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Digging Deeper into the Word Spiritual Development

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar, Thief

Author: Rachel Kidd

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. —Luke 16:10-13 

In Luke, Jesus outlines his ministry and His purpose for us in a manifesto, or Gospel. His message is clear; He proclaims healing and freedom for people who are bruised and in bondage. His proclamation, proof, and practice of this Gospel are evident throughout the book of Luke. Jesus is constantly recruiting followers, challenging apostles like Peter to join Him in his Gospel.  

In Luke 16, Jesus continues His Gospel message by telling two parables about rich men. Both these parables should be seen in the context in which Jesus taught the parables of the lost things in chapter 15. Jesus addressed these two parables to His disciples, but He obviously intended these two stories for the Pharisees as well.  

 The first parable, known as “The Parable of the Unjust Steward,” is often misunderstood as an endorsement of an embezzler, but in fact the parable is a story of a steward, or manager. Stewardship in the context of the New Testament stands in contrast with tithing of the Old Testament. Instead of giving the Lord ten percent of what you have, or ‘cutting him in,’ everything you are and everything you have belongs to Him. This begs the question, how are we managing what God has given to us? Not just our finances, but our time, energy, and talents.   

In this parable, the manager or steward is poorly managing a rich man’s money. In fear of being caught and ultimately losing his job with access to his master’s money, he makes a shrewd decision to benefit himself in the future. He brokers deals with others who owe debts to his employer, essentially asking them to pay partial amounts now and he will mark them as paid in full. He ensured that once his sins were discovered, he would have friends to receive him and support him. When he is caught, his employer, the rich man, praises him for being so calculating and conscious of his future. While he is fired, the employer recognizes the effort the steward demonstrated in planning ahead.  

Jesus tells us to be like that steward. Not in his dishonesty, but in his shrewdness. Secondly, if taken literally, we could understand that everything we have now is not our own, rather it is placed in our care by God. Like the steward knew he might be fired, so we must realize that our time on earth is finite. One day we will all die and face the accounts of our stewardship. How should this realization impact how we care for everything in our stewardship? Like the steward, we should be conscious of our inevitable death or job termination. We cannot take all the earthly goods and possessions with us when we die. Instead, we are called to be generous with our time, money, and talents. We are called to be good stewards that are thankful for what we have been given and give freely to others what is God’s. Good stewards are shrewd to the benefit of themselves and others.  

When you enter into the kingdom of heaven, don’t you want to be received with open arms by people who are grateful for your generosity? By living generously in this life, we are buying shares in heaven and planning for an eternal future. I know I try to be conscious of what I share with others. Volunteering, sharing what I have with friends and family, and donating to causes I care about are all ways I demonstrate faithful stewardship. Because Jesus calls us to go beyond tithing, go further than just ten percent. He asks us to give all of what we are and all of what we have to His gospel.  

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  

In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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.’ 

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. 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.’ – Luke 16:19-26  

The second story, “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” is a very negative statement about a man who was the absolute opposite of the partners Jesus was recruiting. We see the juxtaposition of a rich man, who lives in comfort in a mansion and sleeps in silk sheets, and Lazarus who sleeps on the streets in rags outside the gates. Both men then die, like all men die, regardless of their status or authority. The rich man is buried with great pomp and circumstance. Lazarus isn’t even buried, his body is picked up by sanitation workers and thrown in the great garbage heap, Gehenna.  

Gehenna surrounded the city of Jerusalem, a perpetually burning pile of ash and rotting garbage. Once a site for child sacrifice and cursed by the Prophet Jeramiah, the valley became a dumping ground for the city’s refuse. It festered like an oozing sore, rank and vile. It became associated with eternal punishment in Jewish culture, with Gehenna translated to hell in English versions of the bible. It was in this heap that Lazarus’ body was thrown with little regard.   

And yet, in the afterlife, we see Lazarus in the delights of heaven’s glow. He is nestled in Abraham’s bosom and in intimate fellowship with the saints. The rich man however, is in hell. He is tormented and suffering in the depths of hell. There is a great gulf, an irrevocably wide chasm between the two. The rich man begs for just a drop of water to be placed on his tongue, a small act of mercy from Lazarus. He is told that is impossible, that the divide between them is fixed and unpassable. The rich man then worries about his brothers who still lived, but is reminded that not even someone raised from the dead can save them, since they already chose to ignore Moses and the prophets. The rich man then is doomed to recall his lifetime for eternity, thinking about the choices he made in life that damned him to hell.  

This parable is often used to justify fire and brimstone preaching, but I believe that misses the root of the passages. Jesus is urging us to care for people like Lazarus while we are living, to show true compassion for the suffering. He challenges us to be partners in His gospel, to love the blind, bound, and broken people for whom He came to save. We are not called to live in isolation, sitting high and mighty in ivory towers. We are called to sit with the homeless, the teen mothers, the drug addicts, and the residents of section-8 housing, not just with others like us on Sunday in pressed-suits and designer bags. We are called to enter in community with others and love others as Jesus loves us.