Jesus, Rich People, and the Story of Lazarus
[Luke chapter 16, verses 16-31]
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Previously, when we closed out our study of the first half of chapter 16, Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees because they were sneering at him for telling them they could serve God or serve money, but never both. These Pharisees and other ‘religious leaders’ took the opposite viewpoint, which was that God had apparently blessed them with riches because of their faithfulness and their diligence while in positions of leadership. This greed-tainted logic is quite similar to the ‘prosperity gospel’ that can be found in abundance on “Christian Television” today. As we begin today’s study, you will notice that Jesus’ response to his critics actually begins at verse 15. But then we have verse 18, which doesn’t really fit the rest of the narrative, leading me to believe that this part of Luke’s gospel is only a small portion of a far more substantial original. Any additional commentary from the apostle Luke has presumably been lost to history. Because of this, I will always wonder how much more there was in the original gospel of Luke.
“He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. The law and the prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’” (Luke 16, verses 15-18)
“What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” The world chases after fame and fortune, glamour and prestige, money and power, not to mention anything and everything ‘fashionable’. God despises all of the above. Bigger houses, flashier cars and trucks, and all the latest electronic or mechanical gadgetry? Ditto and likewise. But that is just scratching the surface. God also despises those who are always angry (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called ‘sons of God’”, Matt. 5: 9), as well as loud and boastful people (“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”, Matt. 5: 5). God also hates the proud and arrogant (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, Matt. 5: 3). I could go on, but you get my point. “The law and the prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” This is an important verse in Biblical studies because this is where Jesus defined John the Baptist as the last prophet of the Law, or Old Testament as we know it today. Jesus then points out that the “good news of the kingdom of God is being preached”, speaking of himself in his usual understated way. People were frantically forcing their way into this new kingdom, and to this day that remains much the same as always.
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” With the current divorce rate in the US and Canada pegged at about 50%, there are literally tens of millions of people here in the US alone who are in major trouble with Lord Jesus over this issue. “But they have done nothing to Jesus!”, many would say. Haven’t they? Every time anyone divorces so they can remarry, they are committing an offense against God (which is the very definition of ‘sin’). Every time single people sleep around with multiple partners, married people cheat on their spouses, or participate in orgies or worse, this is flagrant sin and there is a steep price to be paid for all that adult fun. It is a fact that one out of every five single people in the US has an STD of some kind or another, up to and including being HIV-positive. Another fact that is even harder to swallow is that in at least half these cases, those who are infected don’t bother telling their partners, and that’s the ones we already know about. The exact figures are unknown. I am twice divorced myself, and besides my biweekly blogs and Progressive Christian website, I also play keyboards at another church every Sunday morning, so I must assume that God is holding me to a higher standard. That’s why I never remarried. And now let’s move on to the next part of our study, beginning at verse 19.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was a beggar named Lazarus, covered in sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels came and carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus at his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is in comfort here and you are in agony. And besides all this, there is a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (Luke 16, verses 19-26)
As before, Jesus uses an illustration of a man of great riches and possessions as an example of what humankind reveres, and of what God detests. The rich man saw his wealth and riches as ample evidence of God’s blessing upon him for his piety and religiosity, but in the end all of that became a curse. By the same token, that which was a curse for poor Lazarus ultimately was transformed into his eternal blessing. All the religious faith the rich man could muster, which was plenty by his own standards, was woefully inadequate by the standards of the Lord. The important lesson here is a restatement of a theme recurring throughout the Ministry of Christ, which is to live for eternity instead of only for today. Isn’t the reverse what is prevalent in 21st century conversations and in the media? “Live for today for tomorrow never comes”? “Just do it”? “You’ve got to go for what you know”, and so on? Yes, of course the world is constantly coaxing people to act without thinking, as if their lack of any hesitation or contemplation is equal to bravery! But the ways of Christ are exactly the opposite – being quick to listen and slow to speak, exercising self-control and discipline, and being gentle, affectionate, compassionate, and filled with empathy, kindness and mercy. The rest of the world, as you know, views these qualities as weaknesses to be exploited. That’s why it’s mandatory for all of us to be on our guard at all times against the subtle evils of Satan.
There are two more main things present in this passage of Scripture. The first is that the fires of hell are real. Jesus wouldn’t have mentioned hell if it were a fictitious place. So if anyone reading this does not believe that hell is a real place, I’m sorry but I must inform you that you are seriously mistaken. You can be very sincere in your beliefs, and that is always a good thing. But you can also be sincerely wrong, and if I didn’t tell my audience these serious facts I would not be doing my job as a Web pastor. I hope this doesn’t upset anybody, but truth is truth and that’s all there is to it. Truth is more than something to be merely acknowledged. Truth is something we must embrace, if for no other reason than the prevention of self-delusion.
The second thing that stands out to me here is that all the religious faith and the works that rich man performed, including his numerous offerings at the Temple in keeping with the customs of his fathers and the Mosaic Law, still didn’t keep him from the fires of hell. Now, as I wrote last week, this does not mean all rich people are going to hell. Let’s remember the original context of the story. Lazarus begged at the rich man’s gate, and day after day went by and the rich man gave him nothing! He kept it all to himself! Even today, when I’m downtown in Atlanta’s Five Points district helping feed what few homeless individuals I can afford to, I can’t help but notice that most of the other people go out of their way to avoid any contact with the homeless. Yet they are not wealthy individuals to the extent that the rich man was in Jesus’ parable. Some are restaurant or food service workers while others are low-level office employees. Many of them are temporary workers, and none of them are well paid, so I’m not including those people since they’re barely surviving themselves. But there is another class of high level workers who do much better, such as senior executives and business owners large and small, who are very prosperous, and yet I’ve seen only one in recent memory that gave a homeless man a sandwich. So the lesson learned here is being religious, no matter how devout, will not save you from hell no matter how much of a ‘good person’ you may consider yourself to be. And now let’s close out this week’s lesson starting at verse 27.
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my house, for they have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham’, he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16, verses 27-31)
The truth is already being preached, but many are following bogus ‘preachers’ and other ‘bad actor’ televangelists who view organized religion as a commodity to be exploited. Still others follow their denominational teaching in the erroneous belief that theirs is the only Christian denomination that has the correct interpretations of the sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ. The problem with that is, if each say all the others are wrong, then none of them are truly right! But if we step away from all that and simply open the Bible (or the Bible ‘app’ of your choice) and start reading it, we find ultimate truth in the teachings and the history contained in its pages, from Genesis to Revelation. Yet there are many who don’t bother to read the Bible, and some who don’t even own one due to a lack of interest. Instead, they dutifully go to church every Sunday dressed in expensive clothes and driving their luxury cars and SUV’s in the mistaken belief that they have fulfilled their obligation to God. All of their self-righteous faithfulness, their sanctimony and the sacrifices of their tithes and offerings will still not save the majority of them from the fires of hell!!
“‘No, father Abraham’, he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent’. He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.‘” Clearly we can see Abraham calling the rich man a liar, telling him his brothers wouldn’t repent even if someone raised from the dead and came and told them. So in this case the rich man is also being told why he’s in hell when he assumed he was going to heaven for all eternity. He is roasting down there because he was a stingy and selfish pig of a man who cared about no one except for himself! Isn’t that the way many people are today? Granted, there are wealthy people who make a sincere effort at paying it forward. Warren Buffet is one example, in that a recent (07/11/2017) CNN website posting reported he gave $3.2 billion to charity. Bill Gates is another with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But there are so many more who would walk right past you while being asked for the time of day!
But there is even more (you knew I was going to say that, right?) because of the prophetic nature of Jesus’ parable! In the same way as the rich man’s brothers would not have believed and repented even if their deceased brother had risen from the dead, so it is today with billions of people in the world. They refuse to embrace Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ even though Jesus has risen from the dead. The world is becoming increasingly divided between Christian believers and everybody else, most notably Islam, and according to Biblical prophecy this is not going to end well. So we must be on our guard, and we must begin to prepare ourselves as best we can with whatever resources you have at your disposal. I live on a small retirement pension plus a side job playing keyboards at another church, and even with those limited resources I have enough nonperishable food and gallons of water for at least several months. I am preparing myself mentally, physically and Spiritually on the assumption that my refusal to take the Mark of the Beast will force me to become self sufficient. Meanwhile, the world’s refusal to believe in the risen Savior Christ Jesus will end up being its undoing. All Christian followers of Jesus will need to do is sit back and watch God make short work out of the rest of the unbelieving world. After that, we’ll all be taken home just as the second half of the Great Tribulation gets underway. It will be glorious!!