But it’s not just a story about hell; it’s a story about wealth. In fact, if anything, it is more about wealth than it is about hell.
If Jesus had just wanted to make a point about hell, he could, for example, have chosen two different characters. Why not talk about a Pharisee and a tax collector, as he did elsewhere? He could have shocked the self-righteous religious folk by having the Pharisee end up in hell; Jesus was not averse to shocking self-righteous people. But he chose to tell the story about a rich man and a beggar.
When we step back from the detail of the story for a moment, we realise that the theme of wealth is actually a significant theme in the chapter. Not only does the chapter end with the story of the nameless rich man who ended up in hell, it starts with the story of a rich man who had a clever, if dishonest, manager: a story about how to use wealth and possessions.
In that first story, the manager lost his job because he had wasted the resources his boss had entrusted to him. He decided to make life easier for himself for the future by winning a few friends. The strategy involved getting his master’s debtors to adjust their bill so that it appeared that they owned less than they actually did. Very dishonest, but very clever.
To our great surprise, Jesus does not condemn the man for his dishonesty (not that the point of the story was to condone or encourage deceit). In fact in the story, even the master commends his former manager for his shrewd strategy. The point that Jesus wants his disciples to take away from the story is that worldly people sometimes demonstrate more intelligence than the disciples. When it comes to knowing how to make good use of money, Jesus’ disciples would do well to take a leaf out of the book of people who have nothing to do with God.
Here is Jesus’ application:
Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
He then goes on to encourage them to be faithful with what has been given to them. That means how they handle their money. How a follower of Jesus handles money will be part of what determines how God allocates other responsibility in the kingdom.
And there is more.
In verse 13 he warns that it is impossible to serve God and money at the same time. He obviously touched a nerve with the Pharisees because Luke says in the next verse that they ridiculed him. The problem is that they were “lovers of money”. They thought of themselves as servants of God but Jesus has just said that you cannot do both things at the same time. If you are a lover of money, you cannot also be a lover of God.
It’s not that you cannot be rich and be a lover of God; there is a difference between being rich and loving money. The difference is whether you have your money or your money has you.
There are wealthy people who love God. Money is their servant. They express their love for God by the way they use their money. By the same token there are less well off people who love money. They may not have much of it, but they live for it and long for it. It is their god and their master.
So it is in this chapter, where Jesus has already had a fair bit to say about money and how we use it, that we get the story of the rich man in hell. The story is a warning to people who misuse their wealth. Jesus is not saying that all rich people go to hell any more than he is saying that all poor people go to heaven. But he is giving a warning to people who love their money more than they love their neighbours. If your money means more to you than God and your greed closes your heart to the needs of the poor, hell will not give you a second chance to get it right. Nor will your status as a wealthy person in this life buy you an opt-out clause for the next.
This point of this story is the reverse of the story about the shrewd and dishonest manager. The rich man had used his money on himself when he could have used it differently. What if, instead of seemingly spending everything on himself while a beggar suffered at his gate, he had learned to be generous? What if he had used his money to express his love for his neighbour and his obedience to God? Might his story have had a different ending? Might Lazarus have stood up from Abraham’s side at the banquet to welcome his wealthy neighbour home?
This rich man failed to love his neighbour as himself. He did not sin by being wealthy; he sinned by loving his extravagant lifestyle more than he loved the man at his gate. Hence his story becomes a warning to anyone who loves money more than he loves his neighbour.
The opposite of being a lover of money is to be generous.
Generosity is an expression of stewardship.
There is a clue about this in verse 25 when Abraham reminds the rich man about the good things he received during his lifetime. He received them. He may well have worked hard for them or he may have been the fortunate heir to a prosperous farmer. But he received them. Someone gave them to him. They were not his to begin with and – like the rich farmer who outgrew his barns – he got to take none of it with him.
For some years now the Swiss luxury watchmakers, Patek Philippe, have been using this tagline in their advertising:
You never actually own a Patek Philippe: you merely look after it for the next generation.
A sense of stewardship contributes to a sense of generosity. We remain free to decide what we will do with what we have; but if we have a strong awareness that what we have has been entrusted to us, that we have received it, we are freed to be generous. We are passing on a share of what has been passed on to us. Stewardship means living with the awareness of having been given something. It was not mine to begin with and I will not take it with me. However I can invest it, send it on ahead of me, use it to make friends who will one day receive me in heavenly dwelling places.
Generosity is an expression of our love for our neighbour.
There is nothing inherently sinful in being wealthy. There is something sinful in loving wealth and its trappings more than we love our neighbour. That is where the rich man failed. He loved his extravagant lifestyle more than he loved the poor, suffering man who lay at his gate.
If he hadn’t known about Lazarus, that might have been some kind of excuse. It would still have been inadequate though, as his ignorance would have been an indictment of his self-absorbed, self-indulgent lifestyle. But he knew. He recognised him when he saw him at Abraham’s side. He had known but he had done nothing to help. Lazarus had not even been asking for a place at his table: a few scraps from the table would have made a difference.
The rich man knew, but he didn’t care. He failed to love his neighbour.
The contrast in circumstances of the people who share this planet in the 21st century is as vivid as the contrast in circumstances between Lazarus and the rich man. We live in a divided world: a world of haves and have-nots. It is reckoned that there are almost a billion hungry people in the world at the moment; there are about one and a half billion adults who are either overweight or obese. That is just one example, one that is not too far removed from Jesus’ story where one man feasted while another man starved.
We can hardly say that we didn’t know.
What might it mean to love our neighbour in such a divided world? Might it mean something as practical as skipping a meal or two every week and sending the money saved to a development or relief organisation? That may look like a very simplistic point to make, but what if all of us decided to do something?
Generosity is an expression of a heart attitude.
The famous “love chapter” – 1 Corinthians 13 – makes the point that there are many things, some of them spectacular, that we can do without love, but without love we are nothing. Paul even imagined the scenario where someone might give away all their possessions, but without love, they would gain nothing.
So we need to go deeper than simply putting a few pounds in a collection box or writing a cheque to feed some of the hungry. The point is not to do something that salves our consciences; it is to love our neighbour.
Someone once said that,
You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.
True generosity will be the overflow of a truly generous and loving heart.
If it’s a matter of the heart, then it does not really depend on how wealthy we are. It’s tempting to think that if you don’t have much to give, this doesn’t apply.
Jesus redefined giving as he watched people put their money into the offering box at the temple. He saw wealthy people put large amounts of money in the collection. And he saw a widow who had a couple of copper coins. The value of these coins was minute. It would have taken 120 of these little coins to make up just one day’s wage for a labourer. Think of it as fifty pence. Not even close to being able to buy a coffee in an average coffee shop today. Fifty pence while others were writing large cheques.
But Jesus said that she had given more than the rest of them.
You don’t have to be wealthy to be generous. It is a matter of your heart.
So, do rich people go to hell? No. Not necessarily.
Or, to ask another question, do generous people go to heaven?
If we could buy our way to heaven, we would not need Jesus. We might appreciate him as an inspiring teacher and example, but we would never have needed him as Saviour. If we could secure our relationship with God by being kind and generous, why would Jesus have come as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world?
There are some wonderfully generous people who make no claims to faith. Some of them would probably put many Christians to shame. But generosity does not atone for sin. And at his heart, sin starts as a rejection of God. No amount of generosity towards your neighbour makes up for that. It may be possible to love your neighbour without loving God, but – to return to the force of Jesus’ story – you cannot claim to love God if you do not love your neighbour.
Generosity is an evidence of a changed heart.