In our last essay we studied Luke 16:1-13, which contained several warnings to Jesus’ disciples about wealth. In this essay we are studying Luke 16: 14-31. Jesus was addressing the disciples in verses 1-13. But the Pharisees, who were addressed back in chapter 15, still were present; and in verses 14-31, Jesus speaks to them again.
Notice in verses 14-15 that Jesus still is talking about wealth. He simply shifts his attention from the disciples to the Pharisees, because the Pharisees had ridiculed Jesus for what they heard him teach the disciples. Notice that Luke describes the Pharisees as “lovers of money.” Then Jesus accuses the Pharisees of using their wealth to justify themselves “in the sight of others.” In other words they gave alms to impress people rather than to worship God.
Jesus continues by saying that God knows their hearts. That is, he knows their inner motives. Thus he knows about their love of money and their desire to look good in the sight of others. And Jesus says that it is an abomination in God’s sight. The lesson here is that God knows the hearts of all of us; and if our motives are not pure, we will be condemned by them.
Verse 16 tells us, “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came.” Scholars debate what this means. And there are at least three issues to discuss. First of all, even though the phrase “the law and the prophets” had become a stock phrase for the Old Testament by Jesus’ time, we know Jesus didn’t mean that the Old Testament was done away with when John the Baptist came on the scene. Verse 17 clearly tells us that not even a stroke of the law will be done away with. Therefore Jesus used the phrase “the law and the prophets” here to represent the Old Covenant era, which was coming to an end.
A second issue is this. Some scholars believe that John the Baptist belongs to the Old Covenant era, and others believe that he belongs to the New Covenant era. In my opinion, John is part of the New Covenant era, though I don’t think it is a crucial issue. My reasons are these. One, John was the first real prophet in Israel in about 400 years. Thus it makes sense that he is at the beginning of an era rather than at the end of one. Two, John’s role as the forerunner of the Messiah was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Three, Luke tells us in his chapter three, verse 18, that John preached “the good news to the people.” And here the preaching of the good news is characteristic of the New Covenant, kingdom era. And four, in Acts 1:21-22 Luke describes the ministry of Jesus as beginning with John. To me that is a clinching argument.
A third issue is the meaning of taking the kingdom by force. It is almost impossible to know with certainty what Jesus meant here. He may simply have meant that people must actively do something, namely believe, to enter the kingdom.
Verse 18 seems completely out of place in this section of warnings about wealth. Jesus may have said it at this point simply to illustrate the continuing validity of the law that he had just mentioned in verse 17.
In the rest of the chapter Jesus tells the Pharisees the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The larger context of this parable is the same context that has been evident since 15:1. You will recall that in 15:1 the Pharisees were grumbling, because Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. The parable as a whole is a contrast between two men, an unnamed rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. This, by the way, is the only time that Jesus gave a name to a character in one of his parables. Scholars are uncertain about whether or not that had any particular significance. But since the name means, “God is my help” it seems that Jesus at least wanted to make the point that although the rich man was unwilling to help Lazarus, God was willing to help him.
In verses 19-23 Jesus sets forth three contrasts between the rich man and Lazarus. The first contrast, seen in verses 19-21, is a contrast in their ways of life. Verse 19 tells us about the rich man’s rich way of life. He dressed in the best clothes and ate the best foods. Verses 20-21 tell us about Lazarus’ way of life as he lay begging at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus subsisted on scraps from the rich man’s table. In other words he ate the rich man’s garbage. And dogs would aggravate him by licking his open sores. Going back to the context set by 15:1, the rich man represents the Pharisees, and Lazarus represents the sinners. And the main point is that the rich man did nothing to help Lazarus.
The second contrast, seen in verses 22-23, is a contrast in their ways of burial. We are only told that the poor man died. But without doubt he was buried in an unmarked grave with no ceremony or anyone to care. The rich man also died, and was buried, but he undoubtedly was buried in a nice tomb with much ceremony and many mourners.
The third contrast was a contrast of destinies, also seen in verses 22-23. When the poor man died, angels carried him away to “the bosom of Abraham.” Both the NRSV and the NIV translate without the word “bosom.” The reason for the prominence of Abraham is because Abraham was the spiritual father of Israel. “The bosom of Abraham” was an expression for what we in theology call “the intermediate state.” The intermediate state is in heaven. But it is not the final state of existence for believers. It is the state of existence between physical death and resurrection. The final state of existence will follow the resurrection.
The rich man also died. But instead of going to Abraham’s bosom, he went to Hades, where he was in torment. And a great gulf existed between where the rich man was and where Lazarus was. The obvious point is that there is more than one destiny for people, a heavenly destiny of fellowship with Abraham, and a hellish destiny for those who misuse their wealth and ignore the needs of the poor.
Now as he rest of the story unfolds, we cannot take it literally. Jesus was not suggesting that people in Hades literally can see people in heaven. or that they can call out and speak across the gulf that lies between. We must remember that this is a parable.
In the parable the rich man, who is suffering in Hades, can see Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. And he calls out to Abraham for mercy. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water, because he is suffering in flames. Isn’t it interesting that even in Hades the rich man thinks that Lazarus should serve his needs, when while they were alive, he never gave the needs of Lazarus a thought. Notice also that the rich man knew Lazarus’ name. So he knew who Lazarus was, even if he never did anything to help the beggar.
Verse 25 explains something important. God can and does rectify injustices in the next life. Abraham refuses the rich man’s request, because he had no compassion while physically alive, and even now, he is unrepentant. He is thinking only about his own needs. On the other hand, Lazarus enjoys a new life that makes up for his deprivations while physically alive.
Verse 26 is open to misunderstanding. I don’t believe that it has to mean that everyone’s eternal destiny is settled at physical death. Any person who was unable to make a decision in this life will have an opportunity to do so at death. There are people who, because of painful experiences, are incapable of faith in Christ in this life. And there are people who never have heard the gospel. And I am absolutely convinced that people like that will at death have an opportunity to meet Christ face to face; and I believe that many of these will bow down in worship when they see him. Those who will not acknowledge him as Lord will, like the rich man, go to Hades. And once there, they cannot cross the gulf.
Verses 27-31 teach us another important truth. People who refuse to believe God’s written Word will not be convinced by a miracle. Even if someone would come back form the dead, it would not convince them.
The application for this parable is found in the parable itself. We have learned that justice will be done after physical death. God will see to that. We also have learned that the rich man’s torment was not because he was wealthy, but it was because he didn’t use his wealth to help those in need. And we have learned that the poor man’s consolation was not because he as poor. Rather it was because of the symbolism of his name, God is my help.