Moving from Luke 15 to Luke 16 is liable to give us theological whiplash. After grace-filled parables like the finding of the lost sheep and the return of the prodigal son, the reader slams headlong into the stony slab of Luke 16, which is full of admonitions about the love of money (it sounds dirtier in the original Greek: Phylargoria).
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus needs its context to make sense. Jesus tells it to some Pharisees “who were lovers of money,” using Scripture to justify their greed (Luke 16:14). It is not a bad thing to have some money. Money in the gospel is actually pretty value-neutral. Jesus is more concerned with what we do with our money than whether or not we have it.
Aside from the kingdom of God, Jesus talks more about money than just about anything else.
The language of this parable is strong, which may make some of us uncomfortable. But this tale is sandwiched between stories of inclusion, mercy, kindness and forgiveness. In the stories of grace in chapter 15, no one – not even the rich – is left out. But grace, even God’s free grace, does not mean we can turn a blind eye to our faults. Let’s be honest: much of America enjoys comparative economic comfort, and our culture gives us plenty of ways to indulge ourselves. So whatever judgment this parable offers to the rich, to the lovers of money, it potentially offers us as well.
This is good. God’s judgment in the Bible is restorative, making something right. Therefore, God’s judgment is not about condemnation but grace. Between Luke 15 and 16, we learn something more about the relationship between grace and judgment. These chapters contain stories full of grace, but right here in the middle, we have a warning.
The rich man, suffering in torment, cries out to Abraham, “Have mercy on me and send Lazarus down here to cool my throat.” The rich man’s concern is himself.
“Child,” says Abraham, “There is a chasm between us.”
Now parables, like analogies, break down when we press them beyond their intended purpose. But they do hold precious lessons. Here, Jesus shines a light on a problem – the love of money – so that his listeners could see the obstacles to the transformative grace of God.
The warning present in the parable is about the chasm that stretches between God’s infinite grace and the human construction of cheap grace. God’s grace is intended to transform us from a broken state, where we don’t live as though we were created in God’s image (made for community, fellowship, and love), to a redeemed state where, even when we miss the mark, we are still striving for a reign marked by generosity, kindness and mercy. Cheap grace is when humans warp the concept of God’s grace in a way that benefits themselves — no transformation is needed. When, like those Pharisees, we refuse to acknowledge our faults, we get in the way of the healing God would offer our lives.
The rich man’s focus is on saving or comforting himself, not seeking the kingdom of God. He does not know God’s grace, only human-derived cheap grace. Therefore, there is a chasm between him and Abraham, who resides with God. And Abraham responds to the distance between them with the language of lament. There is sadness that the rich man doesn’t want to change.
Now, it wouldn’t be the gospel, or good news, to condemn the materially wealthy to suffering. It would be inconsistent with the message of the gospel that grace transforms us. The point of this story isn’t that the rich man is rich – unless phylargoria is what is standing between us and the transforming grace of God.
If so, there is a great chasm.
But remember this: the grace of God really is sufficient to cover all our sins. So in the end, the one who will bridge the chasm is not us. It never was.
Questions for reflection:
- How do you feel when the church (or your pastor) preaches on what Jesus said about money?
- What does your bank statement say about your values?