Role-reversal or status-reversal is one of the basic story-lines of all time. A million films operate from this basic plot, from Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy to The Hunger Games. It’s the rise and fall motif, from Log cabin to Waldorf Astoria to…prison (in Wall Street’s reversal), from rags to riches, or riches to rags, or both together in either direction.
Much comedy works upon the premise of setting up such a situation and reversing it. Think Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. Right at the end, Jerry (Lemmon) reveals that he is actually a man, and his beau responds with “Well… nobody is perfect.” It’s a classic comedy moment that catches the character (and the audience) off-guard. Think of the surprise ending of The Sting, (when the audience realises that they too have been conned) or the classic moment at the end of Casablanca when contrary to all expectations, Rick leaves Ilsa. “We’ll always have Paris.” Cue credits. Whaaat?
But is it comedy? Not in the sense of offering a belly-laugh, as some of Jesus’s one-liners undoubtedly did, but in the sense of offering a new picture of the principles of life. The new picture of life that Jesus was describing and demonstrating was one where the “hungry are filled with good things” and ”the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1). So, quite possibly, the comedy of status-reversal is something embedded in the whole story of salvation.
At the moment, I’m considering those extended stories that we have come to call “parables.” A parallel that comes to mind, to those like myself brought up on BBC TV comedy, was the final skit of each Two Ronnies show, when Ronnie Corbett would sit in a comfy chair, face forward and self-consciously on-camera, and tell an extended story, in the manner of a slightly twisted favourite uncle at a family party. It would include quips, puns, self-deprecating asides, but would work on one plot to arrive at a surprise ending. The twist. Cha-ching.
Status-reversal permeates the Gospel narratives. Look at the accounts of Jesus’s birth, for example. The barren woman conceives? The VIRGIN conceives? The poor family produces a king? He is announced by shepherds ((the outsiders of all outsiders in polite First Century Palestine). A baby pursued by an evil king? It’s all very surprising, isn’t it? Very topsy turvy. The reversal element in Luke continues in Jesus’s early ministry: its humble beginnings,( 3:1-3); the Isaiah quote (3:4ff); the whole concept of repentance, the tenor of the Beatitudes (6:20ff); the story of Pharisee and the sinful woman (7:36ff); the discussion on Beelzebub (11:23); the Narrow Door (13:3).
And think of how the theme of status-reversal sneaks into Jesus’s parables and ministry: in the story of the Good Samaritan, (10:25ff), the contrast between Mary and Martha (10:38); the story of the “Rich fool”, (12:15ff); the Wedding Feast (14:11); the Prodigal Son (15); the Ten Lepers (17:11f); the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9ff) and the Rich Ruler ( 18: 18-30).
And there’s more…
The greatest surprise reversal of the Gospels is the resurrection of Jesus itself. The resurrection is the promise of what is ultimately possible as Jesus’ followers became missionaries, and according to Luke’s testimony, went on to “turn the world upside down.”
In this whole context,Luke 16:19-31 is a powerful status-reversal story, for a variety of reasons. For a start, in the popular thinking of the day, people wouldn’t have necessarily seen the rich man as a baddie. Remember, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. And Abraham himself was the prime example that wealth was a blessing from God. Alternatively, poverty, such as that exemplified by Lazaraus, could be considered a curse from God, as punishment for sin, moral failing, and wrongdoing.
In other words, poverty was deserved. And so was wealth. And there was a chasm between the two….
And here comes the surprise reversal: In some senses, it might surprise us just as much as it surprised the first hearers. In Jesus’s story, Abraham stands on the side of Lazarus and argues with the rich man on behalf of the poor. What would the audience reaction have been? It’s a surprise twist, you see. It leaves you floundering for a second. Is this really their wealthy ancestor acting as Advocate for a beggar? Doesn’t faith= blessings= prosperity? Isn’t poverty the direct result of someone’s sin and failure?
And then you realise something: this status-reversal is not just to do with heaven and hell at all. It’s not even telling you to be nicer to poor people. The rich man and Lazarus are representatives of the classes of Jesus’s day.
And far from being cosy old Ronnie Corbett on his chair, the scenario begins to rather remind of a prowling Lenny Bruce or Billy Connolly, attacking the kind of thinking that upholds the rich in their tax havens even as it refuses to share with those who are in need. The reversal points out that the disparity of wealth creates the chasm that separates the two men. It upends the myth that the rich don’t have a responsibility to the least of these in society.
And it creates a new truth: who are the rich and who are the poor, in God’s eyes?
- Dives & Lazarus: a liberation theology catechism (Sunday Homily) (mikerivageseul.wordpress.com)
- Learning to See (johncalvinpress.wordpress.com)
- Another Brick in the Wall (jarrettbanks.wordpress.com)
- The Rich Man and Lazarus (apostlesevergreen.org)
- We’re Able, but Are We Willing? (jarrettbanks.wordpress.com)
- The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Consequences of Sins of Omission (biltrix.com)
- The Chasm Within, A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31 (interruptingthesilence.com)
- The Rich Man and Lazarus (maryharristodd.wordpress.com)
- 26 Sunday Homily -c (frjayareddy.wordpress.com)