Luke 16:19-31, Where Despising the Poor Gets You

[September 29, 2013] The story Jesus tells us this Lord’s Day follows on the parable we heard last Lord’s Day, the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. You might recall that in that parable Jesus basically asserted that we are all stewards of God, given the task of managing the resources of the creation that God has apportioned us, and that—on account of the mammon of unrighteousness, that is, money—we have all squandered God’s possessions, treating them as if they were our own. We have been put on notice that our stewardship is being taken away from us—here Jesus is referring to our death—but there is still something we can do; in whatever time is left to us, we can make things better for ourselves after our dismissal (from this life): we can give generously to the poor—using the same mammon of unrighteousness—and thus put away for ourselves some sort of treasure in heaven against that day.

Our problem is that we are so myopic. We see this life only and we only see with our physical senses. We think our “possessions” are ours, because we do not see that all things belong to God, and we do not see that this life is but the introduction to a much greater life that is to come. So, like the Pharisees who were so critical of Jesus, we are possessive of “our” wealth and look down on whoever is socially beneath us, congratulating ourselves for our having got to the station in life where we find ourselves.

Jesus spoke this parable to His disciples in the hearing of the Pharisees with whom He was disputing. (they were not, as I explained last time, representative of all the Pharisees or even most of them, but rather a particularly outspoken and even violent group of “fundamentalists,” intolerant of sinners and non-practicing Jews and of course gentiles and even other Pharisees who openly did not share their attitude; I wonder if this sounds familiar?) Now Jesus turns from His disciples and speaks to the Pharisees themselves (Luke 16:14).

Historically the Pharisees were not typically rich nor did they live luxuriously. Many of them were austere and even ascetic (see Luke 18:12). It is also clear, however, that some of them warranted the words of Jesus who accused them of covetousness, greed and hoarding (Matthew 23; Luke 14:7-14). They envied the rich, even if they themselves were not rich, and curried their favor.

In the intervening, or introductory, verses (16:15-18), Jesus says that they were those who merely sought to justify themselves in the sight of other people; it was all about external appearances. God, on the other hand, knew their hearts. What is highly esteemed by the people in whose eyes they wanted to look good is in fact detestable in the sight of God! In other words the values that these Pharisees were actually pursuing were evil. While trying to justify themselves in the sight of other people, they were making themselves abhorrent in the sight of God.

What follows is an enigmatic verse that has long puzzled interpreters, and we will not dwell on it, but in essence what Jesus says in verses 16-18 is that He is not the one who is unfaithful to the Torah and the Prophets (the Scriptures read in the synagogue every Sabbath); no, they are. In fact, He upholds every word of them—better than they profess (though He interprets them more deeply than they do)—and, He implies, God will hold them to account according to them. This is the point: God really will hold them to account, according to God’s own standards, and in view of that, it does not matter at all how other people see and measure you.

Verse 18 is an example of their hypocrisy: these men might see a woman whom they prefer to their wife and will divorce their wife in order to have her (regardless of where that leaves their wife): basically misusing the literal language of a concession to justify adultery and satisfy their self-serving interests.

So, before we move on to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, let us remind ourselves of the larger context of 14:1—17:19. Chapter 14 started out with Jesus in the midst of some Pharisees justifying the way of His apostolate: He was taking the lowest place, putting Himself on a level with the poor (and sinful), in order to invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” and even the people on “the highways and along the hedges”—these last would include the tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps even gentiles—to the feast of the kingdom of God. His critics, on the other hand, were those who—whether they realized it or not—were making excuses not to come (they were preoccupied with managing property, business and family). Certainly the others still need to repent—when they followed Him, the true Shepherd of Israel, His own Person was the means by which they could do so—and in fact they were repenting. When the Pharisees should be rejoicing over this, they were grumbling, like Jonah, unwilling to believe that God would be so generous. “Would God really kill the fattened calf for them just because these scoundrels have come running home after having made such a mess of their lives?”

The Pharisees looked down on those whose lot in life was disrespectable in the eyes of society. They thought God was like themselves—as we all do—and were unwilling to believe that God could be as generous as Jesus insisted. This is the context of the following story.

Apparently it is easy for those who call themselves Christians to be affected by the attitudes of society. In the United States, while the polarity between rich and poor is greater than ever, people actually think the rich are deserving of their wealth and that the poor are poor because of their own poor management of what life has given them. They are unable to see the injustice of the present situation. They do not see that the proportion of income that a rich person makes far—almost infinitely—exceeds his labor. It amounts to theft. It is based in fact on capital, not the individual’s labor, even if we take into account their training, skill and experience. The idea is that because they “own” capital, this somehow entitles them to the privileged godlike income they make. (Of course, Jesus completely disagrees with this, as we have shown.) Likewise, a poor person’s labor—if they can find the opportunity—is assured to earn them the basic necessities of life, and if these are not being met, it is because they are lazy or devious. In fact, the circumstances of the poor, family dysfunction, living conditions, health care, diet, educational opportunities, and so forth, make it practically impossible for them to simply walk into the “norm” of the middle class unless something else—some sort of very good fortune—accounts for it. People want to believe that anyone can be rich only if they try hard enough. This idea is so patently false it is practically a “religious” assertion, it is so blind. Yet on the basis of this “belief,” the working class will often (e.g., the Tea Party) look down on the poor, believing that everyone’s accumulation of wealth is the result of their own applied efforts. It is a secular version of salvation by works.

If the unbelievers have this attitude and despise the poor, we perhaps ought not to be so surprised. Nor should we be surprised if aggressive politicians should play on their beliefs—perhaps even sharing them—in order to further their own careers. It is, however, unworthy of the Christian, and no Christian should be identified with attitudes that are so abhorrent to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel.

The Rich Man and Lazarus in This Life (Luke 16:19-22)

So, to get His point across Jesus tells a story. It is not really a parable in the sense of say, the Parable of the Sower. It is not an allegory but more like an example. The rich man is an example of a rich man, not symbolic of something else, and Lazarus is an example of a poor man. And when people die, they really do go to Hades. The language about Hades is, of course, metaphorical. We are not meant to understand the flame to be literal, nor the “great chasm” that divides the two chambers of Hades to be a physical barrier, nor Hades itself to be a physical place, nor the dialogue that takes place between Abraham and the rich man to be one that could actually take place. Nevertheless these descriptions are still descriptions of Hades and not something else, and when Jesus relates the dialogue He makes use of poetic license to depict the actual situation. When it comes to describing the afterlife, literal language fails us, for we are describing our souls in a situation in which they no longer possess the physical bodies of this life (perhaps we will have “dream bodies”).

So we are told of a rich man who apparently did not work, for he dressed in purple and fine linen and lived joyously in splendor every day. This is all we are explicitly told about him. Purple and fine linen (see Esther 1:6; Revelation 18:12)—purple referring to the outer garment and linen to the inner—were expensive and highly prized. In Esther 8:15 they are given as a royal gift; and in Jeremiah 10:9 the pagans clothe their idols in purple. This rich man did not put on this clothing only on festive days but they were his ordinary daily apparel. Likewise, the “sumptuous fare” (KJB) was his everyday entertainment. The implication is that he devoted himself to selfish and sensual enjoyment (sensual in the sense of the luxury of overindulgence, and the continuous stimulation and overstimulation of the senses). What Abraham says to him in verse 25 is that “during your life you received your good things.” This is all that we are told about him. Other than this, we are not told more about his moral character—how he voted or whether he gave to charity—except by what he did not do for poor Lazarus.

Because there were few other provisions for the poor, begging was common in the East, and in the Old Testament almsgiving was insisted upon (Job 29:13; Psalms 41:1; 119:9; Proverbs 14:31). Jesus insisted on it in Matthew 6:2-4. When the rich man neglected Lazarus, he was clearly disregarding the spirit of the Old Testament requirements. That he knew of Lazarus, even to the extent of knowing his name, we can gather from verses 23-24.

Because Lazarus was unable to walk, some kind person carried him to the gate of the rich man’s estate so that he could beg for alms. While the rich man was attractively covered in purple and fine linen, Lazarus was naked and covered with sores (like Job), which made him repulsive to others. While the rich man fared sumptuously, all Lazarus wanted was “to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table.” Whether his desire was satisfied we are not told. And while the rich man had people who waited on his wish and whim, Lazarus had the sympathy of dogs who came and licked his sores. The rich man probably had a kennel of dogs, and probably his dogs were well fed, in contrast to Lazarus.

We are not told much more about Lazarus either. His name, Lazarus, or Eleazer (which means “help in God”), was a very common name, and while its meaning makes it appropriate for the story, it does not tell us anything about the man, except that his expectations were very minimal. We are not told, as Matthew Henry supposes, that he was “contentedly poor” and “not complaining, and bawling.”

Then we are told that the poor man died; probably a hole was dug somewhere and his body tumbled in. And the rich man also died and was buried; that is, he was probably given a magnificent funeral. Matthew Henry says, “probably he had a funeral oration in praise of him, and his generous way of living, and the good table he kept, which those would commend that had been feasted at it.” Yes, we can easily imagine it.

Jesus does not say how the rich man was brought to Hades, but He tells us that the poor man was “carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” The angels are messengers between heaven and earth and servants of those who will inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14). In the burial rites of some cultures we see an anxiety that the souls of the departed may lose their way to the underworld. There needed be no anxiety for Lazarus, for God provided angels to carry him.

The Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades (16:23-26)

There are many different beliefs concerning the soul in the afterlife, sharing many ideas in common. Unfortunately some of our English translations use the word “hell” for both Hades (haidēs) and Gehenna (geena). For the Jews in the time of Jesus Hades (Sheol) never signified a special place of punishment but simply the abode of the dead, usually considered a deep and dark place located in the center of the earth. There the souls of both good and bad people went, classified according to their character. It was thus divided in two: one place for punishment and another for reward, one a hell and the other a paradise. Both places, however, were temporary. At the resurrection of the righteous, the souls in paradise would be permanently delivered from Hades and judged separately, and then at the general resurrection, all the dead would come forth and be judged, and the wicked would be thrust back into the flames (everyone now re-clothed in flesh). Jesus accepts this description—apparently agreeing with it—and uses it in this story. The “bosom of Abraham” is a description of Paradise. When people ate their meals, they reclined on couches in such a way that each guest rested partially upon the bosom of his or her nearest neighbor. The position with respect to the head of the house was a place of special honor, and thus could only be occupied by dear friends (recall the beloved disciple in John 13:23). “To lie in Abraham’s bosom became among the Jews a common metaphorical expression of the highest condition and felicity.” Abraham is the father of Israel, and for Christians the father also of those who believe.

The rest of the New Testament continues to uphold this metaphorical depiction of the afterlife, even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

Now the rich man is in agony and torment, in flame, and thirsty (verses 23-25). From where he is he is able to see Abraham and Lazarus being honored and comforted in Paradise. What we are supposed to notice is the utter reversal of their situations from before their deaths. The rich man “received his good things” for the short time of his life and now suffers and will continue to suffer for indeterminable ages; Lazarus on the other hand “received bad things” during the short time of his life and now is comforted for indeterminable ages—both waiting for their respective resurrections. When Abraham speaks of the rich man and says “your good things,” the rich man deluding himself into thinking that his wealth was his own and not a charge given to him, I think of Jesus saying in Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16, “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” In contrast, Abraham says that Lazarus received “bad things,” not his bad things.

The dialogue between the rich man and Abraham in these verses (verses 24-26) shows us more about their situations. He calls Abraham his father, and Abraham calls him “child” (teknon), not “son” (huios), as if he were not an adult. The fact that a person can call themselves the offspring of Abraham does not make them safe, as John the Baptist made clear (Luke 3:8). They are not automatically saved. One must be born of God (John 1:12-13; 3:3, etc.).

Abraham says to him, “Remember … during your life.” This is what the dead have, their memories. When a person dies, the spirit returns to God and their bodies sleep in the dust until the resurrection. The soul dies (it is not immortal, for the spirit leaves it), but it has an afterlife (see Revelation 6:9). What it takes into the afterlife are its memories. As the scientist Rupert Sheldrake maintains in his theory of morphic resonance, the universe somehow remembers everything (in what kind of field is not clear). The Bible also teaches that God writes down our “names.” Somehow our identity is held by our “name” and with it all of our memories—I think not just the memories that we currently maintain in our minds—consciously or unconsciously—but the universe’s memory of our entire life.

So what happens when (if I am correct) this is the case? What seems to also be going on when Abraham says to the rich man, “remember,” is that we will be stripped of our denial mechanisms that protect us from self-condemnation, for we will see things as they are. The rich man sees how he lived, and he sees also how he ignored Lazarus. He will see it in some sort of light: I think the light of reality itself, which includes the divine presence at every moment in the creation. This is what is causing the rich man his misery. Does he repent? He regrets, yes, but there is no sign of a change of heart.

He sees, yes, but his perspective is still from where he stands. Lazarus is granted another perspective with which to look back at his life—and his future—a perspective that brings him comfort. (The parable does not describe Lazarus’ experience, however.)

Abraham in fact tells the rich man that there is a great chasm fixed between those in Paradise and those in the fire of torment where the rich man is. No one can cross from one side to the other. It is not that they might not want to. Abraham says that they are not able to. It is the fact of the situation. We are not given to believe that the two sides can communicate, either. The fact that Abraham and the rich man can talk is a device for the sake of illustration, but it is clear that the rich man cannot address Lazarus directly. All that the unrighteous dead have are their memories. (The righteous, on the other hand, have more, but again that is not discussed or revealed in this story.) There can be no change. They stew in their memories until they are resurrected, thinking and pondering and tormented by them. There is no mercy, not even a drop of water to cool the tongue. For all practical purposes, they are in hell already (“in this flame”), as they await their judgment. And wait they must.

I would like to think that when the unrighteous are resurrected and they appear before the judgment seat of God, that there will be an opportunity for them to repent at that point. Not everyone will, even at that point, it is clear, but nothing in the Bible indicates that souls will be tormented in hell for eternity either (though, I grant that translations are partially to blame for this misunderstanding). Two things can happen for the unrepentant: they can remain in torment for an indefinite future, even if it lasts an unimaginable million years, until they change—and perhaps there will be the possibility of change (for they will be resurrected), or they will wander, eventually dissipating into nothingness, as hinted at in Jude 13.

The lesson is clear so far. The Pharisees have eyes only for this life without weighing the consequences of their present attitude on their life to come. And what attitude is that? It is their unwillingness to see the poor, to regard them on a par with themselves. In the afterlife, they will lift up their eyes and SEE Lazarus, and see him as the honored familiar of no less a personage than Abraham. They will see the poor as human beings equal to themselves, and now more honored than themselves, for whom there will be no mercy. Their roles will be reversed. The only time to avoid this situation is the present. Jesus is trying to show them this.

What Will Persuade the Living? (16:27-31)

But can they hear Him? The remaining verses address this. I will be quick, since I do not feel well and I am out of time. The rich man seems to think that a miracle—the miracle of Lazarus rising from the dead and going to house of the rich man’s father—will persuade his brothers to repent. If they see Lazarus and Lazarus can explain what happened to himself and to their late brother, they will be persuaded to repent. On the one hand the miracle will get their attention; on the other hand, they will be presented with persuasive evidence (Lazarus himself and his testimony).

Abraham says that if they are not persuaded by the words of Moses and the prophets (the Scriptures that are read in the synagogue), they will not be persuaded by miracles and testimony. This is because the mind apparently rejects evidence that it does not want to see, or at least it refuses to weigh the significance of the evidence. And miracles are notoriously unpersuasive. They stimulate and may create fear or excitement for a time, but without further stimulation the “persuasion” does not hold; the heart is never reached. Jesus was not impressed by the crowds that flocked to him on account of the miracles. He healed them, out of compassion, but He wanted people to come to Him to hear Him. There were those whom He “healed” and those whom He “saved” by healing them. There was a difference. Miracles and physical evidence appeal to the eye. The words of Scriptures appeals to the ear. The word gives more room for the Spirit to work than the image.

The rich man suggests that if people can communicate with the dead, this will convince them (necromancy), but even if this were permitted—which it is not—it does not persuade people to repent, for only the Holy Spirit can do this. Instead, it only fills people’s minds with more nonsense. The “dead” who communicate with the living tend to be as ignorant as the living and to have the same foolish ideas. It is more than doubtful that these spirits of the dead are in fact what they claim. They are most likely not the spirits of the dead but rather demonic spirits using and preying upon the minds of their victims (the participants in the séance).

Or perhaps the rich man was still insisting that a resurrection from the dead will be persuasive. Jesus raised the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, the woman of Nain’s son, and Lazarus the brother of Martha and Mary. These were spectacular, but even such miracles (signs) as these were ineffectual if God does not change the heart.

Jesus Himself will rise from the dead (future tense from the perspective of Luke’s narrative), but He purposely will not appear to anyone who does not already believe. His resurrection was a revelation to those who believe. To those who do not believe, it would merely have been a miracle, something to cause wonder, but not something to bring about repentance. It is not the mind or the stirred-up emotions that brings about repentance but rather the heart. The means that God provides for repentance is the revelation of the Holy Spirit making use of the Scriptures (read or in preaching or liturgy), the personal presence of Jesus Himself in His incarnation, or the proclamation of the Gospel. It is by Word and Spirit that people are normally brought to repentance: the Holy Spirit regenerates the spirit so that the heart can hear the call of Christ in the Scriptures, place itself under the judgment of God, and receive the grace of forgiveness (redemption) and the gift of eternal life by the Holy Spirit entering into union with the human spirit.

Jesus was telling the Pharisees that they had better go back and listen to Moses and the prophets if they do not want to end up like this rich man. Moses and the prophets were the best defense that Jesus had for the work that He was doing among the people. The Pharisees ignored their testimony to their peril.

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