose to deeply consider the phrase printed on the money we use, “In God We Trust.” I wrote a letter to Senator Cotton and Congressman Womack about the concern I and many Methodists have about the lack of attention our government is paying to the desperate need to control global climate change. They both replied that they cannot imagine supporting legislation that would damage the economy.
As if the climate does not rule our economy! Our economy is in a world of hurt if we don’t slow the heating of our climate.
The real issue is that far too many people in America, and far too many Christians in general put the economy far in front of God. In this parable, the question Jesus is asking, once we hear his slant is, “Do we really trust in God, or do we actually trust in money?”
The next questions are critical, “What would it take to offer justice to those being crushed by climate change, what would it take for us to change?” Jesus closes his parable wondering if we would change even if a man died, rose from the dead, and then challenged us to change. That is a great question.
May the Holy Spirt guide you in seeking the answers to divine questions.