I want to begin this morning by taking some matters off the table and noting some things that this passage does not mean. This passage does not teach that being poor and suffering will get us into heaven whereas being rich will land us in hell. As we’re going to see, the context that precedes Jesus’ telling of this account provides some insight as to why Jesus chose to speak about these two people, one who happened to be rich; the other who happened to be poor.
Further this passage is not making a blanket statement that all poor people are righteous whereas all rich people are corrupt. In an earlier account in Luke, chapter 8:1–3, we read: “1Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” In this earlier passage the monetary generosity of these materially well-off women is noted, not criticized. In a later account in Luke (19:1ff), we learn of Zaccheus, a tax-collector who also was rich and sought to see Jesus, and, as a result of this encounter, Zaccheus gave half of his riches to the poor. So my point is that the problem being addressed by Jesus in Luke 16 is not intended to be a commentary about the relative merits of wealth vs. poverty for we are all able to use however much or little we have for him.
In fact, the passages presented in Luke 16 address the relationship not between poverty and wealth but between earthly goods and spiritual goods. Their concern is the question of “In what are we investing our lives?” Or, even more to the point, “How are we using the goods allotted us by God?” Immediately following the account of the dishonest steward or manager earlier in this chapter, we are told how Jesus’ intended audience received this message: “14The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”—in other words, “Message received”—“15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Let’s think for a moment about what it is that is “prized by human beings” in our own day. I’m not so certain that things have changed much over time. From the beginning, fallen, misguided human nature has valued things that, ultimately, are of no consequence in God’s sight—that are “an abomination in the sight of God.” We catch a glimpse of this in considering what our culture values. In his Losing our Virtue, David Wells observes that we now live in a time in which celebrities have replaced heroes and I think he’s right about this. Unlike heroes, whom we admire for their character and sacrifice on behalf of others, celebrities are admired simply because of their wealth or power. Or, as Wells puts it, celebrities are known for being known. What has Kim Kardashian done to earn her renown? Why do people care so much about Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in the world?
In considering this morning’s passage we are presented with two key characters. There is a rich man “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” As to his name, well let’s see…. Huh. We’re not told, are we? Historically he’s been referred to as “Dives” but this doesn’t help us out much because “Dives” is simply the Latin for “rich man” rather than being a proper name itself. So given the broader context in Luke 16 we have to wonder, might this anonymity be a means by which Jesus is further emphasizing for us that earthly riches are not what matter in his eyes—i.e., they’re not what matters in God’s eyes?
Our passage also includes a poor man, or beggar, whose name we do know. He is Lazarus. But he was not only poor. He was also covered with sores; he lay begging at the rich man’s gate; he longed to eat not from the rich man’s table—he knew his place in society wouldn’t allow that—no, he would have been content to eat what fell off of the rich man’s table; and we are told that “even the dogs licked his sores” (20–21). It’s quite a picture, isn’t it?
Now in our pet-obsessed culture—and you’ve heard from me often enough to know what an animal lover I am!—we might find this last point somewhat touching. As one commentator notes, isn’t it beautiful that though rejected by humans, at least “man’s best friend” loved Lazarus. But to read the passage in this manner would entirely miss the point being made. The inclusion of dogs licking Lazarus’ isn’t that we might conclude, “Well, at least Lazarus experienced some kindness in his life from these sweet, affectionate dogs.” No, in Jewish society dogs were viewed as disgusting, unclean animals, not as pets. They ran wild; they ran in packs; they were infested with fleas; they were carriers of disease. So the dogs licking Lazarus’s sores would have increased, not assuaged, his misery. The reaction Jesus’ audience would have had upon learning this detail would have been similar to ours in hearing that rats had licked Lazarus’ sores—it would have increased their horror, not elicited warmth.
Well, over time both men die and we are provided information humans rarely have: We are told what the final end of each man is. Upon dying Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side—what some older translations referred to as “Abraham’s bosom” (22). The rich man, however, ends up in Hades, a place of torment (23). The existence and experience of both men results in a total reversal of their earthly lives: Lazarus now receives comfort at Abraham’s side (25); the rich man is in agony.
I want to take a moment to comment on Lazarus’ being by Abraham’s side. We who know the New Testament far better than the Old don’t often dwell on the fact that even prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, when those belonging to God died, there was some sense in which they were immediately with him. One of my favorite passages along this line comes from Luke 20:27–40 where we see the Sadducees who, by the way, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, nonetheless asking Jesus about a hypothetical scenario. There’s a woman who marries a man; the man dies; she, according to Jewish law, is taken as wife by his brother; he, too, dies; the next brother in line marries her—repeat this pattern seven times to the seventh brother. Having set up this far-fetched scenario, the Sadducees pose their question to Jesus: “In the resurrection”—again, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead—“whose wife will she be since all seven brothers had her as a wife?” Jesus explains that marriage is a reality for this life, not the next, and then points out from Scripture, that in the Old Testament it is evident that the dead are raised. He refers to the passage of Moses and the burning bush “where he—Moses—calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (37). Jesus then adds: “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him” (38). To know God is to know life and not only life but life everlasting for God, the great “I am” never dies and he bestows upon those who know him this never-ending life with him. Think about that. The destiny of those who know and trust our loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is that we get to enjoy him not only now but forever—a truth that comforts us even this morning as together with Marilyn we continue to grieve Ed’s leaving us this week. This is why Abraham and Lazarus are in a place of comfort even though Christ’s death and resurrection had not yet taken place. Because they know the One, True, God, they already received the solace of his eternal life.
In our passage we see that because of his torment, when the rich man lifts his eyes and sees Lazarus by Abraham’s side, he asks two things of Abraham: First, he asks that Lazarus be sent “to dip the tip of his finger in water” [to] “cool the rich man’s’ tongue” that his agony, caused by the fire, might be assuaged (24). Upon learning that this request cannot be granted—Abraham replies that once we move into the next part of life an inseparable chasm will separate the redeemed from the condemned (26)—the rich man makes a second request: that Abraham send Lazarus to the rich man’s family so that at least his five brothers might be warned and so enabled to escape his fate (27–28).
What I find so interesting in these requests is that the rich man doesn’t ask Abraham himself to fulfill these tasks, but he asks Abraham to send Lazarus. In other words, the rich man recognizes Lazarus. This very Lazarus who lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for some crumbs of food to eat, did not go accidentally unnoticed by the rich man but rather he was intentionally ignored. And not only does the rich man recognize Lazarus, but he knows that his brothers will recognize him as well and so he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them. Apparently they, too, saw Lazarus at the gate and managed to look the other way. So the rich man’s reasoning makes sense, doesn’t it? If only Lazarus could return to them from the dead, surely their eyes would be opened and they would repent—they would change their selfish ways—and thus avoid the rich man’s fate.
We can kind of identify with the rich man’s request, can’t we? I mean, think about it. If you saw the ghost of someone you once knew and it actually talked to you, don’t you think you would be inclined to believe what it had to say? Isn’t this conceit the basis of the beloved classic, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Ebenezer Scrooge is initially visited by Jacob Marley, his former business partner’s ghost, before being visited by the three ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future thus paving the way to Scrooge’s later change in behavior. So it’s certainly understandable why the rich man thinks that Lazarus’ appearance to his brothers will cause them to repent.
But despite the seemingly reasonableness of this request, I think there is more going on here. I think that implied in the rich man’s request is an attempt—as noted in v.15 of the Pharisees—to justify himself. In other words if only someone from the dead had gone to him, then he might have escaped this terrible fate.
Yet, Abraham once again denies the rich man’s request. He responds that the only thing the brothers—and again, by implication the rich man—need to repent, to change their lives, is Scripture—which in that day would have been the Old Testament—specifically “Moses and the prophets.” The rich man answers back that, no, that’s really not the same thing. Scripture is one thing but if they saw a ghost, surely that would convince them. But Abraham stands firm. He reiterates his previous reply: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
What is striking here is how different our ways are from God’s ways. The rich man thinks he knows best what it would take for his brothers to repent. “Send them a ghost—that’ll convince them!” But Father Abraham, God’s chosen servant through whom all the nations of the earth will eventually be blessed, knows God’s ways. Through his own earthly life and experience, he learned that God must always be taken at his Word. And Abraham demonstrated how true this was in his own life. When asked by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, the son of promise, Abraham took God at his word. How bewildering to be asked to sacrifice your son when you have been told that all nations will be blessed through you, initially by means of him. Though as we know, God stayed Abraham’s hand from following through with this sacrifice, the author of that great faith chapter, Hebrews 11, notes: “17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 19He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead….” Abraham didn’t know how God would fulfill his promise to him if Isaac were sacrificed, but he believed God and prepared to do what he asked anyway.
So Abraham knows the importance of trusting in the sufficiency of Scripture, of God’s specific communication to us. We may think that what we need in order to believe are supernatural manifestations such as ghosts in order to have a faith that is real, but God has communicated to us by his Words and actions as these are recorded for us in the Old and New Testaments. Through his Word, God by his Holy Spirit bears witness to the truth of who he is. He bears witness to our tremendous need for him. If we don’t believe Scripture—if we don’t listen to Moses and the prophets—neither will we believe, neither will we be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead and comes to us. As Jesus states just prior to this passage in v. 17: “17But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” This is the sufficiency of God’s Word.
So what are some things we can take away from this passage?
First, during our earthly life, things aren’t always what they seem. If someone were to read you only the first two verses of this account—the life of Lazarus and the rich man before they died—and ask you: “Who would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?,” I would be very surprised if anyone picked Lazarus. Who wants to be a beggar? Who wants to feel hunger all of the time? Who wants to be an outcast at the level of animals? I certainly wouldn’t. Yet we learn that it is Lazarus who knows the Lord, not the rich man. And, ultimately, this is what matters in God’s eyes. Again, as Jesus stated to the Pharisees, those lovers of money: “15You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” God knows our hearts. Yes, it’s terribly confusing and perhaps even disturbing for us to think that God could allow someone he loves so much to suffer so much but because Lazarus knew God, his comfort ultimately came, never to be taken away again.
We need only consider Job who lived the life of both of these men. He started off rich and ended up the most desolate of all humans. Yet what I find so extraordinary about Job is not that once his riches were taken away he turned to God—even an agnostic or an atheist might, in a moment of deep need, cry out “God, if you exist and get me out of this mess, I’ll believe in you.” No, what is extraordinary about Job is that even when he was rich—3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east—even when he had all this wealth, Scripture tells us “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1). God knows our hearts.
And this provides a good transition to a second point: If we do have riches during this earthly life, then for God’s sake let’s not use them simply to meet our own needs and desires but let us use them to care for those whom God places in our lives. Let us be like the women who ministered to Jesus out of their means. Let us be like Zaccheus who sold what he had and gave half—not all; God isn’t calling us to poverty—but he gave half to the poor. And I think it’s important that we realize that many of us do have riches. You and I live so much more comfortably than most of the people in this world. We have shelter. We have food. We have clothing. We have medicine. We have heat. We have air-conditioning. We have cars. We have televisions. We have pets. We have eyeglasses. We have electricity. We have plumbing. We have a church building…. Shall I go on? Even those of us who may be part of the struggling middle or lower class, even we have riches when compared with most of the world. Are we being good stewards of these gifts? Are we living lives that express a desire to share what we have with others—with those whom God has created in his own image? If others will know us by our fruit, what fruit are we bearing on this day?
A third point I think we can take away from this passage is: Do we know God’s Word? Are we reading it regularly? Are we studying it? Are we meditating upon it? Are we bringing it in prayer before our heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If, as Abraham indicates in this passage, Moses and the prophets—not to mention the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and the book of Revelation—are the means God has ordained for convicting people of the truth of who he is and of our desperate need for him, then are we taking the time—are we making the effort—to learn what that Word says? Though we are taught in Scripture that we have been sealed with God’s Holy Spirit, our Great Comforter, are we seeking his comfort apart from his Word? If we are, then we are seeking for God to act on our terms, not his. It is by means of his Word, that God will work to bring us his comfort and convince of his truth.
Finally: Are we availing ourselves of the means God has given us to live the lives of holy people, of saints, as described in his Word? And here I’m thinking specifically of our community. Brothers and Sisters, we need each other, don’t we? If the sum of the law and the prophets is that we love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves then we can be sure that God didn’t intend for us to live our lives by ourselves.
Brothers and sisters, Let us be those who believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word.
Let us be those who share all our gifts and goods with those in need.
Let us be those who are committed to reading, studying, and meditating on Scripture, asking our Father to lead and guide us by his Spirit.
Let us be those who bear witness to Christ’s goodness as a community, as a family, as together we learn to live our lives loving him and loving each other as well.