Finding the Lost : Why People Really Matter to God from the Parables in Luke's Gospel : Luke 16:19-31 : The Rich and the Poor

I have a confession to make. If you didn't suspect it already, I have a soft spot for cars. I suspect the Dads who drag their children to our model racing car day on Saturday 25th September, share that weakness. But I have finally found the ultimate, most powerful and most expensive production road car in the world. Its not a Jaguar or Ferrari or Lambougini. Its a Mercedes Benz. The CLK-GTR. Share specification... Quite a car. Apparently only 20 of these monsters are going to be built.

Didn't I tell you how much it will cost? If I said that the entire amount we raised for the Millennium Project extension, £275,000, would just about pay the deposit, it gives you some idea... The new CLK will actually cost £1,000,000, and if you have to ask what the insurance premium will be, you can't afford one. So its unlikely you will see one in Virginia Water. Which makes it relatively safe for me to use as an illustration.

What kind of person would buy this kind of car? Would have that amount of money to spend on the car and, more importantly, choose to do so? Probably the kind of person Jesus had in mind in this parable, the last in our series we are these Sunday mornings during the Summer.

You may like to turn to the passage with me. Jesus told stories like this one to explain eternal realities, to describe things hard to put into earthly language. He also used parables to stress a point, to highlight a truth, to reinforce his teaching in the face of opposition. If we are tempted to think that this is only a parable so we don't have to take it seriously, let us realize that if this is how Jesus describes hell in pictorial form, how much more awful the reality must be... not less. So don't be fooled by those who want to water down the parables. Lets look first of all at why Jesus told this parable and then what it means.

The context comes in verse 14-15 (read) Jesus was replying to the cynicism and disregard for the poor, shown by the religious leaders who were supposed to be spiritual guides for the people. Jesus was speaking about them, as a warning not to follow their example.

This parable is unique in scripture for several reasons. Notice Jesus gives a name to one of the people in the story. He makes it more realistic, more human so that his hearers identify with the characters,

Secondly this is the only passage in scripture describing the feelings of the unbelievers after death. Therefore we should treat it soberly. William Barclay says that this parable was constructed with masterly skill in which not one single phrase is wasted. Jesus has six important things to say.

1. Our worldly condition is no test of our spiritual state - 16:19-21

1.1 The Rich Man 16:19
Every phrase adds something to the luxury in which this man lived. He was clothed in purple and fine linen. That is a description of the robes of the High Priest. Such robes would cost up to four years wages.

Jesus says he feasted in luxury every day. The word used for feasting is the word used for a gourmet feeding on exotic and costly dishes. He did this every day, so he was unlikely to have a 36 inch waist.

In a country where the common people were fortunate to eat meat once a week and worked a six day week, this man stands out as a figure of complete self indulgence, a prime candidate for weight watchers...

In those days they didn't use knives, forks or napkins either. Food was eaten with the hands, and in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleaned by wiping them on hunks of bread, which were then thrown away, for the dogs. That was what Lazarus was waiting for. The leftovers.

1.2 The Poor man Lazarus 16:20-21.
Garth Hewitt sings a song entitled "No one keeps a record of the poor." We preserve the names of the important and famous in stone, but we ignore the names of the insignificant. Notice Jesus chooses to name the poor man but not the rich man. Lazarus was a beggar, the word simply means someone destitute. He was covered with ulcerated sores, without the strength to ward off the stray dogs who seemed to have more sympathy for him than the rich man. He was laid at the gate of the rich man. What a contrast, not only materially, also spiritually.

Lazarus lived by faith and walked in the steps of Abraham, the rich man was thoughtless, selfish and spiritually dead. The first lesson we learn is that we too must be very careful to resist the temptation to treat people according to their income, or the area of town they live or the type of car they drive. Wealth is no mark of God's favour and poverty no mark of His displeasure. If we wish to measure people (and its a dangerous game to play) lets do it according to their christ-likeness. So, a persons worldly condition is no test of their state in the eyes of God.

2. Death comes to us all - 16:22
Death is the only certainty in life. It is the great equaliser whether we are rich or poor. Bertrum Russell once said, "most people would rather die than think, and most people do..." Most people eat, drink, and talk and plan as if they were going to live upon earth for ever. Like the landowner trying to impress his friend with the size of his estate. "What do you mean this isn't all mine? To which his friend replied, "Ask me again in a hundred years"... Its not surprising that we think we will live for ever because God has set eternity into our hearts, as the psalmist says. Instinctively we know death is wrong, that it should not be there haunting us, beckoning us, as we move along the conveyor belt of life closer and ever closer to meet it. I turned 47 this Summer and am reviewing my life insurance cover. The children are growing up and our circumstances have changed. Probably like you I am weighing up the premiums, and the payout. I want my family to be secure but what level of security can I afford? If we care this much about this life, how much more important is it to be thoughtful of and have peace of mind about our eternal security.

3. The believer is especially cared for in the hour of death 16:22
There is something very comforting about this expression. If our sceptical friends choose to scoff at such a view of reality, of heaven and hell, what security can they offer about the certainty of their opinions? Jesus died and rose from the dead. Beat that for authority.

When we trust and believe in Jesus we can have assurance about the certain fulfilment of those deep instinctive longings we have for immortality. We can enjoy the peace that passes understanding knowing that death was never meant to be the end of life, and that it will not be. Bishop Ryle writing at the turn of the century said,

"We know little or nothing of the state and feelings of the dead. When our last hour comes, and we lie down to die, we shall be like those who journey into an unknown country. But it may satisfy us to know that all who fall asleep in Jesus are in good keeping. They are not homeless, homeless wanderers between the hour of death and the day of resurrection. They are at rest in the midst of friends, with all who have had faith like Abraham. They have no lack of anything. Best of all they are with Christ"

We may not know exactly where we are going in this life or the next but we know with whom we are going.

4. The reality and finality of hell 16:22-23
Jesus tells us plainly that after death the man was "in hell.. tormented..." Jesus gives us a fearful picture of this man's longing for a drop of water to cool his tongue and of the gulf between him and Abraham which could not be bridged. There are few more awesome passages in scripture. What we must remember is that this was spoken by the one who came to show how passionate God feels about you and I. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that who ever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16).

Nevertheless the certainty, the finality and the endlessness of the future punishment of the wicked are truths which we cannot jettison just because we don't like them. There is a hell for the impenitent as much as a heaven for the believer. When I was at Sussex University we used to have discussions with the theology professor in the bar. He used to say that there was some good in everyone and that part of them would be in heaven, he believed that the love of God was so broad as to encompass all people. Its called universalism and the Roman Catholic church dreamed up purgatory to explain how bad people could still get to heaven eventually... But that's actually a form of religious rape, to squash individual choice and force people who don't want God in their lives now to have to endure his presence for eternity. Frankly that would be sheer hell. C.S. Lewis once said there are two kinds of people in the world...

5. The unbeliever understand their error but it is too late - 16:24-28
While he lived the rich man had ignored Lazarus, and does nothing for his brother's good. When he is dead he finds out too late the folly of which his whole family are guilty, and desires if possible to warn them. We see here that after death, identity remains, they were the same people. Memory remains, they remembered things about their past, and recognition remains of people and of right and wrong.

The apparent change of mind in this person is the saddest part of the story because for him it was too late. We will see, and know, and understand many things that we cannot comprehend now. Someone once said that "hell is nothing more than truth known too late." The reality and finality of hell, where the realization of truth comes too late. Lastly we learn,

6. Miracles have no effect if people will not believe the Bible 16:29-31
This last point is of great importance. Jesus states it hear, and gives proof of it at the resurrection of a real person coincidentally called Lazarus in John 11. Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead.

The text says some believed, but others from that very day, plotted to murder Jesus. Miracles have no effect whatsoever on the heart that has already rejected the revelation of the Son of God here in the Bible. The Bible contains all we need to know about life, the universe and eternity. (Andy Burns book review). A messenger from beyond the grave can add nothing. When Jesus spoke this parable he would have been thinking of just the Old Testament. Now if the Old Testament alone was better than the testimony of someone risen from the dead then how much better must the whole Bible be! Thats because the dead can tell us nothing more than has already been revealed.

Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place to take away our sin, and rose again from the dead to give us life as revealed in the scriptures is the first thing and the only thing we need to believe and act upon to be saved. Six sobering truths we have learnt from this parable.

What was the sin of the rich man? He had not ordered Lazarus to be removed from his gate. He made no objection to Lazarus receiving his left overs. He did not kick or curse Lazarus as he walked by. His sin was that he never noticed Lazarus. He accepted the beggar as part of the landscape. He thought there was nothing wrong with people like Lazarus suffering while he wallowed in sumptuous luxury.

His sin was that he could look on the world's suffering and feel no grief or pity in his heart. He looked at a fellow human being hungry and in pain and did nothing about him. His guilt lay not from anything he did, but because he did nothing. His crime was that he lived only for himself. We must remind ourselves that the rich man was not condemned because he was rich, nor was Lazarus saved because he was poor.

The rich man trusted in his riches and did not trust in the Lord. "The safest road to hell," wrote C.S. Lewis, "is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." Jesus did not tell this parable to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about life after death, but to convince us that the choices made here and now affect our eternal destiny.

I had another momentous flight the other day which brought this home to me in a new light. It was the end of a demanding but immensely fulfilling week of teaching the Bible to staff of CCC in the Czech Republic. The food and accommodation were rather basic and on the way to the airport I was looking forward to the flight home. A nice meal, a drop of wine, a little sleep. As I waited in the terminal lounge for our flight to be called, I thought I recognised someone. Someone in a very distinguished uniform.

It looked remarkably like Andrew Joseph. It was Captain Andrew Joseph and amazingly he was to be the pilot. I heard myself call across the lounge "Andrew". We were as surprised as each other. We chatted briefly and I sat down with a big smile on my face, reflecting on God's sense of humour and providence. But then the fun really started. A member of the airline staff came over and asked for my economy ticket and replaces it with another one, club class. It even had my name on it. On the flight home I feasted - indeed I couldn't eat it all, and spent the take off and landing in the cockpit just behind the pilot. That's a vivid picture of what God's grace is like. I couldn't afford club class, I didn't deserve the seat but it was the captain's prerogative to give it. To get onto the flight deck you need an invitation. To everyone else on that plane he was Captain Joseph. To me he is Andrew. Grace is knowing the captain as a friend. Grace is knowing God as a loving heavenly Father. Grace is being invited to sit and eat with the captain. We don't deserve it, we cannot earn it, but God gives us all freely in Jesus Christ. Jesus told this story as an invitation as well as a warning. Now is the time to respond to God. Now is the time to live for God, not a Mercedes Benz CLK GTR.

People are not forced to believe in Jesus, never forced to attend church or do good. But one day we will have to give an account. In one sense we are like the five brothers. We know how God feels about us. We know what God expects of us. We know what lies ahead. So lets choose the path that leads to life - for ourselves and for one another.