The story of the rich man and poor Lazarus is set within a series of Jesus' teachings to his disciples. It is composed of two parts. The first sets the stage for the dialog between the dead rich man and Abraham. In the dialog itself, the rich man pleads first for himself and then for his brothers. The story reflects the popular understanding of life after death at the time of Jesus. We are told only that Lazarus is poor and afflicted and that the rich man did nothing to aid this pitiful man who lived on his doorstep. In death, Lazarus was with Abraham and the rich man was in the torment of Hades. His request that Lazarus aid him was denied, since he had failed to aid Lazarus in his life. Nor can Lazarus come back from the dead to warn the rich man's brothers. If they did not learn from the Scriptures, they would turn a deaf ear even to one who returned from the dead. The story makes several points. The first is the way our destinies beyond death are determined by our lives in this world. The second is the importance of sharing our wealth with the needy. But the story also discourages any hope that even the miracle of the risen Christ can easily reverse the hardness of the human heart toward others in need. It claims that the Holy Spirit working through God's Word is the way we are changed in our attitudes and actions toward others.
The story of the wily steward has been a problem for interpreters. Does Jesus encourage dishonesty? As verse 8 shows, he is rather contrasting the clever industry of the this-worldly with the lethargy of children of the kingdom. Whether the steward is moral or immoral in his actions is not the point of the comparison. The charge against him was not dishonesty, but wastefulness and mismanagement. Jesus’ teaching, however, is an appeal for the “children of light” to be as enterprising in their pursuit of the kingdom as this steward was in trying to make a place for himself in this world. He follows this with a corollary on the use of worldly wealth in preparing for eternity. The crafty steward used his money to prepare an earthly dwelling. But, earthly wealth, though it may be associated with evil, can be put to good use for God’s kingdom. It can be given as alms to the poor and lowly so that their benefactor may share with them a place in the kingdom. A conclusion about stewardship is drawn for the followers of Jesus. As in this world, so in the kingdom” trustworthiness in small things leads to a greater trust. This refers to spiritual realities but is also concerned with physical stewardship. There is always the danger of subordinating the spiritual to the material without realizing that a new master had taken over.
This chapter is bound together by the theme of joy over the recovery of what was lost. All three parables apply to the return of the repentant sinner; the story of the prodigal son develops the theme of God’s love and adds the contrast of the older brother’s hostility. Jesus is surrounded by “tax collectors and sinners,” causing murmuring among the scribes and Pharisees (see 7:39). Jesus addresses his listeners directly: “What man among you…?” What he suggests all will do in going after the one lost sheep is actually not what many of us would do, but the attractiveness of this extravagant individual concern makes the listener want to agree. We are drawn into God’s world, seeing and acting as he would. The shepherd’s joy is like God’s joy; his dedication to the individual sheep, carrying it back to the flock, is a reflection of God’s love. A different image is used in the second parable to the same effect. The woman has lost one of her ten silver coins. She turnes her house upside down in search of this one coin in ten. What about the other sine silver pieces and the ninety-nine sheep—are they not important, too? Surely, but the joy of the kingdom breaks out of the ordinary categories of reason and good business. It is like a new life, a resurrection, and must be celebrated.
The story of the carelessness of those invited to the banquet has been linked by Luke to other sayings spelling out the seriousness of discipleship. The call to follow Christ cannot be taken up half-heartedly; such an attitude is a tragic miscalculation. These verses re-establish the tone set at the beginning of the journey toward Jerusalem (9:57-62). Jesus returns to the theme of family division that might come because of the gospel (see 12:51-53). Jesus says his disciples must hate father and mother and family. This is a Semitic exaggeration to stress that anyone who stands in the way of thorough commitment to Jesus, even one’s closest relations, must be renounced. “Hate” in this sense means “prefer less.” Discipleship is thus an all-consuming vocation. Jesus uses two examples: a wise builder would not begin a project without assessing his ability to complete it; only a madman would go into battle without considering the odds. For the Christian disciple, renunciation is the salt of discipleship. When a follower of Jesus begins to hold anything back, discipleship becomes a charade.
Jesus addresses a parable to the guests and gives advice to his host. In both speeches he appeals to what would seem to be base motives. Guests are urged not to seek the first places at table, not because this sort of self-promotion and pride is wrong, but in order that they may later be honored. Jesus is using this worldly image, though, only because it is so familiar. Hos point is made in the pronouncement: “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” Self-exaltation must not be sought. A similar unworthy motive appears superficially in Jesus’ words to the host. The point is that in doing good we should serve freely, without regard for our own prospects, leaving the recompense to God. This is the way Jesus went about doing good, emptying himself for others without counting the cost. The kingdom is for everyone, and our hospitality is to embrace all, especially those who are overlooked by people with only selfish motives. The good news is that with Jesus in our hearts, we are able to do good without counting the cost.
Two Sabbath incidents have already been presented (6:1-11). The Sabbath cure is inserted here as an example of the hypocritical blindness Jesus has been describing (12:54-57). The synagogue official cannot see what is happening right before his eyes—the inbreaking of the kingdom in the freeing of this crippled woman from eighteen years of suffering. He has become too blinded by the letter of the law to recognize its spirit. The Pharisees allowed animals to be taken care of on the Sabbath (see 14:5); why begrudge this woman an extraordinary gift of God? The official’s reaction is predictable: rather than confront the miracle-worker, he vents his ire on the people. The action produces division; the judgment is already taking place. Certainly Jesus could have waited until the Sabbath was over. The woman’s ailment was not life-threatening. She had coped with it for 18 years. Jesus healed her on the Sabbath to demonstrate how dependent we are on God for some things we cannot do for ourselves, like be born, heal ourselves, and most importantly save ourselves.
Jesus has given his disciples a glimpse of the culmination of his mission in the return of the Son of Man at the time of judgment. He is already engaged in the task of lighting a fire on the earth. Judgment is taking place as people decide for or against him. Fire is a symbol for the Holy Spirit as well (Acts 2:3-4); the fire of the Holy Spirit will be cast on the earth through the fulfillment of the events for which Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem. Jesus means by his “baptism” the plunge into this saving mission, a prospect that produces mixed emotions because of the suffering connected with it. Some of his teaching on forgiveness and peace may have given the impression that he was spreading a soft gospel. Jesus assures his listeners that Christian discipleship is costly, even causing division in the family. The Gospel challenge is clear. Anyone who can see the clouds or feel the wind can certainly see the signs of the times. There is still time for decision, warns Jesus, but do not put it off. When judgment comes, you will wish you had settled out of court.
The words of Jesus in the Gospel text can only be understood within the context of a crisis that was closing in upon the “little flock.” What was this crisis? First, the crisis could be the problem which is still an issue in the church today—the return of Jesus. Second, the crisis could also be the pressures which was brought on by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Third, Jesus lives at a time of radical changes. Luke shares sayings of Jesus about the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the world (parousia) and the judgment. Central to the test of faith is the challenge of constant readiness for the Master’s return. In several ways Jesus emphasizes that the time of the return will be a surprise (17:20; Mark 13:33). Comparisons are made to the return of a master from a wedding, when the coming is certain but the timing is not, and to the coming of a thief, when not even the coming is certain. The disciples of Jesus are to be ready to open to the Master “immediately when he comes.”
Jesus is interrupted in his instruction of the disciples by a man who wants help in acquiring his rightful share of the family inheritance. Besides being rude, the interruption betrays an insensitivity to what Jesus has just said about matters of essential importance. Rabbis were often asked to arbitrate in family disputes. Jesus certainly has the authority to do this, but he sees behind the question the very greed he warned the Pharisees about (11:39-42). He uses the opportunity to tell a parable about the trap of possessions. The rich man would be the envy of most people—so wealthy that he does not have room to store his goods. But he is a fool because in the midst of his good fortune he has lost the sense of what is really important. He imagines that he can control his life. Possessions create this kind of illusion. The rich man is really poor in the sight of God. He does not even think about the possibility of sharing what he has with others. The implications of this story will be carried further in the tale of another rich man (16:19-31).
The disciples realize that the right relationship to the Father (and to Jesus) is sought in prayer. Jesus, like John the Baptist, must have a distinctive insight into prayer flowing from his mission. In response to the disciples’ question, he reveals the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer begins with Jesus’ distinctive address for God, “Father” (Hebrew: Abba), and pray first for the glorification of God’s name on earth and the full establishment of his kingdom. Then it turns to the disciples’ needs: God’s continual protection day by day and his sustaining support in the face of the “final test” at the end of time. Then, God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. The story of the midnight visitor and the saying following it are a strong admonition to perseverance in prayer. God always responds to our prayer in ways that are best for us, though not perhaps in ways that we would expect or like. The extravagant examples of the sleeping friend and the father who would give snakes and scorpions to his children drive home the absurdity of thinking of the heavenly Father as harsh or cruel. God wants the best for us—which ultimately is the Holy Spirit, the gift of the age to come (see Acts 2:17). “Ask…seek…knock” are three different descriptions of petitionary prayer; but “seek” also implies the search for the kingdom of God and union with the Father.