Modesty and Generosity, or: The Story With the Sting In the Tail (Luke 16:19-31)

Okay. So last week Jesus continued teaching his course in Kingdom Management. He is training the disciples how to manage the kingdom after he has gone away.

And really their job description is very simple: forgive everyone who repents. Do not add to God’s Law; do not add to God’s Word; do not make people pay extra for their sins.

And Jesus gave his disciples two very practical ways to test themselves to see if their hearts are being truly transformed by God’s Law of Compassion and Forgiveness. Two practical tests:

What is your attitude toward worldly wealth? and

What is your attitude toward your wife?

This week Jesus is focusing on the first test: what should the disciples’ attitude be toward wordly wealth? Next week, at the beginning of Chapter 17, Jesus is going to finish his Kingdom Management training by focusing on the second test: what should the disciples’ attitude be toward their wives, their children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters — family in general?

So, this week: focus on worldly wealth. Next week: focus on family relationships.

And remember, these are practical ways for us to test our hearts and our lives to see how well we are being transformed by the Law of Compassion.

“So,” Jesus continues, [19] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.”

Purple was the most expensive colour you could buy, because it was the most difficult to produce. Generally only kings and emperors wore purple!

And this phrase “fine linen” means this guy also had top quality underwear.

And “lived in luxury every day” means celebrating with a feast every day. In fact, this phrase “lived in luxury” is the same phrase that Jesus used in his story about the lost son, when the father keeps saying, “let’s celebrate, my son has come home!” With that story Jesus was calling the Pharisees to celebrate every time a sinner repents.

Now, Jesus is telling a story about a man who celebrates!

Isn’t that great! Here is an example of a man who is obeying Jesus’ command!



Because: [20] At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores [21] and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

Hmmmm. So what is missing from the rich man’s celebration? Repentant sinners.

Jesus didn’t call the Pharisees just to celebrate; he called them to celebrate with repentant sinners.

This poor man, named Lazarus, is Jesus’ example of a repentant sinner. How do we know?

First, he is carried to the gate, perhaps by friends or family; that’s what this phrase “was laid” means: Lazarus did not get there by himself. Now, thinking back to Chapter 15, just before this, Jesus told a story about something that needed to be carried back to a place of safety. Remember? The lost sheep. So Lazarus is a lost sheep who has been carried to a place of peace and plenty.

Second, Lazarus is “longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table”. Now, thinking back to Chapter 15, didn’t Jesus tell a story about a man who was longing to eat something? The lost son, who longed to eat the pigs’ food. But then, if you remember the story, he “came to his senses” — he repented — and longed to eat the food from his father’s table again. But he was humble! He did not come back demanding a place at the table; he was willing to be a slave as long as he got something to eat. Here, Lazarus also is humble. He is not demanding a place at the rich man’s table; he is willing to be a beggar under the table as long as he gets something to eat.

Now, we have been reading the book of Luke for a while now. So we can already see that this story is another metaphor for the situation there in Israel. There is the poor sinner at the gates of God’s Kingdom, longing to enter and be fed and healed by God’s forgiveness — but helpless to do so. How dare he enter such a beautiful palace dressed in rags and covered in sores? We can understand this shame; for us it would be like visiting the Philharmonic in swimming trunks and sandals: you would be ashamed to go in, even if you had permission.

Then there is the Pharisee, the one who loves money and power, the one who controls who is allowed to come in. He should do for Lazarus what the father did for his lost son in Chapter 15: he should embrace the beggar, clean him up, give him new clothes, and give him a seat of honor at his table. But he does not. Why not? Because Lazarus is unclean: he is covered in sores, being licked by dogs, which are unclean animals.

So we already understand who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in this story.

But the people of that time would have assumed that the rich man is the good guy, and Lazarus is the bad guy. They believed that good people are rewarded by God with wealth and health; unclean people are punished by God with poverty and sickness.

So Jesus surprises them with a twist:

[22] “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”

So we notice here that the rich man was buried, which — in the minds of the people at that time — should have guaranteed his salvation. We also notice the beggar is not buried, which — in the minds of the people — was just a continuation of his humiliation by God.

But strangely, angels carry the beggar to Abraham’s side, while the rich man wakes up in Hades, a Greek word that means “place of the dead.”

Now, [23] In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.

And I should pause here and explain something. This idea of Lazarus being at “Abraham’s side” was a way of describing the seat of honor at a celebration feast. Diners would lay down on their left side, propped on their left elbow, and would eat with their right hand. And the highest place of honor was lying down to the right of the host.

If you can imagine it in your heads: the honored guest would actually be lying down in front of the host, both of them lying on their left side. Which means the guest’s back would be to his host’s front. And, during the feast, if the host and the guest were very good friends, the guest could sort of roll backwards and rest his head against the host’s chest. He could lean back and talk to his friend over his right shoulder, and his friend’s face would be right next to him.

As you can imagine this was a very intimate posture. And that is what this phrase “Abraham’s side” is describing. Some of the older translations call it “Abraham’s bosom” — Abraham’s chest.

So the rich man, who is in torment, down in the place of the dead, looks up, and far away in some paradise he can see this feast happening. And to his shock, he sees that Abraham is the host, which means that he is seeing the Judgement Day feast where all the great heroes of the Old Testament would be gathered to celebrate God’s victory over his enemies.

So the rich man — still reeling from the shock of discovering that he is not at the feast with all the Jewish heroes — looks to see which Jewish hero is leaning back on Abraham’s chest. Is it Moses? Is it King David? Is it Jeremiah the Prophet? Out of so many great Jewish heroes to choose from in history, which one is the honored guest at Abraham’s feast?

And to his shock, he sees that Lazarus the beggar is Abraham’s honored guest!


But the rich man, who used to command people on earth, thinks he can still command people in the next world. [24] So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham

Father Abraham! What presumption to think that he can still call Abraham his father! —

have pity on me and send Lazarus

— send your honored guest, as if he is a servant or something? —

to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

So we find that the rich man’s character has not changed even after death. Imagine, if he had actually made it into Abraham’s feast, how arrogant he would be there!

[25] “But Abraham replied, ‘Son — 

— very gracious of Abraham, isn’t it, to call the rich man ‘son’ even after all this? —

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. [26] 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.’

Abraham’s answer is very clear: the rich man is the victim of his own choices. He refused to show compassion in life; so now, in death, no compassion can be shown to him.

In life, Lazarus longed for just the scraps from the rich man’s table, but he could not pass through the gate into the palace. Now, the rich man longs for just a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger, but he cannot pass over the abyss that lies between them.

“Okay,” the rich man thinks, “so there’s no hope for me, then. But in that case,” [27]…’Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, [28] for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

The rich man is asking for Lazarus to go back as a ghost or in a dream to warn the rich man’s brothers. And we could think, “Oh, that’s nice. The rich man is learning to think about someone besides himself!”

But actually, the rich man’s character is unchanged. In life he only cared about his own honor, his own family. In death, he still only cares about his family.

And in the Old Testament God clearly commands his people — again and again! — to care for not only your own family, but also for strangers, immigrants, refugees, orphans, widows…beggars.

And that is the exact point Abraham makes next: he says:

[29] ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let your brothers listen to them.’

The commands of the Old Testament are clear: show compassion to those who are in need.

The rich man knew what God required from him, but he refused to do it. In the same way, the rich man’s brothers know what they are supposed to do. At any point they can read scripture, repent, and obey. If they do, they will end up at Abraham’s feast!

But the rich man is not done yet. [30] “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘you don’t understand: scripture is not exciting enough! It’s not persuasive enough! But if someone from the dead went and talked to them, that would get their attention. Then, they would repent!”

Basically, the rich man is saying, “No, father Abraham, the Word of God is not enough. What my brothers need is a really amazing miracle! Then they would believe.”

But Abraham says, “Nope.” [31] He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Now, for Luke — and for us — this is a very ironic line. Because we know the rest of the story, don’t we! Sure enough, someone did rise from the dead! — and sure enough, most of the Jews of that generation were still not convinced.

Okay. So what is Jesus trying to teach his disciples — and us — with this story?

Well, before we get into that, I want to make sure we discuss what Jesus’ parable is not meant to teach us. This parable is not meant to teach us what the afterlife is like.

There has been a lot of confusion over the years about this. Because of this parable, some Christians have believed that a). angels carry people’s souls away when they die (that’s in verse 22), b). that the place of the dead has two sections: smoking and non-smoking, with a chasm in between, and c). that people are walking around and talking to each other, that sort of thing.

All that is a misunderstanding. This is a parable, which means it is not meant to be taken literally. We know it is a parable because, at the beginning of this chapter Jesus began his parable about the dishonest manager with this sentence, “There was a rich man whose manager was accused etc etc.” Here, Jesus uses the exact same sentence, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple etc etc.”

And, in fact, scholars have discovered that this story form about a rich man and a poor man dying and going to the afterlife was a very popular type of story. It was sort of like the Korean Drama of its time, or the Simpsons or Transformers or something. And in these stories there is always a stock set of characters (including spirit-beings who carry souls around) and a smoking/non-smoking section and these conversations that happen. Archaeologists have discovered that these stories started in Egypt and then they spread to other countries, including Judea.

So this kind of story was the Egyptian Drama, and Jesus just borrowed it and adapted it in order to make a point to his disciples. And the disciples would have known this. They would have known that Jesus was not trying to teach them something about conditions in the afterlife.

It’s sort of like how, in the West, we tell these jokes about St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. For instance: Once upon a time a man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the gates, checks the list, and says, “Okay, you can come in! Let me show you to your house.” Peter leads the man past palace after palace, each one more beautiful than the last, until they come to a tiny little hut made of wood.

The man says, “Wait a minute, why do I get a hut when everyone else gets a palace?”

And St. Peter says, “Hey, we did the best we could with the money you gave your church.”

Now, you all know that I am not trying to teach you about conditions in heaven. That joke is making the point that what we do on earth affects our reward in heaven. And that is exactly what Jesus is doing with his parable.

Now, before we move on, some of you may be wondering what Christians do believe about the afterlife, so I’ll run through that briefly. The bible teaches that, after death, our bodies decay and return to dust. The souls of believers — which do not die or sleep, since those are physical things — are transported immediately (without angels having to carry us) to the presence of God, which is often described as a place of peace and light. And there, already made perfect, we wait for Judgement Day when our bodies will be resurrected and made perfect.

But the souls of those who have rejected Jesus’ forgiveness are cast into hell, which is often described as a place of torment and complete darkness, where they wait for Judgment Day when their bodies will be resurrected to dishonor. There is no indication that those in paradise can see those in hell, or vice versa.

And while the bible indicates that our existence as spirits is in some way conscious, without bodies we won’t eat or drink or talk or experience pleasure (or pain) the same way we do in our bodies. In scripture, when it describes dead people speaking and doing these physical things, it is always in a parable or in a vision, and the author is trying to describe something to us that is indescribable. We just don’t know the details about what a spirit existence is like, and we don’t need to know. It is sort of irrelevant. What is important to know is that we will not live as spirits for all eternity: one day, we will live in our bodies on this earth again — except with everything finally made perfect.

So, Jesus is not trying to teach us about the afterlife with this story.

What does he want us to learn?

Well, we have to remember that we are in the middle of Jesus’ Kingdom Management Training Course. And so far the central idea is: forgiveness. Good managers forgive. Good managers preach God’s Word, God’s Law, without adding to it. Good managers do not use their authority to dominate people. And how a manager uses worldly wealth is an important test of how good a manager he is of spiritual wealth.

This parable is meant to teach us more about the relationship between worldly wealth and forgiveness. And really it comes down to this: the Lust for Power vs. Compassion. The problem with this rich man is not that he is rich; it’s that he uses his wealth to gain power for himself. What we don’t realize when we hear Jesus’ story is that this rich man, by having feasts every day, is putting people into his debt.


Yes. It’s true. When we hear that the rich man parties every day, we think, “Oh, he’s wasting his money on parties, and that’s bad.” But actually that’s not the point. The rich man, by hosting parties every day, is using his money to gain power over people.

I’d better explain. The Roman culture of that time — in fact, the whole economy — was based on patron/client relationships. The “patron” — usually a rich man — would do a favor for someone in need; then that guy became his “client”, which meant that he owed his patron a favor in return.

The film The Godfather is actually a modern example of how the patron/client relationship still dominates Sicilian culture (that is, Roman culture!). If you’ll recall, at the beginning of the movie, Amerigo Bonasera asks the Godfather to beat up the young men who violated his daughter. He wants justice. The Godfather agrees to do it. And then he says, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do me a service in return.” And in the novel the author describes how Amerigo Bonasera lives in fear for years, not knowing what terrible favour the Godfather might ask him to do in return: he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to pay the Godfather back. The Godfather had gained power over him by doing him a favour.

Well that is what the rich man is doing with his daily feasts. He is inviting lots of different people to his table every day, which is a great compliment to them, a social boost for them. But then, in return, the rich man becomes their patron: he has power over them. They are his clients: they are in his debt. The rich man is using his wealth to gain friends for himself — but the wrong set of friends.

Back in Chapter 14 Jesus told the Pharisees not to invite their friends and relatives over for dinner, because then “they may invite you back, and so you will be repaid.” In other words: don’t invite people over for dinner just to put them in your debt. Instead, Jesus said, invite the poor, the lame, the blind…the beggars. Why? Because that is true compassion: you are spending your money feeding people who will never ever be rich enough to pay you back.

The world of that time — and our world today — ran on an economy of power. I have a certain amount of power: money, social status, reputation, etc. If you have a certain amount of power, I can spend some of my power on you, and then you owe me: your power is added to my power and I become more powerful. It’s like a video game, really! It’s politics! It’s business.

But if you have no power, then when I spend my power on you…I just lose my power. If you have nothing to offer me back, then you just become a drain on my resources. And why would I want to do that?

But that is exactly what Jesus has instructed his disciples to do: invest your worldly wealth, your social status, your good reputation — whatever you have! — invest it in people who cannot pay you back. That is compassion. That is love your neighbor as yourself.

Practically speaking, then, what does that mean for us? How can we make sure that how we use our worldly wealth is an accurate reflection of God’s compassion?

The first practical thing scripture calls us to do is: be modest.

I’d better explain this one: when the bible tells us to be modest, it does not actually mean “dress conservatively”, so as to avoid sexual temptation. When the bible talks about being modest, it means not wearing conspicuous wealth: not wearing all your fine jewellery, your purple robes, Armani suits, all that. Why not? Because, in that time, showing off your wealth was a way to dominate other people. It was a subtle way of saying, “I am better than you. So you had better do what I say.” This is still true in our time. So this biblical command is for us as well: be modest in how you use your wealth. Be humble. We must not use our wealth to show off — especially in church, in the family of God. Our Father allows some to grow wealthy, while he allows some to fall into poverty. But we are all his children; we are all brothers and sisters, of equal value in our Father’s eyes. So we must all work together to make sure no one in our family feels like less of a person because they don’t have as much money. Modesty helps.

I want to be absolutely clear here: it is okay for a Christian to feast, to celebrate, to host a party for friends and strangers. It is okay for a Christian to have a nice car, a nice house, nice possessions. But we must not use these things simply for our own pleasure; we must not use these things to dominate other people by showing off our wealth and power. We must avoid ostentation — which is a fancy word for “pretentious display”; we must be careful to live modest lives with the money God has given us, making sure that no one around us feels like less of a person.

The second practical thing we are called to do is: be generous. Especially to people who are in need. Especially to people who can never pay us back.

This is actually a wonderful way to preach the gospel. Not all of us are teachers or preachers. But every time we give someone something they need, and then refuse to accept repayment — well, that is the gospel in action, isn’t it? And there is an interesting implication to this command: if we are called to be generous especially to people who cannot pay us back, then…we ought not to loan money to anyone. In fact, that is what Paul wrote later on, in his letter to the Roman Church. He said, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

In other words: we should not loan money to others…we should give it. When someone is in need, when someone asks us for help, wherever possible we should give, not loan, our resources. This is especially true in church, in the family of God. Loaning money runs the risk of changing a brother/sister relationship into a patron/client relationship, where the lender has power over the lendee, and the lendee feels inferior to the lender. Wherever possible, when we help those in need, we need to make it clear that it is a gift, not an obligation, not a loan. Giving without expectation of return is a type of forgiveness.

Of course, when and how to help people properly requires wisdom, but that is a topic for another time. What is important for us to understand right now is the principle: if we are going to be generous to someone in need, we need to do so in such a way that we do not gain power over that person, especially if the one in need is a brother or sister in Christ.

So, how can we test ourselves to see if our hearts are truly being transformed by God’s Law of Compassion and Forgiveness?

One test is to take a good look at how we use the money God has given us. And there are two practical things to look for:

1. Am I modest with my wealth? or am I using it to impress people, to show off?

2. Am I generous, giving without expectation of return? or do I use my wealth to put people in my debt, and gain control over them?

These are the questions we can be asking ourselves, and one another, as we learn how to live on this earth as good children of our Father.

Now, in closing, we do need to remember that when Luke writes about money, he is never just writing about money. For Luke, the Word of God which brings forgiveness is the greatest wealth anyone can ever have. So, in Jesus’ story, we find that not only did the rich man fail to invest in Lazarus as he should, but he also totally ignored the riches he already had: the promise of forgiveness that is there in the Law and the Prophets.

In the Old Testament, God speaks to his people and says, “I am the Lord your God. I had compassion on you when you were helpless slaves; I rescued you and made you my children. Therefore, I want you to act like me: I want you to have compassion on the helpless, rescuing them and making them your brothers and sisters.”

The rich man had this treasure in his hands! But he totally despised it. Even in the end, when he was in Hell, he despised God’s Word, and insisted that his brothers needed a miracle before they would believe.

We also have the same incredible treasure: the Word of God, the promise of God’s forgiveness. So what is true of money is also true of God’s Word. Even as we ask these questions about how we use money, we can also ask them of how we use God’s Word:

1. Am I modest with God’s Word, treating it with respect, not adding to it or taking away from it?

2. Am I generous with God’s Word, offering forgiveness to everyone who asks, without demanding repayment?

And those are actually the questions Jesus will discuss next week, when he instructs his disciples on how they ought to live with their wives, their children, their brothers and sisters in the family of God.

So make sure to come back for that, ya?

Scroll to top