Lazarus and the Rich Man – Luke 16:19-31

In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells us a story about two people who are on opposite sides of the social strata for 1st century Israel.  Lazarus is a poor sickly beggar while the second character in the story is a rich man who had everything he could dream of.  There is some debate as to whether or not this was a parable, rather than a rendition of an actual event, but I tend toward believing it to be simply a parable.  At the very least, Jesus tells this story with the intent to impart a lesson to us.

The Setting

This is a story with two scenes, the first being at the rich man’s house, and the second being after both men had died.  In the first scene we see Lazarus, described as a beggar covered in sores laying at the gate of the rich man’s house begging for the crumbs falling from the rich man’s table, with dogs licking his sores.  In contract, the rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen, and living in luxury every day.  The contrast between the two could hardly be greater.  One at the height of the social strata; the other at the bottom.  One with everything; the other with nothing.  Scene 1 closes with both men dying.

When scene 2 opens these two men find their positions reversed.  Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham (which some equate to Paradise) where he is comforted, while the rich man finds himself tormented in Hades.  And between the two is a great gulf that cannot be crossed.  Again, the contrast between these two men could not be greater.

Requests

We now find the rich man making two requests of Abraham.  The first is that Abraham would send Lazarus to him to bring just a drip of water for his tongue, bringing him some relief in his agony.  Abraham’s response to the rich man makes it clear that it is not possible to cross the gulf that separates the rich man from Lazarus.  Once you find yourself on one side, or the other, of the gulf, you have no chance to move to the other.

The next request of the rich man was that Abraham would send Lazarus back to the world of the living to worn the rich man’s brothers of the fate that awaited them, hoping that would change their lives and thus avoid their brothers fate.  Abraham responds that they have the writings of Moses and the prophets, who give warning of the fate awaiting those who are disobedient.

But the rich man persists in the request, expressing that one returning from the dead would surely be more convincing.  But Abraham declares that the one who would not heed the warning of the prophets, would also ignore the words of one returning from the dead.

The Point

While there is much in this account that we could focus on, if it is indeed a parable, then there is a specific point that Jesus is trying to make here.  And personally I believe it to be delivered in Jesus final statement: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  I believe Jesus is looking ahead to his own resurrection and the response that people will make to it.  There are some who had chosen to follow God’s call based on the writings of the prophets, and to them Jesus resurrection was a wonderful, and confirming, sign.  But to those who were not responding to God’s earlier message, even Jesus resurrection would be unconvincing.

This makes me think about the many times I have heard someone say that they would believe in God only if he would do some amazing trick that could only have been produced supernaturally; as if the very existence of the universe is not enough.  But I wonder; would any miracle, or series of actions, be enough to convince someone who did not want to be convinced?  Probably not!

A Mistake

I believe a mistake often made when reading this parable is to make too much of the setting Lazarus and the rich man find themselves in after death.  For any parable to be effective, it must have a setting that is understandable to the people hearing it.  Jesus is not likely introducing some new concepts to them concerning the fate of the dead.  Rather he places his story in a setting that is familiar to them already: a setting that seems to have been introduced into Jewish thought after the close of the Old Testament.

Is Abraham’s bosom heaven, the final resting place of the righteous?  Or is it an intermediate resting place?  Is Hades the final home of the unrighteous?  Or is it also an intermediate resting place?  Or do we find ourselves in some entirely different situation when we leave this life?  You can find those who will support any of those views, as well as any number of others.  As for me; I do not think it is relevant to the lesson Jesus is trying to make.

Take Away

I actually take two lessons away from this parable.  The first is that our place in eternity is determined here in this life and cannot be changed in the life to come.  And that those who are inclined to believe will do so, while those who choose not to believe will not be convinced regardless the proof, the miracles they claim would convince them, or the fulfillment of some list of demands.

Accept God’s message for us today, and live with him for eternity.  Reject the message he gives to you today, and spend eternity separated from God.

 

Parable of the Persistent Widow – Luke 18:1-8

Some of Jesus parables are pretty straight forward and easy to understand.  But some are a bit more challenging.  The parable of the Persistent Widow is, at least for me, one of the latter.

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” – Luke 18:1-8 NIV

This parable starts us off with the moral to the story, which is good.  We should be persistent in prayer, not giving up if we seem not to get a response.  In other words, don’t be afraid to be a nag; assuming of course that you are praying appropriately.

This parable has three characters.  The first is a rascal of a judge who apparently is in the judge business solely for his own benefit.  He neither cares about what God thinks of him, of what the people around him think.  We might wonder how such a person could become, and stay, a judge.  But that is not really material to the parable.

The second character is as weak as the judge is powerful.  A widow in that day was nearly helpless, dependent on family or the charity of neighbors and friends.  And this widow seemed to be a bit short in the support department and has turned to the town’s judge for help.

The third character is really unknown, other than as the widows adversary.  The widows specific complaint against her adversary is unknown, but it is likely that he was taking advantage of her position as a widow to enrich his own coffers.  He could have been a money lender, a rich business man, a tax collector, or even a neighbor who wanted what little she had.

In the parable, the widow comes to the judge in order to get justice from her adversary.  Exactly what constitutes justice for the widow is unknown.  She may have wanted something returned; she may have wanted some penalty or debt dropped; she may have wanted a restraining order against harassment.  But whatever it was she wanted, the judge was not interested in granting it.  I think it would be safe to assume that if the widow had come before the judge with a large enough bribe, that he would have ruled for her.  But since there was no benefit to himself he refused to get involved.

But the widow was not easily put off and kept coming before the judge with her plea.  And eventually the judge responded, granting her request.  Why?  Because he finally recognized the rightness of her request?  No!  But because he finally saw some value for himself, self preservation, in getting her to quit coming before him.  He gave her justice, not because it was right, but for self serving reasons.

A difficulty in this parable comes when we try to put God in place of the unjust judge and ourselves, as the widow, encouraged to nag him until he finally gives into us.  But I do not think that is an appropriate response.  Instead, we should view God as the opposite of the unjust judge.  If even an unjust judge will eventually wear out and give us what we ask for, how much more will God respond to those he loves, providing them with justice, and doing so quickly.

The bigger difficulty with this parable, at least for me, is what is meant by receiving justice quickly.  It is tempting to think that I should be able to pray to God about someone who is causing me grief, and have that problem go away.  But that seems not to happen in real life.  Instead, untold numbers of devout believers suffer terribly, some because of their faith, some because of natural disasters, and some simply because of the greed of other people.  And seldom do I see God intervening, at least in this life, to resolve those things.

The only response I can really make to this is to echo Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12: “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.”  I have entrusted my life to God, and am persuaded that he will keep me safe, regardless what happens to the shell I inhabit here.  God will deal with all that in his time.  I will pray and trust.

And, when Christ returns, will strive to be faithful.

Are You Ready? – Matthew 24:45-25:13

In the 24th chapter of Matthew, Jesus shares with his disciples some information about his return and what to expect as his return draws near.  He concluded that teaching with a warning (24:36-44) about being ready because the time of his return will not be known until it occurs.  When he comes back, it will be suddenly and without warning, and some will be taken and others will be left.  And what will determine who is taken and who is left?  He answers that question in a pair of parables that follow.

The first, in Matthew 24:45-51, is about a servant who has been left in charge of the master’s household while he is away for an unspecified period of time.  Eventually the master returns and checks up on the servant to see how he has done.  If he is doing what the master left him to do, then all is well and he is rewarded.  If he is not following his masters direction, but is doing his own thing instead, he can expect nothing but punishment.  In this case, being ready equates to being faithful to the master until his return.

In Matthew 25:1-13 we find the second, and better known, of these two parables.  In this parable we find a group of ten virgins who have gone out to meet a bridegroom.  The bridegroom takes longer than expected to arrive and they all fall asleep.  When he does come they awaken, and five are able to light their lamps while the other five are not, but have to go into town and buy oil for the lamps.  While they are gone the five virgins with oil in the lamps are allowed into the wedding banquet while the others are denied entry when they finally return.

This parable is a bit strange to most of us because it does not really picture the way we do weddings today; at least in the US.  Donald Carson, in the NIV Bible Commentary, says this about the setting of this parable.

The setting is fairly clear from what we know of the marriage customs of the day.  Normally the bridegroom with some close friends left his home to go the the bride’s home, where there were various ceremonies, followed by a procession through the streets – after nightfall – to his home.  The ten virgins may be bridesmaids who have been assisting the bride; and they expect to meet the groom as he come’s from the brides house.  Everyone in the procession was expected to carry his or her own torch.  Those without torches would be assumed to be party crashers or even brigands.  The festivities, which could last several days, would formally get under way at the bridegroom’s house.

Given the context of this parable (the 24th chapter of Matthew), the bridegroom’s coming would seem to represent Christ’s return for his people, with the ten virgins being similar to the two working in the field (24:40) or the two grinding at the mill (24:41).  One of the workers in each pair was taken and the other left, just like five of the virgins join the procession and five are left out in the cold.

So what is it about these ten that determines who is taken and who is left behind?  All ten are described as virgins.  All ten had lamps.  All ten  went out to meet the bridegroom.  All ten  fell asleep while waiting for him.  So far there is nothing that would allow us to tell one from the other.  What is different is that five of them take along oil for their lamps, while five do not.  While they are waiting for the bridegroom, this oil, or lack of oil, seems not to make any difference.  They stay together and all do the same things, including taking a nap.

But what happens at midnight when the bridegroom comes?  The announcement is made, the virgins wake up and attempt to light their lamps so they can join into the festivities.  For five of them this is no problem.  They have planned ahead and are ready.  But the lack of preparation on the part of the other five now comes back to haunt them.  Too late, they get oil and return, only to find themselves locked out and excluded from the party: they were not ready when the bridegroom came, and were left out.

The moral of this parable appears to be clear: be ready for Jesus return.  What does it take to be ready?  Look back at the virgins in this parable.  I find it interesting that all ten of them apparently wanted, at some level, to be included in the festivities.  And all of them probably looked alike and spent their time waiting together.  So it would seem like hanging out at church, accumulating merit badges, and learning all the Bible stories does not get one ready for the bridegrooms coming.

Five of them were foolish, apparently believing that just showing up was enough.  So how can I be ready for his return?  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31)!  But belief is not a one time experience, nor is it solely an intellectual activity: it is a commitment of ones life to the lordship of Jesus.  The first of the two parables illustrates this.  If he is your Lord, which is known if you obey him, then you are ready.  If not, it’s not yet too late.

The Parable of the Rich Fool – Luke 12:13-21

How important are things to you?  I would be the first to admit that I have lots of stuff.  Far more stuff than I need to survive, or even to live a comfortable life.  But how important is all that stuff to me?  Would it ruin my life if any of it went away?  Is there any of that stuff I would hold on to at all costs?  Is there any other stuff that I just have to have to make my life more complete?

Jesus encounters someone who would answer yes to at least that last question.  And in response, Jesus tells a parable to illustrate that there is something more important than stuff, encouraging us to focus more on the eternal and less on the perishable.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

                                                Luke 12:13-21 NIV

This parable is prompted by a request from a nameless individual that Jesus force his brother to more equitably divide his father’s inheritance between them.  This must have been a younger son, otherwise he would have been happy getting the bulk of the inheritance.  But not getting his ‘fair share’ seemed to be grating on him and had become his top priority.  So much so that when he has the opportunity to meet with Jesus, that is all he can think about.  And Jesus responds with what we call the parable of the rich fool.

In this parable we see a rich man whose fields have produced a bumper crop come to a decision point; what to do with the abundance?  And the decision he reaches is one that many of us would make as well.  It’s time to retire, kick back, and enjoy life.  At the risk of being self incriminating, why does that sound so familiar?

The problem for this man is that he does not get the opportunity to enjoy his retirement.  The night of his decision to keep everything for himself is also his last on this earth.  And everything he had accumulated went to someone else; he enjoys none of it.

Just what is it that Jesus is trying to tell the younger brother, as well as you and me?  That God will cut short the lives of greedy rich folks?  While that might have some appeal to many people, experience does not bear it out.  Lots of folks who are both greedy and rich seem to live long lives, some of them even being relatively healthy and happy.  So what is the point?

For all of us, life here will come to an end.  And what will happen to what we leave behind?  As much as we might like to take some of it with us into the life to come, that won’t happen.  All of the riches, and other stuff, that we have accumulated will be left behind for others, just like for the rich man in the parable.

At the end of the parable Jesus makes clear what lesson he is trying to get across.  It is actually very similar to what he says in Matthew 6:19-21 where he challenges us to store up our treasure in heaven, where it will last, instead of here on earth where it is only temporary.  Am I investing in the work of the kingdom, or in my own life.  If, like the rich man in the parable, I am only investing in my own life, then, when the time of accounting comes, I will have nothing.  And that is what made this rich man a fool.  He had so much he could have invested in the kingdom, but choose not to.

How does one invest in the kingdom?  Ray Boltz says it much better than I ever could in his song Thank You.

So it comes down to this.  Will I be a fool and focus on me and my stuff?  Or will I give to others, of both stuff and time, as I have opportunity?  Will I ultimately be considered foolish or wise?

The Lost and Found Parables – Luke 15:3-32

Luke records 3 of Jesus’ parables in the 15th chapter of his account of Jesus ministry.  These three parables, typically identified as the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, are given in response to criticism Jesus received from the religious leadership of his day.  Seems like Jesus was hanging out with people that his denominational leadership did not approve of; scandalous behavior for a ‘godly’ person, eating with sinful people.

In the first of these parables, Luke 15:3-7, Jesus tells of a shepherd with 100 sheep.  One of his sheep becomes lost and he searches diligently for it until he finds it.  He then carries it home, calling on his friends to rejoice with him that the lost sheep has been found.

In the second of the three, Luke 15:8-10, Jesus tells of a woman with 10 coins who had lost one.  The significance of the coins is not told, but it is obvious they were of great value to the woman.  She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches until the coin is found.  And then she shares the good news with her friends, rejoicing that what had been lost was now found.

At the conclusion of both of these parables Jesus says that in the same way there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and returns to God.  Do you think the religious folks got the message?  That God cares about the lost and is searching for them, rejoicing when one is found?  Or did they mist the point entirely, still only seeing Jesus hanging out with sinners?

My guess is that they missed it altogether, so Jesus laid the third in the series on them, Luke 15:11-32, a parable of a loving father and his two sons, often call the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In this parable the younger of the sons requests his inheritance and then heads out to enjoy life.  But eventually his money is gone and he becomes destitute.  In desperation he returns home, hoping to at least be accepted as a servant in his fathers house.  This son plays the role of the lost sheep or coin in the two earlier parables.

On his return we find that his father was waiting for his return, and was looking for him.  The father welcomed him back into the family with rejoicing; the son who was lost has been found.  At this point there is really little difference between this parable and the two previous ones.

But now the older son makes an appearance, and it is not a happy one.  He is angry to see his brother return and is upset with his dad for his joyful acceptance of this prodigal who had wasted so much of what the father had given to him.

Did they get it yet?  The younger son, representing the tax collectors and other sinners, found joyful acceptance when he repented and came to the father.  The older son, representing the Pharisees and teachers of the law, choose not to rejoice with God, and the angels, over those lost ones who are being found.  Instead they set themselves up as judges, criticizing God for not excluding those they considered unworthy.

So just who are these Pharisees?  In Jesus day they were a sect of the Jews who were zealous for the Law of Moses, dedicating themselves to a rigid adherence to it.  And they were critical of anyone who did not share their legalistic zeal.  Unfortunately, many of us today, who have grown up in the church and have been ‘good people’ all of our lives, have a lot in common with the Pharisees.  How often do we look with uncaring, or critical, hearts rather than compassion on those who are living the life of a prodigal.  It shames me to admit that the former describes me more often than the latter.  The challenge of this parable for me, as the older brother, is to choose to work with the Father in seeking the lost, and rejoicing when they are found.

The Parable of the Two Brothers – Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus told two parables that involved pairs of brothers.  This one, directed at the priests and elders, is the less familiar of them.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32 NIV

The parable itself, as are most of them, is pretty straight forward.  A father with two sons sends the boys out into the vineyard to work.  The first declines but later goes, while the second says he will go but does not.  While we might be inclined to think poorly of both, the first ultimately does what his father wanted him to do, even though with initial reluctance.  And Jesus audience, when asked, acknowledged that this first son was the obedient one.

And then, as he sometimes did, Jesus proceeded to make a direct application of the parable to his hearers.  The first son represents those whose initial response to God’s call in their lives is rejection.  They are not interested in being obedient to his call, but do at some time repent and respond to his call.  The second son represents those who render lip service to God, telling him they will do what he wants but in reality doing what they themselves want.

Jesus actually gets more specific, and personal, than this.  The first son represents those considered as ‘sinners’ by the Jewish religious establishment, the tax collectors and prostitutes.  The tax collectors were considered traitors because they collaborated with the Romans, while the prostitutes were simply immoral and living in disobedience to the Law.  Yet both of them, along with many others, had repented and had come into the kingdom of God.

The priests and elders of the people are represented by the second son, the one whose words do not match up with his actions.  These priests and elders, like so many today who claim the name of Christ, put on a show of piety, but it was just for show.  At heart they are living for themselves, being unwilling to die to self and live as a part of the kingdom.

Which son are you?  Are you living in obedience to the Father, our creator; or are you at best only rendering lip service?  If the later, then it’s still not too late to obey his call, go out into the vineyard, and get to work.

The Parables of the Precious – Matthew 13:44-46

One of the tools Jesus used in his teaching was the parable; a simple story using common every day circumstances that had something to say to his hearers, both then and now.  A parable is kind of like an object lesson, and Jesus used them often to illustrate spiritual truths.  Some of these parables were very short and to the point, while others were a bit longer.  Among these shorter parables are the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. – Matthew 13:44-46 NIV

Like many of Jesus parables, both of these start off with the kingdom of heaven is like.  These two parables both express the value of the kingdom.  In both cases the man who discovers the treasure performs a Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA), decides that what he has discovered is worth more than all he currently has, and then sells all he has in order to obtain the more valuable item.  And what is that treasure?  The kingdom of heaven!

These parables are almost too easy.  Just a few words; words that all too often we are so familiar with that they have raced past before we even realize what we have just read.  But listen again to what Jesus twice tells us.  The man gave up everything he had to obtain the desired treasure.  The cost of the treasure was outweighed by its benefit.

Is the treasure of the kingdom worth my giving up everything for it?  Is it more precious to me than anything else I have?  Is there anything in this life more precious to me than the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus calls on me to give up everything to follow him.  Not just a few things.  Not just the bad things.  Not just the things I can live without.  But everything!

Living With Thorns – Mark 4:18-19

My Bible readings for this past week included the parable of the ‘Soils’, more commonly known as the ‘Sower and the Seed’.  The parable describes seed, the word of God, that is sown into four different kinds of soil, and the response of each soil to that seed.  The first soil is unresponsive to the word, it never takes root. The seed in the second soil sprouts and begins to grow but is killed by persecution and difficulties in life. The seed sown in third soil also sprouts and grows some but is choked out by the the worries and pleasures of life.  The seed in the fourth soil not only sprouts and grows but is productive and fruitful.

I cannot read this parable without thinking about the soil of my own life.  The word of God has been sown and, unlike the first soil, has sprouted and grown some; but how much?  As much as I would like to be the productive soil that bears much fruit, too often I fear that the thorns are too thick and entangling.

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. – Mark 4:18-19

I am very familiar with thorns, growing up and living in a place where the Himalayan Blackberries grow in profusion and are all but impossible to eradicate.  Only by continuous and persistent effort can these thorns be held in check.  Left alone long enough they will engulf the land and choke out pretty much everything else.

I find these blackberries illustrate the thorny soil very well.  I am too often distracted from the good I want to do by the worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things.  Concerns about family, the need to tend to my house and yard, the adventures found in a good novel, exploration of the creation (AKA hiking), physical fitness and health, continuing to learn and grow as a person.  The thorns in my life come in many different forms, but they all share in common the ability to choke out my spiritual development.

Some people may find that their thorns are bad things and directly harmful to them.  But it seems to me that most of my thorns are much better disguised.  It is hard to look at one of them as say ‘this is a bad thing’ and I should not do it. And yet, if they choke out the word of God, and prevent it from being fruitful in the soil of my life, is it not a thorn.

“Father, I pray that you would take your hoe to the soil of my life and uproot those thorns that try so hard to choke out the fruit that you desire to see grow in me.  May the soil of my life be fruitful and may its fruit bring honor to you.”

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