Going to be looking at the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but before that I’m going to look at what comes right before that parable. In other words, I’m going to set up the context in which we find that third of the most famous parables of Jesus. We’ve already looked at the story of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the third of these most famous parable of Christ is, indeed, the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus doesn’t just give his parables in a vacuum, and the rich man and Lazarus is no different. The parable is given in the context of a particular debate and it’s given to a particular people. As was almost the case with Jesus parables, his target was….the Pharisees.
So Luke 16:13 says “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Did you hear that? I hope so. Jesus is speaking pretty plainly on this point. You can not serve both God and money. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. [or ‘everyone is trying to attack it.’ I’ve read this may be a better translation here.]. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
This is the setting for the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’m going to say again, Jesus’ entire ministry is announcing and enacting the kingdom of God. He is announcing that kingdom of God has arrived and is arriving, and he is enacting the kingdom, showing us by action what the kingdom of God looks like. This is the ministry of Jesus, to announce and enact god’s new government, God’s new arrangement for human society.
Jesus knows that the greatest obstacle to entering into and living in the kingdom of God instead of under the reign and rule of man is our own economic self interest. When we are dominated by economic self interest it’s like squeezing a camel through the eye of the needle, and it’s hard. In fact, we need Jesus help to do so, because as Jesus says, with God all things are possible.
He also says that the law and the prophets were doing their work of preparing a people who would love god and love neighbor, anticipating the coming of the kingdom of God. But then he says The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone [is trying to attack it] (again, this may be a better translation). The law and the prophets were anticipating the kingdom of god, but with the arrival of John the Baptist and now Jesus the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world, it’s being announced, it’s on the scene, but everyone is not happy about it. Many are trying to attack it, because many do not like what Jesus is announcing and enacting about the kingdom of god.
So when Jesus says You cannot serve God and money, what happens? The Pharisees attack that – The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. The Pharisees were unabashedly lovers of money. They would say they loved God as well, but they would also say “we love money too, and there’s no problem, you can do both.” They had a theological foundation, a particular theology that endorsed that way of thinking. Their theology came mostly from the way they read and interpreted the book of book of Deuteronomy.
The Pharisees believed that if you obeyed God he would bless you in both war and commerce. You can read the book of Deuteronomy that way, and that’s what they believed. If you obeyed God, you would be blessed in war and commerce, you would be successful and prosperous (sound familiar?).
The Pharisees therefore believed that success and prosperity were in fact a sign of god’s blessing. On the other hand, poverty and failure were a sign of God’s disfavor.
Jesus disagreed. Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees theology that success and wealth equals blessing. Now, Jesus does not see wealth as inherently evil. Just one example, we’ve seen the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in that parable the father, who is a wealthy man, is in fact a good man. So Jesus does not see wealth and money as inherently evil. In fact wealth, all things being equal, is a good thing. But Jesus does see our economic self interest as the greatest single hindrance to our entrance and participation in the Kingdom of God.
This is why In Luke Chapter 6, Jesus begins his kingdom announcing sermon on the Plain with “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20 ESV. When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. That little eye of the needle for the rich man, is a wide open gate for the poor man. He’s got nothing to lose, it’s easy to get in.
The Pharisees also viewed sickness and suffering as punishment for personal sin. Human suffering would be seen as divine punishment. Don’t we still have some who work from thus theological system? Don’t we hear from those to this day who twist earthquakes and tsunamis and epidemics into divine punishment for some great sin “those” people have been guilty of?!
Jesus’ disciples were working from a very similar paradigm on this as the Pharisees. Again, Jesus disagrees. “And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:2-3 ESV. Who are we going to blame here? The man or his parents? Jesus says “neither”. It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. So, for us, when we see episodes of human suffering, we are not called to assign blame, but to relieve the suffering…
So, such is the context and background of the rich man and Lazarus…
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
Luke 16:13-17 ESV