The Lord's Day Morning
January 16, 2011
“The Poor Man (Who Thought He Was Rich)”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 16 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke together. I would remind you that in Luke 16 Jesus has been dealing especially with the problem of the love of money. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, lay leaders in Israel, who were prominent in Jesus’ day and who were famous for their opposition to Him, Jesus has told us in verse 14 were “lovers of money.” And so He has told the story of the unrighteous steward in order to uncover the hearts of the Pharisees and to convict them of that sin. They have an inordinate love for money, they have a preoccupation with money, they have an overvaluation of the significance of wealth and material prosperity, they have a wrong attitude and a wrong use of it, and this story that is told today is aimed in the same direction.
We ought to note a couple of things before we read it together. The first is, when Jesus uses the rich man in this story as the occasion for warning — he's the bad guy in the story — Jesus is not saying that wealth is bad or that all rich people do not believe in God. And there are a couple of ways that we know this. First of all, Luke, who's writing this gospel, was himself a physician and would have been better off than most of the people in his day and age. He may have been one of the more wealthy if not the most wealthy of the disciples of Jesus, although Matthew probably made a pretty good earning as a tax collector before he came to faith in Christ. But we also know from the Old Testament itself that some of the godliest people in all of the Old Testament were very wealthy people. Abraham and Job were fabulously wealthy men but they loved and trusted God and they had a proper attitude towards things and material blessings. In the New Testament as well there are examples of wealthy people who are praised. We are told in the prophesy of Isaiah, in 53, the passage that speaks about the death of Jesus Christ, that He would be with a rich man in His death. That is, that someone would provide Jesus a tomb to be buried in which He would not have been able to afford Himself.
Remember, Jesus said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but I don't have a place to lay My head.” So Jesus didn't have a home of His own and He didn't have a place where He could be buried. But a wealthy man, who we now know as Joseph of Arimathea, provided Him a nice garden tomb to be buried in. So the rich are not uniformally criticized in the Scripture, but in this passage it's clear that Jesus has indicated that the attitude towards wealth that the Pharisees have is an indication that their hearts are not right with God. And so the stories that He is telling are designed to draw out the Pharisees to understand how their heart attitude towards wealth shows that they’re not right with God.
Well, before we read God's Word let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessings.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. It isn't just meant so that we can criticize a group of people that lived 2,000 years ago and feel smugly self-righteous in comparison to them. We know that this Word was written for us and for our benefit. You mean to search our hearts out by it. So we pray, Heavenly Father, that as we read the Word today we would await upon Your Word for us. Speak deeply into our heart about the things that You would have us hear and understand. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And 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 hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Jesus has been speaking to the Pharisees wanting to hold up before their eyes a heart sin — their inordinate love of money, their overvaluation of material blessings in this life. They also had other besetting sins. They wanted to look good in front of other people and be spiritually respected. They wanted to hide their sins and to pretend that they were more holy than they really were. But this sin of an inordinate love of wealth has been identified as a key besetting sin for the Pharisees. And so in these stories in Luke 16, Jesus is holding up pictures of the hearts of the Pharisees to them in order that they would see their sin and repent. But the Pharisees in this passage reject Him. They reject His message.
And He's doing it again in this story here. He's holding up the sin of the Pharisees, but not just the sin of the Pharisees — the sin of you and me. This isn't our opportunity to gang up on a group of people that lived almost 2,000 years ago and feel morally superior to them, because every word of Scripture is meant for our profit. Every word of Scripture is meant to instruct us. Jesus is meaning to hold up a sin before our eyes and for us to ask us if in our hearts we have fallen prey to this same sin. But He is also in this passage not only convicting them of a besetting sin, He is also telling us why it is that some people do not repent. And the answer that He gives is not what you would expect, so walk with me through this passage as we see Jesus deal with the hearts of the Pharisees and with your heart and mine.
The first thing I want you to see is how He depicts the rich man in this passage. “The rich man,” we are told, “was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” There's nothing wrong with him being wealthy, but Jesus describes him in such a way that he is living and clothed in opulence and he is feasting to excess. These are not flattering things that Jesus is saying about him. Someone pointed out to me after the early service — “But the Proverbs 31 woman is described as clothing her house in fine linen and in scarlet and is selling wonderful clothes and garments that she makes.” Yes, that's true, but what else are we told about the Proverbs 31 woman? “She cares for the needy.”
And this man, while he lived in opulence and excess, had a man that was placed outside of his door every day and he did not care about him. We are told, right next to this description of a man clothed in purple and fine linen feasting every day, that “at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table.” Now it's interesting how Jesus describes this. He doesn't say that Lazarus was fed from the crumbs of the rich man's table. He said he “desired to be fed.” Now I take that to mean that that's why he was laid at the gate of this man's house in the first place, because he desired to get table scraps. But Jesus says it almost in a way that even when he got the table scraps it wasn't a very kind provision from this man. This man wasn't attending to his needs. He was there because he desired to be fed but Jesus doesn't even say that he was fed with what fell from the rich man's table.
And then we're told that “even the dogs came and licked his sores.” Now dog lovers, these are not the nice dogs that inhabit your houses. These are not the sweet Labradors and the loyal Beagles and all the nice dogs that you have. These are the jackal/hyena-type dogs, scavenger dogs that roamed the streets of Jerusalem. They were quite dangerous. They were filled — it was almost like having large rats roaming the street. They were scavengers. They were after scraps. They were trouble. They were dangerous. And this poor man was having to endure these kinds of dogs coming and pestering him and it would have hurt for them to do what they were doing to him. Well, in verse 22 the poor man dies and do you notice that Jesus doesn't even say that he was buried? Apparently he had no family to bury him and he had no means to be buried himself. He was so poor that he couldn't even be buried. “But,” Jesus says, “the angels carried him to Abraham's side” — to Abraham's bosom. Now to this point, we haven't been told anything about his spirituality, but Jesus implies there that though this man was poor, he believed in God.
Now in Jesus’ day, and certainly in the minds of the Pharisees, a good Jewish person who was wealthy, it was assumed that that person was favored and blessed by God. After all, you’re a child of Abraham and you’re wealthy — clearly God's favor is on you. And if you are poor, well clearly you had done something that was wrong or your parents had done something that was wrong and that's why you’re experiencing poverty. So there was a coordination between God's favor and blessing and your wealth or God's withholding of His favor and blessing and your poverty. And here, Jesus turns that upside-down. The one who goes to the side of father Abraham is the poor man and the one who goes to hell is the rich man.
Now notice in the passage that Jeremy read from 1 Thessalonians 3 that Paul is having to explain to the Thessalonians this very thing. The Thessalonians are upset because what's happening to Paul. He is afflicted and he has to explain to them, “No, no, no — my affliction is not a sign that God doesn't love me. My affliction is not a sign that God doesn't favor me. My affliction is not a sign that God has cursed me. No, no, no — I told you ahead of time I was going to endure this for the sake of the Gospel.” So even to these Thessalonian Christians Paul had to explain that affliction was not necessarily a sign of God's disfavor and that wealth and ease was not necessarily a sign of his favor. So both Jews and those who lived in the larger Greco-Roman world were exposed to what we today would call the “health and wealth theology” or the “health and wealth gospel.” It's not a new thing. It's been around for a long time.
And Jesus is explaining in this passage that that's not how it works. The poor man apparently trusted in God. In this story he trusts in God and he goes to Abraham's side, which was a typical Jewish way of describing the blessedness of the afterlife with God. But the rich man is in hell. The Greek word “Hades” is used but all the typical descriptions of the place of punishment that Jews would have used in Jesus’ day are used in this passage — he's in torment, he's in anguish, he's inflamed — and he looks up and he sees father Abraham and he says something very interesting. Do you see what he says there in verse 24? He sees Lazarus at father Abraham's side and he says, “Father Abraham, send Lazarus.” Now, you learn two things. One is you learn that the rich man knew that poor man's name but he never lifted a finger to help him. He knew his name but he didn't lift a finger to help him. And then, even in the torments of hell, he wants to treat Lazarus like his boy. “Send Lazarus on an errand to come help me!” Do you not understand the situation you’re in, Mr. Rich Man? Do you understand you’re in no position to command for Lazarus to go do your bidding? You may have looked down upon him and condescended on him in your life, but he is now in a position far greater and fairer than you. He is not your errand boy, Rich Man. “Send Lazarus to come and relieve my pain by bringing me a cool drop of water in my anguish!” Even then we see that the rich man's heart is not right. He's not had a change of heart.
And then, Jesus in this story goes on to tell you something else fascinating. Abraham says, “Child,” verse 25, “remember that you in your lifetime received your good things.” Now that's a fascinating way of saying it. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Rich man, you got exactly what you wanted in your life. You didn't want God, you didn't want grace, you didn't want forgiveness, you didn't want eternal life. You wanted to worship you and enjoy your possessions and forget about everything else and you got exactly what was coming to you. But now, you have gotten your just desserts.” And then in contrast notice — “Lazarus, in like manner,” verse 25 again, “bad things.” But Jesus doesn't say that Lazarus got his bad things. In other words, He doesn't indicate that Lazarus deserved to get what he got in life, that he had done something wrong that caused him to be sickly — “covered with sores” — poor — “unable to feed himself” — just that he experienced hard things, bad things in life, and now he is in comfort.
And then the rich man once again responds. And you think, “Now maybe the rich man will get it. Now maybe he’ll understand.” And look at what he says in verse 27 — “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house -for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” Now you start thinking, “Okay, finally he's understanding because at least he wants his brothers not to end up where he's ended up.” But again, look at two things that let you know he still doesn't get it. First of all, who does he want to send on this errand? It's Lazarus again. “Okay, if Lazarus can't come comfort me, send him on another errand for me!” Now you didn't have time to give him a scrap of food. You didn't have time to minister to his need, but you’re going to send him on errands to your brother. Once again, this rich man doesn't get it.
And then, notice the response when father Abraham — and Jesus has father Abraham saying what He would say — father Abraham says to him — look at verse 29 — “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In verses 27 and 28, the rich man is asking that Lazarus would go back from the dead, visit his brothers, and when they saw Lazarus resurrected that would lead to their repentance. And so Jesus says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Rich man, your brothers have the Bible. They hear the rabbi read the Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, the words of Moses and the proclamation of the prophets, they hear the rabbi read the Scriptures every Friday night. What they need to do to repent is to listen to the Bible.” And look in verse 30 what the man in hell says to father Abraham — “No, father Abraham! But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Now in other words, “No, the Bible isn't enough father Abraham! But they’ll believe if you send someone back from the dead!” Notice that Jesus has the man in hell saying, “No, the Bible is not enough.”
Now this is very important. You know where Jesus is going with this. The next thing He says is, “If they don't hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” And you know where He's going with this. He's of course ultimately thinking of His own resurrection. But before you even get there, remember this — in the gospel of John there was a man named Lazarus who came back from the dead. And did the Pharisees believe on Jesus when he came back from the dead? No, they did not. Jesus knows a thing or two. And He knows that even if Lazarus comes back from the dead, that is not going to produce repentance and faith because you see, and here's the thing, Jesus is saying, “The reason people don't believe, the reason they don't repent, is not because they lack information, it's not because they haven't been given a convincing enough miracle, it's because their hearts are set on the wrong things. They worship the wrong thing. They desire the wrong thing. That's why they reject God, that's why they don't repent, that's why they don't believe. It's not because they lack information, it's not because they haven't seen a miracle. It's because their hearts are set on the wrong thing.”
I was watching a debate between a Christian and an atheist a few years ago, and in the course of the debate, the atheist repeatedly said that there is not enough evidence for him to believe in God. At the end of the debate, the Christian said to him, “Let's just play a ‘suppose’ game. Suppose you were to die and suppose you were to find out after your death that there is a God and suppose that you were to be interviewed by that God and He were to say to you, ‘Why didn't you believe in Me?’ What would you say to Him?” And the atheist said, “I would say, ‘Not enough evidence! You didn't give me enough evidence!’” Jesus is saying in this passage, “That is not why people don't believe. They lack faith because they lack evidence. They lack faith because God lacks a testimony, in His Word or in His world. They lack faith because they haven't seen an impressive enough miracle.” In fact, the Christian went on to respond to him that even if God were to do some amazing miracle right there in the context of that debate that that atheist would have found some naturalistic explanation for what had just happened. He would have worked very hard to explain it away. And of course the apostle Paul told us that in Romans chapter 1. He tells us that every human being knows that the one true God ought to be loved, worshipped, and served, but we choose to worship ourselves rather than our Creator. We know in our hearts that the one true God ought to be loved, worshipped, and served, but we chose to worship ourselves. And Jesus is saying the reason we do not repent, the reason we do not have faith, is not because we lack information, is not because we lack evidence, but because our hearts are set on the wrong thing. And in this case, this man's heart was set on enjoying for himself the comforts and the pleasures that the wealth of this life could provide and he did not care about God, godliness, grace, and the life eternal. And when he died, he got his just desserts.
Now again, Jesus isn't telling this story so that we can feel morally superior to a group of religious people that lived over nineteen centuries ago. He's telling us because each of us is liable to this same trap. We can fall into this trap of being preoccupied with the pleasures and the possessions of this life and we can forget the life eternal. And we can look at the gifts, even that God gives, and prefer them over the Giver who has given us those gifts. And so Jesus is saying something very important to all of us. He's telling us that we are not to love money, we are not to serve money, we are not to worship money. He's telling us that one way we know whether we are captured by money or whether we are masters over the material possessions that we have been given by God is whether we are generous and whether we help those who are less fortunate than us. But more important than anything else He's saying, “Look at your attitude towards material possessions because it's an index of whether you worship God or not.”
Now you know, I've found very few people to sit down over a cup of coffee with me and say to me, “You know what, I worship money. You know what, I love money. You know, I'm a lot like the rich man.” Why? Because sin has a way of deceiving us. That's why Jesus is telling this story. It's a way to recognize that sin can so get hold of us that we don't even realized that it's gotten hold of us. As one pastor put it, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is that we don't know that we have a problem.” That's why people don't repent. They don't know that they need to because they have been deceived by their sin. And Jesus is telling this story in order to hold up the Word of God before us and He's asking us to look in the mirror and see if this is showing us something about our own souls, and if it is, the only response is to cry out and say, “God, deliver me from my worship of self and of stuff that I might worship You more than anything else, repenting of my self-worship and turning to only want to live and worship and glorify You.”
Let's look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and You know how much we need it, so we ask that You would open our eyes to see our hearts and to respond both in repentance and faith to Your Word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now, let's take our hymnals out and turn to number 141 as we sing of the Gospel that is offered to us by God in Jesus Christ.
Do you know what the Heavenly Father says to idolaters who have worshipped themselves and loved money more than Him, when they have repented and trusted in Christ? He says, grace, mercy, and peace to you from Me, God the Father, and through My Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.