Our society is filled with idols. It is not that there are little statues on the street corners, as you might see in some countries. Our idols are found somewhere far more dangerous—they are carried about in our hearts. You see, an idol is anything that is more important to us than God, or something that rivals God in our life. Idols are the things that we build our identity around—so maybe what people think about us matters more than what God thinks about us. Idols shape how we live—so maybe we are more determined to make the team, receive the promotion or get the grade than we are determined to serve God. Idols are what we place our hope in—maybe we dream more about the holiday in the sun than delight in the fact that we are on our way to our heavenly home.
Be careful because idols can keep you out of heaven.
Jesus has been speaking about one of the most common idols—money. He has taught that no one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard these things and they ridiculed him. So Jesus tells a parable about a man who rich in this world and bankrupt before God, and another man who was destitute in the world but blessed by God.
Two very different men (19-21)
Our parable begins with two very different men.
The first man is incredibly wealthy.
He is clothed in purple. In that culture there was only two ways on making purple and they were both very expensive. Wearing purple was a way of showing off how rich you were.
He wore fine linen. Apparently the word translated ‘fine linen’ refers to the Egyptian cloth used for underwear. This is a piece of dry humour. Even his underpants were opulent.
He feasted sumptuously every day. That meant that he feasted of the Jewish Sabbath. He didn’t go to the synagogue to hear the Scriptures read and he didn’t allow his servants a day of rest. He cared neither for God or men.
The second man is desperately poor.
He is laid at the rich man’s gate (the word for gate referring to a fine ornamental gate). He is too weak to go there himself. Perhaps he is paralysed. Maybe he is just too ill. He is covered in sores. He is destitute. He longs to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. While the rich man cares nothing for him, his guard dogs like the poor man’s wounds.
here is one thing that the beggar has that the rich man doesn’t. He has a name. This is the only time in all of Jesus’ parables that we see a person being named. His name is Lazarus, which means, ‘the one who God helps.’ That seems ironic, but it is not. It was not God’s will for him to be healthy or wealthy, but don’t think of him as being entirely miserable. He knows God’s love, friendship and forgiveness, and the sure hope that God is going to bring him into an eternal comfort.
Here is a question that reveals a lot about the state of our hearts. Who would you rather be? Would you rather be Lazarus—suffering in this world and yet in relationship with the God of this world, or the rich man—comfortable in this world but without any personal knowledge of God’s love?
Two very different destines (22-31)
This parable reminds us that death is not the end. There are far greater realities than this world has to offer.
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. I think that is beautiful. While other people carried him to the rich man’s gates the angels carry him to heaven. While he was rejected in this life he is honoured in heaven.
The rich man also died and was buried. It is interesting that it doesn’t mention Lazarus being buried. He was probably thrown anonymously in a community paupers’ grave. The rich man was presumably afforded a fine well-attended funeral. Yet he ends up in hell.
From hell the rich man looks up and sees Abraham, with Lazarus at his side. What he then says is very telling. He addresses Abraham as father—he is playing the race card. He was Jewish and Abraham as his ancestral father. However, who you are doesn’t determine where you will spend eternity! Your respectable background and reputation matter nothing to God!
Have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue for me, for I am in anguish in the flame. Notice that he knows Lazarus’s name. He knew all about that beggar that was placed at his gate. Yet he never did anything to help him.
We might have hoped that the rich man would have looked at Lazarus and apologised to him. However, he doesn’t even speak to Lazarus. He doesn’t talk to people like that. He simply asks that Lazarus be sent to him as a servant. That’s massive! We need to see that there is not an ounce of repentance in the rich man’s words. Hell is a place of regret, but not a place of repentance. People continue in hell as they have lived—with themselves at the centre of their concerns. Indeed, while on earth God restrains our evil so that no one is as bad as they could be, in hell that restraint is removed. There will be no friendships in hell because everyone will be so selfishly consumed with their own interests.
Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm has been fixed between heaven and hell. There is no crossing over. We might understand why someone would want to leave hell, but why would Abraham have to mention that you cannot cross from heaven to hell? Perhaps, because Lazarus is at Abraham’s side saying, ‘I’ll go and serve him!’
Having asked for Lazarus to be his servant he now asks Abraham to send him as an errand boy. Send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers.
Again, the rich man is only concerned about his own people. Even tyrants can be concerned about their family. But Abraham tells him that if they have ignored God’s word (referred to hear as Moses and the Prophets) then someone coming back from the dead won’t cause them to repent. In John’s Gospel there was another Lazarus that Jesus did raise from the dead. Yet there were many who saw that amazing miracle and still refused to turn to Christ. The reason people don’t put their trust in Jesus is not because they don’t have enough evidence. It has a lot more to do with the hardness of our hearts and our refusal to let go of our idols.
A friend told me that we get angry when people get in the way of our idols. Our rage reveals what we value too much. If you have built your identity around self-righteousness and self-justification you will be mad if anyone dares criticise or challenge you (you cannot justify yourself and be justified by God). If you have to get your way or be right then you have an idol problem. Do you get mad when people don’t recognise your talents or achievements, or thank you for something you have done (you cannot live for the applause of people and the applause of heaven)? Maybe your impatience with people is because comfort is an idol. I get nervous about how much I like new things, because I know that the love of money (and what it buys) is the root of all sorts of evil.
We all struggle with idols, so how do we know we are born again? We know we are born again by what we do when the Holy Spirit reveals our idols to us. The Christian sees how we get mad because people get in the way of our idols, and then flee to God asking him to change our hearts.
However, if you justify the rage you are in trouble. You refuse to see the idols and so won’t let them go. There is no godly sorrow that leads to repentance. You keep your distance from those who make you mad by their assaults on your idols. You become the sort of person that everyone is afraid to challenge. You refuse to forgive those who mad us mad. You never take a serious look at the ordering of your loves. Be careful when you are not struggling against idols, for it may be that you are simply living to appease them. We want to make Jesus more and more precious to us so that the things of the world grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
Appendix—how can a loving God send people to hell?
We need to remember who is telling this parable. This is Jesus speaking. There has never being a more loving person than Jesus. Yet Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible. He warns about hell because he doesn’t want people to go there. In love we must warn people too.
Jesus doesn’t have a problem understanding how a loving God can send people to hell because he knows how awful our idolatry and sin are. God is just and we deserve to be excluded from his presence and punished for our wickedness.
But we also need to remember when Jesus is telling this story. At this stage in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem. He is travelling there in order to die on the cross. He will experience the hell of crucifixion and abandonment in order that we might be rescued from hell. The good news is that Jesus will never turn anyone who puts down their idols and comes to him. Indeed he is the only one that can break the power that idols have over our hearts. We need to tell people that they can become a Lazarus (‘one whom God helps’).