What happens to a rich person who loves his money more than his neighbor and laughs at those less well off? What happens to a nation that glorifies such attitudes? Plenty. We live in times when this is happening all around the world. A day is coming when all such abuses will be judged.
Almost daily we hear stories of how the rich and powerful get ever richer and more powerful. We're awash in global wealth, yet the wealth will be concentrated in fewer hands as we near the end of this age. Meanwhile, the poor will get poorer by comparison. The abuses will get to the point where economic slavery will sap the life from many (Revelation 18:13).
Jesus had no qualms in confronting such attitudes. He spoke a parable to warn us not to love money more than people. He confronted religious leaders who were lovers of money, telling them that "what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:14-15).
He went on to speak a parable that is often misunderstood to be a proof that dead people either go to heaven or to hell at death. Yet that is not the point of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. A proper perspective of greed and cynicism and the judgment of God is the point. Let's see what we can learn from what Jesus taught.
A story to convey spiritual lessons
Luke 16:19 begins the parable. Remember this is not an actual story but a parable, which is told in allegorical manner to convey spiritual truth.
This parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most dramatic and pointed of the parables. It's the only one where the main character is given a name, perhaps in part to make it more personal for each of us reading this. Real people are impacted by our actions. We have it in our power to be a force for good. This story should motivate us to take a deep hard look at the legacy we're building each day.
The parable begins by telling us, "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day" (Luke 16:19). This man dressed in the finest clothes and ate well every day of the year. Nothing is wrong with these pursuits in and of themselves. But this man was not willing to share his wealth. He lived by the "zero sum" rule—he wanted the whole pie for himself. None of it could be shared with others because, in his twisted way of thinking, that would leave less for him.
This week I heard that Microsoft founder Bill Gates regained the title of world's richest man—his net worth this year soaring to more than $70 billion. Mr. Gates' wealth grows even as he is working very hard to give much of it away through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At least he and other billionaires realize their wealth can do much good to alleviate pain and suffering among the world's poor. I find it a remarkable story that a fabulously rich man works full time to give away his money and then sees it continue to multiply.
The rich man in this parable personifies an attitude of hoarding: "I have what is mine, I worked hard for it and no one gets a penny, lest I have less than what I had."
Christ contrasts the rich man to the poor beggar named Lazarus who was wracked with sores and reduced to being laid at the gate of the rich man hoping any amount of charity would come his way. Neither the wealthy tycoon nor anyone else gave him an ounce of care.
Decisions and attitudes have lasting consequences
Both beggar and rich man died. Here is where the story takes an imaginative turn to provide a larger lesson about judgment and eventual accounting for one's actions. Lazarus is judged faithful, and in being carried to "Abrahams's bosom" he receives an inheritance along with faithful Abraham and others who follow Abraham's example of faith. That inheritance is here on earth as the Kingdom of God—established when Christ returns and begins His rule.
The rich man, we are told, dies and is buried. However, seeing Abraham and Lazarus, he cries out, "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 tormented in this flame" (Luke 16:22-24)
Christ is telling us there will be a day of judgment for the wicked, and it will include a fiery, if brief, torment. Peter describes this event in 2 Peter 3:10 when "the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up."
But this is an experience that will come at the end of human history and not at the time of one's death in this age. The wicked do not go into a hell that burns forever. Christ is describing a time when our thoughts and actions will be judged, which should make us all examine ourselves today while we have opportunity to correct our course.
All will ultimately face judgment
This is brought home in the next statement Abraham makes in the parable: "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us" (Luke 16:25-26).
Judgment is a concept polite people don't want to talk about. It's uncomfortable to be told you may one day have to account for your actions and deeds. Modern philosophies tend toward tolerant, nonjudgmental approaches to people and lifestyles. Relativism is a foundation of the religion of modernity. The idea of a judgment, or an accounting for personal actions, is ironically not tolerated. Yet the Bible shows us there will be a day of judgment and that for God's elect, judgment is on them even now.
Several years ago while on trip to Rome I visited the Vatican and saw the famous Sistine Chapel. This place where popes are selected is dominated by the larger-than-life 16th-century painting of The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. This depiction, supposedly based on Scripture, is meant to strike viewers with a fear that they might wind up with those on the left hand who are descending into the fiery abyss of hell to be tormented forever by fiendish demons.
The scene is meant to get your attention. It does—and it instills fear as only a Renaissance-style depiction of the Bible can. The beauty of the art, however, is marred by the theologically imperfect idea of an ever-burning hell fire or the bliss of heaven as the punishment or reward of humanity at death. Michelangelo, for all his talent, was still overly influenced by the medieval theology of the Roman Catholic Church.
The gulf born of greed
What led to the great gulf—in this life and in the judgment—between Lazarus and the rich man in this story? The short answer is greed and cynicism. An attitude of callous indifference to a brother's suffering was not changed even when the suffering man lay each day in plain sight of the rich man. The rich man would do nothing to change. He consumed and hoarded his wealth with no thought of obligation toward others.
There's a lot of that in the world today, as there has been in every age. I recently read of an annual fraternal gathering of America's financial elites in New York City. The Kappa Beta Phi is a fraternal organization of Wall Street's leading executives from the major banks, equity firms, brokerage houses and other major corporations. Their motto, Dum vivamus edimus et biberimus, is Latin for "While we live, we eat and drink."
A reporter surreptitiously crashed their annual gathering. What he saw and wrote about is actually quite sad. Beyond a very nice, expensive dinner and the usual laughing and drinking you would expect, the reporter describes skits that lampoon politicians, celebrities, the middle class and themselves as well as their own greed and cynicism—which was their way of admitting they are greedy and cynical.
These are the people running the finances the United States. They are part of the establishment elite, and what they do is mirrored by the other political and cultural elites of the nation.
Do they remind you of the "rich man" in the parable? They should. They represent the attitude Christ is condemning. As long as a person holds the attitude of this rich man, he stands in danger of a growing "great gulf" not just between him and his fellow man, but between him and God. That's a key personal lesson we can take from this parable.
Hearing Moses and the prophets
The parable concludes with the plaintive cry of the rich man asking Abraham to send a warning to his father's house for the sake of his five brothers. Abraham says, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them," and "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:27-31).
Moses and all the Old Testament Scriptures, and even the New Testament for that matter, carry enough teaching and direction to tell us how to manage our money and possessions to effectively take care of ourselves and others—to share and care for the poor. Learn the lesson now, and avoid the greed that puts us into this parable in the role of the rich man.
How can you put the lessons of this parable to use? Here are three things you can apply today:
1. Don't hoard your stuff. Give away what you don't really need or use. Do you have clothes hanging in your closet that you didn't wear at all this past season? Think about donating them to someone who needs them or a charity that serves the poor.
2. Get in the habit of sharing what you can spare. For example, the change you get back each time you go through your local fast food drive-through—maybe dump it in the bin below the window and let it help someone going through a crisis. Look at it as a way of leaving the corners of your field for someone in need (Leviticus 23:22).
3. Use all your wealth to honor God. Use it for you and your family and to help others as you are able. This approach reminds us that, as James 1:17 tells us, God is the source of every good and perfect gift.