Luke 16:19–31 (ESV): The Rich Man and Lazarus
I’ll forego the usual section headings I use to delineate a recap of the passage and then my thoughts on it, since it’s probably best to just read the passage rather than getting a blow-by-blow from me. So this post is all “thoughts.”
The first thing I note is that, although this is a parable—meaning these are events that didn’t actually happen, it’s just a made up story Jesus is using to teach a particular lesson—he actually gives one of the characters a name: Lazarus. Characters in Jesus’ parables don’t usually have names, but this one character in this one parable is given one. (Even the rich man in this same story doesn’t rate a name—just Lazarus!) Does this mean something? Probaby, but I don’t know what the meaning is. It is worth pointing out, though, that it would have seemed backwards to Jesus’ listeners: they’d be used to knowing the names of the rich folks but not the poor folks. Actually, things haven’t changed much, have they?
The rich man and Lazarus aren’t completely disconnected from each other in this story. Lazarus doesn’t live off in the street somewhere, he lives at the rich man’s gate. In the previous passage there was some talk about whether Christians can have a lot of money or not, and my overall thought was that sure, of course they can, but we need to be careful that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking everything is ok when our priorities are messed up. If you’re rich, and there’s a man lying at your gate day in and day out who’s so destitute, hungry, and so sick that wild dogs routinely come by to lick his sores, you really need to question whether you’re doing all you can to use your wealth wisely, in a God-honouring manner!
So the rich man and Lazarus both die, and the rich man goes to Hades (there are probably cultural nuances but we can probably just consider this Hell) and Lazarus goes to “Abraham’s side” (in other words, he goes to the place where all the believers are, which we can read as Heaven). Smarter people than I have pointed out something which might be counterintuitive about the rich man being in Hades, however, which is that he doesn’t ask to get out. When he looks up and sees Lazarus by Abraham’s side, he doesn’t ask Abraham, “Can I please come up and join you?” or, “Can I please come back to life again?” He asks if Lazarus can come and give him a drink! (Not even a drink, really, just for Lazarus to give him the hint of a drink, to cool his tongue.) There’s a picture in the modern consciousness that anyone who is in Hell is probably desperate to get out. We also might worry about those people: what if they learn their lesson? Is it really too late for them? But the rich man in Jesus’ parable doesn’t seem to be learning any lessons, or getting closer to God; in fact, nothing seems to be different for him at all, he still views Lazarus as being someone who should be doing his bidding!
It’s quite possible that I’m pushing this too far since this is just a parable and Jesus isn’t pretending to go into all of the nuances about the wants and desires about this fictional rich man. However, part of the point Jesus is making with this parable is about the fact that many people are going to refuse and refuse and refuse to repent, and nothing—up to and including someone rising from the dead—is going to convince them otherwise.
But that brings me to the last point that really stands out to me (and probably most other Christians) when reading this passage:
"[Abraham] said to [the rich man], ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (verse 31 (ESV))
There’s no way the modern-day Christian, knowing what we know about Christianity and Jesus’ mission in this world, can read that and not think of Him! There is definitely a sense in which we should be striving to outreach to people who’ve never heard the Gospel, and spread it as far and wide as we can, but there is also a very real sense in which people will still refuse to believe, because it’s not always about a lack of information; by our very nature, we will reject God from our hearts, and additional information will simply be ignored or rejected outright.
So, given that, why should we spread the Gospel? Because sometimes the reaction will be the same reaction I eventually had: hearts will be softened, eyes will be opened, and the Good News will be joyfully received. We never know, ahead of time, whether the seed will land in good soil or bad, so we spread the message in hopes of welcoming new believers, and leave it in God’s hands.