The rich man and Lazarus. 16:14-31
Our passage for study is made up of a set of sayings followed by an illustrative story. In both the sayings and the illustration, Luke continues his theme of "the great reversal." In the face of the coming kingdom, good people under the law are condemned and repentant sinners under grace are blessed. The coming of the kingdom of God is evidenced by the replacement of the unchangeable law with a new word from God, an evidence more impressive than a visit by someone from the underworld.
v14-15. Jesus has just finished making the point that it is not possible to stand in the face of the coming kingdom and "serve the things of this world." Foolish as it may seem, this is exactly what "the children of light" do. The Pharisees ("who loved money" - Luke's comment) react with cynicism. Jesus' response is straight to the point. They may have some righteous standing in the sight of their religious cronies for their tithing and alms-giving, but in the eyes of God their status is nothing; they should beware!
v16. John the Baptist, standing at the end of the old era and at the beginning of the new, was privileged to announce the fulfillment of the covenant promises. He was privileged to announce the realization of the long-promised kingdom of God, of God's eternal reign in his messiah, Christ. As the kingdom bursts into the world in the life and teachings of Jesus, the Pharisees, in fact all people, "are being forced up against it", and in this confrontation many will be broken. So, be warned.
v17-18. To make the point that the kingdom of God is indeed "at hand", Jesus points out how the ethic of the dawning kingdom has already transcended the Law of Moses, and it must be remembered that to alter even the minutest element of God's Law is an anathema. Yet, this is exactly what is happening, for the Mosaic Law on divorce is being replaced by a new utopian ethic. Although the Mosaic Law allowed divorce, the radical demands of the kingdom dictate the opposite. So then, the "fulfilling" (the perfect completing) of Mosaic law illustrates that a new age has dawned and anyone with even the slightest understanding of the Old Testament would know it.
v19-31. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus does not represent Jesus' teaching on the hereafter. The description, in the illustration, of Hades and of souls at death going into the underworld for punishment, is not part of New Testament teaching. The story does nothing more than illustrate the points alluded to by Jesus in the sayings recorded in verses 14 to 18. First, in the dawning of the kingdom of God there is a great reversal: the "rich" (the self-righteous) are set aside, the "poor" (the humble, repentant) are blessed. So, beware! Second, the Old Testament clearly points to the dawning of the kingdom of God in Christ, a reality made even more evident by Jesus fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, eg., his utopian teaching with regard the law on divorce. If a person is unwilling to respond to such an evident sign, then even a messenger from death's realm wouldn't convince them. So, look and believe.
We have all been touched by divorce. We have watched as a friend, or family member, has gone through a marriage break down. Some of us have actually gone through a divorce ourselves. So, we all know the pain.
In touching on the topic of divorce, I don't want to suggest that it's the main point of our passage. Jesus simply touches on the issue of divorce to make a point to the Bible students of his day.
The Mosaic Law allowed for divorce, and remember, God's Law is unchangeable, yet Jesus now announces that, as far as God is concerned, divorce promotes adultery - it's not on. So, Jesus fulfills the covenant Law, completing it in perfection. A person with even the slightest understanding of the Old Testament couldn't help but read the significance. God's eternal reign is upon, let us repent and believe.
In looking at the subject of divorce we do need to understand that theologians are divided on what Jesus is actually saying. Is he saying divorce is adultery, or is he saying that remarriage is adultery? Divorce, in itself, is not adultery, although it opens both partners to the potential of remarriage, and thus adultery, which adultery is the responsibility of the person enacting the divorce. In simple terms, divorce is not on, and if enacted for the purpose of remarriage it is adultery. In Matthew's gospel Jesus gives us an exception for divorce; "except on the grounds of fornication", although the exception does not serve as a ground for remarriage. Remarriage, by its very nature, breaks the one-flesh union of marriage and is therefore adulterous.
What we can't avoid in this verse is the horror of Jesus' words. We can well understand the apostles who once commented, given the perfection of this demand, "it's better that a person not marry." The reality is that marriages do break down. How will we face the shame and guilt if it happens to us?
I'm sorry to say, that the church doesn't help us much on this one. In my church, the Anglican church, the remarriage of a divorcee is not permitted, unless you are royalty (I know, I shouldn't by cynical). Each diocese applies the rule differently; in my diocese, if you are willing to label your partner as a fornicator then you can be remarried in the church, or better, if you show yourself to have a lively faith in Jesus your remarriage will be approved. The logic here is beyond me. Surely, the greater the faith the greater the responsibilities.
Leaving aside institutional solutions, annulments and the like, how are we to approach a marriage break-down? Of first importance we must realize that Jesus is giving us an ideal to aim at, not a law to keep. As law, Jesus' instructions remind us that we stand condemned before the Judge of the universe. It is good to be so reminded for it forces us to hold tightly to Jesus. As an ideal to press toward, Jesus' instructions on divorce encourage us to go that extra mile to make our marriage work.
So, to those whose marriage has failed, who are remarried, even more than once, let me remind you that our God, in Jesus, has closed his eyes to our sin - he sees it not; he doesn't even remember it. To those whose marriage has not failed, I remind you that we are all adulterers, we have all left our partners in spirit, if not in deed, at some time or other. So, before we condemn others, let us remember we all stand condemned before the Judge of the universe. Forget the specks in the eyes of others and set to with your own log. Go that extra mile to make your marriage work.
Marriages easily break down, so let us work at respect and consideration toward our partners. And if the cold hand of divorce should touch you, remember that even in the depth of despair there is one who sees you as the apple of his eye.
Consider the way your church deals with the issue divorce and how your congregation applies the issue in the life of your church family.
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