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Luke 16:14-31

Lesson Focus

Jesus calls us to use our resources, not to serve our own needs, but to serve the needs of those around us.  

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that Jesus is not doing anything new. Instead, he’s affirming God’s plan from the beginning.

  2. Be encouraged to live a life of radical hospitality. 

Catching up on the Story

As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem and his ultimate death, he continuously engages his disciples and his detractors, the Pharisees, in conversation.

Most recently, Jesus has sought to reorient how his followers, or would-be followers, understand their place in society, namely regarding status and wealth. If you remember, Luke is writing his gospel in the apocalyptic tradition. He hopes to reveal the nature of the new order of things, the kingdom of God, over and against the old order.

In the old order, wealth and social status in the community were paramount. Jesus’ culture was an honor/shame culture. What you did and who you associated with either brought honor or shame upon you and your family. So, people, especially the Pharisees, spent a lot of time chasing after fame, always to the detriment of those poor.

By beginning to reveal the nature of the new order, the kingdom of God, Jesus turns those notions of honor/shame and social status on their head. In God’s coming kingdom, wealth is to be used not for one’s advancement but as a means to offer lavish hospitality to those who would be otherwise unworthy.  

The Pharisees, Israel’s lay religious leaders, were not buying it. They interpreted Jesus' actions, his fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, as disregarding the law. After all, how could you be clean and pure if you associated with those who were not?

The Text

Jesus' interaction with the Pharisees reveals that they are not at all concerned about cleanliness or purity but with money and self-advancement. So, our passage today begins with the words, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” 

Never one to miss an opportunity to respond to criticism or to correct errant thought, Jesus goes at the Pharisees with force, not mincing words. The prophetic nature of Jesus' ministry shines through here, and his words should give us pause.

“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”  

Many folks throw that word around these days, an abomination, but I wonder if they truly understand what they are saying when they attribute that word to sin. It’s like when Ignoia Montego says to Vincini in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Context is everything. Remember, Jesus is not talking to sinners and tax collectors here; he is talking to those who think they are righteous, those who think they are following God properly.

What’s an abomination to God? Justifying yourself in the sight of others is! Seeking advancement at the expense of those around you is! And so is neglecting the plight of the less fortunate around you! In short, Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “It is an abomination that you love yourself more than you love your neighbor!”

Jesus knows that the Pharisees will scoff at his words, disregarding them because they think he is not concerned for the Law of God, so Jesus continues by stating just how stable God's law is. Jesus says it would be easier for the heavens and the earth to pass away than it will before one stroke of one letter of the law to disappear.

But he isn’t done because then he offers this saying, which at first glance seems somewhat random and out of place, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

Crucial to understanding why Jesus said this, it’s essential to know the current practice concerning divorce in Jesus' day. In fact, it was rather lax. A husband could divorce his wife for almost any reason, leaving the woman used and almost certainly unable to care for herself. The man was free to go and marry again.

Jesus is showing his concern for the law with this saying. He is not disregarding it but interpreting it in a much stricter way! Jesus' interpretation doesn’t allow for the disposal of women as pieces of property just because a man becomes unsatisfied with her. Instead, Jesus’ understanding of the law safeguards the well-being of the vulnerable.

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

Then, to drive his point home, Jesus tells a story. Two men lived near each other, but they could not have been more different. One man was wealthy. We are not talking middle-class wealthy; we’re talking top 1% wealthy. How do we know that?

First, Jesus tells us he’s dressed in purple clothes made of fine linen. Linen was a luxury item itself, but having it died purple was the ultimate. The process of getting clothes bleached so they could accept dye was costly and labor-intensive. Add to that the cost of the purple color itself, and you have yourself some walking down the red carpet at the Oscars apparel.  

Second, Jesus tells us he feasted “sumptuously every day.” In Jesus’ day, meat was a luxury, even for the wealthy. While it was not uncommon for the wealthy to host lavish dinner parties, it was not something they would have done every day. This guy parties and eats well every day.  

Third, the man lives in a house or compound with a gate. This means there’s a wall, and walls are meant to keep people out. This man has some significant means.

The other man, however, is poor. The rich man doesn’t get a name, but the poor man does. His name is Lazarus. This fact alone should help us understand who Jesus thinks is essential in the story.

Again, he isn’t lower class poor; he’s destitute poor. He has absolutely nothing. His unfortunate position was probably due to a health condition that had produced sores all over his body. He’s an outcast. He’s hungry, too, because Jesus tells us he’d be happy to have the scraps that fell from the rich man's table.

Fun fact, bread was sometimes used as a napkin. Utensils weren’t a big thing yet, so you’d use your hand and a bit of bread to scoop up some food. If your hand got a bit dirty, you’d take a bit more bread and wipe your hand off with it. Then, you’d throw the stained piece of bread on the floor. That’s what Lazarus longs to eat, dirty bits of used napkin bread. 

If hunger wasn’t enough, Jesus tells us that dogs would come and lick his sores. These aren’t your friendly neighborhood dogs. They didn’t belong to someone; these were feral dogs who were also hungry. Anyway, Lazarus used to sit outside the rich man’s gate, hoping for assistance from anyone who would pass by. And the rich man, well, he passed by each day and did nothing.

Soon enough, Lazarus dies. No one notices except the angels, who carry him away to be with Abraham. Not long after, the rich man also dies. Though, when a rich man dies, people notice. He was given a lovely funeral and burial, befitting his life station.

Jesus shifts the scene from this world to the underworld. Lazarus and the rich man find themselves in Hades, the place of the dead. It’s important to remember that in the Jewish understanding of the day you died, you were just dead. Everyone ended up at the place of the dead. If you were a Pharisee, you were awaiting the resurrection.

Apparently, in Hades, there are at least two sections, for the rich man finds himself tormented among flames. Lazarus, on the other hand, is chilling with Abraham. The rich man spots Lazarus and requests that Lazarus bring him some water. Only a person of privilege would make this request. Even in death, even amid agony, the rich man thinks himself better than others.

But Abraham responds, ‘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 (all) 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.’

We shouldn’t read into Abraham’s words causality. We can’t say that all of the bad that Lazarus suffered was from God, and now he’s being rewarded. What Abraham is saying is that the rich man refused to use the vast wealth he had received for the benefit of his brothers and sisters. The rich man was concerned only with himself. He loved himself more than God and others, and he is now reaping the consequences.

The rich man isn’t done, though. Perhaps, he thinks, there is time to warn his brothers. He bids Abraham send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of what’s to come if they don’t change their ways.  

Abraham’s response tells us all we need to know. “‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

But when the rich man insists that if someone raises from the dead, they will listen, Abraham shuts down the conversation, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Even if someone raises from the dead…

So What…? 

What’s Jesus doing with this story? While he’s been pointing to the new order, the new and coming kingdom of God, he’s also looking back at what God has wanted for creation since the beginning; justice and righteousness, people caring for each other, people loving each other well. 

Jesus isn’t doing or saying anything new. Instead, he’s reaffirming what’s old. Jesus is affirming that God always has and will ever desire people to live distinctly, in a way that is characterized by generosity and hospitality, a way that is not characterized by honor and self-advancement, but by giving of oneself and what one has for the sake of the other.  

Critical Discussion Questions:

What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?

  1. God is very concerned with the plight of the widow, orphan, and poor. Those who mistreat or neglect those who do not have ultimately rejected God's chosen path for his people.

  2. At the same time, God delights in giving good gifts to his children. It is not a sin to be wealthy. But God desires that we “re-gift” the gifts we have been given so that others might live.

What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  1. In this passage, salvation has two aspects. First, God will act on behalf of those who are poor and needy. God cares for and will bring about salvation for them (in this life and the next, spiritually and physically).

  2. Second, salvation can be found for those who listen to the voice of God, past and present, and who choose to follow his mandate to care for the poor and needy (see Matt. 25:31-46). Certainly, we cannot earn our way into heaven by giving to the poor. But we can bar ourselves from participating in the blessings of God for eternity if we do not pay attention to the needs of those around us, using what God has given us to benefit others.

How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  1. Will we open our eyes to see that part of what God has required of us from the beginning is to live generously in a world that lacks so much? Jesus is challenging us, first, to see the need on our doorstep and second, to do something about it by being generous.

Specific Discussion Questions:

Read the text aloud. Th