The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

The Gospel reading for the twenty-sixth Sunday in ordinary time is another story of mercy recounted only in Luke’s Gospel. Even as contemporary readers, we could well imagine that Matthew would take a pass on this story, since it challenges the status quo in a way the author of Matthew’s Gospel might want to avoid. This story seemingly pits the experience of two men, one a man of means, and the other an individual down on his luck. At a superficial level, Luke appears to present a situation where Jesus tells us that the wealthy really need to be cognizant of their responsibility for the social welfare of others.

If we were to leave the interpretation at that, we would be doing alright. However, as is often the case with Luke’s stories, there is way more going on than meets the eye. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus often veils his true intentions behind euphemistic language, or he cloaks the identity of real people by telling stories that are seemingly fables. In doing my homework on this Gospel reading a few years back, I came across a commentary that suggested the rich man actually represents an historic person. But he’s not a merchant, a lawyer or wealthy landowner.

What are the clues as to his identity? First he dresses in purple, but we know he is not a Roman patrician. Exodus 28 tells us that the vestments of the temple, the ephod and breastplate, are finished in purple.  Secondly, the man has five brothers. Third, when the rich man asks Abraham to inform his brothers, Abraham says, “they have Moses and the prophets.” In other words, the brothers of the rich man ought to know Jewish law and custom. According to the historian Josephus, Annas the temple high priest had six sons: Eleazar, Caiaphas, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, and Annas Junior. In other words, the “rich man” in Luke’s story is no ordinary person: he is the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, one of the sons of Annas, who collectively held a monopoly on temple leadership during the life of Jesus!

If the identity of the rich man is indeed a high priest of the Jerusalem Temple, then the complexion of the story changes somewhat. No longer understood as merely a wealthy person, Jesus tells us that those who neglect either the spiritual or the material welfare of others, especially if they are in a position to help, will be held to a very high standard of accountability.  Finally, Jesus equates this insensitivity with willful ignorance of the good news. Abraham is quoted as saying to the rich man, “if they will not listen to Moses, neither will they be persuaded should someone rise from the dead.”

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