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  • Writer's pictureWayne Shelton

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16: 19-31 (focal v 31)

Two very different funeral services introduce another parable Jesus told. The first was that of a well-known wealthy celebrity whose family wanted to give him a great send-off. The flowers in the church were stunning, the music magnificent, and the tributes praised the man’s successes. The church was packed and the service concluded with a great fanfare – truly a grand finale!

The second could not have been more different; a small group of friends gathered at the graveside of an elderly lady who had lived in impoverished circumstances. Despite her poverty by this world’s standards, she had won the respect of a small circle of people for her generosity and service. She had made it her business not to complain about herself but to assist others in their need – visiting the sick with flowers and providing food in their time of need. At her funeral there was no fanfare, just the words of the minister and the sound of earth falling on the casket. But there was something else – there was the light of true affection and hope on the faces of the small group beside the grave. There was sorrow at the loss of one they had come to love, but there was also joy in the knowledge that this lady was now with the Lord.

Consider the parable Jesus told about two very different men who died (Luke 16:19-31).

The first man was fabulously wealthy: he had everything and lived extravagantly. He wore designer clothes, ate gourmet food and always flew first class. He lived in a sumptuous mansion with a huge ornamental portico to the front entrance, his gate, as Jesus called it – the kind that adorned temples and palaces (v20). We know nothing about his friends or achievements. All we know is that he oozed prosperity.

The second man lived in abject poverty. His poverty was as extreme as the rich man’s wealth. The original text says that he was thrown at the rich man’s gate. There he lay, sprawled and ignored. He was so hungry he longed for even scraps from the rich man’s table. Malnourished, he was covered with untreated sores that were licked by the local dogs.

The word even (v21) emphasizes the level of dehumanization that was this man’s lot. But there was one thing he had which the rich man did not: he had a name, Lazarus – which means, ‘God is my help’. This was the only time that Jesus gave a name to a character in one of his stories. This is most significant, for a name describes a person; it gives identity and value to the individual. A name indicates that this person matters to somebody.

The contrast between the two men could not be more striking. Two totally unequal men: one had everything, but no name; wealth but no identity. The other had nothing but the name, Lazarus – the one God helps.

Both men died. One went to paradise. The other went to hell. Why were the fates of these two men so different? What had the rich man done to deserve such a horrifying destiny? Is wealth immoral? Is it more spiritual to be poor? If that were the case, then Abraham himself would not be in heaven; when he died, he was a wealthy, powerful man.

The rich man in the parable had every opportunity to lay up treasure in heaven by using his resources to help this poor man, thus making him his friend. He would have been using his wealth as a wise steward for someone else’s benefit, as Jesus had taught earlier in the chapter. But he had failed to do so. It was not so much the bad things he had done, but the good things he had failed to do, which separated him from God. Money mattered more to him than people – more to him than God.

This parable about a rich man must not be severed from its preceding context. All of Luke 16 has an ‘economic’ bent to it, and what Jesus has already been teaching feeds into this parable. As you hear Jesus’ description of this rich man, you realize he is one who doesn’t give a lick about ‘making friends’ for eternity by means of his wealth (9), that he is wholly given over to be a slave of mammon (13), and that the life-style that thrills him (19) and that he finds so ‘admirable’ is abominable before God (15). In one sense, Jesus has already sketched this rich man before he introduces him.

With this story Jesus challenges us to ask ourselves, ‘What are my priorities in life? How am I using my material resources?’ He wants us to know that if we say we belong to God, then so does our money. God has made us stewards of it.

Jesus concludes the parable with a surprising twist: When the rich man asks Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers of the judgment to come, Abraham tells him no. ‘They have Moses and the prophets (vv27-31). What turns people’s lives from selfishness and greed, complacency and indifference, to love for God? Is it spiritualism? Is it signs and wonders? ‘No,’ Jesus tells us. ‘Even if someone rose from the dead, you would not believe – you need the Bible.’ The response we make to the Word of God seals our destiny.

There is a high and awful gravity that hovers over this story. Here the question is the ultimate limits of our life and the ultimate limit of the patience of God. Join us this coming Lord’s Day as we see several truths of eternity presented in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Grace upon Grace,

Pastor Wayne

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