TEXT: Luke 16:19-31
“The rich man and Lazarus”—one of the better-known parables of Jesus, I would guess. Whether you consider yourself rich or poor, this one sticks in your mind. And, truth to tell, many of us (perhaps most of us) really don’t like it when Jesus talks about money—or at least, about how we use it.
Trouble is, Jesus does a lot of talking about money. Reading through the gospels, we can’t help but notice that the Lord has a great deal to say regarding wealth and poverty.
First of all, there is the renowned “Blessed are the poor” statement in Matthew (5:3), spoken in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Then, in chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells us about a greedy farmer. Do you remember that story? After harvesting a bumper crop, this fellow wanted to retire early (it must have been some huge crop!). His plan was to build the biggest granaries in the country and then do nothing except “eat, drink, [and] be merry” (v. 19) for the remainder of his life—pretty much what some of us imagine we would do if we won the lottery. (“What would you do with 30 million dollars? … “Nothing … ever again!”)
However—perhaps considering how poor some of the man’s neighbours are—God is offended by the farmer’s intentions. How offended? Well, so offended that he calls the guy out. He says: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:21)
Jesus concludes that parable with the words: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” (Luke 12:21)
Do we get the point yet? Is Jesus saying that wealth is bad and rich people are evil? Let’s not jump to that conclusion. Backtrack to the first half of chapter 16 of Luke. Do you remember it?
Jesus talked about a financial manager who was similarly caught up in materialistic ambitions. This man saw his own economic stability fading because he had squandered the wealth of his employer. Only upon discovering that he was about to lose it all did he become an imaginative and energetic financial whiz. This was due primarily to the fact that—like the man for whom he worked—he had made wealth his true master.
Like I said before, Jesus had a lot to say about money:
- “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also” (Matthew 6:21);
- “From the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48b);
- “What will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?” (Matthew 16:26).
In today’s gospel, we meet a rich man and a poor man. These two, along with Abraham, have taken up residence in the afterlife. Yes, it’s that Abraham—the one from the Old Testament.
You remember him. God promised to give Abraham a new land and countless descendants. And because Abraham believed in the promise of God, “the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
You may also remember that Abraham was fabulously wealthy. The Bible doesn’t state that Abraham was merely rich. No. Instead, it records that Abraham was very rich in silver, cattle and gold (Gen. 13:2). He had so many servants that he was able to form his own army to go into battle (Gen. 14:14)!
As God continued to prosper him, he grew even greater, and God blessed him in every way (Gen. 24:1). In fact, his material wealth grew so large that he and his nephew Lot had to part ways because the land could no longer accommodate both of them (Gen. 13:6). And yet, Abraham walked with God and was called the friend of God (James 2:23).
So, Abraham is both wealthy and righteous. That should make him the perfect choice to act as a mediator between the rich man and Lazarus … or so you might think.
But … like so many of Jesus’ teaching stories, this one turns convention on its head. Here is this famously wealthy Old Testament figure, obviously in a favourable position in the afterlife—and at his elbow sits a man who was previously a beggar in his earthly life. Meanwhile, the man who was rich in his earthly life cannot find any relief.
Now, it needs to be said that this is hyperbole. This is a parable—a teaching story—and these people are characters in that story. Abraham, certainly, was a real, historical person—but the rich man and the pauper are fictional. Jesus may have named the beggar after his own dear friend Lazarus—but the fictional Lazarus was anything but poor.
So, if (like me) you take some satisfaction in seeing this reversal of roles—and in the rich man’s torment—you needn’t feel too guilty.
The rich man, after all, ignored the hunger of others while having plenty of leftovers at home in the fridge. For Lazarus and Abraham to defy the rich man, for them to ignore him—well, that just seems right to me. At least, until I realize that—compared to most people in the world—I am among the wealthiest.
Still, it seems refreshing (doesn’t it?)—this word about justice—coming from a Jesus who is always preaching about grace?
More importantly, though, a point is being made here about the meaning of discipleship. Following Jesus is not simply about intellectual belief. Despite what many have said, belief in the right God or “correct” doctrine is only part of what it means to have true faith. Jesus presupposes that the one who genuinely knows God will be a person of compassion.
A pastor I know—who had been present as a prayer counselor at an evangelistic rally—told me about one man who, after coming forward to receive Christ, said: “So, I’m good now, right? There’s nothing else I have to do?”
Taken aback for a moment, my friend replied, “No. You don’t have to do anything else. But you will want to!”
“You will want to.” As the Holy Spirit begins to work in your heart, you will want to do something else. This is the truth about Christianity as presented in the New Testament.
The apostle Paul—in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans—implies that the renewal of our minds will lead to the transformation of our character.
The Epistle of James emphasizes that “faith without works is … dead” (James 2:26).
And please don’t forget Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats. You know it. It’s the one in which he boldly teaches that inasmuch as you have helped or harmed “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40)—the poor among us—you have helped or harmed Christ himself!
Christianity—as described in the Bible—is not about some sort of intellectual assent. It’s not even about some feeling in your heart. No. It is about belief in the sense of being so attached to the truth that it causes you to go out and do something. As James put it, you are to become a doer of the Word, and not just a hearer of it (James 1:22).
Even in Jesus’ time, this understanding of “doing God’s will” was not a new thing. I think this is the point Jesus is trying to make by mentioning Abraham and other Old Testament figures.
Jesus grew up hearing about the spiritual heroes of Jewish faith, and so he can easily envision Abraham saying to the rich man who wanted to “go back” and warn his relatives: “Listen, they have Moses and the prophets … you had Moses and the prophets!”
I can imagine Jesus saying later to his disciples, “Look, some of this is old stuff. It’s tried and true. I’ve just come to fulfill this.”
Jesus knew the Book of Deuteronomy (ch. 15) emphasizes that the rich have a moral responsibility to help the poor. Jesus knew that the prophet Amos portrayed God as relentless in his criticism of the people when they do not care for those in need. And when he began his own ministry, Jesus chose as his mission statement these words from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)
See, here’s the thing: all of Scripture tells us that our faith has to be about more than intellectual affirmation. Faithfulness should extend beyond our front gates.
Lazarus, in his earthly life, slipped right through the cracks—kind of like that old lost coin Jesus spoke about (Luke 15:8-10). Like that coin, Lazarus is found by the great Searcher. Unfortunately, the rich man in Jesus’ story is himself utterly lost—not because of his wealth—but because he did not use it to help others when and where he could have. In other words, he was lost because he had no love. He was not righteous because he was not compassionate.
I know. No matter how you slice it, Jesus’ words today are difficult. Lazarus and the rich man … both of them are caricatures. But they are caricatures we can identify with. And that must surely challenge us. May God use these difficult words to give us a heart for the lost—poor and rich alike.