Sometimes when we see things from the perspective of the future, we can see warnings for how we live now. In this story that Jesus tells, he wants to warn us from the perspective of life beyond death.
This week we have seen one of the most dramatic falls in recent political history. Kwasi Kwarteng after just 38 days as Chancellor has had a spectacular reversal in political fortunes. From the glory and opportunity of being a brand new Chancellor of the Exchequer in a new government to a political career in tatters and the ridicule of much of the media.
He has faced the judgement of the markets and public opinion and he is now shut out of government.
Instead Jeremy Hunt, whose political career seemed to be going nowhere having got nowhere in the Conservative leadership contest and not been invited back into Liz Truss’s cabinet now has Kwasi’s job and the opportunity of a fresh start.
If Kwasi could write to himself on the other side of political death…, to the man he was as he set out as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I wonder what he would say. I wonder what warnings he might give himself to help him avoid this tragic reversal of fortunes and being shut out of government?
A Warning Story
In Luke 16, Jesus wants us to hear a warning from the other side of real death. It is a warning not about our political future, but about our eternal destiny, our final destination.
Jesus does so as he often does, by telling a story, a parable. In this story the rich man acts as a warning to us of the fate we might face if we ignore Jesus in our lives.
A Story of Reversals
The story contrasts the life before during and after the death of two people: a rich man and Lazarus.
When they are still alive, the rich man has it all. His life is one of utter luxury and comfort. He wears the top fashion and enjoys wonderful feasts day in day out. In the world’s eyes this man has made it in life, he is living the dream, that is so often presented to us in adverts.
In contrast Lazarus, is utterly destitute. He sits homeless at the rich man’s gate. Rather than fashionable clothes, he is covered in sores. Although he longs for just scraps from the rich man’s table, he becomes food for the dogs who lick his sores.
Then comes death to both of them. Death comes to rich and poor alike. Death comes to us all.
Yet, in death, Lazarus finds honour from God. He is taken by angels and welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, sitting at Abraham’s side.
Whilst in death, the rich man is honoured by people. He receives a burial. But he does not find a welcome in God’s kingdom. Rather he finds himself shut out from God’s kingdom and in torment in hell.
There has been a total reversal. As Abraham puts it:
“But Abraham replied, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” (Luke 16:25)
So, what does Jesus want us to learn from this Parable. What is the lesson from life beyond death?
Good News for the Poor
Firstly, what happens to Lazarus shows us that this is Good News for the poor. Jesus is saying, that no matter how bad your life turns out now, there is hope for something far greater, when you put your trust in Jesus. As Jesus said at the start of his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,” (Luke 4:18)
Jesus showed that while on earth, by bringing healing to so many who were suffering from illnesses that would have made them destitute or locked them out of normal society. Yet, this was just a pointer to the greater hope that God can offer of a welcome into his eternal home.
This is not to say that people are saved just because they are poor. Rather uniquely in Jesus’s parables, the beggar in the story, is given a name: Lazarus. This perhaps shows us two things.
Firstly, although this man receives no help or honour from his fellow human beings, he is known and valued by God. His name is acknowledged, even as the rich man remains anonymous.
Secondly, the name means: ‘God helps’. He is someone who trusts in God to help him despite the horror of his earthly existence. He is a man of faith.
Lazarus, then reminds us that from the perspective of eternity, from the view of life after death, no matter how bad this life becomes, there is a certain hope of something far better when we trust in Jesus.
A warning to take seriously?
Yet, the focus of the story is on the rich man. In contrast his fate is a warning that there is no guarantee that life after death will be better. In fact quite the reverse, it could be one of utter torment.
We might argue that this is just a story, a parable. As in other parables Jesus does not mean us to take all the details seriously. This may be true of some of the specific details. After all it is unlikely Jesus really wants us to believe that Abraham would be hassled by people crying out to him from hell!
Yet, the fundamental facts of the story, fit with and are consistent with Jesus’s warnings elsewhere.
The first is that there will be some kind of ultimate separation, where some will be shut out of God’s Kingdom and left in torment. For example in Luke 13, Jesus says that some will find themselves locked out of the Kingdom of God:
“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13:28)
Secondly, the idea of reversal is a consistent theme in Jesus’s teaching. Success in this life is no guarantee of success in the next. In fact the reverse is often true. A couple of verses later Jesus warns:
“Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30)
Jesus wants us to take these warnings of hell as a place to be avoided seriously. But can we still take them seriously in the twenty-first century?
These days people dismiss warnings about hell as manipulation by religious leaders to try and assert power over others. There is some truth in this. There is no doubt it has been used that way by some religious leaders in the past.
Yet, in the Bible it is Jesus who warns about hell more than anyone else. If you believe that He is God’s Son and that he loves us so much that he came to die for us on the cross and that God validated his identity and mission by raising him from the dead, then this warning is not a manipulation by a power seeking evil man, but a real and serious warning from the one who humbled himself to come down to our level and die a humiliating death on the cross to save us. This is a warning from someone who loves and cares for us deeply. We need to take it seriously and listen to it.
What does it mean to take this warning seriously?
So, what does it mean to take this warning seriously? Where had this rich man gone wrong in life so as to face such a terrible reversal after death? What do we need to avoid?
We could say simplistically, that it was because he was rich. Yet, that alone is not the answer. After all, Abraham was also rich, and he has the honoured place in heaven! There are plenty of heroes in the Bible that were wealthy and yet still seen as truly part of the people of God.
We could also claim that he was a particularly evil or selfish man. Yet this man shows concern for others – his five brothers and wants to warn them. He is not devoid of all good or kindness.
So what is wrong with the man? Ultimately it is his attitude to money and God that is the problem.
Attitude to money
His attitude to wealth is perhaps shown clearly by his stinginess towards Lazarus. Here was a man in utter destitution at his gate and he does not even give Lazarus the scraps from the feasts on the table. This is in contrast with Abraham, who although rich was renowned for his hospitality and generosity. If we are not willing to show hospitality to the weakest in society, then why should God show us hospitality in life after death?
But this attitude to wealth also points to a deeper issue.
Jesus tells this story to some Pharisees that are sneering at his teaching. They actually sneer after Jesus says:
“No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13)
Jesus is warning them that their love of money puts them at odds with God. This comes after the parable at the start of Luke 16, which talks of the need to use wealth to gain friends for yourself so that you are welcomed into heavenly dwelling. Jesus warns us that how we use our money is a symptom of how we view God. If we won’t invest in God’s Kingdom, then why should God welcome us into that Kingdom when we die?
Following God’s Word
None of this should surprise the Pharisees. Jesus goes on to affirm the Old Testament law and prophets. It is a law that explicitly tells the wealthy to make sure there is something left over the poor – even if it means having less for yourself, something the rich man failed to do for Lazarus. The rich man was not interested in living for God. He saw money as his Saviour. It was an attitude that echoed that of the Pharisees, who Luke says loved money.
In the Parable, the rich man argues that if Lazarus were sent back from the dead, then his brothers would heed the warning. Abraham, however, responds that they already have the Old Testament, if they don’t listen to that now, then they won’t even listen to someone who comes back from the dead. It is no surprise that those who have failed to take seriously God’s teaching in the Bible also fail to listen to God’s Son, the one whom he will resurrect from the dead.
Entering the Kingdom of God
This is the nub of the situation. Are we willing to follow God’s ways, even when it may risk our money, wealth or comfort? Are we prepared to be a part of God’s Kingdom now or not?
In Luke 15 Jesus has made clear that those who have lived outside God’s Kingdom can and are being welcomed in now. More than that God rejoices when sinners repent and join his kingdom!
In Luke 16, however, he is giving a stark warning. If you won’t enter God’s Kingdom in this life and start living for him and using your wealth for his purposes now, then you will be shut out after death like the rich man in the story.
So, where do you stand? What will be your final destiny?
Will you ignore the call to enter God’s Kingdom now. Will you go your own way without concern for God’s teaching or call on your life, looking for the most comfortable way in this life?
Will you enter his kingdom now? Give yourself and your money over to God’s will and purposes, trusting in his ultimate help?
Perhaps today is the day turn away from a life of sin leading to death, to the gift of God: eternal life in Jesus Christ.