This parable is told in Luke 16 beginning in verse 19. Yeshua is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. He knows this. In chapter 17, we find him on the road to Jerusalem. In chapter 18 he predicts his death for the third time .In chapter 19 we find the triumphal entry. He knows where he’s going. He knows what will happen and he keeps going. So much is packed into these chapters. He’s trying to get the people ready. He’s trying to get the disciples ready. I think that’s why he tells so many stories. I don’t know about you but stories are much easier for me to remember than instructions. I think that’s why Yeshua told stories. There are some amazing things in this parable. Yeshua was trying to jar the religiously righteous enough wake them up to what they were doing. To wake them up enough to follow him. He loved them.
So let’s recap this story. Lazarus is beyond poor. He is living outside the gate of a rich man who is not named in the story. Lazarus is miserably hungry and covered in sores. His only relief was when the dogs came and licked his sores. That was probably the only compassion he got from anywhere. The rich man certainly appears never to have taken notice of him. Instead he was busy with his own life. They both die and the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus ends up in heaven with Abraham. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water on the tip of his finger and cool the rich man’s tongue. Hell is hot. Really hot. Abraham says that both men have received their just reward and even if he wanted, it would not be possible because of the chasm between the two places. So the rich man begs for his brothers. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers and warn them. Abraham responds that his brothers have Moses and the Prophets. The rich man responds that they will listen if someone comes to them from the dead, implying that they are headed in the same direction that brought him to Hell. Abraham says something critical to him. Verse 31: “But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
Here are the points that I want to consider.
Nobody asked Lazarus what he wanted to do. Did he want to help the person who had ignored him and left him to die right in front of his own front door? Would he have been willing to go to hell to aid the dead or back to the earth to aid the living? I’m betting he would have. Heaven will bring out the best in us. I would argue that this story is less about Lazarus and mostly about the rich man.
Next, note that the rich man never protests where he ends up. Not even once. Never says it’s not fair or even that he wants to leave. Why? Because death makes our life choices clear to us. During life, we lie to ourselves about our motives and desires but death strips away everything and we see clearly at last that the choices we made were the choices we truly wanted to make. The rich man saw clearly that he had spent his life not choosing God and in death he understood that those were the choices of his heart. He didn’t ask to leave hell because to do so would be to choose God. After all, the alternate is heaven and God lives there. His choices in death were an accurate reflection of his choices in life. But here’s something very interesting. This is a point I want you to remember. Yeshua never says this man was living a life of wine, women and song. He never says the rich man broke the Law of Moses and was unrighteous. In this culture it was the rich who had the time and money to be truly religious. For all we know this man was one of the religiously righteous. And his listeners would have thought about that.
Who is he telling these parables to? We back up to chapter 15 and find a pretty mixed crowd. Tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to him. But the Pharisees and scribes, i.e. the religiously righteous, are right there as well. Yes, and complaining about the sinners and tax collectors. Yeshua tells parables to instruct them both. Parables about things and people who are lost. About the joy when the lost are found. Sinners, you are welcome. Religious people, think about the joy God feels when a sinner comes to God. It shifts at the story of the Prodigal Son because he points out the elder son and his unloving attitude that so grieves the father. Religious people, are you grieving God by dismissing sinners as worthless? Well, God doesn’t see them that way. They are precious to God. He smacks them in the face with the story of the dishonest manager in chapter 16. Then he points both barrels at the religiously righteous in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. This is his warning to them. He meant it to stick in their minds. By chapter 17 he is speaking to his disciples and no longer to the crowd. This parable was his last word for this teaching session in Luke.
So what does he say to them toward the end of the parable? Listen to Moses and the prophets. He’s spent time telling them that Moses and the prophets spoke about him. But here’s the clincher. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his brothers, Abraham replies in verse 31, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” Yeshua is setting them up and they don’t realize it yet.
Why do I say this? We so seldom look at the Gospels chronologically. The chronology is important here. What follows this parable? I looked it up. John 11 follows Luke 16. And what happens in John 11? Lazarus, the friend of Yeshua and brother of Mary and Martha, dies. Yup, Lazarus dies. What does Yeshua say about it? “When Jesus heard it, He said, “This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) The death of Lazarus was not an accident, not another random bad thing happening in the universe. Yeshua flat out says there is a purpose and that purpose is to bring glory to God and to the Son.
Here’s another interesting point. Look at the other parables. How often does Yeshua name the characters in his parables? He doesn’t. Do you really think it was an accident that the name of the man in the parable was Lazarus? Nope.
And who is there comforting Mary and Martha? When the Gospels refer to the Jews, it’s referring to the religiously righteous; the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and all the rest of the good Law-abiding Jewish people. So Yeshua raises this Lazarus from the dead. And the religious authorities heard about it from eye witnesses since Jerusalem was so close by. The powers-that-be heard Yeshua claimed to BE the resurrection of the dead. They heard he claimed to be life itself and to be able to save from death. They heard that he was pointing to this miracle as proof that he was sent from God and acting on that authority. And they heard that this Lazarus, unlike the Lazarus in the parable, did come back from the dead. And it changed their minds and hearts, right? For some, it did. But for others, it did not. Like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, they were not concerned with the heart of the Father. The time for choices had arrived and their choices revealed their hearts. Some believed. Some did not and those who did not chose to act.
What do we read about those who chose not to believe.? John 11:47-50.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do since this man does many signs? If we let Him continue in this way, everyone will believe in Him! Then the Romans will come and remove both our place and our nation.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You’re not considering that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.”
Where was their heart? “The Romans will come and remove both our place and our nation.” It was a choice between believing in the power of God or the power of Rome. It was a choice between the power they had and the power they stood to lose and they would lose because Yeshua made no bones about it – they did not honor God in spite of all their posturing. They could expect no power or authority if Yeshua was the Messiah. So were they really looking for the Messiah? Only if he was a Messiah that agreed with them. There was no debate over whether or not Yeshua was the Messiah because that wasn’t what mattered.
We know the rest of the story. The powers-that-be had their way and one man died for the nation. They had solved the problem because dead was the ultimate answer to the problem of a Messiah who bucked the system. Of course that answer only worked if the Messiah was only human, which of course was not the case. Yeshua raised Lazarus and then God raised Yeshua. Lazarus would die again but Yeshua would not. For those who believed, this was a source of uncontainable joy. For those who didn’t believe, it only stiffened their spines. And Abraham had it right. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” No, not even if two rise from the dead.
And so it was that the last words of the last parable must have rung in the ears of the religiously righteous on that morning of the resurrection. Yeshua told them they would not believe even if someone rose from the dead. Then he rose from the dead. And nothing changed their hearts. This is why Yeshua wept over Jerusalem. This is why he weeps over the world.