Luke LII: Lk. 16:19-31
This is the third story in row that Jesus has told about a rich man. Remember that the context of all three is the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them (Lk. 15:2). The point is to make us care about what God thinks most of all, to love Him and be loyal to Him most of all, and by that love, learn to love the way He loves.
Summary of the Text: Jesus describes a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and ate very well (Lk. 16:19). There was a poor man named Lazarus who was laid at the rich man’s gate covered in sores, who longed to eat the rich man’s scraps and was licked by the stray dogs (Lk. 16:20-21). Both men died, but the poor man was carried to Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man was buried and found himself in torment in Hades (Lk. 16:22-23). The rich man calls out to Abraham, longing for Lazarus to bring him some water, but Abraham reminds him that he already had his share of good things and Lazarus his bad things and therefore the situation is just (Lk. 16:24-25). Besides, Abraham explains that the request is impossible: none may cross between them (Lk. 16:26). Hearing this, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers of their impending doom, but Abraham says that Moses and the Prophets are sufficient (Lk. 16:27-29). And when the rich man suggests that a man coming back from the dead would be more effective, Abraham disagrees, insisting that someone who will not hear Moses and the Prophets will not be convinced by someone rising from the dead (Lk. 16:30-31).
The Great Fixed Chasm
Remember the immediate context was Jesus’ condemnation that the Pharisees justify themselves by the opinion of man, exalting money and despising God in the process – this is an abomination (Lk. 16:13-15). But the Law and the Prophets were all about God’s generous grace and this is why everyone is rushing into the kingdom – it really is good news (Lk. 16:16-17). There are a number of parallels between this story with the previous ones: a rich man, father with sons, longing for relief, but this serves to highlight perhaps the most striking difference: the great fixed chasm (Lk. 16:26), and likewise, the fact that this chasm stretches from Heaven and Hell back into the waking world (Lk. 16:27-31). In the other stories, there are resolutions; in this story, Heaven and Hell are the resolutions. At this point, we should make a couple of notes about biblical cosmology. First, Heaven and Hell are real places even though we may not be able to find them on the map in the same way that we can find Switzerland. In the Bible, Hell is likened to drowning, burning, absolute darkness, torment, death, and agony forever (Mk. 9:42ff, 2 Pet. 2, Jude, Rev. 20). On the other hand, Heaven is God’s presence, His light, His comfort, His beauty, His pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16, Rev. 21). All the indications are that Heaven and Hell “overlap” with the created order, though not with precise entry or exit points in our world. We see hints of this with Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kgs. 2:11), as well as the summoning of Samuel from the dead (1 Sam. 28). We see this in the coming and going of angels, the reality of Satan and demons, prayer, miracles, and most significantly in the ascension of Jesus into Heaven (Acts 1:9).
Who Are You?
The point of the story is that God judges justly, but man justifies himself by what other men exalt — which is an abomination to God. In every generation and culture there are human assumptions about what is virtuous and what is shameful. Wealth has often been associated with virtue, while poverty and sickness are often associated with shame. But everything depends upon where you are in the story. Are slaves coming out of Egypt or slaves going into Exile? Are you being given the land of Canaan or have you grown fat with presumption? Moses commanded Israel to receive the good gifts of God and rejoice in Him (Dt. 8:7-10), but to beware that they did not lift their hearts up and forget God and begin to believe that their own hands had gotten these gifts (Dt. 8:11-20). Israel was the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son – God insisted that they remember this in all their dealings (e.g. Sabbath, hospitality, debts, slavery, etc. cf. Dt. 5:15, 15:15ff). Remember who you are. But the Bible from beginning to end is full of warnings about false brothers, people who refuse to remember and refuse to believe (2 Pet. 2, Jude). In this story, the rich man calls Abraham “father” and Abraham calls the rich man in Hell “son” (Lk. 16:24-25), but that only serves to underline the horror of the situation. This is why Paul says that the children of Abraham are those who are justified by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:7-9). The rich man wasn’t damned for being rich, and Lazarus wasn’t saved for being poor. The rich man was damned because his hope was in his riches, and Lazarus was saved because his only hope was in God.
Where Are You?
At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Aslan makes a new heavenly Narnia, and the characters pass through a stable to get there. It’s a gorgeous, amazing new world, but a bunch of dwarves refuse to see any of it, and go on believing that they are in a dark stable full of hay and dirty trough water. To believe that riches, big houses, another job, perfect marriages, perfect children, perfect sex – to believe that any of that can satisfy your hunger and thirst, your greatest longings, is to imagine that’s the most you can hope for: hay and trough water. In other words, you’re aiming too low. How could any of those finite, created things fulfill your eternal longings? And that lie drives all selfishness, envy, and greed. Perhaps that thing, that stuff, his job, her haircut will make me happy and finally give me peace. But it never does. It never lasts. But to believe that your hunger and thirst, and your deepest longings can only be satisfied by the One who made you, by the One you were made for – is to believe that this created stuff is at best a sign of His love but barely scratches the surface – and this truth sets you free to endure hardships and to share generously (2 Cor. 4:16-18, 8:9).
Justification by faith in Jesus Christ is the legal reckoning of all that God has to you now and forever. In other words, justification by faith in Jesus is the legal reckoning of Heaven to you now, here on earth, despite your circumstances. This is why Paul says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Eph. 2:4-5)
You are already in heaven or you are still in the death of Hell. And none may cross that chasm except Jesus Christ. Heaven and Hell have already arrived in this world. In Adam, all have sinned and find themselves alienated, isolated, never satisfied, always hungry, but in Christ, we have been reconciled, brought near, forgiven, comforted, and we have been filled with the bread of life.
In these last three stories that Jesus told, there are three rich men, but the real common element is that there are three beggars. A lost son reduced to poverty, a manager on the verge of unemployment, and here a true beggar, covered in sores, licked by dogs. But perhaps what is most striking thing is the fact that this last beggar has a name. The shameful one, the rejected one, the one that looks like a complete failure has a name, and his name is Lazarus, which is a form of the name Eliazer. And that name means “God is my Help.” Is that your name? Is that who you are? Is that where you are? If your heart cries out yes, God is my Help. Then you have nothing to fear. All that God has is yours. If you must wait patiently, you can wait with God as your help. If you must give generously, you can give with God as your help. If you must face sin head on, confronting it and confessing it or forgiving it, do not be afraid, God is your help. It doesn’t matter what it looks like if you’re a beggar before God because the beggars at the gate heaven always find entry.