READ : Luke 16:19-31
What would it take for you to believe in God? Would you believe him if he personally showed you an unmistakable miracle? But he has already given you his Word. Isn’t that clear enough?
One of the most intense questions we ask is this: “What will happen to me when I die?” People have been trying to answer that question for as long as . . . well, for as long as people have been dying. We want to have someone draw aside the curtain to reveal what lies on the other side of death.
In our own day, for example, the desire to know what comes after death, or the possibility that some have indeed visited that country (or at least approached its shore close enough to see what lies there and have returned to tell about it), is what fuels the popularity of stories about what are called “near-death experiences.” The stories follow a remarkably similar pattern.
They go something like this: a person falls suddenly ill or suffers an accident. As doctors and nurses work feverishly on them, they experience a sort of detachment from their body. They almost float above the scene and look down upon it as a spectator. They might even hear themselves pronounced dead, but they experience no pain or fear. Instead they feel themselves drawn towards a bright light, as if through a tunnel, and maybe their life is played back before them in a brief span of time. They also may see other loved ones who have died, and perhaps speak to them, but gradually they becomes aware of a higher presence in the light, one who questions them. Finally, they approach a definite boundary of some kind, but turn back reluctantly without crossing it, and so awaken to their old life.
What should we think about such stories? Do they prove the reality of God, or at least of life after death? And what can we say to all those people who want to know, who want proof about the world to come? One of the parables of Jesus could be useful in providing an answer to at least the most important of those questions. It’s called the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. It goes like this:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
But Abraham said “. . . between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
He said, “Then . . . send him to my father’s house for I have five brothers that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Dives and Lazarus
This is a tale about two men, only one of whom is named. Lazarus is a poor beggar who lives out his miserable existence in the gutter outside a wealthy man’s mansion. His life is pure misery nasty, poor, brutish, and short. He has nothing, not food, not clothing, not shelter, not even health. The stray dogs in the streets come to lick the sores on his disease-riddled body as he lies dreaming about the rich man’s table scraps.
But Lazarus does have something. His name is a variation of the Hebrew name Eliezer which means “God helps.” In naming him the only character in any of his parables who is given a proper name Jesus is pointing to the most important truth about him. Lazarus is saved, he belongs to God. He stands in contrast at this and every other point to the rich man, who is traditionally called “Dives” (Latin for “rich man”).
Dives is dressed in purple and lives in luxury, his costly garments themselves being both an illustration and indulgence of that luxurious life style. This man is a living embodiment of selfish behavior. He had an opportunity to show love and compassion lying on his very doorstep, and he never did a thing about it.
Both men die. The beggar goes to heaven, where with Abraham he sits at table in the everlasting feast of the people of God. But the rich man goes to hell and torment. His fate serves as a warning. What damns him is not overt sin or gross immorality, not ignorance about God even. This is an outwardly devout and respectable man, one who knows about the Bible and can call upon Father Abraham by name. But he never cared about anyone else; he never shared with those in need.
Faith without works is dead; it’s not real faith at all. If we can speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, we are nothing. It isn’t those who cry “Lord, Lord” who enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of the Father in heaven. From beginning to end the New Testament tries to warn us that the practical test of our spiritual condition is how we treat other people. Dives was lost because his indifference to the needs of Lazarus showed that his heart had never been touched or changed by the love of God.
But and this is most significant the story does not end here. If it did, it would be a straightforward parable about judgment, revealing who is saved and who is lost. But Jesus’ story goes on to record a conversation between the rich man and Abraham. Dives first asked for some relief from his torment; let Lazarus be sent to cool his burning lips. Ironically, he who would do nothing to relieve the needs of Lazarus now asks for Lazarus to come to him.
“That cannot be,” explains Abraham. “Then send him back to earth to warn my five brothers,” pleads Dives, “so that they may escape my fate.” But this too is denied. “They have Moses and the Prophets . . . If they do not listen to them, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s the story.
Moses and the Prophets
What does it mean? What was Jesus getting at, especially with that arresting ending?
Let’s think first about what it does not mean. It is tempting to read this parable as a sort of “death and dying” story, one that reveals the nature of the afterlife to us. But Jesus did not tell it to us to give us a diagram of heaven and hell, or the bill of fare of their respective occupants.
We must be careful not to attempt to draw conclusions from details or images that are incidental to the Lord’s main point. For example, we cannot say on the basis of this story that hell is literally fire, or that people there can actually see into heaven and converse with its inhabitants. As someone has noted, this parable is not about the temperature of hell or the furniture of heaven.
The central truths are clear: judgment is real, judgment will divide humanity into saved and lost, and judgment is irreversible; beyond that we should not press the symbolism for clues about a reality which is far beyond our present capacity to understand.
But now consider the lesson that Jesus does want us to take from the story. A parable usually has one main point it is trying to make, and like a joke, the punch line will usually come at the end. So the key verse is the last one:
If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets [that is, to the Scriptures], they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. (v. 31)
Jesus’ point is about how people come to believe. He was speaking to a crowd of critics who were always badgering him for a sign to prove he was who he claimed to be. They wanted something spectacular, like a resurrection from the dead. But that would not matter, says Jesus. In fact, another Lazarus, a real Lazarus, did come back from the grave, and it only made Jesus’ enemies all the more determined to do away with him (cf. John 11:46ff.).
The word of God is what brings people to faith and to salvation. If you won’t believe the Bible no miracle, no near-death experience, is going to convince you. Not even the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of Jesus himself. As the renowned 18th century biblical scholar J. A. Bengel said, “We are saved by hearing, not by visions.”
So it’s all about how we hear. God’s word speaks plainly about salvation through faith in Jesus and the life of the world to come. It warns us of judgment after death, and an eternity which will be spent either with God or separated from him. If we reject the witness of the Scriptures, then no experience, not even a miraculous one, is going to convince us.
Let’s make this personal. What would it take for you to believe in God? Would you believe in him if he personally showed you an unmistakable miracle? But there are no unmistakable miracles. You can always explain them away, if you have a mind to.
What if God gave you a clear sign? Would that do it? But he has already given you his Word, the Word that testifies to One who really did come back from the dead. Isn’t that clear enough?