The Great Reversal
January 20, 2013 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We have before us this morning another of those most memorable of the Lord’s parables that are found only in the Gospel of Luke. One such is the parable of the Good Samaritan, another the parable of the Prodigal Son, and today the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
It is, by the way, a parable. I was sitting in the Cell Phone Parking Lot at the airport last Tuesday night waiting for the arrival of Florence’s flight and listening to a well-known radio preacher’s sermon on this very text. He argued that it was not a parable but in fact an account of two real people and what happened to them. And his argument was that the Lord spoke of a certain rich man and actually named the poor beggar, Lazarus. The phrase “a certain rich man” is found in some English translations, but it is not the sense of the Greek words themselves. The ESV, as you see, does not include the word “certain” in its translation of the first part of v. 19. It is true that this poor man is the only person given a name in any of the Lord’s parables, but his name, literally a short from of Eleazar, means “God helps.” That is surely significant.
We are about to read a parable, an invented story, and one demonstration of that fact is that its details contradict what we know about heaven and hell from the teaching of the Bible and of Jesus himself that we find elsewhere. Later in the parable we will read of the rich man’s request that Lazarus be sent down to hell to give him a cooling drop of water for his tongue. Of course, in actual fact the tongue of any man who dies and goes to hell lies in the grave with the rest of his body. It is not in heaven to be cooled with water. Only the soul is found in heaven between death and the resurrection. And so on. As with parables in general, you cannot press the details but must seek the point of comparison, what truth the story is intended to teach.
v.19 Now remember the context. We have been reading throughout this chapter about money, about the improper and proper uses of money, about using money to make friends, about money as an idol, about the Pharisees as lovers of money, and about how one cannot love both God and money at the same time. Truly to believe in Jesus makes one sensitive to others and determined to use his money for their benefit. All of that so far in this chapter. Now we read of a rich man who is not sensitive to the needy around him. The Lord is developing a theme. We begin with a man who enjoyed all the luxuries and comforts that money can buy. Purple clothing was extremely expensive because the dye that was used was obtained from snails and hard to produce in quantity. The point is that the man was very rich, a point underscored by the fact that his home had a gate at which a beggar sat. The term for “gate” used here is usually used of the gates of temples or even cities and conjures up the image of something both grand and ornate.
v.21 In contrast we are now introduced to a man so poor, so destitute that he survived on what the rich man threw away. His health was also bad as is often the case with very poor people. As luxurious and comfortable as the rich man’s life was the poor man’s life was miserable.
v.22 “Abraham’s side” or “Abraham’s bosom” was not a common Jewish description of heaven but it is a variant on the OT description of a believer’s death as his being gathered to his fathers. An angelic escort to heaven was a common idea in the Judaism of the time. As we noted before we are not talking about the situation after the resurrection of the dead. The rich man was buried. That means that any Jew would have immediately grasped that this was a parable when reference was later made to the rich man’s tongue.
v.23 In the same way, we should not press the detail that the rich man could see Lazarus in heaven. We are not being given a map of heaven and hell here, a topographical guide to the afterlife. [Caird, 191] On the other hand, the Lord explicitly says in 13:28 that those in hell “will see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…in the kingdom of God.”
Hades, the OT’s sheol is a general term in the OT for the place of the dead in general. The righteous and the unrighteous both reside there, though they are separated from one another. [Bock, ii, 1369-1370] But in the NT Hades is rarely used for death in general and instead is reserved as a name for the place of the unrighteous dead. It seems to have become a synonym for Gehenna or hell, though those names technically refer to the place of final judgment, the place to which the unrighteous are consigned after the final judgment.
v.24 It is important to remind ourselves from time to time, particularly if we find ourselves speaking about hell to unbelievers, that the Bible uses only metaphors and figures of speech in speaking about eternal punishment. It is both outer darkness and unending fire, which, taken literally, contradict one another, as fire produces light. It is a flame that does not go out, but it is also a fire that does not consume, so not a fire like the fire we know. These are images only, metaphors. The Bible describes divine judgment in a variety of ways but always figuratively. We really do not know what the miseries of hell will be, only that they are miseries. As Francis Turretin, that most precise of Reformed theologians, wrote in the 17th century: “…what it is or in what infernal punishment consists…is not easy to define.” [iii, 605] It is, at least this: consignment to a place and a condition in which all that is good and pure and right has been removed and all that is bad is allowed to come to full expression. It is the place of hate as heaven is the place of love; the place of sadness as heaven is the place of joy; the place defined by God’s absence, as heaven is the place of his glorious presence. Hell is the place the wicked make for themselves, its chief characteristic, as C.S. Lewis put it, is “the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self.” [Cited in Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 160; from Screwtape Letters, ix] We see that in the rich man here.
By the way, this verse 24 is the only example of prayer being offered to saints in the entire Bible, and it is not encouraging! [Trench, Parables, 463]
v.26 There is an unspoken arrogance in the rich man’s request. He still thinks of Lazarus as, at best, his servant. [Morris, 270] The simple point of Abraham’s reply is that the rich man is reaping what he sowed. His situation is the fruit of the choices he willingly made while on earth. But what he did not provide Lazarus before, Lazarus cannot provide him now. Both their fates are fixed and irreversible.
v.28 The rich man seems here to be concerned for others in a way he was not during his life. Remember, though, this is a parable. And take note of what is actually said.
The rich man still wants Lazarus to run his errands for him and his interest is still fixed upon his own family, not the poor whom he neglected all his life. There is still no repentance, no recognition of the reason he is in hell. The worst thing about hell will be the total lack of this recognition on everyone’s part; it will be the land of the perpetual excuse, the constant whine, the demand of every one that others do something for him or her.
v.29 The unspoken assumption is, of course, that the rich man did not heed Moses and the prophets, a point the Lord often makes in his teaching. His Jewish contemporaries had seriously mistaken the teaching of their own Bible.
v.31 A point the Lord would make elsewhere and that every reader of this parable rightly understands to be an anticipation of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the Jews’ continuing rejection of their Messiah nevertheless. The reason they rejected the Messiah was because they had already rejected the teaching of God’s Word, something that has happened with dismal regularity in Christian history ever since! As the Lord had said so often before, “there is no way of demonstrating spiritual truth to those whose minds are not open to conviction.” [Caird, 192]
The point that the Lord was making is the same he made earlier in the parable of the unrighteous steward. As in 16:9, the rich man should have used his wealth to make friends for himself so that he would have been welcomed into eternal dwellings. But he did not. He could have made a friend of the poor beggar who sat at his gate barely subsisting on the crumbs that guests at the rich man’s table tossed to him on their way home, but he didn’t. The fact that he called Lazarus by name makes his long indifference to the poor man still worse. He knew him but did nothing for him.
The rich man used his wealth irresponsibly and selfishly because of his false creed. If he were a Sadducee, he would not have believed that he had to answer for his conduct after he died or that there even was an afterlife in which he might be punished for an unrighteous life. If he were a Pharisee, as is more likely, given the fact that the Lord had been in conversation with the Pharisees as recently as v. 14, he would have believed in judgment and an afterlife divided between heaven and hell, but would have been blithely confident of his place in heaven because he so fundamentally misunderstood his own moral condition and the nature of salvation.
Even in hell we see this man in his pride, treating Lazarus as his lackey, pleading ignorance as his excuse: “If only someone had warned me in advance…” He’s blaming God. His appeal to “Father Abraham” suggests that, like so many of his countrymen, he was relying on his heritage, his identity as a member of the people of God to pull him through. [Bock, ii, 1370-1371]
The Lord’s point is general and universal. He doesn’t name the rich man precisely so that we cannot think that since he was speaking of some particular individual what he said did not apply to us! What the parable teaches is precisely that we must all reckon with the reality of the next world and the judgment of God and the separation of human beings forever as a result of that judgment.
What we have here -- and what we have here we find many other places in the Bible -- is the underlayment, the fundamental structure and foundation of the Christian faith. There is nothing here specifically about Jesus Christ, about the incarnation, about the cross, about the resurrection, though there is a hint of that at the end. There is no appeal to believe in Jesus to be saved. There is no explicit distinction between the rich man and the poor man in terms of Jesus Christ. The truth of this parable is still more fundamental than even the gospel itself. We have here the context in which the Gospel finds its meaning.
What we learn here are these facts:
- Death is not the end of human existence;
- Death introduces human beings to one of two distinct destinies;
- One of those destinies is wonderful beyond the power of words to describe; the other is so horrible that it can only be described in terms of the most painful and despairing experiences of human life in this world; one is life in the truest sense of the word life, life worthy to be called life, life come into its own, life with a capital L; the other is death in the deepest sense of that term; the end of love and happiness, life without hope and without God;
- Those post-mortem destinies are the direct consequence of what a human being is and does in this life;
- And, finally, that once entered after death, those destinies, those states and conditions, are fixed and irreversible.
Everything else -- creation, redemption, and consummation -- derives its meaning from this this future, this connection between this world and the next. What were we made for? Life forever! Why do we need a redeemer? Because of the threat of death forever! And why do we concentrate on the future and why is Jesus Christ coming a second time to the world? To bring his people into the fullness of that heavenly life and to cast his enemies into the judgment they so richly deserve. What is the great significance of time? It ushers us into eternity!
I say, everything in the Bible depends upon this chronology, this understanding of earthly death as issuing in another existence, of weal or woe, on the other side. Or, as the early 20th century evangelist, the ex-baseball player, Billy Sunday, tartly put it: “if there is no hell, a lot of preachers have been raising money under false pretenses!”
This is what led Augustine to say,
“He who does not think of the world to come, he who is a Christian for any reason other than that he may receive God’s ultimate promises, is not yet a Christian.”
He meant, if you don’t understand this, you can’t understand any of the rest.
Many have tried through the ages -- and more are trying in our day including a number who would call themselves Bible-believing Christians – trying to take hell out of the Christian faith, but it cannot be done. The whole structure of biblical truth absolutely depends upon its reality. If there is no hell there is no need for salvation from it; if there is no need for salvation, there is no need for a savior; if there is no need for a savior, who in the world is Jesus Christ and what difference would he make?
As more than one wise observer has noted, the modern, enlightened humanitarians decided to improve Christianity by closing the gates of hell. To their surprise the gates of heaven closed also with a melancholy bang. Lose hell and you lose it all. Or as Cardinal Newman argued against those whose sensibilities were offended by hell in his day:
“Hell is the turning point between Christianity and pantheism [which, by the way, is a good term to describe most of the spirituality of the modern Western world], it is the critical doctrine -- you can’t get rid of it, it is the very characteristic of Christianity. We must therefore look matters in the face. Is it more probable that eternal punishment should be true, or that there should be no God?” [Cited from Apologia Pro Via Sua in V. Grounds, “The Final State of the Wicked,” JETS 24/3 (1981) 215]
I have blanched before the prospect of hell, as I am sure many of you have as well. It is not something one can think seriously about or speak seriously about without a certain fear and revulsion even perhaps a certain embarrassment or shame, without the more than fleeting wish that it were not so. When you begin to think of people you know, love, or admire who may be in hell, the prospect becomes still harder to bear and harder to speak about. Napoleon gave up on Christianity, so he said, when a priest in a sermon said that his hero, Julius Caesar, was in hell. Elaine Pagels, the Princeton scholar who has devoted her professional life to undermining the culture’s confidence in the New Testament as the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, says that her teenage flirtation with evangelical Christianity ended after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixteen, and her Christian friends, while seeking to comfort her, nevertheless insisted that since the friend was not a Christian he was in hell.
But, while we can surely appreciate the pathos of such a situation, the argument is hardly a serious one. There is a great deal in this life that we wish were different than it is. This world rings with judgment, with punishment, with the worm that does not die and the fire that does not go out. What is more, the book, the revelation that has every claim upon our confidence, the only book that truly describes the world and ourselves as we know them to be, warns us in no uncertain terms of punishment in the world to come.
And, supremely, Jesus himself spoke frequently -- more often than any other biblical voice -- specifically and emphatically about hell. No one can read the Gospels and think that he did not believe in hell; indeed, almost no biblical scholarship of any stripe believes that the Lord’s teaching about hell is not authentically his. My goodness, even the Jesus Seminar, that crackpot group whose goal is to reconfigure Jesus and his teaching along lines acceptable to modern Western thought, doesn’t deny that what we have before us in this parable is the teaching of Jesus himself! [Bock, ii, 1361]
What you have in these verses is Jesus of Nazareth viva voce, in living voice! And how solemn that voice was and is. Who better to tell us what lies beyond and how serious life is and why? We readily admit that our faith stands or falls with the reality of heaven and hell as they are described in Holy Scripture, but then we have far better reasons for our confidence than the deniers have for their doubts. When the world is full of so much of heaven and hell already, why would we deny their continuing reality, still less why would we believe only in heaven and not in hell as so many effectively do? The denial of hell is not hard thinking; it’s not serious argument; it is pure sentiment, wishful thinking. Most everyone cannot help thinking that real wickedness ought to be, needs to be punished in some definitive way and, of course, it is usually not so punished in this world. But it is also true, all too true, that very few people are willing to recognize the measure of wickedness they find in themselves. They are quick to find it and point it out in others; but somehow manage for years on end to indulge the illusion -- at least practically -- that while everyone else is a moral failure, they are not.
It was precisely this indifference, this blithe presumptionthat the Lord was attacking here. Life is so much more serious than most people think most of the time; it is precious precisely because of its moral nature and its eternal significance. We have been made to feel this deep within ourselves, however we may attempt to talk ourselves out of it, and to it our consciences bear an inescapable witness however much we may attempt to distract ourselves or ignore the roar of the flames that can be heard from still so far away.
There are no more characteristic marks of contemporary American spirituality, in whatever form it is dressed up, Christian or otherwise, than its emphasis on feelings over either doctrine or hard-nosed reality, self-indulgence over duties, and, above all, that whoever and whatever God is, he will never, ever require us to settle accounts. From Oprah to Deepak to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, from the health and wealth preachers who angrily reject any suggestion that they are not committed to historic Christianity, to the vast majority of American young people who self-identify as Christians, no one is worried about divine judgment! But do we have any reason whatsoever to take this sunny optimism seriously. Do we find a serious argument here or simply more pandering to the desires of a self-satisfied, wealthy, pleasure-oriented society? Do we have any evidence even that it is a view of life that makes for better human beings? Or is it rather obvious that what we have here in the denial of divine judgment is a rather tawdry effort to justify whatever it is we want to do? And, if so, how likely is it that this is a true insight into the actual nature of human life and a true report of things to come? How likely are we to finding our way to the truth by believing what we want to be true? How little, after all, does reality conform to our desires!
John Chrysostom, the great early Christian preacher, illustrated this dramatic reversal of fortune here in the Lord’s parable -- both the rich man’s and that of Lazarus -- by likening life to a play and people to the actors in the play. An actor may play a king or a famous soldier, orator, or philosopher. But, of course, that is not what the actors are in themselves; it is only a role they play. If you are in the audience you can, for a time, utterly forget that the person you are watching and listening to is not really the person he is playing. You can be so carried away by the acting and the story that you forget that the person on the stage or the movie screen is no more a king or a soldier or a philosopher than you are. After the play is over he will take off his costume and return to his ordinary life, an actor, nothing more.
In the same way, the play may have a part for a beggar, or someone deathly ill. Again, if the actors are good you can forget that the person you are weeping for is not, in fact, poor or sick at all and is not actually dying. Several years ago Florence and I saw Massenet’s Manon at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and then a year ago we saw La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House. Both operas end with death scenes in which the title characters, Manon and Mimi, both weak from illness, sing their final swelling soprano arias as they expire. But, of course, the next night or, if it happens to be a matinee, that very night, the sopranos will die all over again.
Well, said the great preacher, life is very much like that. In this world wealth and prosperity, good health and creature comforts, such as those enjoyed by this rich man, and, in the same way, the physical and economic hardships of life, such as Lazarus endured, are only roles we play. Often the one we take to be rich, healthy, and happy is really poor, naked, blind, and pitiful. The one we pity is really a prince or a princess with tremendous prospects opening before him or before her. Wealth and prosperity, sickness and destitution can be simply roles that one lays aside at the end of the play.
As the Lord so brilliantly and memorably reminds us with this timeless parable, a person is not what he or she appears to be but what he or she will be in the world to come. That’s what a person really is now. The measure of a man or woman’s life is not success or comfort or wealth or power as the world measures such things, but his or her prospects in the world to come. Many people must have attended the rich man’s funeral, but how pathetic he now appears. No one bothered to note the passing of the poor beggar, but there he stands, not only in heaven, but right at Abraham’s side, having been taken there by angels. Surely, no one would not rather have been Lazarus, sitting desolate, sick, and hungry at the rich man’s gate, than the rich man, so comfortable and well fed, once their futures had been disclosed.
The rich man was not some beast. He was probably such a man as would have been considered moral enough by his neighbors. He is not here accused of any great crime. He probably said his prayers -- most Jews did -- even if he didn’t seriously mean what he said and he himself probably never realized that. How different his prayer in hell! “Common as it is in earth, people in hell never commit the sin of praying for what they do not want.” [Brownlow North, Rich Man and Lazarus, 101]
The rich man’s failures were failures of faith and love, the failures common to men, your failures, my failures. He didn’t honestly reckon with the teaching of the Word of God -- that was his failure of faith -- and he didn’t love the needy man the Lord had put in his way; that was his failure of love. His heart was captive to the world. He hadn’t the faith to grasp the importance of living his life in view of eternity, of using his wealth to make friends for himself. He had too many treasures here to think about laying them up in heaven.
And so, like his countrymen, even in hell he was still demanding a sign. His brothers needed proof, he said, even as he had needed it but wasn’t granted it. It was God’s fault because he hadn’t made it clear enough. But the fact was there was proof aplenty if only the man had been willing to look and to listen. But he was blinded by his creature comforts and the sound of the conversation at his banquet table kept him from hearing the groans of the beggar camped at his gate. He didn’t believe what God had told him in his Word because he didn’t want to believe it. He preferred to do with his life as he pleased rather than what God warned him he must do or else.
This is the story of life: this great reversal; the looming destinies of heaven and hell casting their light, invisible to so many, upon the life of men and women in this world. John Bunyan wrote that one hour in hell will burn up all the pleasures the unbelieving ever enjoyed in this life; of a lifetime of worldly prosperity. In the same way ten minutes in heaven will make anyone forget and forget forever all the suffering and all the loss, and all the pain and humiliation and all the disappointment that he or she may ever have suffered in this life.
Who are you really? Are you someone who is so much more than someday you will be, or are you someone who is so much less? That is the question and it is the only question! As Chrysostom reminds us:
“To remember hell prevents our falling into hell.” [Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 31]