A tale of two rich men

09 Mar

So I’m reading Luke 16 yesterday.

Familiar turf.

Two parables I’ve generally read on their own merits, as isolated units – and that I’ve also tended to see through the same glasses. Funny how that happens with so much in life.

But yesterday they stood out together. Two tales of two rich men in Luke 16. Perhaps the insight would have been there through my reading the chapter in English, but it was in Greek yesterday, and the identical words in the Greek text at the opening of each parable stood out quite glaringly. “There was a certain rich man…” And then to see the two stories punctuated with the notice that the religious elite sneered at Jesus because they were lovers of money (“Pharisaioi philargurioi” a delightful, rhythmic pairing of words: “Pharisee silver-lovers”). Jesus tells them they only value what is esteemed on a human level and that God takes an entirely different view of things. A good point to remember as we are subtly and often not so subtly pulled into the latest human fashions culturally, morally, religiously, theologically…

But back to the point. Yesterday I saw these stories yoked together and from that yoking saw them reflecting the one upon the other and back again. I was struck that we call the first story “The Dishonest Steward” (at least that’s the marginal heading in my Greek Bible) when Jesus doesn’t even use the word “dishonest” to describe him. I think our assumption is that this steward was guilty of graft but got caught and so faced termination. What in fact Jesus says as he begins the tale is that a certain rich man had a steward (financial manager) who was accused of wasting his goods. Accused. It’s the verb form of “devil” (verb diaballo “to slander;”noun  diabolos “accuser, devil”) and means to “traduce, calumniate, slander, defame.” The verb is used only here in the entire New Testament. When used outside of the New Testament, it is on occasion used of someone passing on a charge based on truth but even then it was with slimy, hostile intent. Yes, this steward is slimed. And the certain rich man doesn’t investigate the charges; there is no hearing. The man is given two week’s notice. He is to clear out his desk and leave a final report of his doings when he leaves. If there is injustice in the story it’s the treatment the steward just received at the hands of his employer. Now he goes about showing great generosity to his employer’s accounts by significantly downsizing their past due amounts. And everyone loves him – and his employer is impressed. Savvy generosity. Reminds me of the ending of Fun With Dick and Jane.

Then there’s the second story. The certain rich man who “fared sumptuously every day” while the poor (ptochos is the Greek word here for poor – one completely destitute of work or resource or help or pity; the “p” in ptochos is not silent, you literally have to spit the word out) man Lazarus (meaning, appropriately, “God help him”) sits daily at his gate. And gets nothing from him. Only the dogs notice him and pay him any mind. And you know the story. Both die. Role reversal afterlife. Rich man in torment looking for a little comfort but finding none – and even his notion of having Lazarus come back from the dead and warn his five brothers of his fate is rebuffed. If they’re not listening now, resurrection won’t do anything to improve their hearing.

Seeing both of these rich man tales juxtaposed, mirroring each other, with the Pharisees sneering in the middle as they lapped up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, I suddenly saw both in a new light. Both stories serve, among other things, as a picture of what was unfolding in Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees finding themselves in the uncomfortable shoes of two rich men they so admired and wished to emulate. For the first unjustly dismisses his manager as he panders to slanderous charges, revealing himself as not only out of touch, but lacking in character and heart, ungenerous in his assumptions and judgment. The second rich man fares no better; the flawed, ungenerous heart is amplified in his callous dismissal of the poor man sitting right in front of his face, day after day.

And there’s Jesus – on the one hand a falsely accused “steward” of the house who is summarily dismissed by the silver-loving Pharisees as they not only listen to devilish charges against him, but who actually help contrive them. But Jesus outdoes them with his own savvy generosity as he freely dispenses scandalous grace, downsizing the debts of losers who would most surely been left “on the hook” by religious book keepers. And then there he is, the poor beggar outside the wealthy man’s gate, the man not giving him the proverbial time of day. He was only judged worthy by the dogs – the despised nobodies who gathered around him and “licked his sores.” And then Jesus, of course, ends the story by using the Pharisees’ cherished eschatological picture of heaven and hell, unbearable pain and unbelievable joy but giving it the exquisite twist of the great reversal as their hero is in torment and what they consider human waste (God help him) is in paradise.

Okay, I’ve never seen this in any commentaries on Luke or heard a scholar write it up in a thesis – and so I wouldn’t offer it up as a definitive commentary. But it will do as havering, as musing. And just to see some new hues in familiar settings was a treat for the day.

Just how many layers unexplored, how many facets unseen are there in this thing we call the Word…

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Posted by on March 9, 2011 in Gospel of Luke, New Testament


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