19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 29th September 2019 at Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
How convinced are you by the gospel?
Do you believe that the Bible is the word of God?
Do you read it regularly?
Does it shape your life?
Has it changed who you are?
Are you convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross and rose again three days later? Are you convinced that after your earthly death you will go to be with Jesus and his Father in his new creation?
Are you convinced enough by this for it actually to change your life?
That’s what I’d like us to reflect on this morning.
How convinced are we by the Gospel?
We’ll be looking at Luke 16:19-31, so if you have a Bible with you, do have that open in front of you.
It’s quite a memorable passage that we find ourselves considering this morning. The imagery it presents us with is particularly powerful. An unnamed rich man who finds himself in torment after his death. Lazarus, a poor man who suffered much during his life, with Abraham after his death.
Before we get into the passage too much, it’s perhaps worth looking at the context. If you have a Bible, flip back to verse 1 of chapter 16. Here we see that in this chapter, Jesus is teaching his disciples. He begins the chapter by teaching his disciples a parable about handling money. This leads into his famous statement in verse 13, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
It is at this point that we see that the Pharisees are also present. We read in verse 14 that, “the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” In verse 15 Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
This verse in particular will help us to unpack today’s reading.
What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
God knows our hearts.
The parable that follows, the focus of our reading today, is, then, a lesson for the Pharisees. Those who love money, who are devoted to it, who seek to justify themselves in the eyes of others.
I suspect, actually, that we might be more like the Pharisees that we would like to admit.
This passage, therefore, provides a vital lesson for us too.
Our first point then, where are our hearts?
Let’s consider the rich man in the parable. Where is his heart? What is it that he values most?
Let’s look at how he lived his life.
He seems to have had it all. Pots of cash, amazing clothes, and the very best food. He even lived in a house that was large enough to have a gateway – a gateway that provided him with security and privacy, that enabled him to enjoy his comfortable lifestyle away from the hoi polloi. He seemed to have it all.
The man in this parable was clearly self-centred. His life was focused on getting the very best for himself. He had no time for anyone else. His hard earned cash was precisely that – his hard earned cash – so why should he even contemplate sharing what he had with anyone else?
Verse 19 sums up this man – dressed in fine linen, feasting sumptuously everyday. He received many good things during his lifetime.
And this is where his heart is set. This is what he values most. His lifestyle – rich, comfortable and secure.
But verse 20 introduces the second significant character – a poor man named Lazarus, a beggar who spent his time at the gate of the rich man. His body covered in sores, he was too weak even to attempt to stop the local dogs from coming and licking his body. He lived his life in a perpetual state of hunger. All he longed for was a few crumbs from the table of the rich man.
Lazarus was well-known to the rich man. We see in verse 24 that the rich man knew his name.
The rich man had been so focused on himself that he had singularly failed during Lazarus’ lifetime to do anything at all to help him. He had watched Lazarus, a poor, ill, hungry man at his gate, day after day, and yet had not shown him a single ounce of compassion. He showed him no mercy, no pity.
When these two men died, however, there was a complete reversal of their fortunes.
When the rich man died, he was buried and found himself in what the parable describes as Hades. Verse 23 tells us that the rich man was being tormented. In verse 24 the rich man announces that he is in agony, in the midst of flames.
In contrast, Lazarus, when he died, verse 22 tells us, was “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
The rich man cannot believe the reversal that has occurred.
It is now he who is asking for mercy. In verse 24, the rich man calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
He had shown no mercy to Lazarus during his life, but now asks for mercy himself.
But Abraham does not offer the rich man much hope. He tells him, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”
The consequences of his earthly life finally become evident to the rich man. His heart had been in entirely the wrong place. He was selfish when he should have been selfless. He kept his wealth for himself, when he should have generously supported those less fortunate than himself.
And now it was too late.
Now he was the one begging for pity, for mercy, whilst Lazarus had a much more comfortable existence.
This was a direct challenge to the Pharisees, who, as we saw in verse 14, loved money.
But God knew their hearts.
I wonder which of these characters we identify with the most?
Do we identify with Lazarus, who endured poverty and hardship during his lifetime, to whom no mercy was shown, but who ultimately found himself with Abraham and a merciful Father after his death?
Or do we identify with the rich man, trusting in our own good fortune, living, certainly on a global scale, a well off existence, failing to show mercy to those less fortunate than ourselves, and doomed to eternal torment after our death?
Perhaps we could put it another way.
Where is our heart?
God knows our hearts, but where are they focused?
Are they focused on ourselves, on looking after number one, of making sure that before anything else we’re alright? Are we self-centred?
Or are our hearts focused on others, on showing mercy to those less fortunate than ourselves, of loving our neighbours? Are we self-less in all that we do?
Jesus makes it clear that the way to his father is by putting others before ourselves.
Jesus makes it clear that we need to show mercy if we wish to be shown mercy.
The challenge is great, but so too is the reward.
The rich man in this parable learnt the hard way. Let us hope that that’s not the case for us. Let’s hope that, unlike the rich man in this story, we don’t leave it too late to use all that we have selflessly.
Where is your heart?
What is it that you value most?
So to our second point. Do we listen to God’s word?
There is much more to this story than simply stewardship of resources. We are called to be self-less, but being self-less alone does not open the gates of God’s kingdom to us. Lazarus was not rewarded after his death simply because he was poor during his lifetime. There’s much more to the story than this.
It’s worth looking carefully at what Jesus tells us of the background of the rich man in this parable.
Do you notice how the rich man addresses Abraham when he first encounters him? In verse 23, he sees Abraham, with Lazarus at his side. He clearly recognises him. This is reinforced when, in verse 24, he calls him, “Father Abraham.” The fact that this man recognises Abraham, and, what’s more, calls him Father, suggests that this is clearly a man with a solid Jewish background, who identified as one of the sons of Abraham, or, in other words, a Jew.
This is emphasised in verse 29, when Abraham replies to the man’s request to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham says to him, “they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
Presumably, this also applies to the rich man in the parable. Presumably he had Moses and the prophets during his lifetime too.
Moses and the prophets refers to the scriptures of the Old Testament, the scriptures studied and followed by all good Jews. The Law and the Prophets, as they are often referred, provided Jewish people with a complete guide of how to honour God. They lay down who God is, and what he wants from his people. The rich man, as a Jew, would have studied these scriptures, at the very least in childhood, and probably into adulthood. Maybe he continued to study them until the day he died.
But how had he been changed by what he read? How had the scripture shaped his life, and moulded his character and personality? It appears that they hadn’t at all. If the prophets and the law had shaped his life then he wouldn’t have been so self-centred. He wouldn’t have neglected his moral duty to look after the poor. He wouldn’t have ignored Lazarus day, after day, after day.
This man knew the scriptures, but he chose not to be obey them.
He claimed a relationship with Abraham, calling him father, but it is a hollow relationship based on head knowledge of scripture, without the transformative presence of God in his life. His heart was hardened to God’s will for his life.
He may well have known all the answers, but he failed to live the teachings of scripture out in his own life.
In that respect, he was very much like the hypocritical Pharisees.
This is in direct contrast to Lazarus, who by virtue of his experience after his death must have followed the teachings of Moses and the prophets much more diligently than the rich man did. Lazarus’ focus was on serving God, not money. He was less interested in justifying himself in the eyes of others, and more interested in focusing his heart on God.
Lazarus clearly lived the teachings of scripture out in his own life.
I wonder if in our own lives we more closely resemble the rich man or Lazarus?
Are we like the rich man? Do we know scripture, do we read the gospels, the epistles, the law and the prophets and nod along in agreement? Do we claim a relationship with the father of our faith, Jesus Christ, without backing that relationship up with actual substance?
Or are we more like Lazarus, trying our hardest to faithfully study the word of God and to live it out in our lives day by day?
Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. But of course, listening must lead to action. Listening must lead to transformation.
Paul developed this point in his letter to Timothy, which we read together this morning. He writes in chapter 6 verse 9 that “those who get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” And here, in Luke’s gospel we see exactly that. The rich man fell into temptation. He fell into a trap that ultimately led to his destruction. Whilst Lazarus enjoys being in Abraham’s presence, the rich man finds himself in a pit of flames.
Paul urged Timothy in verse 17 to tell those who are rich not to put their hope in wealth, but instead to put their hope in God. He continues in verse 18 to tell Timothy to command the rich to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. This, he says in verse 19, will mean that they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
If only the rich man had been generous and willing to share. If only he had looked out for Lazarus. Perhaps his destiny would have been rather different. For him, though, the understanding that his faith was hollow came too late.
Jesus was warning the Pharisees here. Sort your lives out, he was telling them. You claim to know the scriptures, you claim to follow the Laws and the Prophets, but you have hearts of stone. You are self-centered, he was suggesting to them. Your focus is on making money, not serving God. Sort your lives out before it’s too late.
And that’s the message for us too. If we are living like the Pharisees, if we love money more than God, we need to sort our lives out. If we leave it too late, we’ll find ourselves in the same position as the rich man.
But it’s not too late. We can work hard to ensure that the focus of our lives is a focus that pleases God. We can learn from this rich man’s mistakes. We have the Bible, Old Testament and New. We have the words of Jesus. Do we listen to them? Do we allow the word of God to transform our lives, to direct our thoughts and our actions?
It’s not too late.
It’s not too late to listen to words of scripture.
It’s not too late to allow God to transform our lives.
Do we listen to scripture? Let’s try to do that more and more each and every day.
To our third point. Are we convinced by the Gospel?
It’s funny how after his death, the rich man suddenly began to show compassion. The first time he shows an interest in anyone other than himself is in verse 27, when he says to Abraham, “I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
Abraham, as we’ve already seen, tells him, “they have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
Whilst Abraham believes that scripture is all that is necessary to understand how to live, the rich man believes that more is necessary. He says, in verse 30, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
He finally recognises that the key to salvation is repentance. But he does not believe that the Bible provides them with enough motivation to repent.
He does believe, though, that if his brothers witnessed a miracle, specifically someone returning from the dead, then they would repent.
Abraham makes it clear, though, that there’s sufficient in the Word of God to reveal the truth of the Gospel, to reveal God, to reveal how humans should live in response to him.
Yet as the Word of God had not transformed the rich man’s own life, he is sure that it hasn’t transformed the lives of his five brothers.
“No,” comes his response. No, that’s not enough. They haven’t been convinced by scripture.
If only they had one more sign, perhaps then they would believe. Just one big sign. Something that definitively proved that God exists.
If only someone from the dead could go back to them, perhaps then they would repent.
The rich man believes that Lazarus returning from the dead to his brothers would be sufficient sign for them to bow the knee before God and repent.
I wonder how many of us have heard this before.
If only God could give me a sign, then I’d believe.
If only there was firm evidence, then I’d believe.
If only God performed a miracle, then I’d believe.
Maybe we were in a similar position before we repented and accepted Jesus as our saviour. Maybe we were holding out for a sign.
But what does Abraham say in response to the rich man?
In verse 31 he says, “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
He tells them that scripture is sufficient. If it is not, then nothing that happens will convince them of the Gospel. There is nothing that will change their minds, because their minds are too closed.
You’d think, though, that if someone rose from the dead, then that might convince them.
But just a short while after Jesus told this story, he did exactly that. He was crucified. He died. He was buried in a tomb.
But then, three very long days later, he rose from the dead! He appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene, and then to Mary mother of James, Salome, and Joanna, then to Peter, then to two disciples, then to the rest of the disciples with the exception of Thomas, then to all of the disciples, then to the disciples on another couple of occasions, then, as Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15, to over five hundred people at once, then to James, then to the disciples again, then to Paul.
Someone literally did raise from the dead, Jesus himself!
And hundreds of people witnessed this!
And yet Abraham is right. If people’s hearts are hard, then they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
If scripture isn’t enough to convince someone, then neither will the resurrection of Christ.
Remember who Jesus was talking to here. He was talking to the Pharisees, who, despite their religiosity had singularly failed to be transformed by the words of God in the Bible. Their hearts were hard. They were selfish and looked out only for themselves. They loved money. And I suspect that, as Abraham predicted, they were not convinced of the need for repentance even after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So what does this all mean for us today?
There’s lots for us to think about.
Where is my heart today? Am I self-centred or self-less? Do I show mercy to those in need of mercy, just as one day I too will be in need of mercy when I face Jesus on the day of my judgement?
What about scripture? Am I convinced by the power of God’s word? Do I place my trust in what I read? Do I read and reflect on it? Do I allow it to change my life? Do I allow it to flow from my heart to my mind, transforming me in the process, making me more Christ-like?
What about the resurrection? Do I believe that Jesus Christ died on Good Friday, then rose again three days later on Easter Sunday? Do I place my trust in him?
And that brings us back to the question that I posed at the beginning.
How convinced are you by the Gospel?
Does it shape your life, mould your character, define your personality?
Are you able to say, as Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile?”