“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. . . .“
— Luke 16:19–20
This story from Luke 16 is fascinating if just from the standpoint that it is the only story in the Bible that actually pictures an identifiable person in hell. In the end, though, the story isn’t about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Why the rich man is there is far more important for us than that he is there; although, for pastors, his being pictured in hell should stimulate serious theological reflection because he is apparently a member of the covenant community.
How so? He believed in God. He immediately recognizes Abraham, who represents God in this passage, and addresses him as “father.” He believed in the Bible. He is obviously familiar with “Moses and the Prophets,” though, like many today, he wrongly doubts that Scripture is clear in warning against that for which he has been held accountable. He believed that if someone rose from the dead it would really make a difference. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so they might repent of their indifference. Abraham’s chilling reply: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Not even Jesus? It’s a serious question.
Lazarus is in great need. He suffers from disease, disability, and hunger. Both he and the rich man are not just single characters in this story, but are apt representatives of the “haves” and the “have nots.” Though Lazarus is laid at his gate, the rich man pays no attention to him until he himself is in torment and thinks that Lazarus may be of some use to him in relieving his pain and being a messenger to his brothers. The gap between the rich man and Lazarus, a gap of indifference and superiority, is one that the rich man cultivated before either of them died, and it persisted into life after death.
This is a pathetic man, to be sure, but he is not an unbeliever. Then why is he in hell? It is not because he is rich. There are two rich men in this story. Abraham was rich too. God had blessed Abraham richly, giving him “flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys” (Gen. 24:34). As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, the rich man is in hell not because he is rich, but because Lazarus was invisible to him. This is a terrible story and one that is powerfully important today. Though there are some encouraging signs, the world’s poor are still largely invisible to many American Christians.
The personal peace and affluence that Francis Schaeffer described as our culturally controlling values breed the same kind of indifference and superiority that plagued the rich man in the story. In a previous blog post I mentioned that 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day, another 20% on less than $2 a day, another 40% on less than $10 a day. I also mentioned that the gap between the upper 20% and this lower 80% is growing.
It is symptomatic of how deeply seated our indifference is that these facts startle most of us — as if a profoundly impoverished world isn’t obvious to anyone with eyes to see. A significant number of those encompassed by these statistics are already Christians, so we can’t plead that if they would just give their lives to Jesus things would be different. We also can’t simply say that this is somebody else’s problem.
Are you starting to feel like I’m on a rant here? I do not intend or want to be just a trigger for either shame or anger. Neither of these emotions meaningfully addresses this central Kingdom concern. Nor am I advocating impulsive action. The issues of world poverty are messy and complicated. Physicians spend years preparing to treat patients with messy and complicated diseases. We should do likewise. Pastors can search the Scriptures, search their hearts, and prepare their congregations the way physicians are prepared for their vocations. We need to move past shame and past anger to a clear resolve to face such issues directly and biblically.
What’s in the balance? Isaiah 58:10 puts it succinctly: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” If we don’t, it won’t. The story of Lazarus and the rich man isn’t about who’s going to heaven or hell; it is about missing the point of “God so loved the world”—or not.
Marty Martin is soon to retire as chief operating officer for Food for the Hungry (FH). He graduated from the US Air Force Academy and served as a rescue helicopter pilot in the US, Vietnam, and Greenland. Later, after graduating from Covenant Theological Seminary, he flew as an emergency medical helicopter pilot with Air Methods Corporation, eventually becoming vice president for operations. He continued in this role until called as executive pastor at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church (CCPC) in Denver. He joined the FH Board in 2003. In late 2004, on loan from CCPC, Marty left on a two-year assignment as country director for FH in the Democratic Republic of Congo, returning to CCPC in 2007 and to serving as an FH board member in 2008. He was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Colorado Christian University for his work in Congo. Marty joined FH’s staff in 2011 as chief operating officer and is based in FH’s Phoenix Global Service Center. He and his wife, Rosemary, have three children and four grandchildren.