Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 07/30/95
Luke 16:14 Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God. 16 The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. 18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. 19 Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. 20 And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table. Besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 Now it came about that the poor man died, and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s Bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received good things, and likewise Lazarus had bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you to send him to my father’s house-- 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them,’ 30 But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
This is one of those passages of Scripture which seems simple enough on the surface, but the more we think about it the more we find there is to it. It is obviously a continuation of the discussion of wealth in the Parable of the Unjust Steward. But it is also a continuation of the discussion of the Gospel of the Kingdom which began with the Parable of the Great Banquet. While pursuing those topics it incidentally gives us some fascinating insights into the next life and its relation to this one. And if that were not enough, it ends with a grand tribute to the sufficiency of Scripture. Let’s examine each of these aspects of the passage in turn.
The rich man in this parable (traditionally knows as “Dives,” though the text does not actually give him a name) is clearly an example of a person who has the kind of worldly values satirized in the Parable of the Unjust Steward. The Pharisees were making fun of Jesus’ teaching on wealth because they were lovers of money, and this next major parable is obviously designed to take the wind out of their sails. Like them, Dives is an example of a person who has not “made friends” with unrighteous mammon, but rather hoarded it. Having been selfish—indeed, callous and cruel—in his use of unrighteous mammon, he is impoverished when it comes to the true riches of the spirit. Having been selfish in the use of Another’s property (God’s), he is destitute of anything he can call his own. Having served Mammon for earthly reward, he is rejected by God in terms of heavenly reward. When he arrives in the afterlife, his folly is revealed and its results are inescapable. Thus the scoffing Pharisees are given an opportunity to recognize the path that they have chosen and repent. They are also given a warning of what will happen if they do not.
Dives is an object lesson to the Pharisees of what they truly are—and of what they will become if they do not repent. He is an object lesson to us of the truth of Jim Elliot’s dictum, “That man is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.” He is a way for Jesus to re-emphasize what he had said in vs. 13: No man can serve two masters. You will either love the one and hate the other or cling to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
It has been a while now since we studied the Parable of the Banquet in Luke 14:15-24, so perhaps a little review is in order. This is the banquet to which the Jews were invited by the Old Testament. But when the time came for it to be served, they all had lame excuses—they had bought a house sight unseen and had to check it out, they had bought a used car (actually, a yoke of oxen) and had to test drive it, etc. So the servant was sent out into the highways and the hedges—i.e., to the Gentiles—to bring in the lame and blind and destitute. The Master’s hall was filled with the unworthy, with people who had no claim on any right to be there except that they had responded to the invitation. It is a wonderful picture of salvation by grace, by God’s unmerited favor. The banquet is for sinners, for those the Pharisees would have considered unworthy to be there. The people they approved of are conspicuous by their absence. And the Master delights to honor whosoever will come, but you have to act by accepting the invitation.
These themes are followed up in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where the elder brother (undoubtedly a Pharisee) ends up missing the party while the unworthy Prodigal is welcomed in by grace. And now this parable hits the same themes again. The person the Pharisees would have considered unworthy, manifestly devoid of God’s favor as shown by his very poverty, ends up in Abraham’s bosom, while Dives (again, undoubtedly a Pharisee) is excluded. The man without claims or expectations is welcomed with open arms by the Father of the Faithful, while the fine upstanding Pharisee, who undoubtedly tithed his mint, anise, and cummin while Lazarus, the homeless man right at his doorstep, was desperate for his garbage after the servants had swept it out, finds himself in outer darkness. Salvation is by grace; it is for sinners who repent, not for the self righteous who think they need no repentance.
Not only does this reiteration of the Gospel show up in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, it also makes sense of the prologue leading up to it, which might seem unrelated if we have not been following the trains of thought that go back at least a couple of chapters. The Pharisees scoffed because they knew the Old Testament theme that wealth can be a form of blessing from God. Their mistake was that they had equated wealth with blessing, and hence looked down on the ‘Am ha ‘Aretz, the “people of the land,” poor people who did not have either the leisure to study the Law and all its interpretations nor the free time to concern themselves with the minutiae of those interpreted observances so beloved by the Pharisees. So in vs. 16, Jesus reminds them of the good news of the Kingdom: that sinners could be saved! The translation of this verse is difficult. A better rendering might be, “all kinds of people are taking it by storm,” i.e., rushing into it with abandon. The emphasis is on everyone—not just the self righteous spiritual elite approved by the Pharisees.
Now, Jesus does not want them to misunderstand. He does not mean that the Law has been abolished. In vs. 17, it would be easier to destroy the whole universe than overturn one dot of an i or crossing of a t of the Law. The Law itself—as opposed to the many Pharisaical interpretations of it and interpolations of their own human doctrine into it—is still valid, defining the will of God in such a way as to drive us to repentance and to Christ. That must be why divorce is brought up seemingly out of the blue in vs. 18: it is an example of the truth laid down in vs. 17, so it is not out of the blue at all. Divorce is still wrong, and those Pharisees who allowed it for trivial reasons (as opposed to adultery and desertion, mentioned as exceptions elsewhere) were hypocrites. The point is that grace does not overturn the Law. But salvation is still by grace and not by the works of the Law. For once again, in this third picture of the Kingdom of God, the upstanding and respected person is excluded, and the one who has no claim other than grace is admitted. That is the point.
Some modern interpreters have pooh-poohed this passage as giving us any insight into the next life, arguing that Jesus was merely describing it in terms familiar to his contemporaries without necessarily endorsing them except as providing a setting for his story about Dives and Lazarus. In arguing this way, they press a half truth until it becomes a complete lie. Jesus often went out of his way to disagree with the assumptions of his contemporaries. One could say that this regrettable tendency was the thing that eventually got him crucified. He was not exactly shy about contradicting cherished Jewish beliefs. Therefore, when he accepts them, the presumption is that he accepts them. And therefore we can legitimately look to this parable for some hints about what the next life will be like. On the other hand, we must remember that it is a parable, and in a parable the details exist for the sake of the main point. It is seldom safe to turn a parable into a allegory. So it is good for us to remember that the main point of this parable is not to satisfy our curiosity about the next life, but to bring self-righteous Pharisees to repentance. Therefore we should not press the details too hard. Nevertheless, there are some important features of the next life that are relevant to the main point, and which we should therefore take to heart.
The most important of those features is that in the next life there will be a parting of the ways based on decisions made in this life. Decisions we make here and now set our feet on one of two paths, which lead to blessing or punishment, acceptance or rejection, Heaven or Hell. These two destinations are real, and the experience of them will be real. No doubt the flames are symbols. We are told that we cannot imagine what Heaven is really like—it hath not entered into the heart of man what God hath prepared for those who love him—so I suspect the same principle holds for Hell as well. Therefore I am willing to believe the flames are symbolic. But they are symbolic of something. You do not want to find out what that something is. The people in the next life are conscious. They are conscious of their identity, of their surroundings and their condition, of their pasts, of what they are enjoying or suffering, of what they have been granted or of what they are missing (just one drop of cool water!). And most importantly, their destinies are final. The great gulf of vs. 26 is a stark reminder that there is no second chance. The decisions we make in this life really count. It is not a game. Today is the day of salvation! And therefore we must repent while it is today.
There is a parting of the ways in this life which is made final in eternity. And which way you take depends on whether or not you believe the Word of God. How you respond to Moses and the Prophets (and now the Apostles) right now is what will make the difference. And they are completely adequate to play this pivotal role. If a person will not believe them, he would not believe even if he saw a Resurrection. And in fact, the Resurrection when it happened confirmed the truth only to those who had already believed Moses and the Prophets—though they had not understood them very well until then! This Book must be pretty important.
Familiarity had blunted the edge of our awe and dulled us to the wonder of this Book. It is really a library of sixty-six books by some forty different authors written over a millennium and a half. Yet it manifests an amazing unity that could only come from the one Mind which inspired it. It alone has an accurate diagnosis of our problem (sin) and an adequate prescription for its cure (the Blood of Christ); it alone has the answers to our deepest questions. It is as it were the missing page of Nature’s book. The miracles—and I do not use the word lightly—of its composition, its preservation, and its effects are staggering. It has brought some of us, natural men who could not understand the things of the Spirit of God because we would not receive them, from darkness to light! After all, it is the Word of God. If you can shut your mind and close your heart to the Bible, then truly nothing can get through to you—not even a Resurrection from the dead! Moses and the Prophets are indeed incomplete without the Resurrection of Christ; but then the Resurrection of Christ would be meaningless without Moses and the Prophets. They stand or fall together. And for two thousand years now they have stood together! This Book is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. So let us use it, in our own lives and in our witness. For if Jesus was right, we can surely do so with confidence.
Do you want to be set free from the bondage to two masters? Do you want to receive forgiveness? Do you want to invite others to the Banquet of the Kingdom? Do you want to experience the true riches? Do you want to experience real growth? “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” If the Bible as the living Word of Christ cannot teach you to do these things, nothing can. Read it daily, meditate on it hourly, and be here again next week to look into its pages once more!
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams