October 16, 2022
Unlike our other parables so far, this one does not stay in the realm of first-century village life. It spans this life and the next. This parable is found only in Luke. It underscores a theme expressed earlier in the Gospel. God has "put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree."
And the story reflects the ancient belief that the righteous and the wicked can see each other after death. And look and see who Jesus is telling this story to and why…this story grows out of the reaction of the Pharisees to his story of the dishonest steward we looked at last week. Let’s look at Luke 16:19
“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day.
Jesus wastes no time in describing this rich man. He gives us a couple of important details: notice first, this man was clothed in purple and fine linen. His clothing was the best money could buy. When it came to himself, he spared no expense. The rich loved to be clothed in purple; it was the color of royalty and it was very costly to make. Fine linen was a woolen garment, soaked in a special clay pot which made it brilliantly white, worn as a status symbol.
Second, Jesus mentions that this man feasted every day. The very definition of a feast is that it is a special occasion. To this man, his feasting was so common he hardly even thought of it as feasting anymore. Compare this to the Father who when his Lost son was restored to him, killed the fattened calf and began to celebrate.
The rich man was characterized by the externals of life. There are many people like that. Their whole concern is: "What shall I eat, and where shall I sleep, and what shall I wear? He lived a hollow life concerned only with the love of displaying his wealth and the desire for self-indulgence. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
Jesus says that this poor man was in very close vicinity to the rich man. While in this life, the rich man had ample time to tend to the needs of Lazarus but never gave him a second thought.
Lazarus was covered with sores, Do you see the imagery and contrast Jesus is picturing before us? One man clothed in fine linen and costly purple the other clothed in sores.
The Pharisees would have viewed Lazarus as unclean and suffering divine judgment. Much like Job’s friends who wondered what great evil Job must have secretly done for God to curse him so severely.
The idea of the poor waiting for crumbs at the doors of the rich is a detail taken straight from first-century life. People then did not use knives or forks or napkins; they would eat with their hands, wiping them on crusts of bread which were thrown out afterward. Lazarus, was waiting for those crusts of discarded bread that had been thrown out after the feast.
Do Lazarus's hunger and willingness to eat whatever was at hand remind you of anyone? The Lost Son. Just as the Lost son longed to eat the pods that were fed to the pigs, so Lazarus longed to just eat the crumbs that fell from this rich man’s table.
Lazarus was in such a poor state and so utterly unclean that, Jesus tells us, the mongrel dogs that ate from the refuse pile even added more misery to him. The dogs add one more reason for us to regard him as less than human, unclean, through-and-through an outcast.
Next, Jesus contrasts their homes. The rich man lives in a compound, which is signified by the fact that he has his own gate. Cities had gates and fortified towns had gates, not a house. However, this man was so rich his fenced in compound had its own gate. Lazarus, on the other hand, had no home at all.
First-century hearers of this parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. Was the rich man blessed because he was rich? Was Lazarus under divine judgment because he was suffering so?
But Jesus leads us to understand that the rich man's sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not "see" Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home.
Could you be clothed in the finest clothing and feasting every day while fifty feet away a man lay in tattered clothing, sick and starving? But something is about to change everything…
“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side.
Jesus continues with His comparison and contrast of these two men. No longer are they living their earthly lives but both have died. Notice the switch in their circumstances.
Lazarus no longer suffered. He was no longer hungry and needy. He now had a home and rather than being mocked as he lay at the rich man’s gate, he was cared for and it was he who now feasted.
In life his only companions were the scavenger wild dogs, but now he is in the presence of Abraham and the angels. As soon as Lazarus breathed his last breath, he was whisked up by the angels and transported in a split second to heaven or as Jesus symbolically explains, Abraham’s side or bosom, which depicts a place of the beloved.
The flames, the water, the tongue, the great chasm, etc. They, too, are metaphors like when Jesus says, "I am the door," you do not start looking for the doorknob. or you are the salt of the earth and lick each other. Guess what Lazarus means? "God is my helper," which I think Jesus chose on purpose to imply righteousness.
The rich man was now in dire need. His suffering was unfathomable. In Hades or Hell, as some translations call it, he suffered great pain. The tables have now turned. The one who suffered greatly in this life now feasts daily at the side of Abraham and the other who in this life enjoyed many pleasures now is the one suffering for all eternity.
But what I find most interesting about this story is how the rich man is gravely mistaken in the wrong assumptions he makes and how that affects him eternally. And maybe us as well. What are those assumptions as we see these dead men talking?
Wrong Assumption #1: That Abraham Was His Father
The rich man called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me… The rich man calls Abraham his "Father." As kindly and as fatherly as Abraham’s response was, he was not the rich man’s father. To be a child of Abraham is to be a child of God. All he could claim was to be a physical descendant of Abraham not a spiritual descendant.
It is true, Abraham addressed him as child but this indicates a kind Jewish address not an indication of faith. He is not a child of God. Earlier in Luke (3:8) (Produce fruit slide) we get the message that claiming a religious heritage cannot by itself gain us salvation. Living a life characterized by active compassion to others is a sign that we are responding to God's covenant.
Wrong Assumption #2: His Status in This Life Continued in the Life to Come
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I'm suffering in this flame.'
Even in torture, the rich man’s arrogance is seen. Who does he think he is that he could ask Lazarus to enter the tortures of hell to give him some relief? He assumes that Lazarus should still be low in the status department and he should be high. He is viewing the circumstances as if Lazarus is still covered in sores and he is covered in purple and fine linen.
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain.
When we experience times of suffering in this life, we must never think that sorrow and grief in this life means sorrow and grief in the life to come. Like Lazarus, who experienced pain and suffering here, went on to be highly exalted in the life to come.
Wrong Assumption #3: The Great Gulf Between Heaven and Hell Can Be Crossed
Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.'
Do you understand how eternity works? Jesus tells us very clearly and it is the only time he really mentions it. Don’t get hung up on the geography of the hereafter that is not the focus for Jesus here. It is not a literal chasm. We make a mistake in trying to visualize hell as a place where all the lost are in flames below, while above, in heaven, are the redeemed. The chasm simply indicates the impossibility of a change in either condition. No one can pass from the one to the other.
Wrong Assumption #4: Some People are Entitled to Special Treatment
"The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father's house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don't come to this place of agony.'
Here, the rich man may seem to finally be showing some compassion. But I don’t think so. His heart is still only concerned about himself and a certain few people among the socially elite. If Lazarus cannot come here then send him to warn my people. He still does not care about the poor and needy. He doesn’t say, please send Lazarus to the rest of those lying at my gate and warn them. He simply cares for his own. The rich caring for the rich and no one else.
Wrong Assumption #5: A Miracle Will Bring About Repentance (Luke 16:29-31)
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.' 30 The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.' 31 Abraham said, ‘If they don't listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'"
Hearing is a very important theme in Luke’s Gospel. The phrase those who have ears to hear…this is a hearing with a response. It’s so important that we understand that the Law and the Prophets (Old Testament) teach us our need to repent, to turn around. Jesus is saying if we don’t read the word of God, listen to it and do it then there is nothing left for God to do. Do you understand this most important truth? No miracle will convince us to repent if we don’t believe what we read.
Rather than seeing a miracle, like Lazarus coming back from the dead and warning the rich man’s family, they must heed the warnings already given. The same is true for all people.
I pray, as we read through God’s Word we don’t simply read old stories but we hear God speak to us the warnings given in the pages. This rich man should have listened to the Prophets. His brothers should listen to them as well and so should the Pharisees and so should we. Do you have ears to hear? But this is not really a story of heaven. It is a call to holy living. It is an invitation to listen to the prophets and the law and to live as though the kingdom was already among us.
And I think Jesus is saying this too, to the Pharisees , to the rich man, and to us: Do we have eyes to see? Give me your eyes for just one second ..give me your eyes so that I can see everything I keep missing...give me your love for humanity...
What is it that causes some people to have something or someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them? What makes the difference between not really seeing and seeing? What gulfs do we see around us; what divides people in our communities? How might we speak into those gaps? Whom do we lift up in prayer as a way of acknowledging those marginalized?
This parable is one of several in Luke that shows us that the kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it. We don't expect it to show up in the gap between the bearable, even pleasant, or luxurious living conditions of some and the unbearable, inhumane living conditions of others.
To see that gap and move from seeing to active compassion before it is too late. But we ought to have learned by now that the kingdom of God is not a prisoner to our expectations. Let our testimony be of crossing the gulfs that exist between us, of overcoming barriers and differences in order to be one body, one family.