Luke 19:16-31 (NIV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Why wouldn’t the rich man’s family believe if Lazarus would return to them?
It seems harsh. Jesus relating to his listeners a story of one man, who had all the comforts of this life, spend his afterlife in torment and misery. The other man in the story, by contrast, is tormented throughout his earthly life, only to enter into paradise in his afterlife. The rich man in eternal torment wants to spare his family from similar misery. However, “Father Abraham” (vs. 24) does not allow poor Lazarus to return and forewarn them.
The first question is who is “Father Abraham” Is Jesus specifically referring to the Patriarch of Genesis? According to another of Jesus’s references to the afterlife, it would appear so.
“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:28-29)
So Jesus has identified paradise with being united with the patriarchs of the Faith. Everything about the patriarchs, and indeed about how God works in and through the nation of Israel, is mentioned in the Jewish scriptures (what we now call the Old Testament). These are the scriptures that Jesus read and the scriptures that His audience would be familiar.
Another key to lies in vss. 19-20 which describes the rich man as living in luxury. Jesus’s audience would have interpreted that as extending to the rich man’s family. If he were rich so were they. If he lived in comfort, they would as well. The problem wasn’t that they did not have all the same information that Lazarus had about God. The problem was that they, in their comfort, ignored it. Lazarus suffered in his earthly life and was eternally rewarded. The rich man and his family, in their comfort, ignored God.
The point of the parable is not that it is sinful to be rich. The point is that the earthly pleasures, when indulged, can blind one to the need of God. Bringing back Lazarus from the dead would not have convinced his family to repent and believe. Looking back at the entire Exodus story, time after time the nation of Israel experienced God’s power and provision. However, time after time Israel fell into disbelief and idolatry despite God’s majestic acts and miracles. The rich man and his family had the scriptures that testify about who God was and is, but even a ghost returning from the dead could not bring them out of their spiritual slumber.
One of the most popular arguments atheists and agnostics make against a belief in God is the persistence of evil and suffering in this world. They say that if God was all powerful and all good, then suffering would instantly go away. But since there is suffering and there is evil, God is either not all powerful or is not all good. Poof, God is vaporized in a logical puff of epistemological confetti.
However, I think that this parable latches on to something that is far deeper than the elimination of suffering. What Jesus is referring to is the meaninglessness of indulgent pleasure. While no one hopes for suffering and pain, they are two elements that are universal to the human condition. Suffering and pain point to something that is wrong. In Lazarus’s case, his suffering pointed to the fact that no one cared enough to befriend him and help him out. This suffering is juxtaposed with the rich man who had everything he needed, indulging in pleasure. When one indulges in pleasure, they do all they can to escape pain and suffering or even discomfort, when they eventually come along.
For those who embrace suffering and pain, it is a reminder that we are dependent on a God who loves us and will work through our suffering and pain to give our lives meaning and worth. By striving to live a life of pleasure and comfort, we do not allow God to work through us. Ultimately, a life of comfort and pleasure is a life of empty meaninglessness. The stomach will eventually be empty; the drunken stupor replaced with a hangover, and sexual euphoria quickly passed into distant memory. Either the person can try to find some meaning in the hardness of life, or they can go back to seeking pleasure.
In this parable, Jesus is stating that when a person lives a lifestyle of pleasure seeking and sensual fulfillment, they are unable and unwilling to see or acknowledge God’s presence in their lives. Even a miracle will not solve this. Jesus died and resurrected, and we have both the Old and the New Testament to instruct us on who God is and how He is working in and through us. When we repent of our sin, our hedonism, and comfort seeking, only then can we truly meet the living God and enter into His kingdom.