Reaping is the language of harvest in the Bible, and therefore sometimes reaping is a metaphor for judgment (Hosea 8:7; Revelation 14:15, 16). The law of harvest is universally true. You reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7). But it is uniquely true when it comes to the use of our money for others. Generosity begets generosity. And God’s justice demands that our generosity be used to help the poor—something the Pharisees failed to grasp (Luke 16:14).
Our lesson comes from the heart of Luke’s travel narrative (9:51–19:28, 41). This section of the Gospel contains 18 parables. Two parables control the bulk of Luke 16. The first one is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, probably the hardest parable of all to interpret. The second is much more familiar. It is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. There is some debate about it being a parable since it is not so labeled and in it Jesus names one of the characters (not typical). Additionally it seems to say some things about the afterlife that might go beyond the story. But the story has all the typical features of parables so we will treat it as one.
Jesus introduced this parable to his antagonists (Luke 15:2; 16:14, 15) with a line drawn from earlier in the chapter (16:1), “There was a rich man.” The Latin word for rich is dives, so this parable has often been called, “The Parable of Lazarus and Dives.” The rich are those who own property. The only real wealth in the world is the world that God made (Psalm 24:1). This man’s wealth is described in terms of dress and amenities, but he is given only one verse. The beggar, Lazarus, is given two verses perhaps indicating where God’s favor rests. This is not someone down on his luck or a con artist. This is a truly needy person. He is ill (covered with sores) and hungry (longing to eat; the same phrase is used to talk about the prodigal son in Luke 15:16). His disgusting condition is underlined by dogs licking his sores (relief or unclean and miserable?). These two people could not be more different. In this life they are polar opposites.
Luke 16:22, 23
Death is the great equalizer. Upon death the rich man and Lazarus found their roles reversed. Lazarus (whose name is mentioned five times in the story) died. Angels carried him to Abraham’s side. There is no mention of even a graveside service. God had to come to the aid of Lazarus (which is what his name means, “The Lord helped”) because the rich man certainly did not help him. Abraham’s side is a metonymy for Heaven. Abraham (mentioned six times) plays the role of God in the story. Jewish folklore said that Abraham sat at Heaven’s gate and declared who could be admitted.
The rich man also died. The text says that he was buried. Was there a funeral? An open mike time? To the surprise of many in the audience, this man opened his eyes in Hell. The text uses the word Hades, which is the normal and neutral term for the abode of the dead. But in this parable the place is hellish (a place of torment.) He saw Abraham and Lazarus. The fact that he knew it was Lazarus means that the beggar was not a nameless poor person. That makes the rich man’s indifference to him worse.
The rest of the parable is a dialogue between Abraham and the rich man. Do these conversations really take place beyond this life? We must be careful not to assume things beyond death lest we miss the real point of the story. This may well be the point in which the story breaks into seeming fiction, which would also indicate the point at which the judgment of God entered the story.
Even Hell does not change some people. The rich man requested that Lazarus act as his servant and help relieve his agony. Abraham reminded the rich man of the great reversal that death brought. The truth of Luke 6:21, 24, and 25 is brought home—not to mention the chasm between Heaven and Hell.
Hell made the rich man evangelistic on behalf of his family. He pled with Abraham for his five brothers. Abraham told him that his brothers had the Scriptures (Law and Prophets). The rich man thought a resurrection would get their attention, but Abraham replied that the Bible was sufficient.
In this world justice is sometimes delayed, compromised, or taken hostage. But in the world to come people reap what they sow.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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