How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake of Your Life
So, this is the final instalment of our series, Unexpected Life Hacks from the parables of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. And what we’ve found along the way, I think you’ll agree, is that perhaps the only thing we can expect from the mouth of Jesus is the unexpected. Almost every word that comes from his mouth catches us off guard, and today’s parable is no different.
I have 2 boys who are 5 and 3, and each night as my wife and I put them to bed we read to them from one of their kid’s bibles. And in the kids Bible Jesus is always pictured surrounded by crowds of happy people, giving lots of hugs to his disciples, handing out high fives to kids and petting smiling animals. There is nothing offensive about kids Bible Jesus. Nothing awkward. Nothing confrontational.
But in the grown-up Bible, that is not what Jesus is like. His parables are often staggeringly blunt and forceful. Maybe that was unexpected for you as you heard it read a moment ago. Perhaps you found yourself wincing, hoping that your friend who is interested in faith did not choose today to join us for the first time! It’s like, “Jesus! This is not the sort of anecdote to pull out at a dinner party!” A rich man goes to hell, a poor man goes to heaven, and in agony the rich man appeals for help, and is denied. OK… Well, that’s a conversation stopper if ever there was one.
Actually, if you are with us for the first time today, I’m delighted that you chose today to be with us. Because one of the things I love about Jesus is that he is the freest man that ever lived. So many of us are so bound by social convention. Particularly those of us who are British have a painfully low tolerance for awkwardness.
But Jesus isn’t like that. It’s awesome! He doesn’t care about when we think he should or shouldn’t say something. He’s like – can I love this person by telling them some truth? Yes? OK, then I’m going to say it. And that’s what’s happening here. Jesus loves us. And so, he’s telling us something hard that we need to know, because he wants us to avoid the eternal suffering of hell.
Now, perhaps some of us find the very concept of hell offensive, or just embarrassingly outdated. But it’s clear here that if you take Jesus seriously, you need to take hell seriously too. So, let me try to answer 3 questions for us this afternoon about this parable – I’m sure we have many – that hopefully will help us grasp its significance for us.
And the first question is this:
Why does the rich man go to hell? v19-22
You see, if we are to avoid hell, we need to know what it is that results in us being sent there.
In verse 19, Jesus introduces us to the first of two characters – the rich man. We are told he dressed in purple and fine linen – he’s wearing Gucci, Prada, Ralph Lauren. He has a Rolex on his wrist, he drives a Maserati, he has houses in the most exclusive districts of LA, Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London and he holidays on his private Caribbean island whenever he likes. He eats only the finest food prepared by his personal Michelin star chef and his parties are the hottest ticket in town.
But in verse 20 we are also introduced to the second character, Lazarus, whose life is total opposite. He’s a beggar. He spends his life on the street asking others for money because he can’t even provide for his own basic needs. He is so ill that he can’t stand, and he lies each day at the gates of the rich man’s estate – he thinks that this is a good place to beg, with so many wealthy people coming and going. His condition is miserable - he’s covered with sores, gaping wounds all over his body that are infected and stinking. His only wish is to eat the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, and so pathetic is he that the local dogs lick his sores as some sort of tasty treat.
It is a horrifying, pitiful image. A man so utterly bereft of health and dignity that dogs lick his wounds as he lies there, resigned to his fate. He is a pile of bones and skin that people look away from as they walk past, repulsed by the sight.
Now here’s the thing. Who do we want to be like? Surely, it’s the rich man, right!? I know I do! I want to drive a Maserati and eat caviar on my yacht rather than rot on the street, with no protection from thieves, the elements, or the indignity of passing eyes.
And yet Jesus says in verse 22,
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.
Jesus warns us here – be careful what you aspire to in life. The ultimate measuring stick for life’s success is not popularity or influence or wealth or health – it’s our final destination.
So why does the rich man go to hell? On the face of it we might say, “Well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? It’s because he’s rich. Jesus and Karl Marx agree. Inequality is evil, God loves the poor and rejects the rich.”
We might say that. And we’d be wrong. There will be rich people in heaven. Fabulously rich people. How do I know that for a fact? Well, because Abraham is there. He was also enormously rich.
“OK then”, we might say. “It’s not only that he’s rich, it’s that he was rich and he didn’t help Lazarus. If he had been more generous with what he had, God would have accepted him!”
We might say that. And we’d be wrong. Because the issue for the rich man is far deeper than how he uses his money.
One of the most important things to do when reading the Bible is to be aware of the context of the passage that you are reading, both in terms of where it fits into the story of the whole bible, and also what occurs immediately before and after it. And if you scan your eyes back to verse 13 of chapter 16 you’ll see that Jesus has been teaching on what we ought to do with our money. Ralph actually preached on this parable a couple of weeks back, if you missed it go and check it out after you’ve spent time with us today, it was an excellent message.
And in verse 13 Jesus says,
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
What Jesus is saying here is that money cannot be the thing that rules your heart. It cannot be the thing that provides you with security, it cannot be the thing that makes you most happy, it cannot be the thing that will shape your choices. If it is, effectively, money is God for you.
Now, verse 14 continues,
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
They laugh at him, they mock him, they hold him in contempt. Who does this guy think he is to tell us how to use our money? It’s ours! We worked hard for it, we make sure that we give to charity, we even give to church. We are not listening to a word he says.”
You see… it’s not how we use our money that condemns us. It’s how much we love it. If we are devoted to it, or indeed anything else, we will despise God when he says something to us that challenges its place in our heart. Just like the Pharisees, we’ll sneer at Jesus’ and reject his words.
That sends the rich man to hell.
Now let’s think about this for a moment because it’s significant. The reason Jesus uses the example of a rich man here is that the Pharisees he was talking to loved money, but the problem is not with money. The problem is with our hearts. Which is why the followers of Jesus, the apostles, have no problem broadening the categories when making the same point. John says in 1 John 2:15-16
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
It’s the same point. If the controlling love of your heart belongs to ANYTHING other than the Father, your fate will be that of the rich man. Which means that most often, the love of good things condemn us to hell. That’s a hard thing to hear, isn’t it? Family. Sex. Sports. Friends. All of these, and many others are good gifts to us! But when we love them more than God, when they become the controlling love in our lives, they will condemn and destroy us.
Now, let me ask you today friends – what love controls your heart? Is it love for God? Or something else? Examine yourself carefully. For the stakes cannot get any higher. Your eternity rests upon the answer to this question. What love controls your heart?
Which leads me to the second question I’d like to examine this afternoon:
What is so bad about hell?
One of my favourite films of all time is “The Usual Suspects”. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to say that now since Kevin Spacey got himself in trouble, but I love pretty much everything about that film. It’s absolutely brilliant. And Kevin Spacey’s character, at one point, says the line, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Well, that may be true. But perhaps the second greatest is convincing the world that hell doesn’t exist either. I think most people in the UK would probably doubt that it does. Many of you watching right now may well agree. And some of you may also wonder whether hell, if it does exist, might not actually be such a bad place to end up. I did some research this week and came across statements such as these;
“Hell might not actually be such a bad place. For one, you don’t have to spend eternity with the sort of people who go to heaven.”
“If there is a hell, then I’ll be in good company”
Such statements go some way towards helping us not to worry. One writer put it this way;
I think eternal Hell is the most socially destructive theory ever invented by the human mind
And as long as he is right, that it is just a theory invented by the human mind, then we need not worry. We can even poke fun at it. There is no need to take Jesus’ words seriously.
Except that Jesus is the one person who has lived that can speak with authority on these issues. Whilst others may speculate, the Bible tells us that Jesus of Nazareth is God. He speaks with the authority of God. All His words are true. And his purpose in speaking of hell, which he does more often in the Bible than he speaks about heaven, is not to cow and control us, but to warn us because He loves us!
So, what does he say? What is hell like?
We might sum it up in three words.
Loveless. Hopeless. Suffering.
Hell is a place without love. Notice in verses 23-26 that the rich man is alone. There is no reunion with friends, no relationship with anyone. His existence is one that no longer knows love in any form. Yes, he’s able to speak to Abraham and Lazarus, but I would suggest that that is just a literary device Jesus uses within the parable to create a chance for him to express himself. No other New Testament description of hell suggests that those in hell can see those in heaven and visa versa. And even if it is, Abraham offers him no consolation.
Because Hell is hopeless. The rich man calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to provide some relief for his agony, and the request is denied. “Have pity on me!” But no pity is given, and never will be. His situation is permanently and eternally fixed. Abraham says in verse 26, a great chasm has been set between us so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us”
And it is a situation of great suffering. He is in torment, in agony in the fire. Is this a metaphor? Are there real flames in hell? All I know is that a metaphor is a figure of speech which points to the substance of something greater. Flames or not, the suffering is real.
When we take a few moments to really think about what that,
Great sadness for those who have died without knowing Jesus
A determination to do everything to help those still alive avoid a similar fate
And fear that we ourselves may find ourselves there
Which brings us to our final question today;
How do we avoid it?
In the parable, the rich man realises the helplessness of his own situation and his thoughts turn to his five brothers who remain, and he presumably knows that they will share in his own fate if nothing changes. So, he comes up with a plan – send Lazarus to them to tell them to change.
And Jesus’ response to that idea is, I think, fascinating. Highly unexpected. Because we’re talking about resurrection now, and if you’re a Christian that gets your blood pumping, you think, “Ah yes, this is where Jesus lands the plane and says, ‘If someone comes back from the dead then that would prove everything’”. But, astonishingly, he doesn’t say that! Abraham, in Jesus’ parable, dismisses the suggestion, simply saying in verse 29,
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
In our language, “They have the Bible. Let them read that.”
And the rich man says, “No, father Abraham! Not the Bible! That’s just a book, easy to ignore! They need something better, more convincing, something they can’t ignore!”
And Abraham says,
“If they do no listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”
This is remarkable. Jesus is saying to us today that if we do not believe the words of the Bible we hold in our hands then we could have been stood outside the tomb on that first Easter morning as the stone rolled away and watched Christ walk bodily out of the tomb and still we wouldn’t believe in Him. Still we wouldn’t accept his authority in our lives.
You’ll say to me, “Nonsense. If I saw that, I’d surrender. I’d give my life to Jesus. I’d know for sure that he was real and that everything he said was true.” No, says Jesus. No you wouldn’t. If the Bible isn’t enough for you, then nothing will be. And do you know, he was absolutely right, because when He was raised the Pharisees who opposed him here did not believe but invented a story to explain the disappearance of His body.
The Scottish pastor Alistair Begg put it better than I can, when he said, “The confidence of heaven is in the Bible”. . This book, this much-maligned, often mocked, easily ignored book is God’s chosen tool to draw people to Himself. This should be good news to you today! You don’t need to hope that you’ll see a flash in the sky, or a dream or a vision, or a resurrection to convince you that this message is true. Listen, God can do those things. I believe he still does. But they won’t change your response. If you’ll believe a resurrection, you’ll believe this word.
Which tells us that a poor man died. Homeless, despised, so pitiful a sight that people hid their faces from him. A man of sorrows, familiar with pain. But the scripture says,
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Why do we believe this? Because 3 days later, the poor man walked out of the grave, showed himself to his friends and over 500 others, and then ascended back to the right hand of his father where He rules today in the position of absolute power and glory. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Those who accept this word as the Word of God and believe will never see hell but be accepted by God forever on account of the work of Jesus.
This is why we’re so excited about Christianity Explored starting this week. Over several weeks we’ll simply read the Bible together and ask our questions. Examine its claims. Listen to the word. And ask God to reveal its truth and power to us. Jesus loves you. He speaks this parable because he wants you to avoid hell and be with him forever.
If you aren’t sure whether or not to join us this coming week – consider what is at stake. Is it not worth a few hours of your time to investigate? We’d love to see you there, and more information on where to sign up will be given at the end of this service.
You know, there was one thing that the beggar in the parable had in life that the rich man did not. He had a name. Lazarus. He is the only character named in any of Jesus’ parables. His name derives from the Hebrew Eleazer, which means, “God has helped”. It didn’t look like, did it? Not during his life. But eternity revealed that he was not holding onto damnable loves to satisfy his heart. He had let go of them, and held fast to Jesus instead.
The final words of Martin Luther, the father of the reformation, were these: We are beggars. Let us be beggars named Lazarus. God has helped.