Author: Ron Graham
Luke records two parables that Jesus told about rich men —the parables of The Rich Man and Lazarus, and The Rich Fool. These two parables have the same subject —a man who was rich.
Both parables explore how the rich man was so wrapped up in himself that he thought neither about how he might help others less fortunate, nor about the state of his own soul after death. These parables encourage us not to trust in uncertain riches.
Both parables show the very great value of the kingdom of God, and that in God's kingdom those who appear weak and downtrodden in this world may have a high standing before God, whereas those who seem powerful may be despised by God, for God looks at the heart, not at the outward man. These truths are the latter of the the seven themes of the parables that Jesus told (Luke 12:13-21, Luke 16:19-31).
Most parables are set entirely in this world and this life only. This parable is unique because some of its scenes take place in the world of the dead.
Luke 16:19-21 introduce two of the three characters. First there is a rich man, and then in contrast a poor man. The rich man lived in sumptuous splendor. The poor man Lazarus, lay sick and miserable —a beggar at the rich man's gate, hoping for some small mercy, yet ignored. Jesus shocks us with his description.
Luke 16:22-23 bring another shock. Death. There's a sudden change of scene and circumstance. Lazarus and the rich man are no longer in this world. They have been transported into the realm of the dead. Nothing is the same. Now Lazarus enjoys the tender care of angels, the intimate companionship of his ancestor Abraham, and in place of misery he is comforted. The rich man is now tormented by flames and knows agony instead of the comforts he once enjoyed.
Luke 16:24-26 show that the rich man was not in this state to learn a lesson. He was not there for purging or rehabilitation. Too late for that now. He was there to face the worst. Abraham talks to him tenderly but offers him no hope, pointing out that a great chasm separates the place of torment from the place of bliss; and "None may cross".
Luke 16:27-31 are a sequel. Incredibly the rich man shows concern for others. He doesn't want his brothers to end up where he is. So he pleads that Lazarus, for whom he never did a thing, might run an errand for him. Would he rise from the dead and frighten the brothers out of their wits so that they repent before it is too late? Again Abraham offers no hope. No special treatment for the rich. They have Moses and the Prophets. They have the word of God. They have ears. No more is necessary, and no more would do any good.
The story of rich man and Lazarus shows us the value of God's kingdom and the need to enter it while we have life and opportunity. It shows us that worldly power and glory give no hope of eternal glory, and worldly riches no right to treasures in heaven. Lazarus weak and downtrodden, was really strong and splendid. The rich man rich and powerful was really destitute and weak. His outward man was an illusion. The inner person cared nothing for justice and mercy and faith, and therefore was nothing. God looks on the heart and its fruits. By this God determines which side of the great uncrossable gulf a person deserves to be.
One more thing we might notice in this parable. The poor man is given the name Lazarus and the rich man is given no name at all. This subtly signifies that God knows those who are his and their "names are written in the book of life" (Philippians 4:3, Revelation 21:27). The rich man had his earthly splendour, but his name was not written in the book of life. Lazarus was destitute of good things in this world, but God knew him by name and wrote Lazarus into the roll of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Hopefully God will grant you some small pleasures and possessions in this world, even let you prosper. However that is not what matters. You know what matters. Therefore see to it quickly.
Luke 12:13-15 give the background to this parable. There was a demand from someone in the crowd who wanted Jesus to settle a dispute about an inheritance. Jesus perceived this person to be greedy and pointed out that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. So he tells the parable of the rich fool.
Luke 12:16 says that the rich man's land was very productive —hinting of course that he was being blessed by God who gave the increase of his crops.
Luke 12:17-18 shows the man enjoying surplus produce far beyond what he had room in his barns to store. The rich man has to do something about all this surplus. He puts his mind to the matter. He asks himself, "What shall I do?"
I somehow rather fancy that Jesus might have paused there, and waited while his listeners thought of what the man might do. Jesus now makes the man say, "This shall I do..." and each listener waits to see if they guessed the rich man's solution. Maybe some listeners were expecting the rich man to say, "I shall give all my surplus to the poor for they have need of it whilst I do not because my barns are full." But instead he says something quite selfish and shocking. He will pull down his barns and build bigger ones and keep all his abundance for himself.
Luke 12:19 finishes the rich man's statement, "I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have many goods laid up to last for many years; eat, drink, and be merry'". This would be funny if it were not so serious. First of all, he talks to himself. Never mind about talking to God and asking wisdom in the matter. Then, of all things, he quotes scripture! "Eat, drink and be merry" (Ecclesiastes 8:15). Obviously he forgot the other version of that, "Eat and drink... for tomorrow we may die." (Isaiah 22:13).
We understand that "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17-18). This man was wrapped up in himself and his own comfort. His soul had no mind for issues of justice, opression, and the misery of poverty —things with which God's Spirit is concerned.