Luke provides models, such as the Roman centurion of Luke 7:1-10, of the proper attitude and behavior that socially advantaged patrons should have—even toward "expendables" such as Lazarus. In contrast, the rich man of Luke 16:19-31 (and the Lukan Pharisees of 11:37-54 and 16:14) is an example of the consequences of disobeying the teachings of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.
But this parable is not merely a story about the rich man and Lazarus or a story symbolizing the Lukan Pharisees. As William Herzog correctly argues, this parable is about representatives of two social classes: the wealthy urban elites who had almost everything and the desperate expendables who had almost nothing. This wealth, Herzog notes, was obtained by a systematic exploitation of the poor—the type of injustice that Amos had condemned—a wealth that could only be maintained by a redistribution of goods from the disadvantaged to the elite. There were "Lazaruses at every gate and on every corner," and each one was a sign displaying the oppression of the poor by the wealthy elite. Unlike the example of Abraham—a wealthy person famed for his hospitality (e.g., Gen 13:2; 25:7-11)—the social status of the rich man was not God's reward for his piety or a sign of God's blessing. Instead it is a sign of his utter sinfulness and of sinfulness of others like him (see Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech, 128).
Mikhail Bakhtin's sophisticated understanding of the dialogic nature of language—one which stresses that a single voice must be heard as one member of a complex choir of voices—provides us with more receptive ears that can hear more clearly the divergent and sometimes distant voices that reverberate throughout this text. In this way, we can still hear dialogic echoes of the voice of the historical Jesus, reflecting his peasant artisan anger at the exploitative, dominant class and predicting future punishment for their deeds. He therefore gives a warning to the elite of his day. And this voice of Jesus provides hope to his fellow peasants, as well as to the expendables and others, that God will bring about—one way or another—a reversal of fortunes with eternal consequences.
The author of Luke-Acts gives a dialogic rejoinder to this voice of Jesus, and that's what I will explore in the next post.