A Simple Story with a Sobering Message

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’” – Luke 16:18-31 ESV

At first glance, this section of Luke 16 seems to come out of left field. It appears to lack any context. There has been no change of venue or scene, and yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, Jesus starts talking about divorce, adultery, remarriage, and the law. But the key to understanding this apparent shift in topic is found in verse 15, where Jesus pointedly addresses His adversaries, the Pharisees, brusquely pointing out the nature of their problem:

You are the ones who justify yourselves in men’s eyes, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight.” – Luke 16:15 NET

Jesus had just disclosed that it is impossible to serve God and money at the same time. Whoever tries will “will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13 NLT). And the Pharisees, whom Luke reports “dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him” (Luke 16:14 NLT). They found Jesus’ parable about the dishonest manager to be ridiculous and His comments concerning unrighteous wealth and true riches to be laughable. Obviously, his poor and uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth had not been blessed with great wealth as they had. They believed their superior social standing to be a direct reward for their faithful obedience to God’s commands.

But Jesus won’t let them take the high ground. He exposed them for what they really are: Men who love money, covet the praise of men, and pride themselves on being the spiritual elite of Israel. Their apparent allegiance to the law was simply a means to an end. It earned them the awe and reverence of the masses. They were looked upon as the religious rock stars of their day, holy men who lived in perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus knew the truth. These pious religious leaders spent far too much time justifying themselves in the eyes of men when they should have been worrying about what God thought about them.

Earlier, Jesus had given His disciples a sobering warning concerning the Pharisees.

“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy. The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all.” – Luke 12:1-2 NLT

Their true natures would eventually be revealed for all to see. Their cleverly disguised hatred for Jesus would come to light when they forcefully arrested Him and dragged Him before Pilate, the Roman governor. There they would level false accusations against Him, demanding that Jesus be put to death for posing a threat against the Roman government. It was all be based on lies, but they would eventually convince Pilate to crucify Jesus. But Jesus, knowing exactly what the Pharisees had planned for Him, told His disciples, “don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear” (Luke 12:4-5 NLT). And that same warning applied to the Pharisees. That’s why they needed to show far greater concern about God’s assessment of their lives, rather than trying to impress their peers and the peasants.

Back to Luke 16. Beginning in verse 14, Jesus exposes the Pharisees’ lack of understanding of what is taking place right in front of their eyes. The kingdom of God that the law and the prophets predicted has appeared in their midst. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel has come to earth, and His arrival has inaugurated a new age.

“The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.” – Luke 16:16 NET

In a sense, John the Baptist was the last of the old-school prophets. He came proclaiming the coming of the kingdom.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2 ESV

But John, like all the prophets before him, added a message of judgment.

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 ESV

John called the people to be baptized, and he clarified that it was intended to illustrate their willingness to turn from their sinful ways. He even told the Pharisees to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). John believed that Jesus, in His role as the long-awaited Messiah, would be bringing judgment.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12 ESV

But Jesus had come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). He had told His disciples that His incarnation had been intended to make salvation available to those who already stood condemned before God.

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” – John 12:46-48 ESV

Jesus was offering sinful men and women a means of finding favor with God that was not based on human effort. The law of God had never been intended to provide salvation. According to the apostle Paul, the law was “given…to show people their sins” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). In his letter to the Romans, Paul expands on this thought by adding, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT). 

All of this helps us better understand what Jesus is saying in the closing verses of Luke 16. He is attempting to explain the significance of His incarnation. He is the king of Israel whom the prophets and the law foretold, and He has brought His kingdom or, better yet, His kingly right to rule. He is the Son of God and the anointed Savior of the world. And everything He is doing and will do is in fulfillment of the law and prophets. That is why He declared, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:18 ESV). Nothing and no one was going to stand in His way – not even the Pharisees. Jesus was faithfully fulfilling the will of His Heavenly Father. And, even after His resurrection, He would tell His disciples:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” – Luke 24:44 ESV

Yet, while Jesus was busy fulfilling the law, the Pharisees were doing it great harm. They were adding to it and creating loopholes for it. They were constantly coming up with ways to make its observance easier by designing clever workarounds. Even its clear teaching regarding divorce and remarriage had been diluted through their efforts. Adultery had become commonplace and the Pharisees had played a major role in justifying its ubiquitous existence among the Jews. This led Jesus to reiterate God’s unwavering outlook regarding divorce.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. – Luke 16:18 ESV

Then Jesus followed this up with a rather interesting story. One of the first things we need to understand is that this story is descriptive and not intended to be prescriptive. In other words, Jesus is not teaching a doctrinal truth about heaven and hell, this life or the afterlife. He is simply telling a story designed to expose the erroneous beliefs of the Pharisees. They are represented in the story by the rich man who enjoyed great wealth in this life. But he proved to be uncaring and uncompassionate to the needy in his midst. In fact, every day he callously overlooked the sorry state of a poor man named Lazarus. In the story, both men die, and that’s where it gets interesting. Contrary to the common view among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the poor man ends up in heaven, while the rich man finds himself suffering in Hades. This would have been a shock to everyone that heard the story, and that was Jesus’ intent.

The rich man, stunned at this unexpected turn of events, begged God to show him mercy. And notice that he asks that God send Lazarus to do for him what he had refused to do for Lazarus all those years. Now that he was suffering, he wanted Lazarus to relieve his anguish. But God gave the rich man some very bad news.

“Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish.” – Luke 16:25 NLT

As stated earlier, this parable is not meant to be a treatise on heaven and hell. Jesus was not suggesting that there are lines of communication between Hades and heaven. Jesus does not tell us how the rich man knew that Lazarus was in heaven because that is not the point of his story. The point of the story is found in its closing verses, where Jesus brings back up the law and the prophets.

“Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’” – Luke 16:27-29 ESV

The law contained all they needed to know about the treatment of the needy and oppressed. And the prophets had more than clarified what God would do to all those who chose to disobey His laws. The rich man’s brothers stood condemned because they refused to obey.

But, unswayed by the words of Abraham, the rich man continued to beg, stating, “if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God” (Luke 16:30 NLT). And this is where Jesus drives home the real point of his story.

“But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:31 NLT

Subtly, but oh so clearly, Jesus reveals the underlying problem of the Pharisees. They were so arrogantly confident in their standing before God, that they refused to heed the warnings of Scripture. Jesus, the Son of God, stood before them and they refused to acknowledge Him. And even when He died and rose again, they would still reject His claims to be the Messiah.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson