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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Luke 16

 

 

Verse 1

XVI.

(1) There was a certain rich man, which had a steward.—There is, perhaps, no single parable that has been subjected to such various and discordant interpretations as this of the Unjust Steward. It seems best to give step by step what seems to be a true exposition of its meaning, and to reserve a survey of other expositions till they can be compared with this.

The word “steward” had, we must remember, been already used by our Lord in Luke 12:42, and had there pointed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to the office of the Apostles and other ministers, as dispensers of divine truths, and perhaps also, of the means of grace. So St. Paul, whose language is, as we have seen in so many instances, always important in connection with St. Luke’s vocabulary, speaks of himself and his fellow-labourers as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” He has learnt, may we not say, from the parable, that “it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). We start, then, with this clue. The Unjust Steward represents primarily the Pharisees and scribes in their teaching and ministerial functions. But though spoken in the hearing of the Pharisees, the parable was addressed, not to them, but “to the disciples.” And the reason of this is obvious. They, too, were called to be “stewards;” they, too, collectively and individually, would have to give an account of their stewardship. But if this is what the steward represents, then the rich man, like the “house-holder” in other parables, can be none else than God, who both appoints the stewards and calls them to account. In the further extension of the parable it is, of course, applicable to all who have any “goods” entrusted to them, any gifts and opportunities, any vocation and ministry in the great kingdom of God.

The same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.—(1) The Greek word for “was accused” commonly carries with it the idea of false, calumnious accusation. Probably, however, the idea connected with it, as seen in the word diabolos, or devil, which is derived from it, is that of malignant accusation, whether the charge were true or false. It is conceivable that it may have been purposely chosen to suggest the thought that the great Adversary was at once tempting the double-minded teachers to their life of hypocrisy, and exulting at their fall. If we ask why this was only suggested and not more directly expressed, as it would have been if some one accuser had been named, the answer is found in the fact that the one great Accuser has many mouth-pieces, diaboli acting under the diabolos (the Greek word stands for “false accusers” in Titus 2:3), and that there was no lack of such comments, more or less malevolent, on the inconsistencies of the professedly religious class. (2) There is an obvious purpose in using the same word, in the hearing of the same persons, as that which, in Luke 15:13, had described the excesses of the Prodigal Son. The Pharisees had heard that parable, and even if they had caught the bearing of the language which portrayed the character of the elder son, had flattered themselves that they were, at all events, free from the guilt of the younger. They had not “wasted their substance in riotous living.” Now they were taught that the “goods” committed to them might be wasted in other ways than by being “devoured” in company with “harlots.” They were guilty of that sin in proportion as they had failed to use what they had been entrusted with for the good of men and for God’s glory.


Verse 2

(2) How is it that I hear this of thee?—(1) The opening words of the steward’s master imply wonder as well as indignation. They remind us so far of the words of the lord of the vineyard in another parable, “Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:4). Speaking after the manner of men, it was a marvel and a mystery that men with so high a calling as the scribes and teachers of Israel should have proved so unfaithful to their trust. (2) The words that follow, “Give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward,” while they admit legitimately enough a personal application to each individual at the close of any period of trust and probation, and therefore at the close of life, are yet far from being limited to that application, and in their primary significance, do not even admit it. The close of a stewardship, for a party like the Pharisees—for a school like that of the scribes—for any Church or section of a Church—is when its day of judgment comes, when its work in the Kingdom is done, when history, and God in history, pass their sentence upon it. And that day of judgment was coming fast upon those who then heard the parable.


Verse 3

(3) I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.—In the outer framework of the parable there is something eminently characteristic in this utterance of the steward’s thoughts. He has lost the manliness and strength which would have fitted him for actual labour. He retains the false shame which makes him prefer fraud to poverty. He shudders at the thought that it might be his lot to sit, like Lazarus, and ask an alms at the rich man’s door. Spiritually, we may see what happens to a religious caste or order, like the Pharisees, when it forfeits its true calling by misuse. It has lost the power to prepare the ground for future fruitfulness by the “digging,” which answers, as in Luke 13:8, to the preliminary work of education and other influences that lie outside direct religious activity. It is religious and ecclesiastical, or it is nothing. It is ashamed to confess its spiritual poverty, and to own that it is “poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Anything seems better than either of those alternatives.


Verse 4

(4) I am resolved what to do.—More literally, I know, or even, I knew, as of a man to whom a plan occurs suddenly. The dramatic abruptness of the parable leaves us uncertain who “they” are that are to “receive” him. The context that follows immediately supplies the deficiency. What answers to this, in the interpretation, is the moment when a Church or party or an individual teacher, halts between two policies—one that of striving after righteousness, and the other of secular expediency—and makes up its mind to adopt that which promises the most immediate and most profitable results.


Verse 5

(5) So he called every one of his lord’s debtors.—The debtors might be either men who had bought their wheat and their oil at the hands of the steward; or, as the sequel renders more probable, tenants who, after the common custom of the East, paid their rent in kind. Who, we ask, are the “debtors,” in the interpretation of the parable? The Lord’s Prayer supplies the answer to that question. The “debtors” are those who have sinned against God, who have left undone the things which they were bound to do, who have made no return for the outward blessings they have received. The unfaithful Church or party tries to secure its position by working on the lower nature of those who have the sense of that burden upon them. It neither gives the sense of peace or pardon, nor asserts the righteous severity of God’s commandments. It keeps their consciences uneasy, and traffics in its absolutions.


Verse 6

(6) Take thy bill, and sit down quickly.—The better MSS. give, thy bills, or thy documents, in the plural. These would include that which answered to the modern lease, the contract which specified the rent, and probably also the memorandum of the due delivery of the annual share of the produce. In this case the measure is the Hebrew bath, which has been variously estimated, the data being uncertain and conflicting, at from one to three gallons to the higher number stated in the marginal note. The steward by thus tempting the debtors with an immediate gain, and making them sharers in his frauds, took the readiest and most direct means of securing at once their favour and their silence. That which answered to this in the first application of the parable was the conduct of the Pharisees, just in proportion as they lost the moral force which they had once exercised, in accommodating their casuistry to the selfishness of their followers. Thus by their Corban teaching (see Note on Matthew 15:5) they released men from the obligation of supporting parents, and made perjury easy by their artificial distinctions as to oaths (Matthew 5:33; Matthew 23:16-22), gave a wide license to lust by their doctrine of divorce (Matthew 5:31; Matthew 19:3), and substituted the paying tithes of mint, and anise, and cummin for the weightier matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23). Like phenomena have been seen in analogous circumstances in the history of the Christian Church. When Leo X. sent forth his preachers of indulgences with their short and easy methods of salvation; when Jesuit confessors were to be found in every court of Europe, doing nothing to preserve their votaries from a fathomless licentiousness; when Protestant theologians tuned their voice according to the time, and pandered to the passions of a Henry VIII. or a Landgrave of Hesse; when the preachers of justification by faith turned the grace of God into lasciviousness, or made it compatible with a life of money-making worldliness; when men lower the standard of duty to gain support and popularity—there the act of the steward in bidding the debtor write fifty measures, when he owed a hundred, finds its counterpart.


Verse 7

(7) An hundred measures of wheat.—Here the measure is the Hebrew cor, which is reckoned as equal to ten baths (the latter, however, is a liquid, the former, a dry measure), and accordingly varies, according to the estimate given above, from thirteen to about ninety-seven gallons. One calculation makes it nearly equal to the English “quarter.”


Verse 8

(8) And the lord commended . . .—The “lord” is, of course, the rich man of the parable, the steward’s master. He too, in the outer framework of the story, is one of the children of this world, and he admires the sharpness and quickness of the steward’s action. In the interpretation of the story, we trace once more the grave, half-veiled indignation, more keenly incisive than if the veil had been withdrawn, which so often appears in this phase of our Lord’s teaching. If this world were all, there would be a wisdom worthy of praise when a Church or its teachers adapted themselves to men’s passions or interests at the expense of Truth. That which makes such action hateful is that by so doing the children of light transform themselves into the children of this world.

The unjust steward.—Literally, the steward of unrighteousness, St. Luke using the half-Hebrew idiom of a genitive of the characteristic attribute. (Comp. the “mammon of unrighteousness” in Luke 16:9, and the “unjust judge” of Luke 18:6, where the same idiom is used.)

The children of this world are in their generation wiser . . .—Better, for their generation, with a view, i.e., to their own advantages and interests, and those of others like them.

Wiser than the children of light.—The word for “wise” is that used by our Lord in “wise as serpents” (see Notes on Matthew 10:16). In “children of light” (literally, sons of light), though usage has made the Hebrew idiom familiar, we have another example of the genitive of characteristic attribute. We may note the recurrence of the phrase (with the variation of the Greek word for “children” instead of “sons”) in Ephesians 5:8 as another instance of the way in which the phraseology of St. Paul was influenced by that of the words of the Lord Jesus collected by his fellow-labourer. “Children of light” are those in whom light is the prevailing element of their life, and they are necessarily also children of God; for “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

It must be left to the thoughtful reader to judge how far this exposition of the parable is coherent and satisfying in itself, and in harmony with the general teaching of our Lord. Those who will may compare it, apart from the real or imagined authority of this or that name, with the other interpretations which find in it a lesson (1) to the publicans (like that of Luke 3:13) to exact no more than that which is appointed them; or (2) to all Christians to be as lenient in dealing with their “debtors” as the steward was with his master’s; or (3) a simple example of quickness and prudence in things temporal, which Christians are to reproduce, mutatis mutandis, in dealing with things eternal; or (4) which hold, as the main point of the parable, that the steward’s master was ignorant of his fraudulent collusion with the debtors; or (5) find in the call to give an account of his stewardship nothing but the approach of death; or (6) teach that the master is Mammon, and that the disciples were accused by the Pharisees of wasting his goods when they became followers of Christ; or (7) that the steward stands for the publicans as a class, and then for all Christians generally; or (8) for Judas Iscariot; or (9) for Pontius Pilate; or (10) for our Lord Himself; or (11) for St. Paul; or (12) for an example of the true penitent; or (13) for the devil. The wild diversity of interpretations which this list partially represents, should make any commentator more or less distrustful of what seems to him an adequate and complete exposition; and it may well be, even after an exposition as full as the conditions of the case seem to render possible, that there are side-lights in the parable which are yet unnoticed, and further applications which, as being founded on real analogies, might be instructive and legitimate.


Verse 9

(9) And I say unto you.—The pronoun is emphatic, and stands, as in Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:28; Matthew 5:32, in contrast with what had gone before.

Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.—On “mammon,” comp. Note on Matthew 6:24. The word was Syriac in its origin, and was found also, as Augustine testifies, in Punic. It was in common use in the Targums or Paraphrases of the Old Testament, in our Lord’s time, for “wealth” or “riches,” and possibly, as stated by Tertullian, whose authority, as a Carthaginian, may be admitted as of some weight, was applied to some Syrian deity who, like the Greek Plutus, was worshipped as wealth personified. If we admit this view, it explains, what otherwise it is not easy to explain, St. Luke’s introduction of the Syriac word instead of its Greek equivalent. “The mammon of unrighteousness,” the genitive having the same force as in Luke 16:8, is the wealth to which that character for the most part attaches, wealth wrongly gained and wrongly spent. And yet “of that mammon”—or better, out of, or with, the mammon—men are to make friends. The right use of wealth in helping the poor, making men happier and better, leading them to repentance and to God, will gain for us friends, perhaps the very persons whom we have helped, perhaps the angels of God who rejoice over one sinner that repenteth, perhaps even Christ and the Father, who will receive us into “everlasting habitations.”

That, when ye fail, . . .—The better MSS. give “that when it fails,” so the “mammon,” or riches, on which men set their hearts.

Into everlasting habitations.—Literally, everlasting tabernacles. The word seems chosen, in contrast to the “houses” of Luke 16:4, perhaps in contrast to the “booths” of leaves or branches, transitory and withering in a few days, which entered into the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40, Nehemiah 8:15), or with the “tents” which were the symbol of the transitory promises of the older Patriarchs (Hebrews 11:9.)


Verse 10

(10) He that is faithful in that which is least . . .—The context shows that by “that which is least” is meant what men call wealth, and which to most of them seems as the greatest, highest good. To be faithful in that is to acknowledge that we have it as stewards, not as possessors, and shall have to give an account of our stewardship. The word of warning was meant, we may believe, specially for the disciples. They, coming, for the most part, from the poorer classes, thought that they were in no danger of worshipping mammon. They are told, probably with special reference to the traitor Judas, that the love of money may operate on a narrow as well as on a wide scale, and that wrong-doing in the one case tests character not less perfectly than in the other. This seems truer to the meaning of “much” than to find in it simply the higher wealth of the kingdom of God, generically different from the former, though this also may be included in the wider operation of the laws thus asserted.


Verse 11

(11) If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon.—Better, if ye were not, or, became not. Here the “true riches” stand in contrast with the vain, deceitful, unrighteous mammon, and answer to the true spiritual wealth of peace, pardon, wisdom, or, in St. Paul’s language, here again coloured by St. Luke’s, the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). Our Lord teaches His disciples, what human religious teachers have so often forgotten, that honesty, integrity, and, as implied in faithfulness, benevolence, in the use of this world’s goods, be our portion small or great, is an indispensable condition of all spiritual advancement.

The Greek word for “true” may be noticed as being that which is generally characteristic of St. John. (See Notes on John 1:9; John 4:23.) This is the only instance of its use in the three first Gospels; St. Paul uses it once (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and then, after companionship with St. Luke. It is found in three passages of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 8:2; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:22) twenty-three times in the writings of St. John.


Verse 12

(12) If ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s . . .—The ruling idea of the verse is clearly that which the parable had enforced, that in relation to all external possessions and advantages we are stewards and not possessors. The Roman poet had seen that to boast of such things was the emptiest of all vanities—

“At genus, et proavos, et quæ non fecimus ipsi,

Vix ea nostra voco.”

[“ Lineage and name, and all that our own powers

Have not wrought for us, these I scarce call ours.”]

That which is your own?—This is obviously identical with the “true riches” of the preceding verse. Wisdom, holiness, peace, these the world has not given, and cannot take away; and even looking to God as the great Giver of these as of other good and perfect gifts, it may be said that they are bestowed by Him as a possession in fee, the reward of the faithful stewardship of all lower gifts and opportunities, so that, though His gift, they become, in very deed, our own.


Verse 13

(13) No servant can serve two masters.—See Notes on Matthew 6:24. Here it obviously comes in close connection with the previous teaching. But its occurrence, in an equally close sequence, in the Sermon on the Mount, shows that it took its place among the axioms of the religious life which our Lord, if we may so speak, loved to reproduce as occasion called for them.


Verse 14

(14) And the Pharisees also, who were covetous.—The words are important as showing that they had been listening during the previous parable, and that the words, though addressed to the disciples, had been meant also for them. (See Note on Luke 16:1.) The word for “covetous” is literally lovers of money, as distinct from more general cupidity, and as being used by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:2, and nowhere else in the New Testament, furnishes another instance of community of language between him and the Evangelist.

Derided him.—The verb implies visible rather than audible signs of scorn—the distended nostril, and the sneering lip, the naso suspendere adunco of the Roman satirist. It is, i.e., a word that forcibly expresses the physiognomy of contempt (see Galatians 6:7). Here again we have a word common to the two writers just named. The motive of the derision lies on the surface. That they, the teachers of Israel, should be told that they were like the Unjust Steward, that they were wasting their Lord’s goods, that they must make friends with the unrighteous mammon of quite another kind than those whom they were wont to court—this was more than they could stand. They have felt the force of the rebuke, and therefore they stifle it with mockery—

“A little grain of conscience made them sour.”


Verse 15

(15) Ye are they which justify yourselves before men.—The character described is portrayed afterwards more fully in the parable of Luke 18:9-14. The word there used, “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” is obviously a reference to what is reported here. They forgot, in their self-righteousness and self-vindication, that they stood before God as the Searcher of all hearts.

That which is highly esteemed among men . . .—Literally, that which is high, or lifted up, among men. The word is at once wider and more vivid than the English.

Abomination . . .—The word is the same as in “the abomination of desolation” (Matthew 24:15), that which causes physically nausea and loathing. The word seems chosen as the expression of a divine scorn and indignation, which answered, in part, to their “derision,” and was its natural result. (Comp. the bold language of Psalms 2:4, Proverbs 1:26, Revelation 3:16.)


Verse 16

(16) The law and the prophets were until John.—See Notes on Matthew 11:14-15. What had then been said to the disciples of the Baptist is now reproduced to our Lord’s own disciples and to the Pharisees. The latter had closed their eyes to the fact that all previous revelations led up to the work of John, as that in its turn was preparatory for the work of Christ.

Every man presseth . . .—The fact asserted, that of a “rush,” as we should say, into the Kingdom, but a rush from which the Pharisees had held aloof, answers to the stronger expression in St. Matthew (Matthew 11:12), “the violent take it by force.”


Verse 17

(17) It is easier for heaven and earth to pass.—See Notes on Matthew 5:18. Our first impression on reading the words here is that there is less logical sequence in their position. They seem unconnected with the teaching as to the mammon of unrighteousness. It is possible that here, as elsewhere, some links of the chain have been dropped; but the explanation that has been given of the preceding parable gives a sufficient connection. The scribes and Pharisees had been tampering with the sacredness of the laws which are not of to-day or yesterday—fixed as the everlasting hills—and they are told that their casuistry cannot set aside the claims of those laws in any single instance, such, e.g., as that which immediately follows.


Verse 18

(18) Whosoever putteth away his wife.—On the special points involved, see Notes on Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-9. Here, again, the explanation that has been given of the parable of the Unjust Steward, offers the only satisfactory explanation of the introduction of a topic apparently so irrelevant. The doctrine and discipline of divorce which the Pharisees taught, lowering the sacredness of the life of home, and ministering to the growing laxity of men’s morals, was precisely what was meant by the steward’s bidding the debtors take their bill and write fifty, or fourscore measures, instead of the hundred. (See Note on Luke 16:6-7).


Verse 19

(19) There was a certain rich man . . .—Here, also, there is a certain appearance of abruptness. But the sneer of Luke 16:14 explains the sequence of thought. On the one side, among those who listened to our Lord, were the Pharisees, living in the love of money and of the enjoyments which money purchased; on the other, were the disciples, who had left all to follow their Master, poor with the poverty of beggars. The former had mocked at the counsel that they should make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, who should receive them into everlasting habitations. They are now taught, and the disciples are taught also, what comes of the other friendship that men for the most part secure with money. It is clear that the section of Pharisees for whom the parable was specially designed, were such as those described as being “in king’s houses and in soft raiment, and living delicately” (see Notes on Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25)—the scribes, i.e., who had attached themselves to the court of Herod Antipas, the Herodians, or those who, while differing from them politically, were ready to coalesce with them (Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6), and reproduced their mode of life. In the rich man himself we find, generic as the description is, some features which must at least have reminded those who heard the parable, of the luxurious self-indulgence of the Tetrarch himself. There is the “purple garment,” rich with the dyes of Tyre, which was hardly worn, except by kings and princes and generals (see Notes on Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17); the byssus, or fine linen of Egypt, coupled with purple in Revelation 18:12; Revelation 18:16, itself not unfrequently of the same colour. The “faring sumptuously” reminds us of the stately pomp of Herod’s feasts. (See Notes on Matthew 14:6; Mark 6:14; Mark 6:21, and the quotation from Persius cited in the latter.) If we assume that there is this sketch, as it were, of the Tetrarch’s character, it is obvious that the teaching of the parable receives a fresh significance. This, then, was what the scribes, even those that were not avowedly of the Herodian school, who should have been teachers of righteousness, were striving after. This was their highest ideal of happiness, and for this they were content to sacrifice their true calling here and their hopes of eternal life hereafter. It was meet that they should learn what was the outcome of such a life when it passed “behind the veil.” We may add, too, that this view enables us to trace a sequence of thought where all at first seems unconnected. The reference to the teaching of the scribes as to divorce (Luke 16:18), naturally suggested the most prominent and most recent instance in which their lax casuistry had shown itself most criminally compliant with the vices of an adulterous and incestuous prince.

Fared sumptuously.—More literally, was sumptuously merry. The word is the same as that in Luke 15:32, and we can hardly doubt that there is a designed contrast between the holy mirth and joy in the one case, and the ignoble revelry of the other. There was “good cheer” in each, but of how different a complexion!


Verse 20

(20) And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus.—The word for “beggar,” it may be noted, is the same as the “poor” of Luke 6:20. The occurrence in this one solitary instance of a personal name in our Lord’s parables, suggests the question, What was meant by it? Three answers present themselves, each of which is more or less compatible with the other two. (1) There may have been an actual beggar of that name known both to the disciples and the Pharisees. (2) The significance of the name, the current Greek form of Eleazar (=“God is the helper”), may have been meant to symbolise the outward wretchedness of one who had no other help. (3) As that which seems most probable, the name may have been intended as a warning to Lazarus of Bethany. He was certainly rich. We have seen some reason to identify him with the young ruler that had great possessions. (See Notes on Matthew 19:18.) In any case he was exposed to the temptations that wealth brings with it. What more effectual warning could be given him than to hear his own name brought into a parable, as belonging to the beggar who was carried into Abraham’s bosom, while his own actual life corresponded more or less closely to that of the rich man who passed into the torments of Hades? Was he not taught in this way, what all else failed to teach him, that if he wished for eternal life he must strip himself of the wealth which made it impossible for him to enter the Kingdom of God? It may be noted that almost every harmonised arrangement of the Gospel history places the parable almost immediately before the death and raising of Lazarus (see Note on John 11:1), while in some of them the question of the young ruler comes between the two. The combination, in either case, suggests the thought of a continuous process of spiritual education, by which the things that were “impossible with men” were shown to be “possible with God” (Matthew 19:26). First the picture of the unseen world drawn in symbolic imagery, so as to force itself upon his notice, then an actual experience of the realities of that life; this was what he needed, and this was given him.

Laid at his gate, full of sores, . . .—Literally, at his porch, or gateway. The Greek word for “full of sores” is somewhat more technical than the English one; literally, ulcerated, one which a medical writer like St. Luke would use to express a generally ulcerous state of the whole body. The description led, in course of time, to the application of the leper’s name to those who suffered from leprosy, as producing an analogous condition, and so we get the terms, lazar, lazar-house, lazaretto. In the Italian lazzaroni the idea of the beggary is prominent without that of the sores.


Verse 21

(21) And desiring to be fed with the crumbs.—The habits of the East, the absence of knives and forks and the like, made the amount of waste of this kind larger than do the habits of modern Europe. (Comp. the language of the Syro-Phœnician woman, in Mark 7:28.) Here the picture is heightened by two touches. The dogs are there, and get the crumbs, which the man fails to get, and then they come and lick the open sores. The question has been raised whether this touch is meant to intensify the sufferings of the beggar, or to contrast the almost human sympathy of the brute with the brutal apathy of the man. In a European apologue the latter might, perhaps, be a legitimate explanation of the fact thus stated; but with the Eastern feelings, that see in the dog an unclean beast, the scavenger of the streets, we cannot doubt that the beggar would have shrunk from their licking, even assuming, which is doubtful, that it brought with it some relief from merely physical pain. It may be noted, too, that the word for “dogs” is not the diminutive form used in Matthew 15:27, and Mark 7:28 (where see Note), which implied tameness, but that which is always associated with the idea of abhorrence (Matthew 7:6; Philippians 3:2; 2 Peter 2:22; Revelation 22:15).


Verse 22

(22) Was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.—Of the three terms in common use among the Jews to express the future state of blessedness—(1) the Garden of Eden, or Paradise; (2) the Throne of Glory; (3) the bosom of Abraham—this was the most widely popular. It rested on the idea of a great feast, in which Abraham was the host. To lie in his bosom, as St. John in that of our Lord’s (John 13:23), was to be there as the most favoured guest. And this was the position which was assigned to the beggar, obviously not merely as a compensation for the “evil things” he had endured on earth, but as the crown of the faith and patience with which he had borne them. The being “carried by angels” was literally in accord with the popular Jewish belief. Either good angels in general, or the special guardian angels of the righteous, took on them this office.

The rich man also died, and was buried.—As no mention is made of the burial of the beggar, it is obvious that there is something specially distinctive in the word. It had been, we may imagine, a stately burial, with hired mourners and all the pageantry of woe. such as within a few weeks, or even days, was to be the portion of the historic Lazarus of Bethany.


Verse 23

(23) And in hell.—The Greek word is Hades, not Gehenna; the unseen world of the dead, not the final prison of the souls of the lost. (See Note on Matthew 5:22.) It lies almost on the surface of the parable that it describes an earlier stage of the life after death than that in Matthew 25:31-46. There is no mention here of the Advent of the Judge. As far as the parable itself is concerned, there is nothing to exclude the thought that the torments might have in part the character of a discipline as well as of retribution.

In torments.—The Greek word was applied originally to the test or touchstone of metals, then to the torture to which men had recourse as the one sure test of the veracity of witnesses, than to torments generally. The nature of the “torments” here is suggested by the “flame” of the next verse, but that word has to be taken with all its symbolic associations, and does not necessarily imply the material element of fire. (See Notes on Mark 9:43-49.) What is meant is that there shall be for the soul of the evil-doer, when brought face to face with that holiness of God which is as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), an anguish as intolerable as the touch of earthly flame is to the nerves of the mortal body. The thought is expressed with great beauty in Dr. Newman’s Dream of Gerontius:—

“And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—

The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;

The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—

Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.”

Seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.—Here again we are in a region of symbolic imagery, under which we discern the truth that the souls of those who have yielded to selfish indulgence will discover after death that those whom they have scorned and neglected during their life are admitted, if worthy of admission, to the enjoyment of a rest and refreshment from which they themselves are, by their own act and deed, excluded.


Verse 24

(24) Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger . . .—The words, in their relation to the effect of the punishment on the rich man’s character, offer two tenable explanations. On the one hand, they have been thought to indicate the old selfish arrogance and heartlessness of the man who still looks on Lazarus as one who may be sent hither and thither, at any cost of suffering, to do his bidding and minister to his ease; on the other, we may see in them the traces of pride conquered, and the cry for mercy at last coming from lips that had never uttered it before, and the craving for help and sympathy from one whom in his lifetime he had despised as beneath his notice. There is something terribly significant in the fact that it is the “tongue” that suffers most in that agonising flame. That was the organ of the sense which the man had pampered by his riotous and sumptuous living: that is now the chief instrument of retribution. The lesson is the same as that which a poet of our own has taught us—

“The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to scourge us.”—

Shakespeare, King Lear, v. 3.


Verse 25

(25) But Abraham said, Son, . . .—There is surely something suggestive that the Patriarch is represented as not disowning the relationship. If we find a meaning in the “friend” of the parables of the Labourers in the Vineyard (see Note on Matthew 20:13) and the Wedding Garment (see Note on Matthew 22:12), we ought not to ignore the thought that seems to be implied here. Here, too, was one who, even in Hades, was recognised as being, now more truly than he had been in his life, a “child” or “son of Abraham.” (Comp. Luke 19:9.) The word used is the same, in its tone of pity and tenderness, as that which the father used to the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:31), which our Lord addressed to the man sick of the palsy (Matthew 9:2), or to His own disciples (John 13:33).

Remember.—The word has a terrible force in its bearing upon the question of the future life. Memory intensified, reproducing the past visions, pleasures, and base joys, the mala mentis gaudia of the self-indulgent, and subject to the action of a conscience no longer narcotised into slumber—this makes the sharpest pang of the deserved anguish. In Christian eschatology the river of death is no water of Lethe, bringing with it the forgetfulness of past evil.

Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things.—The verb, like “they have their reward,” in Matthew 6:2, implies that this was all he was to have. There is an emphasis, too, in the presence of the pronoun in the one clause, and its absence in the other. The rich man had made the pleasures of sense “his good things.” They were all that he cared for—all, therefore, that he was to have. He had identified himself with them. The “evil things” of Lazarus, on the other hand, had not been chosen by him; they were external to him, a discipline and a probation through which, turning them to their right use, he passed to his true good.

Now he is comforted.—Some of the better MSS. give, “now he is comforted here.”


Verse 26

(26) There is a great gulf fixed.—Literally, a chasm, the opening or gaping of the earth. The scene brought before us is like one of the pictures of Dante’s Commedia—steep rocks and a deep gorge, and on one side the flames that burn and do not consume, and on the other, the fair garden of Paradise and the kingly palace, and the banquet at which Abraham presides. And those that are bearing the penalty, or reaping the reward, of their life are within sight and hearing of each other, and hold conversation and debate. It is obvious that no single detail of such a description can be pressed as a literal representation of the unseen world. What was wanted for the purpose of the parable was the dramatic and pictorial vividness which impresses itself on the minds and hearts of men, and this could not otherwise be gained.

So that they which would pass from hence . . .—So far as we may draw any inference from such a detail as this, it suggests the thought that the blessed look with pity and compassion on those who are in the penal fires, and would fain help them if they could. They that wish to pass are spoken of in tones which present a striking contrast to the vindictive exultation that has sometimes shown itself in Christian writers, such, e.g., as Tertullian (de Spectac. c. 30), and Milton (Reformation in England, ad fin.). A further lesson is, of course, implied, which strikes at the root of the specifically Romish theory of Purgatory and Indulgences—viz., that the wish is fruitless, that no interposition of the saints avails beyond the grave. The thought of their intercession that the discipline may do its appointed work is, indeed, not absolutely excluded, but that work must continue as long as God wills, i.e., till it attains its end.


Verse 27

(27) I pray thee therefore, father.—The re iterated appeal to Abraham as “father” is suggestive in many ways: (1) as speaking out that in which too many of the rich man’s class put an undue trust, resting on the fatherhood of Abraham rather than on that of God (Matthew 3:9); (2) as showing that the refusal of the previous verse had been accepted, as it were, submissively. There is no rebellious defiance, no blasphemous execration, such as men have pictured to themselves as resounding ever more in the realms of darkness. Abraham is the sufferer’s father still, and he yet counts on his sympathy.


Verse 28

(28) For I have five brethren.—Here again we are left to choose between opposite views of the motive which prompted the request. Was it simply a selfish fear of reproaches that might aggravate his sufferings? Was it the stirring in him of an unselfish anxiety for others, content to bear his own anguish if only his brothers might escape? Either view is tenable enough, but the latter harmonises more with the humility of the tone in which the request is uttered. The question why “five” are named is again one which we cannot answer with certainty. The allusions which some have found to the five senses, in the indulgence of which the man had passed his life, or to the five books of Moses (!), are simply fantastic. It may have been merely the use of a certain number for an uncertain, as in the case of the five wise and the five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:2), or the five talents (Matthew 25:15), or the five cities in the land of Egypt (Isaiah 19:18). It may have been an individualising feature, pointing to some conspicuously self-indulgent rich man among the hearers of the parable, and so coming home to him as a warning; or, possibly (following up the hint in the Note on Luke 16:19), to the number of the Tetrarch’s surviving brothers. Of these he had had eight, but Aristobulus and Arche-laus were already dead, and possibly, of course, another. Here, returning to the structure of the parable, there is a special motive for the rich man’s wishing Lazarus to be sent. The brothers had seen the beggar lying at his gate. If they were to see him now, as risen from the dead, they would learn how far more blessed his state had been than the luxurious ease in which they had passed and were still passing their lives.


Verse 29

(29) They have Moses and the prophets.—The words are in entire harmony with all the teaching of our Lord. The right use of lower knowledge is the condition of attaining to the higher, and without it signs and wonders avail but little: “He that hath, to him shall be given” (Mark 4:25); “He that willeth to do the will of God,” so far as he knows it, “shall know of the doctrine” which Christ came to proclaim, “whether it be of God” (John 7:17). It was because the scribes and their followers were unfaithful in a little, that more was denied them. “Moses and the Prophets” were enough to teach them that a life of self-indulgent luxury was evil in itself, and therefore must bring with it, in the end, shame and condemnation. (Comp. Notes on John 5:45-46.)


Verse 30

(30) But if one went unto them from the dead.—The words are in accordance with the general Jewish craving for a “sign,” as the only proof of a revelation from God. (See Notes on Matthew 12:33; Matthew 16:1; 1 Corinthians 1:22.) The return of one who had passed into the unseen world and brought back a report of its realities would rouse, the rich man thought, the most apathetic. So far the picture is generic, but if we follow up the suggestion which has thrown light upon the parable before, we shall find here also a more individualising feature. It is specially recorded of the Tetrarch that he had hoped to see some miracle done by Jesus (Luke 23:8). He had given utterance, when he heard of the miracles that had been actually wrought, to the belief that John the Baptist was “risen from the dead” (see Note on Matthew 14:2), and yet that belief had not brought him one step nearer to repentance.


Verse 31

(31) If they hear not Moses and the prophets.—We are accustomed, rightly enough, to look on our Lord’s own Resurrection as leading to the great fulfilment of these words. We should not forget, however, that there was another fulfilment more immediately following on them. In a few weeks, or even days, according to the best harmonists, tidings came that Lazarus of Bethany was sick (John 11:1). In yet a few days more that Lazarus did “rise from the dead;” cured, we may believe, of whatever love of this world’s good things had checked his spiritual growth, a witness of the power of Christ to raise, as from the shadow-world of Hades, so also from the darkness of spiritual death to newness of life. And yet that wonder also brought about no repentance, Scribes and Pharisees, and Sadducees and priests simply took counsel together that they might put Lazarus also to death (John 12:10). We can hardly believe the coincidence of name and fact in this instance to have been undesigned.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 16:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/luke-16.html. 1905.

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