How to Be a Rich Fool

June 6, 2021 Speaker: Jeff Breeding Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Passage: Luke 16:19–31

How to Be a Rich Fool

We all know the phrase “looks can be deceiving.” It’s a wise expression that cautions us against assuming too much based on outward appearances, and it’s a fitting summary for our passage this morning. When you read this parable from Jesus, one of the first things that strikes you is that looks can be deceiving.The parable presents us with two men, and based on the look of things, one man appears head and shoulders above the other. The rich man, as Jesus calls him, appears to be in a much better state than Lazarus. The rich man is comfortable, while Lazarus suffers. The rich man has all he needs, while Lazarus can’t even escape the wild dogs on the street. The rich man looks well-off, while you might assume Lazarus’ poverty indicates a life of bad decisions.

But friends, that’s where our well-known phrase comes in. Despite his appearance, the rich man is actually very poor. True, he is rich in earthly possessions, but the rest of the parable tells us that the man is poor toward God. Looks can be deceiving.

But that’s not all we should say about the rich man in Jesus’ parable. Not only is this man spiritually poor, but he is also a fool. He devotes his entire life to the accumulation of things, while spending no time at all considering eternity. Friends, that’s a good definition of foolishness, and I hope that is what stands out to you this morning about this rich man. Despite his wealthy appearance, he is actually poor, and he’s poor because he’s devoted his life to foolishness.

Before we dig deeper into this powerful parable, we ought to note where it falls in Luke’s Gospel. Look back to v14, where we find the thread that ties this parable to the rest of the chapter. Notice how Jesus describes the Pharisees. They are ‘lovers of money,’ Jesus says. In other words, when it comes to the Pharisees, looks can be deceiving. They appear devout and committed to the things of God, but inwardly the reality is different. Inwardly, they love the things of this world.

And that is the connection to our text, friends. The rich man in this parable is a rebuke to the Pharisees. They fancy themselves as rich and comfortable, but inwardly, they are spiritually poor. The parable, then, is a warning to recognize the foolishness of living for earthly things.

And that is also the challenge of this text for us. Remember, anytime we come to the Scriptures, we must humble ourselves and consider how God’s Word aims to correct and conform our lives. To say it a different way, the quickest way to miss this text is to assume Jesus has nothing to say to you. And therefore, we ought to be open this morning to correction – to seeing how there are aspects of foolishness in our lives that call us to confession and repentance. So, with humility in our hearts, let’s consider three marks of foolishness from the life of this rich man who was actually poor.

It is Foolish to Live Only For This Life

The first mark comes in vv19-23 – It is foolish to live only for this life. We’ve already noted how the two men in the parable could not be more different. Their earthly lives are a study in contrast. Notice the detailed picture Jesus paints, beginning in v19.

Everything about the rich man’s life proclaims comfort and ease. He is clothed in purple, like a king. He feasts every day, which would have been exceedingly rare in Jesus’ time. And he lives in a house so large that it has a gate, Jesus tells us in v20. That’s more than a front door, friends. It’s more like the grand entrance to a mansion. So, we get the picture from Jesus’ description, don’t we? When Jesus says ‘rich man,’ he means royally rich, ensconced in comfort, feasting in ease.

Lazarus, by contrast, is utterly miserable and destitute. Notice the equally graphic description of his poverty, v20. Lazarus appears to be crippled, as he has to be laid at the gate each day. He can’t get himself there. Lazarus is covered in sores – probably open wounds. Lazarus is starving, v21. He would be content with the crumbs from the rich man’s table. And Lazarus is unclean. I don’t mean in the physical sense, though that would be true. I mean in the religious sense. Dogs lick his wounds, v21. That’s pathetic, but it also makes Lazarus ceremonially unclean. And yet, that is how destitute Lazarus is. He cannot even ward off the wild dogs.

So, once again, we get the picture, don’t we? The rich man feasts; Lazarus starves. The rich man is robed like royalty; Lazarus is clothed in misery. The rich man rests comfortably, waited upon by servants; Lazarus lies helplessly, surrounded by dogs. The earthly lives of these two men could not be more different.

But there are a couple of indicators in Jesus’ description that tell us there is more to this story. The first is Lazarus’ location. Look again at v20, and notice where Lazarus is laid everyday – at the rich man’s gate. Try to picture that, friends – a magnificent mansion and there lying at the gate is this miserable man surrounded by dogs. Do you think you would notice Lazarus lying there? Do you think you would see him? Of course you would! How could you not? He’s literally on your doorstep.

But does the rich man do anything? No, he doesn’t. Make no mistake, friends. He sees Lazarus. Later in the parable, we’ll hear the rich man use Lazarus’ name, so he knows the poor man is there, lying out front. But the rich man doesn’t do anything to love his neighbor. That’s the first indication that looks can be deceiving.

The second indicator of something more is Lazarus’ name. Darrel Bock, in his fine commentary on Luke, points out that Lazarus’ name is a shortened form of the name Eleazar, which means God helps. So, the rich man ignores Lazarus, but God doesn’t. Lazarus – Eleazar – this man who appears so helpless will soon find that God is help. It’s another indication that looks can be deceiving.

And as we come to v22, we find that Lazarus’ name is telling the truth. Both rich and poor alike die, which is an important point in its own right. Everyone faces death, and in Jesus’ parable, death brings about a great reversal. Lazarus, as his name indicates, finds that God is his help. V22, Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side. Please don’t miss the stunning reversal, friends. Jesus is a master of parables, and this is one of his finest. The man who was licked by dogs in this life is now carried by angels into the next. The man who lived on the streets in this life now finds himself in paradise with Abraham, the man of faith and the father of God’s covenant people. Everything about Lazarus’ life is now overturned, and his misery is exchanged for blessing.

The same is true for the rich man, but his reversal is tragic. This is where we see the foolishness, friends. Notice the rich man’s reversal, v22 – “The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Friends, Hades is the place of the dead, where the rich man experiences the judgment of God. Why is the rich man in torment? Is it because he was rich? Is God opposed to those who are wealthy?

No, that’s not the answer. This parable is not telling us how you get to heaven or hell, and we should be careful not to overinterpret some of these details. Rather, the rich man is in torment because that is the fruit of his life. What is the sum of God’s Law? To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This man did not love God. How do we know? Because he refused to love his neighbor as himself. Do you see the connection? The rich man spent his life utterly disregarding the Word of God. He spurned God’s commandments in order to serve himself.

Friends, this is why Jesus includes the detail about Lazarus’ location. The rich man knew Lazarus, he saw him, and yet, the rich man did nothing to alleviate Lazarus’ suffering. That’s why the rich man is in Hades, suffering torment. He does not believe God’s Word. He does not honor God’s command. He does not hope in God’s promise. He does not love God’s people. The rich man lived only for this life, and that’s why he’s a fool.

Before we move on, I want to make just one observation. This may seem a rather simple observation, but I’m a simple pastor. The observation is this – there is life after death, and that reality ought to shape how we live each day. It is utterly foolish to live as though this earthly life is all that there is. There is eternity after death, and you will exist in eternity in one state or another. Are you living today with eternity in view? Are you prioritizing the things that God values, the things that God exalts – things like serving your neighbor, loving your family, telling the truth, working hard, building up the church? Or, like the rich man, are you being desensitized to eternal things by the constant, fleeting comfort of earthly pleasure?

Listen, that’s really the important point about money in this passage. God isn’t opposed to wealth, but God is clear about the effect that money can have on the human heart. Ecclesiastes 3 says that God has set eternity in the human heart, but wealth is like a spiritual anesthetic that numbs our hearts to that God-given sense of eternity. So, which age are you living for – this age or the one to come? Which age grips your heart most days– this age, with its fleeting comfort, or eternity? That’s the first mark of foolishness from this rich man who was actually poor – it is foolish to live only for this life.

It is Foolish to Think You Can Bargain With God

The second mark of foolish continues in this same vein, but with a different emphasis. From vv24-26, we see that it is foolish to think you can bargain with God. Lazarus fades into the background at this point, and the rich man is the clear focus. In fact, did you notice that Lazarus never speaks in this parable? The rich man carries the dialogue with Abraham, and his dialogue is very difficult but also instructive. Let’s follow along.

V24, the rich man asks for physical relief – “And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” What a sad picture this is, for a number of reasons. First of all, notice that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name, which means he was familiar with the poor man. But sadly, it doesn’t appear that the rich man has recognized his foolish ways. He’s still self-focused, self-consumed. Did you catch it, friends? The rich man wants Lazarus to show him the very thing that he failed to show Lazarus. He wants Lazarus to show him mercy. The rich man is still thinking about himself!

And on one level, we understand why. The man is in agony in the flames of judgment. Friends, we ought to be careful not to draw too many conclusions about the nature of the afterlife from this parable, since that is not Jesus’ main point. But this is one conclusion that we can and ought to draw – hell is a place of conscious judgment. The rich man experiences the full weight of his sin. He’s conscious of the agony he endures. He pleads for relief because hell is a place of conscious torment.

But tragically, the request is denied. Abraham, who speaks with the divine perspective in this parable, denies the request for two reasons. The first reason has to do with the justice of God. Notice v25 – “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in anguish.’” Now, we need to clear on something here. Some people read v25 and conclude that there is a karma-like effect in God’s economy. You get a certain quantity of good things and a certain quantity of bad. If you get all your good in this life, then you only get the bad in the next. And vice versa. That’s how someone might read this text, but friends, such an idea could not be further from the biblical truth. God does not operate on karma.

The point of v25 is that the rich man’s life revealed the state of his heart. He did not steward his earthly possessions in a way that honored God, and that foolish, failed stewardship pictures the man’s spiritual condition. “You cannot serve God and money,” as Jesus said in v13, “for you will hate the one and love the other.” And that’s true of the rich man. He loved his wealth more than God, and his indifference to Lazarus revealed that sad reality.

And so, Abraham in v25 is reminding the rich man that God is just. Abraham says, “Your life demonstrated that you hated God, so God is doing you no wrong.” You have not trusted him, you have not humbled yourself before him, and now, you are receiving the just penalty of your foolish life. The justice of God means there is no comfort for the rich man.

The second reason for Abraham’s refusal is the nature of eternity. Notice again v26 – “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” Now, I don’t think Jesus is trying to give us a physical description of the setting for heaven and hell. Rather, Jesus’ point is about the fixed nature of eternity. Once you die and stand before God, your position is sealed. Your place is certain, and there is no change. Even if those who experience God’s judgment come to their senses and see the folly of their lives – even if that happens in eternity, there is nothing that can be done. Your standing, once you enter eternity, is fixed. Your position is certain.

And that means, friends, that there is no bargaining with God. There is no negotiating table in eternity where you can make your case and sway God’s mind. In that sense, the rich man is a fool. He lived only for his earthly life, and now he foolishly tries to bargain with God. But that can’t be done. The only way to prepare for eternity is to respond to God today, in the present.

It is Foolish to Ignore God's Word

How do you do that? How do you respond to God? That sounds vague, doesn’t it? Where do we go? What do we do? Well, friends, our third mark answers that question through the rich man’s negative example. Mark #3 – It is foolish to ignore God’s Word. In v27, the rich man shifts gears. If he can’t find relief for himself, then perhaps he can spare his family. Notice the appeal he makes to Abraham, v27 – “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’” Apparently, the rich man’s brothers were as foolish as he was, which is why he asks for a messenger to go and warn them. They need to repent. They need to respond to God, or else they will end up in torment as well.

Abraham, however, tells the rich man that God’s Word is enough. Notice v29 – “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’” Friends, that is a remarkable statement of the sufficiency of Scripture. The rich man wants his brothers to be warned, and Abraham says, “Then let them hear God’s Word. Whatever it is that they need, God’s Word is sufficient.”

So, mark this down, brothers and sisters. Every healthy step in our spiritual lives begins with the Word of God. If we need repentance, God’s Word will lead us to turn from sin. If we need to be warned, God’s Word will spare us from the danger ahead. If we need faith or encouragement or healing or wisdom, God’s Word will give us what we need. The rich man says his brothers need help, and Abraham says, “Then listen to God’s Word.”

Still, the rich man is not persuaded. He doesn’t agree that God’s Word is enough. That should sound familiar to you because many people think the same thing today. The rich man doubts the sufficiency of Scripture. Notice his objection, v30 – “And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’” The Law and the Prophets aren’t good enough, the rich man cries! Moses and Isaiah aren’t powerful enough. They don’t speak to the needs of our contemporary world! People need something more than the Word! The rich man even has the solution – a messenger from the dead. Surely, if a resurrected messenger were to appear and preach to those who are hard-hearted, then surely, they would respond.

Again, Abraham says no, and this final response is the climax of the parable. What a powerful climax it is. Notice v31 – “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” You see, friends, the issue for the rich man’s brothers is not the need for a more powerful witness. Moses and the Prophets are more than enough to bring a sinner to repentance. That’s not the issue. The issue is their hardness of heart. They reject Moses and the Prophets because their hearts are dead in sin, because they don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear. And therefore, even if someone were to rise from the dead, even then, they would not believe.

Of course, we know that Jesus is talking about his ministry at this point. He’s talking about the Pharisees and the religious leadership of Israel. And Jesus’ point is powerful – if the Pharisees really believed God’s Law, then they would believe Jesus’ gospel. If the religious leaders truly embraced the Prophets, then they would respond to God’s kingdom coming in Christ.

But as it is, the issue is not really about who’s upholding the Law and the Prophets. The issue is their hardness of heart. The Pharisees refuse to humble themselves under God’s Word. They stubbornly reject everything Jesus preaches. And therefore, it will not even matter when Jesus rises from the dead. Even then, they will make up lies and spread conspiracies to undermine God’s Word fulfilled in Christ. This is the pinnacle of foolishness, friends – illustrated in the rich man and lived out in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Claiming to be wise, they’ve ignored God’s Word to their eternal peril.

So, back to that question we asked a moment ago – how do you respond to God? Where do we go? What do we do? The answer, friends, is that we respond to God’s Word. God always makes his people through his Word, and his Word is sufficient. When we humble ourselves to hear the Scripture, we find that God, through his Word, gives us everything we need for life and godliness. When we submit ourselves to the authority of what God has said, then we find that the miracle of grace occurs, where our natural hardness of heart is overcome, and life flowers where foolishness once reigned.

So, if you are not a Christian this morning – if you are not repenting of your sin and trusting in Jesus Christ’s death to save you – if you are not a Christian, what this passage is telling you is that you ought to prepare today for eternity, and you do so through God’s Word. The Bible is clear – one day, you will stand before God, and you will face his verdict on your life. Once that day arrives, your business with God is done. Your position is fixed.

And that means, friend, that today is the day to respond to him. Today is the day to prepare for eternity. Turn from your sin – that’s what the Bible calls repentance. Own the fact that you have defied and hated the holy God who made you. Turn from sin, and confess your trust in Christ alone. Again, the Bible is clear – without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin. And the only blood powerful enough to cleanse you is the blood of Christ. Trust him. There’s no special way you have to pray. There’s no aisle you have to walk or card you have to fill out. Simply and humbly, trust Christ. Confess that your only hope for this life and the life to come is that you belong to Christ by faith. Trust him. Today – right now – God’s Word is standing open before you, calling you to respond. It is foolish to ignore him.

Brothers and Sisters, that humble submission to Scripture cannot happen only on the first day we begin to follow Jesus. It must happen every day. I am alarmed – both in my own life and in the lives of others – how easily we wander away from God’s Word. We are quick to confess that God’s Word is authoritative – that it is true and inerrant. But then we go on to live in a way that questions the sufficiency of his Word. We live as though we need something other than his Scriptures. And so, we need to constantly re-examine the way we live. Do our lives testify that God’s Word is both authoritative and sufficient? Does our testimony affirm that God’s Word is both true and enough for all that we need?

“But how do I do that,” you ask? How do I show that God’s Word is true and sufficient? Well, it begins, brothers and sisters, by reading it. It begins by regularly and faithfully taking in God’s Word. It continues from there in obeying it – not perfectly or performatively, but humbly lining your life up with the straight edge of Scripture. Read it, obey it, and then it continues by upholding it through the faithful witness of a local church that is anchored in the Bible. The day is fast approaching when the line of orthodoxy for churches in our country will become quite clear. Do they uphold God’s Word as both authoritative and sufficient? Will they simply but clearly affirm that everything in Scripture is true? Read it, obey it, uphold it in and through the church. Where are you in that process? Are you pursuing the Lord through his all-sufficient Word? Or are you more like the rich man who ignored God’s Word to his peril?

Wherever you find yourself, brothers and sisters, the grace of change can begin today. Part of the good news of the gospel is that God does not leave us as we are. We all come into the Christian life like the rich man. We’re all fools saved by grace in the end. But praise God, the Lord does not leave us as fools. So, let’s go to his Word, each day, and let’s pursue the wisdom God has so richly provided for us in Christ Jesus. Amen. Let’s pray.

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