“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31
Do we recognize God’s grace? Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and it is a parable about failing to recognize God’s grace.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” says Jesus in Saint Luke Chapter 16 Verse 19. The people listening would have found no fault with the idea. To be rich, to be well-dressed, was a sign of God’s blessing. The man must have been a righteous man to live in such affluence. When they heard the book of Deuteronomy read in the synagogue, they would have heard about all the material blessings one would receive if one was faithful. Jesus does not criticize the man, he simply presents the man as someone who was probably like the wealthy people of the local community.
The man’s failure is not in having great wealth, the man’s failure is that he does not recognize that his wealth comes from God’s grace towards him, it comes from God’s generosity. The man does not stop to think that his life might have been very different, that he might have been the person lying at the gate. Jesus’ listeners would have been firm in their belief that all things came from God, but if all things came from God, then shouldn’t the man have shown generosity to others in accordance with the great generosity he had received from God? If the man had any sense of how great had been God’s grace toward him, would he have ignored Lazarus who lay at his doorstep?
Lazarus has nothing in which to trust other than God’s grace. Verses 20-21 tell us, “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.” It is not just the rich man who has failed to recognize God’s grace, it is his friends and neighbours as well, Lazarus is left to lie there, unfed and untended. Jesus tells us nothing about Lazarus other than that he was poor and sick, and, in theology of the time, to be poor and sick must have meant they had done something to deserve it. Lazarus would not have been well regarded, he would not have been pitied. People would have wished that Lazarus would go and lie somewhere else. How often do we pass by people like Lazarus on the streets of our own cities?
Lazarus is not presented as a virtuous person, he is not presented as having done anything to merit God’s favour, but Lazarus knows better than anyone how wretched his life has become, God’s grace is his only hope. Trust in grace brings Lazarus to an eternal reward. Verse 22 says that, “the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” The people listening might have wondered what Lazarus had done to deserve such a reward. Lazarus has not been religious, he has not been righteous, he has not observed every detail of the Law; Lazarus has his place in heaven through grace.
Jesus’ listeners may have been perplexed at such a thought, the idea that someone would merit a place in heaven without all of the effort that they made would have been worrying. What would have been more worrying is the thought that the rich man, a man they would have imagined as keeping every detail of the Law, should be subject to a very different fate. Verse 22-23 tell us, “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.” The rich man, who has not recognized the presence of Lazarus all through the years when Lazarus lay at the gate, now recognizes him. How could he have ignored him for so long?
The rich man still does not understand grace, his recognition of Lazarus is selfish, he simply wants Lazarus to be his servant. The rich man says, in Verse 24, “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.” It is Abraham who explains to the rich man that the man has enjoyed God’s great generosity, that he has received abundant grace in his lifetime and that he has failed to recognize from whom all the good things in his life had come. “Child,” says Abraham in Verse 25, 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.” If the man had recognized God’s grace in his life, if he had recognized God’s great generosity, then he would have shown that same generosity to Lazarus.
The man appeals that Abraham should send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them, but Abraham refuses, saying that the brothers should listen to the prophets. The brothers have enjoyed God’s generosity in the way that the rich man has, if they have not recognized grace in their lives, would they have been persuaded by Lazarus, a man whom they must have passed many times?
Not recognizing God’s great generosity, the rich man shows no grace in his life, and, having rejected grace, is denied grace. How like the rich man are we? How much do we assume ourselves to be righteous people? When we realize God’s amazing generosity to us, do we dare to be graceless in our dealings with those whom we meet?
Abraham tells the rich man, in Verse 31, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Are we in danger of failing to recognize God’s grace and so be denied God’s grace at the end?