October 20, 2017

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart”

By Chaplain Mike

Today’s Gospel—
Luke 16:19-31

This story is the climax of a series of pericopes that represent a prominent theme in Luke’s Gospel. Many have called it “The Great Reversal.” This theme is introduced in Mary’s Magnificat (1:46-55) and finds its most succinct expression in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (6:20-21, 24-25):

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

…But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke Timothy Johnson describes The Great Reversal theme like this:

In the “visitation of the people” by the Prophet, a great reversal is proclaimed and enacted. Human security and complacency are challenged by the Gospel. Those who are powerful, rich, and “have consolation” within society and who seek on that basis to “justify themselves” respond to this prophet with “testing” and rejection. They themselves are “cast down” or “lowered” and in the end, “cut off from the people.” In contrast, those ordinarily deemed unworthy, lowly, marginal, or even outcast, are accepted by God. They are “raised up” and become part of the restored people of God.

Here we find the significance of Luke’s language about “the rich” and “the poor” . . . The rich stand for those who have their consolation already in society and have no need of God’s consolation; they therefore reject the Prophet. The poor stand for all those who have been rejected on the basis of human standards, but are accepted by God; they in turn accept the Prophet. (The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina, vol. 3)

Jesus’ story about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man is his most pointed parable about this Great Reversal.

In the immediate context of this account, we read that Jesus was involved in a conversation with Pharisees, “who were lovers of money” (16:14), and who Jesus accused of justifying themselves and treasuring what God despised. In the previous chapters, we have seen Jesus interacting with these religious leaders and challenging them with words about finances and their attitudes and actions toward the poor, sinful, outcast members of society. “Lazarus and The Rich Man” is a prophetic parable of rejection directed to them for the hardness of heart revealed in their selfish, inconsiderate lifestyle.

In his story, the contrast Jesus draws between the rich man and Lazarus is almost comic in its exaggeration. The rich man’s clothes are Nieman-Marcus quality. He has a lavish feast for every meal, every day. Lazarus, poor, utterly bereft of human support, longs for a crumb or two. So sad is his condition that unclean dogs tend to him, further making him unclean and unworthy of attention in the eyes of the “righteous.”

Both die. Abraham, the father of the faithful, welcomes the poor man, and comforts him! What of the rich man? He found himself tormented in Hades! Great reversal! Unexpected outcome!

The rich man betrays the permanence of his hard heart when he looks up and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to refresh him. The poor man remains at best a lowly servant in his eyes. Abraham gently reminds him that their fates have been decided and no such mission of mercy can be carried out.

The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus back into the world to warn his brothers. Abraham says, “They have enough to warn them already”—pointing to the First Testament Scriptures. (Here is a wonderful affirmation that God’s message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ may be discerned from the OT as well as the NT.) In saying this, Abraham is also revealing why the rich man is suffering his own terrible fate—he did not listen to those same Scriptures.

The rich man is not satisfied, however. He argues that the words of a man raised from the dead would convince them. Then comes Jesus’ punch line: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” These words are pregnant with import for all who read them knowing what is to happen to Jesus in days to come. As it turns out, the religious leaders did not listen to the First Testament, and they did not listen to Jesus either, even when he rose from the dead.

Lessons
Many lessons could be drawn out of this story about what many call “social justice” concerns, and I think it entirely appropriate to do so. Throughout his Gospel, Luke critiques the powerful, who have it well in this life, for revealing their lack of Biblical faith in the way they treat the poor and powerless. The Gospel of “The Great Reversal” is not just about the spiritual fates of individuals, but about God’s new creation, in which the common assumptions of this fallen world about position, power, and riches will be completely overturned, and the Lazaruses of this world will find honored seats at the table. “On earth as it is in heaven,” we are taught to pray, and God’s people ought to be agents of compassion and justice in anticipation of that new creation now.

But there is a spiritual condition that resides in individual hearts which lies behind the need for a great reversal in the structures and institutions of society, and it is to this hardness of heart that I think Jesus’ story speaks most strongly.

The ultimate reason the rich man was consigned to Hades was because he failed to “listen to Moses and the prophets.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day that this rich man represented had worked themselves into such spiritual bankruptcy that they would not heed God’s words even if it should it come to them through Someone raised from the dead! How often God had wanted to gather them under his wings, but they would not. All day long he had held out his hands, inviting his disobedient and stiff-necked people to return to him, but they refused and turned away. And now they were rejecting his own Son, the Prophet like Moses, the Messiah. From this, there could be no turning back. The “great chasm” was becoming “fixed.”

God has spoken and continues speaking to us, and the key issue in life is whether or not we are listening to him.

Luke 16:19-31—NRSV

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, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, 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, father, I beg you to 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.”

Comments

  1. Concerning the social gospel aspect of this post, I believe it is important to point out the fact that within the social gospel theology, too much importance is placed on helping the poor and hardly a word about the Lord, His salvations, grace, mercy, etc. When we forget the Lord in our theology then what point is there to theology in the first place? When you take Christ out of Christianity then Christianity becomes nothing more than helping our neighbors. Rather, I believe true Christianity means following Christ spiritually through the acceptance of His gift of salvation and through prayer, and physically through helping the least of His here on earth.

    • As Jim Belcher points out in Deep Church,, both the social gospel of the liberals and the salvation gospel of the conservatives are reductionist in nature. That is, neither is complete, and both do violence to the text.

      I would not be so quick to put down the social gospel when Jesus’ words regarding the treatment of the poor figure so prominently throughout the gospels.

      • I agree with you whole heartedly, however, the social gospel trys to expel poverty of any form to the point that they in turn forget about Jesus, His grace, etc. (Let us remember that He causes it to rain on the good and the bad.)

        14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
        18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your[a] works, and I will show you my faith by my[b] works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?[c] 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d]And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
        25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
        26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
        James 2:14-26.

        After all, our purpose on this earth is to know Him and love Him firstly, which will in turn cause us to want to serve Him and His kingdom secondly.

      • The social justice aspect of the gospel is important. (When I use the term “social justice” I don’t mean the demonic perverted kind that gives ecclesial rights to homosexuals/lesbos, pro-choicers, radical feminists, etc.) James, our Lord’s brother, gives a full treatment of why social justice issues are important in the second chapter of his letter. If we truly are Christians – born again, regenerated, justified, etc. – then we will have a genuine concern for the widow, orphan, homeless, defenseless, etc. people around us. Though never perfect in our care and concern for the lowly, if we truly are Christians there will be at least an inkling of that compassion in our hearts towards them (cf. James 1:27; 2:9). That is why social justice matters – for our neighbors sake and for the sake of our own souls.

        • I agree, but when we take Christ out of Christianity by placing a greater emphasis on helping the poor as opposed to first loving Christ, which will make us want to help those who are disadvantaged, which you emphasized in your post, we become just like our unsaved counter parts.
          I agree that we should follow Him and His example, but we are called Christians for a reason, because we do just that, follow Him and His example.
          I think we are all agreeing on this topic, it’s just how we get to the end result is where we differ. No big deal though. I think it’s what makes discussion worth while.

          • Just to clarify, I am thoroughly Christocentric when it comes to how the gospel shapes our moral and social life. Thus, I agree. When it comes to Christian social ethics we can never take out Christ at the centre of the picture.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        As Jim Belcher points out in Deep Church,, both the social gospel of the liberals and the salvation gospel of the conservatives are reductionist in nature. That is, neither is complete, and both do violence to the text.

        As I read once (in a Wall Street Journal editorial, no less), “the social gospel of the liberals” was a Gospel without personal salvation. “The salvation gospel of the conservatives” was the reaction: an altar-call Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          The difference is that the “Gospel without personal salvation” is rarely preached, even in churches which many would consider unregeneratedly liberal. I’m not saying it never is. This is not quite a straw man. But it is far easier to find “liberal” churches preaching both the social gospel and personal salvation. How hard is it to find the salvation gospel without the social gospel? Just turn on your television.

    • Should we always “spiritualize” the poor??? can poor ever mean poor???

  2. “The Gospel of ‘The Great Reversal’ is not just about the spiritual fates of individuals, but about God’s new creation, in which the common assumptions of this fallen world about position, power, and riches will be completely overturned, and the Lazaruses of this world will find honored seats at the table.”

    Amen. I really enjoyed this post, Chap. Mike.

  3. I have a question concerning this text. Many people use this text as an example of the eschaton and heaven and hell, particularly the “great chasm”. The immediate context does point that this “parable” is taught regarding those who are lovers of money and put their trust in it. Is it a faithful use of this text to teach the dynamics of heaven and hell, immortality of the soul, etc? Does the fact that it is a parable mean much in that light?

    • I myself would be cautious about using this story to develop a theology of heaven and hell. Jesus’ stories in general should be read as making a main point, and I think it safest to stick with trying to understand that.

    • I agree with Chaplain Mike that one cannot develop a full-blown theology of hell in that text. However, Jesus is quite clear that those two eternal realities exist. If we downplay the image of heaven and hell in this text we do so to our own spiritual peril.

  4. Saving the planet,eradicating poverty, ending war, celebrating diversity, ending discxrimination are all laudable goals, but many non Christians practice these things. Jesus said follow Me. To me that is what being a Christian is, “I would be like Jesus” it’s an impossible goal by ourselves in this life, but His Grace will make it happen.

    • I should have added that these ideas have replaced, no tobacco, no alcohol, no dancing, no movies, no having fun as “rules” Neither group is going to save you.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And both sets of ideas have in their own way become Gods in their own right, kicking Christ off the throne and replacing Him with a New Gospel of Follow-The-Rules.

        “Swear alleigance to their flag,
        Whatever flag they offer;
        Never let on what you really feel…”
        — Mike & the Mechanics, “Silent Running”, 1976

  5. The only minor quibble I have is with the interpretation of the rich man still treating Lazarus as a servant; I see it more as the complete reversal of their earthly roles, with the rich man now being in the position of one begging alms (a drop of water to cool his burning tongue) and the greater irony being that now he is the beggar and Lazarus (the poor man at his gate) is now the one in the position to give benefactions.

  6. Yesterday afternoon, I heard an interesting take on this teaching. The sin that caused the rich man to be condemned wasn’t anything that he had done, but what he had NOT done. He didn’t see Lazarus as a person who needed help.

    The second thing is how Lazarus made it to heaven. According to Fr. Smith, Lazarus is the Greek form of Eliezer, which means “God is my help.” So, the poor man trusted God and that made the difference.

  7. Though I know it wasn’t the main point of your article, I just wanted to thank you for vindicating the traditional evangelical understanding of eternal realities. The text you used just proves without a shadow of a doubt that universalism is a heretical doctrine and that many people will end up in hell for rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Regardless of how you interpret the main point of the passage, Jesus is clear that there is an eternal hell and that many will end up spending eternity there.

    • How does Hades prove anything regarding the nature of Gehenna?

      • My point wasn’t about the nature of Gehenna by looking at the passage. My point was that the text Chaplain Mike provides gives us irrefutable evidence that after the last judgment there is a great divide that will separate humanity into two camps: the saved who will enjoy the eternal blessings of God and the unsaved who will suffer the eternal wrath of God. I don’t know if hell is a place where there are literal flames consuming people for eternity while their body and conscience keeps going on. All I know is that hell is eternal and there will be many who will end up there.

    • Why do Christians with your position seem so happy about this?

      • Without a literal Hell, many Christians would see no reason to be Christian. It’s like paying your taxes; the only reason some people do it is to avoid the penalties of not doing it.

      • Who said anything about being happy about it? It’s the biblical truth.

        I also find it ironic that liberals accuse conservatives of being happy that Adolf Hitler will be tormented forever in hell when they are the ones who are appalled by Hitler’s socio-economic policies.

  8. “The ultimate reason the rich man was consigned to Hades was because he failed to “listen to Moses and the prophets.”

    I think this gets to the heart of the matter. The pharisees had created a religious system of their own design, in which they were the true Israelites and anyone not following their system perfectly was a “sinner”. Passages like this one and Luke 10:29, where the expert of the law must ask, “who is my neighbor?”, shows how far from the law and the prophets they had drifted. Besides being a light unto the gentiles, the Israelites were commanded to take care of their own, to not charge usury, not enslave one another, and to seek to recover the land and property of ones fellow Israelite. The pharisees looked upon Lazarus, their fellow brother Israelite, and did not see a child of Abraham, to whom mercy was expected. The parable makes clear that he was indeed a child of Abraham, welcomed into Abraham’s welcoming embrace in heaven. The Pharisee’s religious system had completely missed the mark. Instead, it became system of self-gratification, self-righteousness, and self-importance. Their self-confidence led to both passive and active neglect of their brothers. They, like Cain, begged the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, when the law clearly said, “Yes, you are”.

    I am disturbed by the growing influence of Ayn Rand over evangelicals, leading to the belief that any restraint – whether by the hand of government, religion,or ethics – against the ego and ones potential desire to make money (regardless of the cost or consequence upon society) is an oppression of God-give rights. I am bothered by the gospel being hijacked by faith-prosperity preachers, making Christians to believe that faith is a means to a selfish end. I am deeply bothered by Glenn Beck urging anyone attending a church where social justice is taught to find another church. I am bothered by the idea that unethical behavior is ok if there isn’t a law specifically penalizing it. I am really sick of the idea that we owe everything to the wealthy in our society, that anything good for the wealthy and corporations is good for America. I am sick of the generalizations that someone is poor due to their own bad choices, that it is not the duty of tax payers to do anything about it. I am particularly sick of hearing these things from pulpits and from those who claim to be God-followers.

    Does any of this have anything to do with this passage? Perhaps not. But at what point can ones Christian faith become so tainted and syncretized with the norms and values of secular culture as to no longer be Christian? How is it that the pharisees fell so far from the Jewish standard found in the law and the prophets while convincing themselves that they alone had it right? Is this happening to us?

    • Is it the duty of taxpayers to help the poor, or the duty of the church?

      • It is the duty of the church to keep taxes low and create a corporation-friendly business environment so that stockholder earnings continue to increase.

        That’s not written down anywhere; that’s just my observation of what a lot of Christians see as their moral duty.

  9. VolAlongTheWatchTower says:

    The social justice aspect of the gospel is important. (When I use the term “social justice” I don’t mean the demonic perverted kind that gives ecclesial rights to homosexuals/lesbos, pro-choicers, radical feminists, etc.)

    “Demonic perverted”- That you, Cotton???

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Then comes Jesus’ punch line: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” These words are pregnant with import for all who read them knowing what is to happen to Jesus in days to come.

    SOMEBODY ELSE BESIDES ME RECOGNIZED THAT AS A PUNCH LINE! Jesus’ little sarcastic snark about getting rejected even after His Resurrection!