The Parable of the Unjust Steward
1. And He said also to His disciples, There was a certain rich man, who had a steward, and this [man] was accused to him that he was wasting his belongings.
2. And he called him and said to him, What [is] this that I hear of thee? Render an account of thy stewardship, for thou canst not be steward any longer.
3. And the steward said in himself, What shall I do? For my lord takes away from me the stewardship; I have not the strength to dig; to beg I am ashamed.
4. I know what I will do, that when I am removed from the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
5. So he called for every one of his lord’s debtors, and said to the first, How much owest thou to my lord?
6. And he said, a hundred baths of oil. And he said to him, Accept thy bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.
7. Afterwards he said to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, a hundred cors of wheat. And he said to him, Accept thy bill, and write eighty.
8. And the lord praised the unjust steward, because he had done prudently; for the sons of this age are in their generation more prudent above the sons of light.
9. And I say to you, Make friends for yourselves of the mammon of injustice, that when you fail, they may receive you into eternal tabernacles.
10. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
11. If then you have not been faithful in the unjust mammon, who shall entrust you with the true?
12. And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who shall give you that which is yours?
13. No house-servant can serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
The previous parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were given in response to a criticism made by the scribes and Pharisees. They complained that Jesus “accepts sinners and eats with them” (Luke 14:35). In response, Jesus gave three parables. Each time, Jesus was indirectly teaching the scribes and Pharisees that God’s mercy extends to all people, even to sinners.
As Jesus puts it at the end of the parable about the lost sheep, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). The next parable, which is about the joy of finding a lost coin, repeats this theme. In the final verse of that parable, Jesus says, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents” (Luke 15:10). And at the conclusion of the parable about the lost son, Jesus describes the father as saying, “We ought to be merry and rejoice, because your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found (Luke 15:32). Each time, there is joy in heaven, and in a father’s heart, when someone or something that has been lost is found.
In the deepest sense, what has been “lost” is some aspect of our spiritual life. The parable of the lost sheep is about the loss of innocence; the parable of the lost coin is about the loss of some essential truth; and the parable about the lost son is about the loss of our relationship with our heavenly Father. After giving these three parables, Jesus now turns his attention to a parable about a steward who did a poor job of managing his wealthy employer’s possessions. As a result, he lost his job. This, then, is another parable about loss. In the literal sense, it is indeed about the loss of employment. The spiritual sense, however, is about something much deeper. It’s about losing the illusion that we are sufficient unto ourselves and, in exchange, finding out how greatly we are indebted to God.
The case of the wasteful business manager
In biblical times, a wealthy man would often hire a steward to manage his business affairs. For example, a rich landowner might allow farmers to plant produce on his land, gather the harvest, and sell it for a profit. Although these farmers did not own the land, they were allowed to use it. In return, the farmers would repay the owner by returning a portion of the profits to the landowner. Because they “shared” the profit from the “crops,” these tenant farmers were called “sharecroppers.” It was the job of the landowner’s business manager, called his “steward,” to collect from the sharecroppers the landlord’s share of the profits.
As Jesus tells the parable to His disciples, he begins with the words, “There was a certain rich man who had a steward” (Luke 16:1). In the spiritual sense, the “rich man” is God, and each of us is the steward. As God’s steward, we are charged with the responsibility of wisely managing the resources that have been entrusted to us. In the parable, however, the steward has not done his job well. Therefore, the landowner says to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Render an account of your stewardship because you can no longer be steward” (Luke 16:2).
The phrase, “Render an account,” suggests that it’s time for the steward to open the books and show his employer exactly how the landowner’s resources have been managed. In other words, it’s time to be accountable. Similarly, there comes a time in each of our lives when we need to “open the books,” so to speak, and carefully examine how we have managed the resources that God has made available to us. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” (Psalms 116:12).
This kind of self-examination is contained within the next verse of the parable. When the business manager finds out that he can no longer serve as steward, he says within himself, “What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I have not the strength to dig; I am ashamed to beg” (Luke 16:3). In the spiritual sense, not having “the strength to dig” suggests an inability to search for the truth. Even in common speech, people often say “Let’s really dig into this subject” or “Let’s dig deeper into this.” It is another way of saying, “Let’s explore this topic,” and “Let’s try to understand it as deeply as possible.” Just as miners dig into the earth to find the precious treasures that are buried there, we are invited to dig into the Word to discover the precious truths that are contained within its deeper meaning. All of this is to suggest that not being able to dig, when seen in the light of spiritual truth, means, “I confess that I am weak. Without the Lord’s help, I cannot understand His Word. Or, as the steward puts, it “I have not the strength to dig.” 1
This leads to the second part of the steward’s realization. He says, I am ashamed to beg” (Luke 16:3). Seen spiritually, the phrase “ashamed to beg” suggests a second confession. There are times when we not only confess that we cannot understand scripture without the Lord’s aid, but we also confess that we are “ashamed to beg”—that is, we confess that we have been too proud to ask for the Lord’s help. Arrogant self-confidence, smug self-esteem, and vain self-assurance have made us incapable of humbling ourselves before the Lord, begging for His assistance. Until now, we have mistakenly believed that it would be shameful to do this and that it would somehow be beneath us because we are sufficient unto ourselves. But this is a turning point in our regeneration. And so, the steward makes an important confession, saying, “I am ashamed to beg.” 2
Lacking the strength to dig and ashamed to beg, the steward comes up with a plan to support himself when he has lost his job. He will go to all his master’s debtors and collect their debts. But instead of making them repay the full debt, he will substantially reduce the debt. For example, a debtor who owes one hundred measures of oil will only have to repay fifty measures; a debtor who owes one hundred measures of wheat will only have to repay eighty measures. In receiving this substantial discount, the debtors might feel indebted to the steward. Perhaps they will even invite him to stay with them after he loses his job. As the steward puts it, “When I am removed from my stewardship, they will receive me into their houses” (Luke 16:4).
It is noteworthy that the steward comes up with this plan after he has lost his position with the landowner. There are times in our own lives, times of anxiety, sickness, or desperate need, when we, too, begin to think in new ways and come up with new plans. At such times, we may even reconsider our relationship with the Lord. We may remember that we have drifted very far from God and have “mismanaged” our God-given resources. The steward’s plan, then, to recoup a portion of the debts, is seen as commendable in the eyes of the landowner. As it is written, “ “So the lord praised the unjust steward because he had done prudently” (Luke 16:8).
The steward’s decision to collect a portion of the unpaid debts represents each of us whenever we have begun to acknowledge our indebtedness to God. This is especially true at those times when we have experienced some great loss. Whether it’s the loss of health, or a relationship, or a job, this experience can awaken us, even in some small way, to our need for God, and our indebtedness to Him. 3
The significance of one hundred measures
It might be reasonably asked why the landowner was pleased with the steward’s plan. After all, the steward was not collecting the full debt, and he was selfishly thinking about how he might provide for himself after he lost his job. In this regard, this parable has always been known as “the parable of the unjust steward.” But the landowner does not call the steward “unjust.” In fact, the landowner commends the steward for acting prudently.
A study of the internal meaning of this parable helps to understand this difficulty. It will be remembered that of all the debts that were mentioned, only two are described. These debts are “one hundred measures of oil” and “one hundred measures of wheat.” Both oil and wheat are spiritual terms that refer to spiritual qualities.
The first debt is “one hundred measures of oil.” In biblical times, olive oil was used for healing, for nutrition, for the lighting of lamps, even for the anointing of priests and kings. Because of its smoothness, warmth, and ability to reduce friction, oil represents every loving emotion that comes from God and fills our hearts. As it is written in the twenty-third psalm, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalms 23:5). Also, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the wounded man was healed when the Samaritan poured on “oil and wine” (Luke 10:34). 4
The second debt is, “one hundred measures of wheat.” This, too, is a symbolic expression, representing all the wisdom which comes from love and fills our minds. In biblical times, wheat was considered the most important of all the grains. Whenever it is mentioned in the Bible, it always comes first. For example, in the Hebrew scriptures, Ezekiel is commanded to take “Wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt” with him as nourishment (Ezekiel 4:9). And when the harvest of the field was destroyed, the farmers were told to grieve first for the loss of wheat. As it is written, “Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers; grieve for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field is destroyed” (Joel 1:11). In the agricultural world, it is well known that wheat production requires good, fertile soil. This “fertile soil” corresponds to our willingness to learn and be instructed by the Lord, especially in our youth. In this regard, the words that Jesus speaks are like grains of wheat which can be received by us when we humbly desire to be instructed by Him. 5
In both cases, the debt that must be repaid is “one hundred measures.” As we pointed out in the explanation of the parable about “one hundred sheep,” the number “one hundred” stands for every blessing that has come to us from the Lord, especially those blessings that have been stored up in us since early childhood. These include every tender moment when we received love from caregivers, or enjoyed the friendship of playing with our companions, or delighted in some simple truth from the Lord’s Word. These blessings are deeply stored up within us and remain with us for our entire life. In sacred scripture, these “remains” of goodness and truth are represented by the numbers “ten” and “one hundred” because these numbers represent what is full and complete. 6
With this in mind, we can take a deeper look at the debts that are mentioned. The one hundred measures of oil represent everything related to love and affection that the Lord has stored up within us. And the one hundred measures of wheat represent every form of truth through which that love can be expressed. These gifts of love and wisdom, which we have continuously received from early childhood right up until this present moment, are enough to get us started in our regeneration. They are, so to speak, the foundation for receiving the goodness and truth that will continue to flow in from the Lord for the rest of our lives.
It is, of course, impossible to fully repay the Lord for what He has done for us. In that regard, we are all debtors with an insurmountable debt to repay. Nor does the Lord expect us to fully repay the debt. Instead, He simply desires that we will eventually acknowledge that all the goodness and truth that we have is from the Lord alone, and nothing from ourselves. And He desires this not for His sake, but for ours. This is because it is only in states of genuine humility, when we acknowledge that we have no goodness, no truth, and no power from ourselves, that love, wisdom, and the power for useful service can flow in from the Lord. 7
One of the central lessons of this parable, then, is that although we can never fully repay the Lord for all He has done for us, we can at least acknowledge that the goodness and truth that we have received are from Him. In the beginning of our regeneration, this is not always clear to us. It may seem that the good feelings we feel toward others, the true thoughts we think, and the useful actions we perform are from us, rather from the Lord through us. In the parable, the steward collects fifty measures of oil (rather than one hundred) and eighty measures of wheat (rather than one hundred). In the spiritual sense, this indicates that we have made a good start, but still have a long way to go before we can fully acknowledge our complete debt to the Lord—a debt of “one hundred measures” of goodness (oil) and “one hundred measures of truth” (wheat).
The sons of this age
Jesus then adds an important comment about the steward’s plan. He says, “The sons of this age are in their generation more prudent than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Jesus is speaking about the importance of using human prudence in the affairs of natural life. He uses the phrase “the sons of this age” to refer to the natural world and the business matters that pertain to daily life. And he uses the phrase, “the sons of light,” to refer to the spiritual world and the spiritual matters that pertain to the decisions we make in the light of God’s Word. It is important to keep clearly in mind the distinction between both worlds. 8
Sadly, when it comes to the pursuit of material goals, we are sometimes more ambitious, more tenacious, and more determined than we are about accomplishing spiritual goals. When we work long hours at our jobs and devote an enormous amount of energy to worldly ventures, hoping for the enhancement of our reputation or financial gain. we are “sons of this age.” That same energy and devotion could be used to become “sons of light,” but this does not take place immediately. It takes time. Devotion to worldly ambitions comes first, and it is not wrong to pursue worldly goals initially. In the beginning of our regeneration, worldly ambitions—apart from spiritual ones—will predominate. As Jesus puts it, “The sons of this age are in their generation more prudent than the sons of light.” He is referring to the effort that people exert to pursue material happiness, and the qualities that are necessary in that pursuit, qualities such as diligence, perseverance, and determination. As motivational speakers often say, “If you put your mind to it, are relentless, and do not give up, you can achieve your dreams.” This can be true; wealthy people often confess that it took tremendous dedication to amass their fortunes.
Jesus does not disparage this approach to life. Rather, He seems to encourage it, at least in part, for He says, “He who is faithful in what is least [worldly things] is faithful also in much [heavenly things]; and he who is unjust in what is least is also unjust in what is much” (Luke 16:10). Here Jesus is encouraging us to develop some of the essential skills that will eventually constitute our heavenly life: determination, dedication, devotion, and perseverance. And this must first take place through practicing them on worldly concerns. For example, if we have been lazy and careless about worldly responsibilities, what will prevent us from being lazy and careless about our spiritual responsibilities? If we have been afraid to take on challenges in areas of practical concern, how will we overcome spiritual challenges? Or, as Jesus puts it, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:11).
The term “unrighteous mammon,” as it is used here, simply refers to the riches of the material world as compared to the true riches which are the blessings of heaven. Being faithful to the “unrighteous mammon” simply means doing ones job in life faithfully, sincerely, and diligently, even if it is only for material benefit. But the time comes when there will be a necessary conflict between our material ambitions and our spiritual values. We can’t go through life looking downwards towards the world with one eye and upwards towards heaven with the other eye. Either our material goals must predominate, or our spiritual aspirations must predominate. There comes a time when we must choose. As Jesus puts it, “No house-servant can serve two lords, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” 9
A practical application
There is nothing wrong with having worldly ambitions—a decent home, nutritious food, reliable transportation, money for clothes and recreation. These things are not necessarily “unrighteous.” But when they become our chief delight and ruling love, they become what Jesus calls “the mammon of unrighteousness.” It is important, therefore, that we do not confuse the two levels of thought and practice. For example, if someone owes us ten thousand dollars, it’s not prudent to say, “Oh, just forget the debt, because the Bible says we should forgive our debtors.” This is mixing up the laws of the heavenly kingdom, where we are called to forgive one another our spiritual trespasses, with the laws of the natural kingdom where debts must be repaid for society to function effectively. 10
The Full Gospel
14. But the Pharisees also, being lovers of silver, heard all these things, and they derided Him.
15. And He said to them, you are they who justify themselves before men; but God knows your hearts, for what is high among men is an abomination before God.
16. The Law and the Prophets [were] until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is announced, and everyone presses into it.
17. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than one little horn of the Law to fall.
18. Everyone who sends away his wife, and weds another, commits adultery; and everyone who weds her that is sent away from [her] husband commits adultery.
The parable about the prudent steward, as we have seen, is intended for the instruction of the disciples. On one level, it is a parable about being savvy, industrious, and prudent in one’s business dealings. But, more deeply, it’s also about keeping God first. The love of God must always be primary—not the love of money. It was for this reason that Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The term “mammon” is an Aramaic word for “money.” It also stands for riches, wealth, and material possessions. It has come to be associated with greed, lust, and covetous desire.
Although this lesson was intended primarily for the disciples, the Pharisees were also listening. And the reference to “mammon” or the love of money must have certainly aroused their ire. We read that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided him” (Luke 16:14). Turning His attention now to the Pharisees, Jesus says, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed before men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
There is nothing wrong with money. It is a useful tool for conducting business transactions and keeping the economy running smoothly. Problems arise, however, when the love of money overwhelms ordinary business pursuits. When greed and covetousness enter the picture, misery ensues. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in each of us to pursue money for its own sake rather than for the good that we can do through it. Rather than be a helpful servant, helping us to conduct business, money becomes a cruel master. It is for this reason, when financial wealth is too highly esteemed, that Jesus says, “what is highly esteemed before men is an abomination in the sight of God.” 11
This must have been confusing to the Pharisees. After all, it was their belief that God had rewarded them with positions of honor and wealth. According to their theology, if you were poor, God was punishing you for your sinfulness; if you were wealthy, God was rewarding you for your righteousness. In brief, the obedient prospered, and the disobedient perished. Money and social status were supposedly a clear indication that God had favored them. No wonder they were confused by Jesus’ bold statement that it was impossible to serve both God and mammon. In their mind, financial prosperity was inseparable from their idea of God.
For example, the Hebrew scriptures seem to be very clear about the connection between obedience to God and financial prosperity. As it is written, “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God to observe all His commandments, the Lord will set you high above all the nations of the earth … and the Lord will make you prosper abundantly, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 11).
But Jesus came to correct this deeply entrenched fallacy and to show that the real idea of heaven was not about accruing wealth but rather about serving others. The Pharisees had not read deeply enough or understood broadly enough the full truth contained in the Hebrew scriptures. Their understanding was limited to the simple, selfish idea that God rewards the righteous with wealth and punishes the sinner with poverty. In their self-absorption they had not noticed or had deliberately glossed over the many passages where God repeatedly calls people to reach out and help the poor. As it is written, “Happy is he that has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God, Who made heaven and earth . . . who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry” (Psalms 146:5-7).
While it is possible to read the Hebrew scriptures in such a way that it appears to teach that the kingdom of God is exclusively for the chosen few, Jesus has a very different message. He declares that the kingdom of God is for everyone—not just for the rich and those who considered themselves to be righteous. As Jesus puts it, “The Law and the Prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” (Luke 16:16).
Jesus is clear that He is not changing the law—not one iota. He is merely reading and interpreting it fully, without slanting it or twisting it or leaving anything out. It’s a full gospel in the truest sense—one which includes everything and everyone. Jesus omits nothing: As Jesus says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17).
As an illustration of how important it is to have a full understanding of the law, Jesus speaks about marriage, emphasizing its central importance in human life. He is aware that the Pharisees have invented many ways to get themselves out of the marriage covenant. For example, it is written in Deuteronomy that “a man may put away his wife if she does not find favor in his eyes” (Deuteronomy 24:1). In some cases, they took this to mean that if a man finds another woman to be more attractive than his wife, he is allowed to divorce her.
Knowing that this is how some of them interpreted the law, Jesus emphasizes the holiness of marriage, and the importance of commitment. He says to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery.” And he adds, “whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). At a deeper level, Jesus is referring to the holiest marriage of all—our marriage to God. Referred to as the “heavenly marriage,” this describes our relationship with God in terms of a holy covenant. In this sacred covenant, we promise to remain faithful to the Lord alone, keeping Him first in our life. We refuse to admit anything into our hearts or minds that is not from God, just as a wife only receives seed from her husband. As the Lord puts it in the Hebrew scriptures, “Return to me, O backsliding people … for I am married to you” (Jeremiah 3:14).
This is an example of what it means to read and understand the Word of God in the fullest way, in the spirit that it is given, and apart from self-serving motives. It is to understand that when Jesus is speaking about “putting away one’s wife,” He is referring to the tendency to separate goodness from truth and when he speaks about “adultery,” He is speaking about adulterating pure motives with self-serving ones, thus destroying the heavenly marriage of goodness and truth. As we have mentioned, the Hebrew scriptures, when spiritually understood, are filled with beautiful teachings like this—teachings that awaken our humanity and call us to rise above self-interest. These teachings, which include the five books of Moses, the histories, the psalms, and the prophets are known by the inclusive phrase “the Law and the Prophets.” 12
It is to the Law and to the Prophets that Jesus will continue to turn, revealing their divinely filled spirit in parable after parable. He will demonstrate how the religious leaders of His day had a shallow, self-serving idea of the Hebrew scriptures. Because of this, they were mistaken about many things. They were mistaken about marriage; they were mistaken about poverty. And, as we shall see in the next parable, they were mistaken about riches. All of this is in keeping with one of the central themes of the Gospel According to Luke: the reformation of the understanding.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19. And there was a certain rich man, and he wore crimson and fine linen, making merry splendidly every day.
20. And there was a certain pauper named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate with sores,
21. And longing to be satisfied from the crumbs which fell from the table of the rich [man]; but even the dogs came [and] licked his sores.
22. And it came to pass that the pauper died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; and the rich [man] also died, and was buried;
23. And in hell, lifting up his eyes, being in torments, he sees Abraham from far off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24. And calling [out] he said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am grieved in this flame.
25. But Abraham said, Child, remember that thou didst receive thy good [things] in thy life, and likewise Lazarus evil [things]; but now he is comforted, but thou art grieved.
26. And besides all these things, between us and you a great gulf is fixed, so that they who will to pass from hence to you cannot, neither can they cross over from thence to us.
27. And he said, I beseech thee therefore, Father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house,
28. For I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29. Abraham says to him, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.
30. And he said, no, Father Abraham, but if someone from the dead went to them, they will repent.
31. And he said to him, If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one should rise again from the dead.
Jesus is in the presence of the Pharisees. They have derided Him for His statement that it is impossible to have two masters—God and money. And they have heard Him say that “what is esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Jesus is especially concerned with their narrow, self-serving interpretation of the Law and the Prophets; He wants them to realize that God has a greater plan for humanity—a plan that is far greater than merely exalting their nation above others.
His method for delivering this message is, as usual, the parable. This time it’s a parable about “a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen” and who “fared sumptuously every day”(Luke 16:24). It is clear from what has just preceded in verse 14 that the “rich man” represents those who are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). More deeply the “rich man” represents all people who have access to the Word of God, and who feast on its truths daily, but do not apply it to their lives. For them it is simply a rich banquet, a truly “sumptuous fare” of spiritual truth. This, then, is what this parable is about. The purple garments represent goodness, and the white garments represent truth, both of which are available to us while reading the Word. For this reason, it is described as “sumptuous fare.” 13
Reading the Word is good. It does for the soul what nutritious food does for the body. But if we choose to not live according to what it teaches, it does us no good. In fact, it can lead to great spiritual harm, as illustrated in the continuation of the parable. As it is written, “There was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:20-21). If the rich man represents each of us—whether financially well off or amply endowed with spiritual truth—Lazarus represents all those who are poor and suffering among us.
This parable, then, is a call to both social and theological responsibility. People come into our lives (Lazarus was laid at his gate) who are desperately in need of help (full of sores). Too busy with our lives or too preoccupied with our own concerns, we neither see their desperation nor hear their cries. Meanwhile, well-intentioned people try to help (the dogs come and lick his sores), but it is only a temporary palliative. It does not lead to a deep, spiritual healing. 14
As the parable continues, we learn that “the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22). But death and burial are not the end for either the rich man or for Lazarus. Much to his dismay, the rich man discovers that he is in hell suffering torments. Seeing Abraham and Lazarus far away, he cries out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:24).
The “flame” which now torments the rich man is nothing more than the burning lusts of his own selfishness, the fiery ambitions, and scorching passions of his unquenchable self-love. These are the only “flames” that exist in hell. This is what is meant in the Word by “hell fire.” 15
At first glance it seems unkind that the rich man’s cries for mercy are unheeded. All we hear is Abraham’s response; “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and you are tormented’ (Luke 16:25). In the Divine Mercy no one is ever “punished” for what they did during their lifetime; nor is anyone “rewarded” in the sense that we usually understand those terms. The next life is, after all, merely a continuation of this one—with one exception: we can no longer pretend to be somebody we are not.
In the next life we truly become our inmost selves. That’s why those in “hell” appear to be constantly devoured by burning flame. Those flames symbolize their selfish, unquenchable desires. Conversely, people in “heaven” glow with a gentle radiance which arises from their genuine love for others and for God. Though they may “burn” with the desire to serve others and do good, it is a gentle, steady flame that gives heat and light. It’s like a controlled fire that warms a house as compared to an uncontrolled wildfire that devours a forest.
The difference between the controlled fire that warms and the raging fire that destroys is the difference between heaven and hell. Between the two there is a gap so wide that no one can cross it. It is for this reason that Abraham says, “Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us” (Luke 16:26). The gap between heaven and hell in us is not on a continuum; it’s a veritable chasm. 16
Still distraught, and still trying to avoid his misery, the rich man again begs Abraham, this time saying, “I beg you therefore, Father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:28). But Abraham answers, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The rich man, unconvinced by Abraham’s answer, replies, “No, Father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:30).
Here we are reminded of Jesus’ words in the preceding episode when He referred to “the Law and the Prophets” (Luke 16:16) and in this episode to “Moses and the Prophets.” In both cases, He is speaking to the Pharisees, rebuking them for their shallow, self-serving ways of understanding scripture. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is another attempt to instruct them, through parable, in the truths contained within their own scriptures. Jesus could not make it more plain for them. He is saying that those who reach out to help the needy, with a genuine concern for the welfare of others, will go to heaven. But those who refuse to reach out, even though they are amply endowed with financial and spiritual resources will remain selfish—burning with selfish desire—for eternity; nor will they allow themselves to be persuaded—even though one rise from the dead. 17
The message of this parable, then, is not hard to fathom. The rich man represents each of us, feasting on the Word of the Lord, but unwilling to apply it to our lives. This is the selfish, self-centered part of us that cannot go to heaven. But there is also another part of us, named “Lazarus.” This is the part that hungers and thirsts for righteousness. The “Lazarus” within us acknowledges that without a right understanding of the Word and without the power of God to live according to it, we are nothing more than spiritual beggars. Unlike the unjust steward in the previous episode who confessed that he was “ashamed to beg,” this “Lazarus quality” within us is not ashamed to beg. In fact, this quality “begs for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:21). This is the quality of humility that makes us receptive to the blessings that flow in from heaven. No wonder the name Lazarus, in the original Hebrew means, “one whom God has helped.”
When the rich man winds up in hell, he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them about this place of torment. But Father Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them hear them.” And he adds, “If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” It is contrary to divine order to compel belief through miracles, visions, conversations with the dead, or warnings about burning forever in a place of eternal hellfire. We can’t be compelled to go to heaven through fear. This does nothing more than shut in our evils which continue to burn secretly. Our only recourse is the Word of God, rightly understood, for it teaches us how to think and how to live. 18
A practical application
Recent scientific discoveries in neuroplasticity state that the decisions we make in this life actually create lasting changes in the organic structure of the brain. For example, they say that kindness and patience can be developed through practice in much the same way that people learn to play a musical instrument or ride a bike. The gospels take this a step further, teaching that changes in the spirit can be made, but this can only take place while we are still alive. The good news is that it can be done; we can change not only our brain, but also our spirit. This deeper change, however, takes more than practice. It takes a combination of prayer to the Lord and right effort. In this regard, we are both the rich man and Lazarus. We must be both “diggers”—enriching ourselves with truth from the Lord’s Word, and “beggars”—praying for the light to understand the truth we dig up. Then, of course, we must pray for the power to put it all into practice. As neuroplasticity experts say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”