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Luke Chapter 16 verses 13-31 English Standard Version*
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
* The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – part 1. © Parva Press
First, the setting of the parable.
At the beginning of Chapter 16, Luke records our Lord’s teaching concerning position, opportunity and money; teaching his disciples to see these things as a trust from the Lord God to be used to bring honour to his name, and to be used with an eye to heaven. The Lord Jesus illustrates his teaching with the parable of the steward or manager who is called to submit his accounts.
But the Pharisees, overhearing this teaching, scoffed, ‘lifted their noses’ in disdain. Although there were noble exceptions, the majority of the Pharisees, and certainly their high-born colleagues the Sadducees, loved money, power, position, and prestige and used these things to further their own agenda and for their own earthly pleasure. They had no thought of giving an account for these things to Almighty God or of seeking ‘treasure in heaven’.
The Pharisees’ priority was the strict keeping of the Law of Moses, as it had become interpreted over the years. However, that meticulous observance had become separated from a vital walk with the Lord God. It had become an end in itself; formal, cold and judgemental. Instead of the love and joy of godly living, their observance was a religious display overlying a very worldly pursuit of position, power and wealth. No wonder they sniffed in disdain at the Lord’s teaching! Working in a way that was useful to the Roman overlords – some securing high positions through their favour – the religious leaders became privileged, relatively rich and thoroughly self-satisfied . . . but spiritually bankrupt. Wealth and position took the place of God – as it can for us – and they became, in our Lord’s words, ‘exalted among men and yet an abomination in the sight of God.’ Man looks on the exterior, but God looks on the heart.
The Pharisees were the guardians of God’s word, and yet taught a human interpretation of it – hence those brief references to God’s law which, over the years, they had ‘re-interpreted’ to make more acceptable or, as the Lord implied, to render them empty of content; to cause ‘the law to become void’.
Here were religious, successful and highly respected men, who certainly thought of themselves as having the best of intentions, but who were profoundly mistaken. Their lips were full of godly phrases yet their eye was on wealth and public esteem, and their hearts were far from a genuine love of the Lord God and his holy ways. As a result, in the sight of God, they were only deceiving themselves, and leading both themselves and the people entrusted to their care into disaster.
It was to men like this, who were confident of their place at Abraham’s side, that the Lord Jesus addressed this terrifying parable. He warned them – and us – of the terrible danger of regarding lightly the warnings and instructions the Lord God has given us in his word. In a religious setting, the Pharisees read and publicly expounded God’s word, Moses and the Prophets, every Sabbath. However, despite their meticulous observation of some parts of the law, they did not allow the less comfortable parts to challenge their thinking or change the way they lived: their lack of love toward the Lord God and their neighbour, their failure to fulfil their God-given responsibility, their imagined superiority over ordinary people and their utter disdain for those less fortunate than themselves.
Although circumstances differ, these same dangers and temptations constantly attend the leaders of God’s household. Those among us called to be ‘shepherds’ do well to take note of the very great responsibility we have before Almighty God. We are not called to be ‘esteemed persons in our society’, however much that flatters our ego, but to be patterns of humble, strong and steady godly living. We are not called to be heralds of our own considered opinions, setting ourselves over God’s word and ‘re-interpreting’ it to comfortably fit the thinking of our age, but rather, called to be heralds of God as we submit our own lives to his word and encourage others to do the same.
Then the parable itself
A very rich man; the finest of food; the richest of clothes – purple dyed, the most sought-after in the ancient world. Even the Greek word used for the ‘gate’ of his house implies that it was a splendid gate. Rich and successful, the admiration of all; no one would condemn such a man, all would speak well of him.
There is no hint of fraud or oppression and it is no sin to be rich, to wear fine clothes or to keep a rich and generous table. Abraham, who is pictured in this parable in the joy of heaven, was a very rich man but he walked in humble obedience with the Lord God. The great danger of riches is that we feel no need of God and so, forgetful of him and of his goodness to us, walk in self-confidence and pride. A second danger of wealth is that we begin to despise or even oppress those less fortunate than ourselves. These are the traps into which the wealthy and self-satisfied religious leaders had fallen.
Well did the writer of Proverbs pray, ‘Give me neither great wealth nor poverty, lest in plenty I forget you or in poverty I steal and so take your name in vain.’ The Lord Jesus did not decry wealth – but taught that wisdom, authority, position and wealth are each an awesome trust from God to be used to bring glory to our Father in heaven.
‘Is a man’s spiritual state to be judged by his earthly condition?’ asks Matthew Henry. It is a good question. Here, in our Lord’s parable, was a man of prestige and plenty who everyone, including himself, would naturally assume was on his way to heavenly joy. But horror! He is actually on his way to God’s just judgement and to the torment of hell. As our Lord said, it is clearly possible for that which is held in high esteem among men to be an abomination before God. We must never assume that prestige, peace and plenty here and now are the promise of heaven to come. Indeed, Psalm 73 would teach us that, while godless folk flourish, it is often the lot of some of the dearest saints of God to suffer dreadfully in this world. But neither must we conclude that great wealth leads to God’s condemnation and that poverty leads to his blessing. It is sometimes assumed, mistakenly, that those who suffer or are in poverty, here on earth, automatically have a place in heaven. Heaven is equally open to believing people who have well used the good health and riches entrusted to them, or who have patiently endured the lack of them. In heaven, ‘poor’ Lazarus shares the company of ‘rich’ Abraham. The apostle Paul displays the godly pattern. He had learned to rest content in the Lord in plenty or in need.
And so to the poor man, who, unusually, is named; a fact that has caused some to question whether this is a parable. The name he is given is Lazarus, Eleazar – ‘God will help’ or ‘God my helper’. Here is the first hint of his trust in the Lord God. He was, humanly, helpless. His friends and family had done what they could in bringing him to the gate. But here he was despised, a hungry beggar, grateful for crumbs, full of sores which the street dogs licked. He had no possibility of earning a living, there were no public services to help, and there was no money for medical help. Yet, in our Lord’s parable, there is no hint from his lips of murmuring or grumbling because of his plight. He appears patient and longsuffering. In heaven he does not gloat when he sees that the roles are totally reversed, and he offers no objection when the rich man assumes that he may be used first as his servant and then as his errand boy. Taken together, these all suggest that the Lord’s picture is of a godly man who in this world was in a desperate situation. Clearly, though it was hidden from sight by his terrible circumstances, here was a man who was precious before Almighty God.
In his plight, Lazarus is laid at the gate of the rich man; one to whom God had entrusted so much, one of ‘God’s treasurers’. Will he help? Well, he might send a few crumbs, the left-over scraps that neither he nor his servants want. Such action did nothing to address Lazarus’ great needs or do more than prolong his agony for one more day. It cost the rich man nothing but in doing so he would doubtless consider that he had fulfilled his charitable duty. The Pharisees’ public acts of alms-giving satisfied them in much the same way. To the rich man, Lazarus is just part of the scene; one of the many beggars. He does not have him removed but, perhaps as a way of coping with one more among so many people in need, he just does not notice him.
Could the rich man have significantly helped this one man laid at his gate; personally brought to his attention? Although he knew him well enough to recognise him and to know his name, the rich man in his plenty does not even seem to have considered it. Do we . . . ?
Footnotes – additional comments
- The Pharisees’ own study of the Scriptures should have warned them that the danger of wealth is that it can take the place of God; we can trust in it and deny or ignore God (Proverbs 30:9), and also that in the thinking of those at ease, there can so easily be contempt for those less fortunate (Job 12:5).
- Wealth, wisdom and positions of power are a trust from Almighty God to be held in stewardship and used to bring glory to our Father in heaven and for the well-being of those around us – not to encourage dependency and idleness but to set free those who are trapped by lack of what we can provide.
Proverbs, a summary from Proverbs 30:8&9
Paul content in need or plenty, Philippians 4:10-13
Questions for reflection or discussion
- How easy is it for those of us who are spiritual leaders today to fall into the trap of relishing power, prestige and wealth for ourselves, rather than using them to further the kingdom of heaven?
- Can those who are called to be heralds of God’s truth still prefer to promote human opinions and ‘interpretations’ of that truth?
- How easy is it to be very familiar with the Bible and yet not let it challenge or change the way we think and live?
- Abraham was a very rich man, can you think of wealthy men and women in more recent times who have walked humbly with the Lord God and used their wealth and position for his glory?
- How does it help us set priorities if we see all that we have and all that we are as a trust from Almighty God to be held in stewardship for him?
- Do we know anything of the Christian contentment spoken of by the apostle Paul? Is it a characteristic of our society?
- Are there people, brought to our attention; ‘laid at our gate’ who we could and should be actively helping? Local people or people in our ‘global village’ with spiritual, physical, medical or educational needs?
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – part 2. © Parva Press
Beyond this life and its circumstances
Not surprisingly, Lazarus died . . . but so, too, did the rich man. Death is the great leveller. We all ‘lie down in the dust’ says Job and that, maybe, sooner than we would like to think.
To the human eye, the poor man was just a nuisance; begging at the rich man’s gate, attracting the dogs and detracting from the magnificence of the gateway. His departure would seem to be of benefit to everyone; the rich man, however, being a jewel of society, would be sadly missed.
Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side; to recline in the place of honour beside Abraham. This is a Hebrew picture of heaven; a child of faith with the father of faith in the presence of God. No more hunger, no more sores, carried for the last time – but this time by the angels of God. Here is God’s special care for those on whom he has set his love. ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him.’
The rich man also died, but unlike the poor man, his body was given a fine burial. Note our Lord’s words, spoken only of the rich man, ‘and was buried’. The rich man still maintained the pride and position of his past life even after death – but his destiny was not to be transported by angels to Abraham’s side but to find himself in Hades. In Old Testament usage, Hades was the shadowy home of the departed, but for the rich man of this parable it is clearly the place of God’s just judgement – hell.
Unlike the disposal of Lazarus’ body, the rich man’s burial would have been characterised by dignified ceremony; the laying to rest of a fine-living man whose table was never lacking. Sadly, too often, as the Lord said, what is esteemed among men is an abomination before God. Even while the solemn ceremony was taking place, hear the cries from Hades, ‘I am in torment in this flame,’ just ‘a drop of water,’ Oh, ‘to warn my brothers.’
We must not press the parable too far, let alone attempt to discern the detailed secrets of the hereafter, but we do need to recognise that the Lord Jesus is issuing a terrible warning . . . the reality of heaven and hell; the reality of God’s final, irrevocable judgement. The Lord is vividly picturing the significance of our God-centred or our God-ignoring manner of life here and now, and its bearing on our eternal well-being. Be warned! Here, for the rich man, was truth learned too late – the torment, the agony, the endless, ‘if only I’d . . .’ but the opportunity had passed. Now, too late, he sees the reality of heaven and hell. Now, too late, he realises the error of living in God’s world without loving, serving and honouring him. And now, too late, he longs to warn others. He now sees agonisingly clearly the misery he has brought on himself and the glory and joy from which he has excluded himself.
His cry for a drop of water, which echoed Lazarus’ earthly cry for a crumb of bread, cannot be fulfilled. ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.’ As Abraham awakened them, even these memories would only serve to torment him. Despite all his earthly wealth and comfort, having forfeited God’s blessing the rich man is left in utter desolation and torment. Whereas Lazarus, who had suffered so much and possessed so little, is now at Abraham’s side in heaven, and has everything that really and ultimately matters.
In common with the rich man, we, in our day, cannot, with money or with favours given to others, ‘buy’ our way to heaven. We have to submit and trust and live for the Lord God and submit to the one he sent to be the way of forgiveness, his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way, no other door. And neither can we, even with fabulous wealth, buy our way out of hell. There is a great gulf fixed.
The Lord’s parable of the steward or manager teaches disciples to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength and so use position, opportunities and money for the Lord, with an eye to heaven. This parable, closely following it, was given to teach the Pharisees the other side of the same coin. The parable teaches that ignoring God and using opportunity, position, time, money and all that he has entrusted to us only on ourselves with no reference to the Lord God is a terrible error – the pathway to hell.
The Rich Man’s conversation with Abraham
“ . . . he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ “
He who once commanded now begs! The rich man had never before been in a position where he had to beg a favour rather than demand it. Never, maybe since his childhood, had anyone ignored or refused one of his requests. Yet now, aware of the horror of his totally changed situation, the rich man begins begging and grasping for help. Seeing and recognising Lazarus far off at Abraham’s side, he begins to implore and argue with all the desperation characteristic of the most determined beggar.
Just as the Pharisees constantly assumed that they could appeal to Abraham, the rich man, too, attempts to gain relief in the same way, ‘Father Abraham I beg you . . .’ The rich man offered no significant help to Lazarus who had suffered so terribly at his gate but, now that he is in such trouble, something must be done about it and done immediately! ‘Send Lazarus!’ With his long established superior position in society, he completely fails to recognise that Lazarus is now Abraham’s honoured guest and that he is the beggar. The rich man takes it for granted that Lazarus may be used as his servant and will do whatever he wishes. But who made Abraham’s honoured guest this man’s servant? – Be warned, for demanding, self-centred arrogance towards those less well-off can so easily ensnare those of us entrusted with wealth and social position.
And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ Let Lazarus be sent, this time as his messenger boy, to warn these five brothers who were equally God-ignoring, equally living for this world only, equally in danger of sharing their rich brother’s fate. The request may have sprung from a genuine concern for their eternal well-being. However, we must not build too much on the rich man’s concern for them for he shows no fundamental change of heart. The rich man shows no hint of repentance toward God for his former life-style or of remorse for the way he has consistently ignored, and now seeks to use, Lazarus. For this reason, it has been suggested that his request could have been made to spare him from the added torment of his brothers’ endless anger and accusations because he himself had failed to warn them and had, by his example, led them to such a fate – just as the Pharisees were doing.
‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them,’ says Abraham. The rich man, in his desperation, contradicts even the one he claims to honour. ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ ‘He may not go’, says Abraham in effect, ‘but even if he could they would not listen’. The problem is not lack of opportunity to turn and repent, to live for the Lord God, it is the lack of heart and will to do so. Indeed, says Richard Baxter, the brothers would almost certainly persecute the risen, returning Lazarus for daring to slur the name and memory of their magnificent brother; for daring to suggest that he was anywhere but among God’s favoured ones in heaven. Such is the hardness of our unbelieving hearts.
The challenge of the parable, then and now
The words of Abraham, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead,’ would have rung as a stinging rebuke in the ears of the Pharisees, to whom this parable was first addressed. The Pharisees prided themselves in being the experts in understanding and applying Moses and the Prophets and yet had clearly neither understood nor heeded them themselves; they had been selective.
As a terrible demonstration of the truth of the second part of Abraham’s reply, ‘neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead,’ the apostle John records that, right at the end of his ministry, the Lord Jesus raised a man from the dead, who also bore the name ‘Lazarus’. Did the Pharisees believe? They did not! They had already resolved to kill Jesus and were now even more determined to do so and also to kill this risen Lazarus. They were in no position to deny the amazing miracle of one ‘risen from the dead’ but would be rid of the man whose risen life bore such eloquent testimony to who the Lord Jesus truly is; the Son of God, the promised Messiah.
The Pharisees assumed that they, most certainly, would share the joy of heaven at Abraham’s side. But as the Lord Jesus challenged them, by this parable, to examine their assumptions, so the parable challenges each one of us to seriously examine the grounds of our own hope of God’s favour; of heavenly joy.
Is it present plenty, position and being well regarded by those around us? – The rich man’s life was marked by these things.
Is it my support of church or chapel? – Be warned, for the rich man in his plenty could well have been a leading figure in his local synagogue. In his culture such involvement would have been naturally expected of him, as involvement with the church in one way or another can be for us.
Am I trusting in apparently pious, yet mistaken religious leaders to put me right before God and lead me to the joy of heaven? – Beware, for the people of Jesus’ day respected and trusted the Pharisees to whom, and about whom, this searching and terrible parable was told.
A hope built on one or more of these is clearly a hope that will let us down; a hope in vain.
On what is our hope of heaven founded?
From the parable, it is clearly possible to live an enviably successful life . . . and yet fail to walk humbly with Almighty God. It is equally painfully clear that it is even possible to have a highly respected public ministry . . . and yet fail to walk in humble obedience to Almighty God in whose hand is our breath and our eternal destiny. Therefore, before God, we do well to ask . . .
Could I be living a good and honourable life without it ever entering my consciousness that I am ignoring Almighty God in whose hand is my breath, my health, my wealth and all my circumstances? In God’s sight, could I – actually – be living as the rich man lived?
Am I, by my own effort, knowledge or religious zeal, trying to impress the Lord God; am I – actually – following my own chosen career and agenda without any genuine walk with, or humble obedience to Him? Could I be the modern, Christian equivalent of a Pharisee?
Have I personally and earnestly prayed to Almighty God and to his now crucified, risen and reigning Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for help, mercy and forgiveness? Have I put my life – all that I am and all that I have, together with the time and influence that has been entrusted to me – at his disposal?
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus confronts us with searching, terrible and solemn questions. Our eternal destiny hangs on the answers.
Thank you, heavenly Father for these wonderful and yet terrifying words that fell from the lips of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Give us grace to heed their warning, earnestly pray for mercy; then trust, believe, obey and lay all at your feet, for the glory of your holy name and for our own eternal well-being.
Footnotes – additional comments
- The parable throws into sharp relief the very different destinies described in the New Testament’s most famous verse; ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes on him might not perish . . .’ – Hear those fearful cries of the rich man, ‘I am in anguish; in torment – send to warn . . .’ The verse continues, ‘. . . might not perish but have everlasting life.’ – Take encouragement from the humble trust and subsequent heavenly joy of Lazarus, ‘God my helper’. For Lazarus, life on earth was very hard and harsh but in the life hereafter he is pictured among the choice saints of God in the presence of his Lord.
- The parable is very wide ranging in its implications. If we allow it to, it will challenge and clarify our thinking concerning heaven and hell and God’s irrevocable judgement. It will challenge our confidence in our earthly relationships and circumstances and establish in our hearts the certainly of ultimate justice at the hand of God. It will pin-point the mystery of suffering and awaken our care and respect for those less well-off than ourselves.
- As with the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking, those of us who are parents, teachers or ministers have much to dread when we consider those we have failed to warn or have misled. However, the time to cry to God on their behalf and to do all we can to help them is now, not, as the rich man, when it is too late.
We all, ‘lie down in the dust’, Job 21:23-26
At Abraham’s side, KJV ‘in Abraham’s bosom’; the place of honour. See also John 13:23
The resurrection and the life, John 11:23-27
The plan to kill Lazarus, John 12:9-11
Eye has not seen, 1 Corinthians 2:9
In whose hand is my breath, Daniel 5:23
Questions for reflection or discussion
- How easy is it for people in our society to assume that a decent lifestyle, followed by a dignified funeral naturally leads to heavenly bliss?
- How clearly does our Lord paint the ultimate fate of the two men? How can we avoid the fate of the rich man?
- Can we, too, be selective in what we choose to ‘hear’ from God’s word? For example, is this whole area of the just judgement of God often omitted from today’s preaching and Christian thinking?
- Do you think the warnings given by a risen Lazarus would have been heeded? If not, why not?
- What sure grounds, rather than vain hopes, do we have for our own eternal destiny?
- How much do we know of love and trust toward Almighty God and his Son, a godly open-handedness with regard to our possessions and a hunger to shape our lives by God’s written word?