Luke 16 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Generosity: Handling Money and Possessions

The use of wealth is the major topic of Luke 16. Wealth can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whether it is used as a means to exercise power, a tool of self-indulgence or a resource to serve others. Wealth's danger is that it can turn our focus toward our own enjoyment, as the rich fool showed in 12:13-21 and as the rich man of 16:19-31 will show. Money is a tool. It is an excellent resource when put to the right use. It can help to build many things of use to others. But to possess money is also to hold a sacred stewardship. Our resources are not to be privately held and consumed but are to be used as a means of generosity, as a way of showing care for our neighbor, as the good Samaritan showed in 10:25-37 and as a restored Zacchaeus will show in 19:1-10.

Two parables unique to Luke make this twofold point about wealth. Between the two parables comes a short description of the two periods in God's plan, with Jesus' declaration that the new era demands faithfulness in our commitment to others, just like the commitment a spouse makes in marriage.The Parable of the Shrewd Steward (16:1-13)

This story is probably the most difficult parable in Luke. Its point is clear enough--be generous and responsible with your resources--but how it makes the point is much discussed. The parable centers on a steward who is accused of wasting the master's goods. The description of the steward's activity is like that of the prodigal son in the previous parable (15:13). He has been scattering (diaskorpizo) his master's resources. Such mismanagement requires a response.

The characterization of the steward's activity is crucial, because some distinguish between what is said here about the steward's ineptitude from what is said about his dishonesty in verse 8 (Stein 1992:412). If such a distinction is made, then the steward's actions in verses 5-7 are seen as dishonest. On the other hand, others argue that the "wasting" itself in verse 1 involved outright dishonesty. As Nolland (1993:797) suggests, "It is tempting to think of the steward as siphoning off funds for his own consumption from transactions made in the name of the master." The need to choose between these two options is what makes the parable so difficult, since either can be easily defended as fitting the story's framework. Though for reasons I make clear below I prefer the latter option--that the steward's dishonesty led to his dismissal--it must be acknowledged that either understanding may be right.

In any case, the steward's reputation leads to his dismissal. The master calls for an accounting, but it is not to see if the charges are true. For with the accounting comes the steward's pink slip--he is fired. His accounting will be his last task for this master. Facing unemployment and having no marketable skills beyond being a steward, he is in a dilemma, since he does not wish to beg or resort to demeaning physical labor. He decides on a course of action that will bring him into his neighbors' good graces.

The steward introduces a high deflationary trend in his master's bills. The cultural background to the 50 percent reduction in the oil bill and the 20 percent reduction in the wheat bill has been much discussed. What exactly does the steward do? Three options are often suggested: (1) The steward wields his authority as steward and simply lowers the price. This act would undercut his boss by showing what a shark he is. (2) The steward removes the interest charge from the debt, following Mosaic law (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:35-37; Deut 15:7-8; 23:20-21). The differing rates of reduction seem to be against this view, however, unless different materials carried different interest rates. (3) The steward removes his own commission, so what he sacrifices is his own money, not that of his master (Derrett 1970:48-77). Differing rates are less of a problem here. The commission might well have varied depending on the item sold.

The first position, that the steward simply unilaterally lowers prices, is the traditional view. The argument is that the master later praises the steward for his shrewdness as well as recognizing his dishonesty. By exposing the master, he creates goodwill for himself. This view argues that the first sentence of verse 8 is about the actions of verses 5-7, not verse 1. The view tends to be argued with a challenge to the third view, the commission option.

There are several main arguments against the commission view (Stein 1992:412; Ireland 1992:79-83). I will note these objections and then reply, since I believe the commission view is slightly more likely than the other options.

1. Some complain that the commission view reads a subdivision of charges into the text. But Derrett's work on first-century commissions shows cultural background that may be assumed without being stated explicitly. Such a reading of cultural background is common (Keener 1993: introduction). Today I could tell a story of the purchase of a house without mentioning the relationships among my bank, the mortgage company and various insurance companies involved in the loan. Often such cultural details are assumed in Scripture as they are today and are not stated for an audience.

2. Some question how the manager is really helped by acknowledging the size of the steward's commission. It is argued that it would have been better to keep the favor of the debtors and master by not revealing the master's share of the profits. But the steward does not need to reveal that the reduction represents his commission. The debtors may not know that it is. He appears to portray his reductions as acts of kindness. For the debtors, the reductions must create a favorable impression of both him and the master, just as today businesses earn our loyalty by offering us "good deals." What is harder to believe is that the master would commend the steward if the steward has really cheated him.

3. Some argue that verse 5 indicates only that the master is receiving the money. This objection is really a variation on the other two and ignores the fact that the steward may not have publicized the source of the cut. In fact, this action would preserve the master's integrity (though it would pressure him to keep prices down in the future) as well as give the debtors good feelings about him. The shrewdness is in the "sweet" twist in the deal.

4. Some argue that verse 8 describes the steward as dishonest only after the actions of verses 5-7. This is more assumed than proved. It is not a harsh reading to take the description of dishonesty back to verse 1, as was noted above.

I favor the commission view because I find it hardly credible for the master to commend a steward who has just cheated him. If the reductions are dishonest price cuts, they constitute further injustice against the master beyond the steward's earlier squandering. If so, the master now has two charges against the steward: ineptitude followed by dishonesty. The traditional view hardly allows the steward to gain credibility and respect. Another problem is that Jesus himself praises the steward's actions in his subsequent remarks. Would he really commend such immoral behavior?

It is better to see that the previously dishonest steward learns something by his failure and comes up with a generous solution, one that can be commended. In my view, the master commends his formerly dishonest steward for a shrewd solution. The steward has sacrificed what he could have taken now and has given it to others so that he can receive gain later. The implicit moral about perspective in the use of resources is exactly the application Jesus makes in verse 9.

Jesus' applications extend in various directions. First he notes that people of the world are more shrewd than the people of the light (the disciples) are. People of this world think about how they use their resources. Even if they misuse them, they still give it thought. They think about the long-term benefits of what they acquire. Disciples should apply themselves to honor and serve God by their use of resources. They should think through their actions, both short and long term.

To this Jesus adds three further applications in verses 9-13. We should use resources generously "so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." What "welcoming committee" is Jesus referring to? Some argue that "they" may be the poor who receive the benefits of disciples' stewardship, while others argue that they are either angels representing God or God himself (as a plural of majesty). Since the context has to do with present actions that are taken in light of the future, it is best to see a reference either to angels or to God here. Eternal dwellings has to do with entering into heaven (Michaelis 1971:378-79).

Money cannot come with us to heaven. Its value is limited when it comes to everlasting life. So recognize its limits and use it for others, not selfishly. To gain friends by means of mammon is to use money in such a way that others appreciate you for your exercise of stewardship, your kindness and generosity.

Jesus calls mammon "unrighteous." The NIV is too soft here, calling it simply worldly wealth (NRSV has "dishonest wealth," which is not quite right either). Mammon is called unrighteous not because it is inherently evil but because of the unrighteous attitudes the pursuit of money can produce. If money were inherently unrighteous, then all uses of it would be evil. But that is not Jesus' view (see 19:1-10). The attitude reflected here may be similar to that of 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Money is evil because of how it brings out distorted values in people. Pursuing money can make people selfish, leading them to take advantage of others, to treat other people as objects and to be unfaithful to God. It tends to reflect an excessive attachment to the world. So it is better not to be attached to the pursuit of wealth.

Possessions are a responsibility. Their use is a test of character, values and stewardship. The one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. So also the other way around--to be dishonest in little things is to be dishonest in much. Faithfulness with the "little thing" of money indicates how faithful we are with the big things, the true riches of our relationships to God and to others. So if we have not been trustworthy in handling possessions that produce unrighteousness, who will trust us with true riches? The true riches in this passage seem to involve future kingdom service--that is, service for God and to others. True wealth is faithfulness in serving him.

The theme of responsibility continues as Jesus raises the question about being faithful with something that belongs to another so that later one can receive reward for oneself. If someone is unfaithful as a steward, why should that person be entrusted with ownership? Handling wealth is a preparatory lesson for other responsibilities before God.

So Jesus warns that we cannot have two masters. In the end, when push comes to shove, we will choose to serve God or mammon, to love one and hate the other. The implication is that we had best make the choice early. Choose God over mammon.Responses to the Pharisees' Scoffing (16:14-18)

This brief interlude is among the more perplexing passages in the book of Luke. It comes between two passages that are clearly about wealth and possessions. Luke introduces it by noting that the Pharisees scoffed at Jesus' teaching because they loved money. Yet though Jesus proceeds to rebuke the Pharisees, he does not mention money directly at all. On the surface the unit is so disjunctive that many interpreters despair of trying to ascertain where it fits in the chapter's literary argument.

But one approach is likely to explain the connection. The issue Jesus raises in this middle section has to do with values and Jesus' authority. Coming under the authority of God's kingdom influences disciples' values (Tiede 1988:285-88). Kingdom causes call us to renounce divided loyalties (vv. 10-13), to have idolatries revealed, since God hates them (vv. 14-15) and to raise standards of obedience to reflect total integrity (v. 18). Verses 16-17 make up the hinge, suggesting that the kingdom's arrival means that Jesus' preaching comes with authority. His way will fulfill what the law and the promise anticipated. The passage ends up being yet another rebuke of the Pharisees. Their way is not the way to God. It is kingdom preaching that transforms people, not the way of these leaders.

So the Pharisees are sneering at Jesus' call to be generous and responsible stewards of the resources God gives. The Greek word for sneer, ekmykterizo, is particularly graphic. It means "to turn one's nose up" at someone (Preisker 1967b:796-99; Lk 23:35). They thoroughly reject Jesus' teaching. The Pharisee's consistent attitude toward Jesus' teaching reveals hard hearts dead set against him. There is no attempt to hear him; there is only contempt.

The official approach does not impress Jesus. They seek to justify themselves in the eyes of men. But God knows their hearts. It is what God thinks that counts. Accountability before the divine is more important than the world's opinion. What human beings value is an abomination before God. The term "abomination" (bdelygma) is strong (Foerster 1964a:600). An abomination is the opposite of an acceptable offering before God. In other words, their values stink and are rejected as repugnant by God. The NIV rendering is detestable in God's sight is on the mark. God hates their loving attitude toward money. Similar complaints from Jesus are recorded in 11:39-41 and 18:9-14.

Jesus turns his attention to getting the right perspective on these events. The new era means that the Pharisees do not have an exclusive claim on God's will: The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached. Here are the two basic eras as far as Luke is concerned. There is the era of promise and the era of preaching of the good news of fulfillment. The dividing line is John. He prepared a people (1:15-17), and now the new era is being preached. Jesus' arrival means the new era's arrival. The way of God is found in his kingdom preaching. Thus it is not the Pharisees' scoffing that carries authority, but Jesus' exhortations about how to walk with God.

But Jesus says more. He notes that "all are urged insistently to enter in." This translation is somewhat unusual and needs defending (for this approach, Fitzmyer 1985:1117-18). Most versions read everyone is forcing his way into it (NIV; NRSV has the variation "everyone tries to enter it by force"), but such a statement is manifestly not true. Everyone is not in a rush to enter in; many choose to reject the kingdom utterly. The key here is the Greek term biazo, which means "to apply force." But the voice of the verb is ambiguous in Greek. Is it middle, so the force is applied by everyone? Or is it passive, so force is applied to everyone--and if so, in what sense? I would argue that the term is passive and thus that Jesus is speaking of the persuasion applied to all through preaching (for details, Cortes and Gatti 1987:247-59). The preaching of the good news offers the opportunity to enter into kingdom benefits. Through this message all are urged to enter in. The time of fulfillment has come, and all are asked to share in its blessing. But to do so one must hear Jesus, not scoff at his authority.

Then Jesus sets the remark in a larger context. Nothing about the law will pass away. What does this mean? In the context of law and promise, it must mean that it is the kingdom program that realizes the law. Authority is associated with that program (Banks 1975:214-15). The goal of the law is Jesus. Through him its promise is realized. The verse must be read contextually.

The term law in Luke-Acts has various functions depending on the context of its use. In fact, to consider Luke's view of the law is to take up a question that surfaces again and again in the New Testament (for views on New Testament handling of the law, see Bahnsen et al. 1993). In Luke three themes dominate. First, in terms of relating to God and to others, the law instructs and gives moral guidance (16:27-31). Second, when law is considered in terms of promise, as in this passage, it stands fulfilled in Jesus. Third, law has passed away when it is considered as individual laws or what the Jews would call "halakoth," practices that identify a person as Jewish as opposed to Gentile. Rites like circumcision and concern about clean foods are no longer necessary (Acts 10--11, 15). These three senses summarize how Luke sees the law; each time the term appears, the reader should examine the context to see which force is being applied (Blomberg 1984).

Jesus' point in 16:16-17 is that the kingdom's arrival represents the culmination of the law's function. Values and morals are determined by the kingdom's presence. Jesus' preaching and teaching are part of the kingdom program and thus reflect God's will. The Pharisees' responses, including their scoffing, do not lead one to God.

But this administrative move from law to kingdom does not mean that commitments are to be ignored. An example of Jesus' authoritative teaching is the handling of the divorce issue. Jesus lays out the standard that marriage is to remain intact. It is a commitment made before God. To break it is to set up adultery, since remarriage is likely to follow. This saying in Luke is not designed to be a detailed presentation of Jesus' view of divorce; it merely sets out the most basic standard as an illustration of the moral tone Jesus desires. More complete biblical statements on divorce come in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Malachi 2:16, Matthew 5:30-32, 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:8-16. Jesus' point here is that he sees the marriage commitment as intended to be permanent. The theological basis is the recognition that marriage involves a vow before God as God forms the couple into one flesh, a point made clear in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Jesus' pronouncement illustrates his authority. The way of righteousness sees divorce as wrong, because to divorce is to break a promise made before God and is to deny what God does in making a couple one flesh. Kingdom values honor commitments made to others before God. In the kingdom integrity and faithful devotion to God are the essence of character.Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31)

After a brief note about kingdom values, Jesus turns back to the use of resources. Raising a negative example, he discusses kingdom ethics and values in caring for others. God's concern for people also becomes evident. The disciple is to be giving and outward in orientation, as the rich man painfully discovers through his failure. As Jesus shows, wealth is not always what it is assumed to be.

Donald Trump, Aristotle Onassis, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller are among the extremely rich figures of history. Every generation has its very wealthy, those who live high. American culture calls this "the good life," "success," "making it," "reaching the top" or "living in the penthouse." In short, the very rich person "has arrived." For many, wealth is the essence of life. It means self-sufficiency, independence and plenty of opportunity to enjoy material pleasures. Though few people attain such wealth, many strive for it.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not really about money. It is about much more than the dollar, yen, mark or pound. There may not be many Donald Trumps in the world, but appeals to greed and the desire for self-indulgence abound, especially in advertising. Jesus wants disciples to see the great spiritual danger in that path.

The account is an example story, not a parable. It pictures reality through a two-character story that mirrors life. "The rich man" is never named. He is nameless because he represents the danger of wealth. He could be anyone. The name of the second character, Lazarus, is derived from Eleazar, which means "God helps." He is the only named character in any of Jesus' example stories or parables.

Two people and two contrasting sets of life circumstances drive this story. On the surface the rich man has all the cards and all life's blessings, while Lazarus has nothing. The rich man is "in" with style, while Lazarus is definitely "out." But often the way we read circumstances and the way God does are not the same.

The contrast is set up from the opening of the account. The rich man is finely clothed and eats well. Fresh linen and clothes of purple dye indicate his wealth, as do his daily feasts inside his mansion with its own gate. Clothes of purple dye (derived from a snail) were very expensive (Strack and Billerbeck 1926:2:20). Linen may allude to expensive undergarments; the two terms together suggest a "power dresser" (Fitzmyer 1985:1130-31). This man lives like a king (Prov 31:22; 1 Maccabees 8:14; 1QapGen 20:31).

While some people eat heartily and can afford expensive underwear, others have nothing. So we meet Lazarus. He is very poor and probably crippled, since he lies down at the gate. If he is not crippled, he is very sick. He is looking for food. Even crumbs will do. His hope of sustenance is alms, the offerings of those who have something. His skin is a snack to lick for the wild dogs that roam the streets. These dogs were considered unclean, because it was likely that they had previously licked animal corpses. The image is purposefully gruesome: they lick his sores and render him unclean (see 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24; 22:38; 1 Enoch 89:42-43, 47, 49, on dogs as a negative figure of those that devour; Michel 1965b:1103; Danker 1988:283). Lazarus wears his poverty's pain on his ulcerated skin--a graphic contrast to the rich man's soft clothes. If the panhandlers of our cities' streets look bad, Lazarus would serve as a worthy ancestor. Later rabbis would have seen Lazarus's life as no life at all, since they had a saying that three situations resulted in no life: depending on food from another, being ruled by one's wife and having a body covered with sores (t. Besa [Yom Tob] 32b). According to this saying, Lazarus is doubly deprived.

The story's initial impression is clear: the rich man has a great life, while the poor man does not. The rich man throws away food; the poor man must scrounge for it. Some people have nothing, while others have expensive underwear. Observing this scene, we might well conclude that God has blessed the rich man, while the poor man must be the object of God's judgment. Lazarus must be lazy or sinful, paying for his depravity with his destitution. But the parable will show that appearances can be deceiving. Jesus' parables often come with a twist.

In this parable Lazarus never speaks. His situation is so pathetic that no one would likely hear him if he did. Here is dire need that the rich man could easily meet, even with leftovers sticking to a discarded finger towel. The ancient finger towel was used to wipe up the last bites of bread and gravy. After use it was often thrown out or given to dogs. Lazarus would have regarded such a tossed-out napkin as a feast, a generous, life-comforting gift.

It is amazing what we take for granted when we have much. Right after the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, I had the chance to visit Romania within six weeks of the change of government there. We went in with supplies of food and clothes for believers. To go to Eastern Europe then was to enter a time machine and travel back in history and culture. In some cases the journey crossed several decades. The most precious food people had to offer us was eggs from their own chickens. For four days all we had was eggs. The people could not count on bread at the stores. The shock of seeing how people lived daily has never left me. But it did not take long to realize that we were receiving the best they had to offer and to appreciate the meals as a result. Often as we ate the hosts serenaded us with hymns in their own tongue to thank us for bringing them needed supplies. We slept in the beds of these generous hosts while they took the floor outside. For them life was simple, and they were rejoicing in their newfound freedom to worship God openly. So it did not matter what they lacked materially.

Others from the West who traveled into that region during the same period were similarly stunned by what they saw. Several marveled to me about what we take for granted and how frivolously we use resources. One Christian woman who lives in a very wealthy area of Dallas said her life--especially her shopping practices and her attitudes toward the needs of others--was changed permanently by her trip to Eastern Europe. Both she and I learned a lesson the rich man never did: we should never forget to look out our window and consider those less fortunate than ourselves. I pray that I never will.

If this parable were a television docudrama, it would take a commercial break here. Imagine how advertisers might flood images of their wares into the pause, entreating us to participate in the high life. Life often gets defined in terms of things or activities, as we ignore people and souls in need. Our advertising differs little from the rich man's attitude. Only the occasional public-service announcement is the exception.

Imagine you were a guest from another planet and television was your "eye" into this world. How selective is the eye of television? How much does it reflect real life and our world's pain? The news often does, but people do not enjoy watching that, nor do they often try to do much about the harsh realities that are portrayed. We feel helpless to do much to help, even if we want to. So documentaries that shed light on the hurting world are zapped away with the touch of a remote-control switch (no ratings, no TV time). Often people have to fall into totally desperate straits before others' concern translates into action--and for many the action never comes. So we hide behind our gates and hope the world's neediness will go away. Are we more like the rich man than we think?

This parable is not about money. It is about roots, the roots of our heart. Where do they reach? What nourishes them? Are our roots tied to earthly treasure? Are we looking to line the walls of our life with things and leisure? Are we too busy to notice the screams of human desperation? Or are the roots of our life drawing from the spiritual well of God's concern and compassion, which ministers comfort to a world in pain?

A film that stormed the evangelical world on the sensitive issue of abortion was called The Silent Scream. Yet some cultural critics have charged that Western Christians have great compassion about life while it is in the womb but could not care less about the lives of persons once they are born. Could that charge, though certainly overstated, be partially true? Is there another silent scream which we ignore, a scream that would assault our senses as a protest and an eyesore in every corner of our world, including the corners of our own inner cities? Is it possible that this parable addresses the pain of living in areas where human life itself is constantly at risk and where dogs live better than people? Could this parable be about us?

The parable exposes our values as it now considers Lazarus from an eternal perspective. Some time has passed--how much is not said. The rich man and Lazarus have both died. Each has a ticket for a permanent destination, one that money cannot buy. Who is "in" and who is "out" now, and why?

A remarkable reversal has taken place. Now Lazarus is in and the rich man is out. This is known as an eschatological reversal. It is a true rags-to-riches story, only eternal destinies are the prize. Lazarus is by Abraham's side, while the rich man is in dire need of relief, living in torment. The term for torment here, basanos, was often used for the kind of punishment meted out to a slave to elicit a confession of wrongdoing (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-10; 4 Maccabees 13:15; Schneider 1964a:563). The passage's mood is set by the distance and difference between the two figures. Everything is reversed, and the changes are all very permanent.

Lazarus is next to Abraham, the figure of promise, sharing in blessing (Schweizer 1974:647 n. 182). This is another way to say that he has been "gathered to the fathers" (Gen 15:15; 47:30; Deut 31:16). The angels carried him to Abraham's side, to heaven, in one of the greatest funeral processions of all time. Here as elsewhere, Luke emphasizes that sometimes the poor are headed for glory. One's social status on earth need not dictate one's spiritual status before God.

On the other hand, the rich man's new address reads "Hades" (Greek; NIV has hell). Mr. Deep Pockets has found the road to nowhere, the deep pocket of the universe. A selfish life is a rootless life, for everything it yields withers and fades. The rich man has joined a new kind of country club where the dues are permanent.

Interestingly, however, the rich man still sees Lazarus as his pawn, his social inferior. Having learned nothing in his new situation, he begins trying to negotiate his way to relief. There is now no drop of water for him, just as there had been no food for Lazarus before. The measure by which the rich man had lived was now being measured to him. Irony abounds. The wealthy man had not even acknowledged Lazarus in his earthly circumstances, but here he knows his name. Maybe he had seen the poor man all along and had ignored him. Lazarus had been good for nothing to him, only the object of a casual uncaring glance. God sees the potential of the poor very differently (Jas 2:5).

Divine riches do not take notice of earthly wealth or social status. The rich man's chance to use his wealth in a way that pleases God had passed. Now he is outside the gate of the mansion of eternal blessing (see 6:20-26; Jas 5:1-6).

I am reminded of a wealthy man whom God "blessed" with bankruptcy during the recession of the 1980s. Interpreting the experience positively, he said it made him reconsider his values. He called himself a "recovering materialist." Sometimes to lack is to realize what blessings one does possess.

Now Jesus is not against wealth. He is concerned with how it is used. The story of Zacchaeus shows Jesus commending a wealthy and formerly corrupt man who became generous with his resources (19:1-10). But Jesus wants to warn about the danger of abusing resources. This story of an unrepentant rich man reveals the tragedy of learning this lesson too late. His deep pockets had been sewn tight when it came to others, and thus he had sewn up his fate.

His personal appeal fails. Abraham tells him a grand "canyon" (chasma; NIV chasm) lies between them. No crossing is allowed. The distance he kept from others' needs in his earthly life has become a distance he cannot cross. The Greek term used for crossing here, diabaino, is often used of crossing a river that serves as a boundary between regions. There are no bridges between heaven and hell. When Abraham tells the rich man, "Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things," he is saying it is too late. Lazarus will be comforted, and the rich man is destined for anguish. Many today reason that a loving God will change his mind in heaven and grant eternal life to many who do not honor him now; they say there is no permanent judgment or condemnation from God. Abraham disagrees. The parable is a negative illustration of 16:9.

So the rich man gives up on himself and begins thinking of others. He has learned the lesson, but too late to help himself. Still, maybe he can help others avoid his error. There is irony here also, for what the rich man is denied the story's imagery supplies. No one will be sent to warn the rich man's brothers, not even Lazarus. Nevertheless, the rich man's plea provides the parable's lesson, a voice of one who has seen God's judgment: Be warned--wealth does not mean spiritual health. How exactly the rich man thinks the dead can contact his brothers is not clear--a resurrection, a vision? What is clear is that his brothers share the same philosophy of life that has condemned him. He knows they need to be warned. Many follow the same philosophy as he: to enjoy pleasures while ignoring the needs of others. Research shows that residents of the United States, for example, use a substantial amount of the earth's resources but give only a few percentage points of what they earn to charities of any type. What conclusion must we draw about our values? Even when the government extends aid to other nations in need, we often complain about the burden we bear to help.

The rich man now wants to warn others who are like him and let them know what God desires. But what would this warning be? In the parable's context it seems clear that the warning would center on values and lifestyle. The rich man's perspective on such questions had been his downfall. The call would be to repent before God and be more generous to others. Those who love God and wish to honor him will have compassion on those like Lazarus. They will not confuse material blessing with divine blessing.

The man's request that a messenger be sent to his brothers is denied for a crucial reason. Abraham simply declares that Moses and the Prophets are good enough. The Old Testament makes clear what God desires of those who know him. "Deep pockets" that are holy have holes. God wants us to love him and to love our fellow human beings. He wants generosity. A text like Deuteronomy 24:10-22 seems to be in view, with its call to be generous and remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. So God's people were to care for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, even leaving some of their own precious harvest for them. In fact, numerous Old Testament texts make the same point, with many prophets calling for compassion (Deut 15:1-3, 7-12; 22:1-2; 23:19; 24:7, 14-15, 19-21; 25:13-14; Is 3:14-15; 5:7-8; 10:1-3; 32:6-7; 58:3, 6-7, 10; Jer 5:26-28; 7:5-6; Ezek 18:12-18; 33:15; Amos 2:6-8; 5:11-12; 8:4-6; Mic 2:1-2; 3:1-3; 6:10-11; Zech 7:9-10; Mal 3:5). Just reading Moses and the Prophets should make it clear that those who hear God serve others, because they recognize that in ministering to others in need they show God's compassion. Love for God changes one's values, so that persons made in God's image become more valuable than things. Money is a resource, not a reward. It is to be used, not hoarded. It is to serve, not become master. Jesus said as much in his own ministry (Mt 6:24; Lk 10:25-28). To love God is to love and show compassion to the humanity he loves (Lk 6:26-36; Jn 3:16; Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:18).

The rich man does not give up. He suggests trying a sign. He seems to argue that the Word of God is not enough, but a message from the dead would be convincing. The reply is equally clear: revelation is better than a sign; besides, signs are ignored. Abraham insists, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Jesus has already warned that signs other than the call to repentance will not be given (11:29-32). If God's prophetic Word cannot convince and put a crack in a hard heart, neither will miracles. Jesus' own resurrection is testimony to the point: only an open heart sees the evidence for God's presence and hears his voice.

This parable is ultimately about the heart. Where our treasure is, there our heart is. Where is our treasure being stored? Jesus says, "Healthy seed reflecting God's desire is not planted in riches. Rather, it should penetrate the heart and be planted into people, especially people in need." Jesus warns that treasure invested for the self yields emptiness, while treasure invested for God yields compassion.

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

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