Historical Cultural Context
The Rich and the Poor
Jesus lived in a cultural world where people believed that all the goods of life (land, wealth, honor, blood, semen, etc.) were limited in quantity and already distributed. They lived by the norm “there’s no more where this came from” (Contrast the American conviction “there’s always more where this came from.”)
To get ahead or improve one’s lot in life was completely unthinkable. A person who gained something was always suspected of taking it–even if unintentionally—from someone else. This is shameful.
(Both the woman who found her lost coin and the man who found his lost sheep were obliged to prove to the community that this was indeed what was lost and not something that was stolen to replace the loss.)
This background defines “rich” and “poor” in Mediterranean culture. To be rich means, among other things, that one doesn’t work for a living. Zacchaeus, the “chief” of toll collectors in his region, hired collectors and levied a percentage on the toll for his support. He did not personally collect tolls.
To be poor is to have lost one’s basic status, whether landowner or beggar, temporarily. The Bible frequently mentions poor widows and orphans in one breath—neither status is viewed as permanent.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
This parable contrasts a rich and poor man. The rich man is clearly affluent and blessed with surplus. His cultural obligation, common to anyone with surplus, is to give alms.
Any windfall of wealth must be immediately distributed (see Lk 12:16-21). To retain surplus for oneself is to be greedy (Lk 12:15). In fact, it is perfectly appropriate to substitute “greedy” for the word “rich” in the New Testament.
Lazarus is described as a “poor man” who lay prostrate at the rich man’s gate. He is probably crippled and definitely covered with sores, an impurity doubly compounded by the wild dogs who lick them.
Curiously, Lazarus is not begging. How can the rich man give alms if Lazarus is not begging?
Hearers of this parable would think the worst of Lazarus: his illness suggests divine punishment. He’s clearly lost his status, and by not begging he makes no effort to regain his status.
The gate by which Lazarus posts himself performs two functions. It keeps Lazarus outside and the rich man inside; but it can also be the rich man’s entry into the world where he can give alms or become a patron to needy clients. This creates a gap between the two, which only grows larger as the story progresses.
Reversal of Position
The theme of reversal is common in ancient stories. The surprise in this story is that only after both characters die do we learn of the reversal. Here is the first indication that the rich man was derelict.
Even in death, the rich man “still does not get it.” He tries to trade on ancestral spiritual family privilege by addressing Abraham as “Father.” Surely status should help, but it doesn’t. Even more tactlessly, he still views Lazarus as his inferior. “Send Lazarus to refresh me!”
Abraham’s response concludes the parable and makes the point. The poor one who suffered “bad things” is now consoled; the rich one who was consoled with “good things” in life is now tormented. This is not a moral teaching; it is only an illustration of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20, 24).
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University