Have you ever wondered why things happen the way they do?
Why are some people rich and other people poor?
Why do some people die young and other people live to an old age?
Why do some people get incurable diseases while others live life without ever going to the doctor?
Why do some people seem to have an easy life while others struggle and struggle and struggle?
Why is it easier to be mean then to love?
Why is it easier to do wrong then to do right?
Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper?
What happens after you die?
Have you asked these, or similar, questions?
Do you look forward to the day when justice will be done and everything will be set right?
Is such a day ever coming?
If so, when?
These questions have been debated by philosophers and theologians and people around water coolers since the beginning of time. I’m quite confident no single answer will satisfy everyone’s queries. There is a story in Luke’s gospel that doesn’t answer those questions, but it does, in a small way, address them.Radical Reversal
A major theme in Luke’s gospel, maybe THE MAJOR THEME, is the radical reversal of all things. In other words, in God’s kingdom things will be made right, justice will be done, and all our questions will be answered. This theme of radical reversal begins with an elderly, infertile couple having a child named John the Baptist, and continues with a poor, peasant, teenage girl being chosen to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1). It continues with shepherds, instead of nobility, being the first invited to the birth of the King of kings (Luke 2). This radical reversal is often referred to as the upside-down kingdom, where the poor are blessed while the rich are warned and the hungry are fed while the fed go hungry (Luke 6). This great reversal means we love our enemies and show compassion to our neighbors, even our neighbors who are different from us (The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10). This radical reversal, upside-down kingdom means we prepare a feast for the poor and the marginalized and the outcast, instead of the rich and powerful and the famous (Luke 14).
Following Jesus means we are citizens of this upside-down kingdom and participants in this radical reversal. This affects our values and our sense of justice and our view of politics and of power and of money. The Pharisees, who were the subject of Jesus’ criticisms, for the most part, were respectful, until Jesus started talking about money. Jesus says to them, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). Luke tells us that when Jesus said this, “The Pharisees, who loved money…were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14). Jesus retorted back, “What is highly valued (in context; money, wealth, and power) among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). Once again, a radical reversal!
With this as a background, in the context of condemning the love of money, power, and wealth, Jesus tells one of His most famous stories, called, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31).
The Rich Man and Lazarus
It’s important to note that Jesus’ teachings and stories did not come out of a vacuum. Some of His stories were similar to well-known stories and folklores of the day. Many such stories of justice attained in the afterlife would have been familiar to Jesus’ main audience—the Pharisees and other religious leaders. If you think about it, our culture’s classic story, A Christmas Carol, follows a similar theme. Scrooge’s life is transformed by lessons taught him from the afterlife ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
What made Jesus’ teachings and stories so powerful and effective was the unique twists He put on them. He would hook the audience with a familiar story and then surprise them with a different ending. For example, most religions have a version of the Golden Rule. But most are stated in the negative, “Don’t treat others the way they treat you.” Jesus turned this familiar saying on its head by proclaiming, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). The uniqueness in Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and justice in the next life, Resurrection. Jesus dramatically states, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (and accusation toward the Pharisees), they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). An obvious prophecy to His own resurrection.
Let’s take a closer look at this story.
Jesus begins, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” (Luke 16:19). This man was not just rich, but “stinkin’ rich;” possibly royalty, like a king or an emperor. Purple was the color of nobility. In context, this man served money instead of serving God. Furthermore, this man did not simply live in a house; he lived in a compound that you entered through a gate.
Jesus continues, “At his gate laid a beggar named Lazarus” (Luke 16:20a). This story is found only in Luke’s gospel. In all the stories Jesus told in all the gospels, this poor beggar is the only person Jesus named. However, church tradition named the rich man, Dives (pronounced dee-vayes, Latin meaning “rich person”). The naming of the beggar is, in itself, a radical reversal. Usually, in this life, we know the names of the rich and powerful, but not the names of the poor and marginalized. Not so in God’s kingdom! In this story, we know the beggar’s name, but not the name of the billionaire.
Instead of living in luxury, Lazarus was “covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:20a-21). The picture painted is one of absolute degradation. Instead of a purple robe, Lazarus was covered in sores. Instead of sumptuous feasts, Lazarus was dying slowly of starvation. The contrast between the life of the rich man and the life of Lazarus could not have been greater.
But at the moment of death everything changes! (It’s important to note both rich and poor die. Money and fame cannot spare you from the same fate as a homeless person.) Even though both die, their deaths are described differently. Lazarus “died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22b). Remember, in Jesus’ day people ate meals by reclining at the table. Thus, in context, Lazarus is now enjoying a great banquet like the one described in Luke 14:15-24. Meanwhile, “The rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 14:22).
Do you see the contrast? Do you see the radical reversal? In this life, no one even noticed the beggar Lazarus. But upon his death he is ushered by angels into a please of luxury and feasting. The rich man had many friends in this life. Everyone knew his name. But once he was gone he was soon forgotten. After he died, no one seemed to really care about him, and they quickly placed him in the ground. The psalmist wrote, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). The Apostle Paul put it this way, “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Though everyone dies, death for the believer is far different then death for a non-believer.
In this story, the radical reversal, not only continues, it gets worse. The rich man, “in hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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’” (Luke 16:23-24).
Scholars have debated if this story is factual or a parable. I tend to think it is a parable based on reality. The reality is we will all one day die, but while our bodies return to the ground, our souls continue on. The truth is, the decision you make in this life to either live for God or live by the values of this world will determine what happens to you after you die. The fact is, hell is real and hell is horrible. The rich man lived only for the pleasures of this world, and now he is in agony. Lazarus had nothing in this world but his faith in God, and now he is in paradise. No matter how difficult your life is now, even if it is hell on earth, keep believing in God and you will realize, like Paul, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
The story continues, “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:25-26). The difference between the rich man and Lazarus was not simply that one was rich and the other poor. The difference was what was in their hearts. One loved money and wealth and fame and luxury. The other loved God. Things were one way for them on earth, but a complete reversal of fortune in God’s upside-down kingdom. This brings us to another truth: We must be careful how we choose to live this life and who (and what) we decide to follow. Because after death there is no second chance.
Jesus continues, “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’” (Luke 16:27-30).
And now the punchline (the moral of the story). “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’” (Luke 16:31).
Are you looking for a sign? Do you think life would be easier if God explained everything to you and answered all your questions? Do you wish God would just come down and speak to you and tell you what to do? Well, He has, through His Word.
If you will not listen to His written word, what makes you think you would listen if He spoke to you face to face?
If you will not see God in the mundane, what makes you think you will see Him in the miracles?
The Pharisees knew Jesus was speaking directly to them. They were the rich man! They had all the knowledge. They had memorized the words of Moses and the Prophets. Yet, they were not convinced Jesus was who He said He was. And as Jesus prophesied, even after He rose from the dead, they still did not believe. I am continually amazed at how little it takes for some people to not believe and how much it takes for others to believe.
The questions of why things happen the way they do, and why God allows evil, and why there is so much injustice in this world, are hard to answer. In fact, they may be impossible to answer in this life. But here is today’s good news: In a world, full of uncertainty, the only certainty we can hold on to is that God is sovereign and just. He, and He alone, can be trusted.
Regarding belief or disbelief in God, the 17th century philosopher/theologian, Pascal, offered an interesting perspective. He knew that reason was not the basis upon which one could establish the existence or non-existence of God. However, he recognized that the act of believing or disbelieving had certain predictable outcomes.
In the case of one who believes in God, he said, there are two possibilities. If God does not exist, the believer has been comforted in this life, but is eternally unaffected. If God does exist, according to Pascal, the believer will be blessed by “eternal salvation.”
For the non-believer, there are also two possible outcomes. If God does not exist, the non-believer suffers no real consequences other than the smugness of being “right.” If God does exist, Pascal reasoned, the non-believer would face “eternal damnation.”
His conclusion? Given the options of facing either no consequences or hell as a non-believer, or no consequences or heaven as a believer, Pascal reasoned that it makes sense to believe in God. In fact, faith in God makes all the sense in the world!
There are four take-aways from this story that I want to leave with you. First, there is more to life than this life. The sooner you realize this, and live your life in accordance with this truth, the better your life will become. Second, recognizing this truth should motivate you to choose the eternal over the temporary. It should motivate you to choose God, not the ways and values of this world. In the words of Jesus, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13). You cannot serve God and/or anything else. Third, living for the eternal gives the temporary meaning and purpose. King Solomon concluded living for the temporary over the eternal is meaningless. But living with eternity in mind, gives all we do in this life meaning and purpose. Fourth, a life of meaning and purpose pursues justice. This final take-away is based on all Luke has written up to this point, and is illustrated by these words of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (Giving a hope for a secure future.) He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners (a fair criminal justice system) and recovery of sight for the blind (physical healing; the right to health care), to release the oppressed (physical, spiritual, and mental deliverance), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (the year of jubilee; future salvation)” (Luke 4:18-19).
We only have one life to live, and after this life there is eternity. Choose wisely in this life because it will affect your eternity.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 Lazarus was a common name in that day. There is no evidence this is the same Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead.
 A euphemism for death.
 It is interesting to note that Herod Antipas had five brothers. This is not to say he was the rich man in this story. But it is to say Jesus may have had Him in His mind (or someone like him) when he told this story.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.