The Great Reversal - Luke 16:19-31


Terry Watanabe became the CEO of the Oriental Trading Company at the age of 20 years old.  The business was founded by his father in Japan selling small toy trinkets before relocating the business to the United States in 1932.  Under Terry’s leadership, he grew the small toy company into a multi-million dollar mail order toy empire.  By 2000, the Oriental Trading Company was bringing in $300 million dollars per year.  Watanabe sold his company in 2000 for an undisclosed sum because he wanted to devote his life to helping others and to have fun.  He said after selling his company, he told the Omaha-World Herald, “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.” He was a very rich man and part of our nation’s elite power brokers.  He had it all…that is until he lost it.  The plans He had to help others were not as fun as he hoped so he turned to drinking and gambling.  He started taking regular trips to Las Vegas and indulging in the sumptuous lifestyle that comes with it.  His thoughts of helping others faded as he was consumed with seeking pleasure for himself.  In 2006, he lost $204 million dollars between two different casinos in Las Vegas.[1] He was one who had it all: money, power, friends, servants, etc., but his desire to live for pleasure caused him to lose it all.  He experienced a great reversal of fortunes as he gambled away his future. 

            It is shocking that a man could lose $204 million dollars in one year.  We hear things like that and we are convinced that it would never happen to us, but know that everyone who lives for himself in this life will experience a great reversal in the next.  As Watanabe gambled away his future, many others are gambling with their futures by focusing their lives on today rather than eternity.  Jesus gives an illustration in Luke 16 to warn us about the great reversal that awaits everyone who loves money and pleasure and who is not rich towards God. 

The Great Reversal of Fortunes


            Jesus shares this story to rebuke the Pharisees who were lovers of money who were ridiculing him for encouraging people to invest their resources for eternity.  Luke 16:19-21,

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. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.

Scholars have debated whether this is a parable or a real account. Most parables explicitly state that they are parables.  We have good reason to believe this is a parable based on Luke 16:1 which starts the story of another parable the same way, “There was a rich man.” The proximity of these stories and a common beginning leads me to believe that this is also a parable, but it is specific kind of parable.  It is an example parable which does not depict a single real event, but a representative one.[2]  This rich man does not have a name because he is not meant to represent any one person, but to model for us a “kind” of person.

            This rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  We see the excessive wealth that this man had.  He was dressed in expensive clothing and he feasted “sumptuously” every day. He was a glutton.  He had a big house with a gate protecting him from the outside world. He was extremely wealthy and he lived a life of luxury.  He lived in earthly riches while at his gate was a man that lived in earthly poverty. We read his description in verse 20,

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. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The contrast is striking. The poor man has the name Lazarus. Lazarus is a variation of the name Eleazar which means “God helps.” It is ironic because this man appears to have no help from God.  He is poor, covered in sores, starving and unclean.  The Greek paints a more depressing picture than the English renders, for the words used for sores implies that the man is completed debilitated.  The last sentence says, “Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”  The word for dogs implies wild dogs, and having them lick his sores would make him ceremonially unclean according to Jewish law.  The picture is not that the dogs were trying to help him, but that he did not have enough strength to protect himself from the dogs for no Jew would have willingly been made unclean.  This man is starving and physically unable to move desiring to eat the crumbs of the rich man’s table. He is in anguish.  The rich man had earthly riches, but spent them on himself ignoring the poor beggar at this gate. Lazarus had nothing, but a desire to be helped by the man who feasted while he starved. 

The story turns in verse 22, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”  Both men die and experience the great reversal of their fortunes.  In death everything changes.  Only in death does Lazarus’s name finally make sense as God helped him by carrying him to Abraham’s side in glory while the wealth of the rich man failed him, for he died and was buried.  Verse 23 says, “and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”   This rich man had everything in this life…that is until he lost it all.  And not only did he lose what he had, but look at the conscious suffering that was added.  The text says that, “being in torment, he lifted up his eyes.” Being is a present participle showing continuous action.  When people die apart from they do not vanish from existence, but rather experience the reversal of fortunes with conscious suffering absent of the presence of God.  If people reject God’s presence in this life, He will deny you His presence in the next. 

Many people want to explain away Hell and eternal punishment, but in doing so they also explain away the majesty and power of God.  Hell is an eternal response to the rejection of the eternal beauty and glory and righteousness of God.  The only punishment that is worthy to fit the crimes against an eternal God is that which is eternal.  The eternal conscious torment of sinners in Hell is a reflection of the holy, righteous, and eternal character of the Lord God Almighty.  If we do not understand the reason that Hell exists, the problem may rest with us in a deficient understanding of the majesty and glory of God. 

The point of this story is not to condemn us, but rather to save us. This story reminds us that we all will face judgment upon death so that we can change how we live today.  In particular, we can change in how we spend our money.  Do we ignore those around us who are in need? Do we choose to spend our money on pleasure when people are at our gates desiring to be fed with the food from our tables?  We all have to answer for our own checkbooks.  Only you and God know how you handle your money.  God holds this rich man accountable for how he spent his wealth and, beloved, God will hold you accountable for how you spend your wealth.   God also will hold us accountable how we spend our wealth as a church.  We may not have a ½ million dollar budget like some churches, but we have a ½ million dollar facility. Are we using all that we have to feed those at our gates with the spiritual food of the Word of God?  Or are we ignoring the needs of our community to protect what we have?  Beloved, we must live for eternity.  You can have your ultimate pleasures now or for eternity.   

The Great Request for Favor

            The rich man was being in torment in Hades. Hades is the place recognized in Judaism where the dead were gathered.  The word used for Hell is “Gehenna” which is where the final judgment of the unrighteous happens.[3] The rich man was experiencing the righteous judgment for his sins and makes a great request for favor from God.  Luke 16:23-24,
And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 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.’

The rich man called out appealing to Father Abraham for mercy.  There is a hope that in some way his heritage or family line would enable him to receive mercy. Notice that this man was in anguish in Hades, just as Lazarus was in anguish on earth.  The rich man asks for Lazarus’ help while he was in anguish and he asks for him by name. The rich man knew Lazarus by name which makes his neglect of giving him aid all the more evil.  The rich man neglecting giving aid to those in need while on earth so he is neglected in receiving aid in Hades for Father Abraham responds in verse 25-26,

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 here, and you are in anguish. 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.’

It was too late for him as it is too late for anyone after death.

            This is a very sobering story.  We want to believe that everyone has another chance, but there comes a day where we will be held accountable for our actions.  There will be no more second chances.  Before pastoring, I ran a group home for teenage mothers and their children.  We were the last chance they had before losing their children.  Many came to us and took advantage of that last chance and started the long journey of motherhood.  Others refused to change and eventually I would have to dismiss them from our home.  I would load all of the child’s things in one car and the mother’s things in another and watch them drive off apart.  Those was the saddest days of my job when I had to watch a mother lose custody of her child. And although that was awful, there was a faint glimmer of hope of that mother learning her lesson and fighting to get custody back. But in this story, there is no more hope.  The light is out. There is nothing but darkness.  A great chasm has been fixed.  There is no hope of salvation after death for the unrighteous. 

            The rich man realizes his fate and he does not want anyone to experience his anguish so he makes another great request for God’s favor although this time it is not for himself, but his family. Verse 27-28,

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.’

This man begs for compassion for his family.  He does not want his brothers to come to his end.  He does not want his brothers to misuse their wealth and forsake those in needs so that they will not experience the anguish and torment of judgment.

            The rich man wants his brothers warned about the coming torment as Jesus wants the Pharisees to be warned about the coming torment.  The Pharisees thought they were righteous, but God who judges the heart knew they were lovers of money.  They may have been honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from them.  They needed a new heart. So Jesus warns them of the coming judgment.  Warnings are a gift of grace. They are designed to protect us from something bad happening to us in the future.  So, how do you respond to warnings? Do you invite warnings or do you spurn them?  Let’s say you start listening to a new band and really liked their songs.  You mention your new band to a trusted Christian friend and they warn you that the lead singer has started to affirm unbiblical ideas.  Do you take heed to that warning and listen to the lyrics more closely or do you dismiss the warning and continue to listen to the songs even though they may be dangerous to your soul?  Beloved, do not dismiss warnings.  Weigh the warnings carefully before you proceed.  Warnings are a gift of God’s grace.

            Are you hearing this warning this morning? The warning that Jesus Christ gives is to be careful with your wealth in this life for it won’t help you in the next life.  Do you hear that warning?  The rich man makes one more request and he gets one more refusal.   

The Great Refusal of Further Evidence


Verse 29-31,
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”
The rich man makes his last appeal and it is denied. Abraham says that his brothers have enough.  They have Moses and the Prophets.  They have the Scripture and Scripture is enough.  The rich man had the Scripture, but he did not hear them.

            The rich man was convinced that if someone came to his brothers from the dead, then they would repent. But Abraham confirmed that if they did not hear the Word of God, then they would not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.  The problem with the brothers as well as with the rich man is not that they lack evidence.  They have plenty of evidence revealed to them in the Word of God. The problem is not the evidence, but it is their will.  Romans 1:18-22,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.

The brothers have enough evidence, but they rejected it.  The biblical definition of a fool is one who lives without regard to God.  The rich man and his brothers lived with no regard to God. They suppressed the truth and did not honor him or give thinks to him as God.  Remember how specifically this was expressed in their lives: they used their money for exorbitant living rather than to help those in need around them.  This is foolish living.  It is gambling with eternity.

            Jesus shared this story to rebuke the Pharisees who were lovers of money in their hearts (Luke 16.14-15).  Jesus came to rescue the diseased-hearted Pharisee in rising from the dead.  Jesus came to rescue diseased-hearted sinners who live as fools with no regard to God.  And the only way he could save our evil, diseased hearts was to give us new ones as he promised in the Old Testament, Ezekiel 36:25-27,

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Jesus came to expose and destroy the idols of our evil hearts through his death and resurrection. Jesus was crushed on the cross for our uncleanness. He was brutally beaten for we bowed our hearts to serve false idols like money and power.  He paid for our foolish hearts that had no regard to God with his death, but God raised Him from the dead.  He was raised by the Spirit so that He could now send the Spirit to remove our heart of stone and give us a new heart that delights in pleasing Him; A new heart that delights in using wealth for the good of others and not for sumptuous earthly living.

Charles Studd was raised in a wealthy family in England.  His father made millions as an indigo planter and retired rich.  Late in life, Studd’s father was converted under the preaching of D.L. Moody.  Studd was eventually brought to hear Moody himself and was later converted. According to his father’s will, Studd would receive his inheritance at the age of 25, roughly worth $25 million dollars by today’s standards.  At the age of 23, he started praying and asking the Lord what he would do with his money. In studying the rich young ruler (where Jesus says to him, “sell all that you have and give to the poor”) he was determined to succeed where the rich young ruler failed so upon receiving his inheritance he gave it all away.  He gave it to DL Moody to start the Moody Bible Institute, the orphanage of George Mueller, and to the Salvation Army.  Studd would spend his life as a missionary in China, India and Africa.  He believed in the resurrection from the dead and lived his life for eternity.  He did not succumb to the love of money, but stored up for himself treasures in heaven.  Listen to Studd’s famous poem which epitomized his life

“Two little lines I heard one day, 
Traveling along life’s busy way; 
Bringing conviction to my heart, 
And from my mind would not depart; 


Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one, 
Soon will its fleeting hours be done; 


Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, 
And stand before His Judgement seat; 
Only one life,’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.


Only one life, the still small voice, 
Gently pleads for a better choice 
Bidding me selfish aims to leave, 
And to God’s holy will to cleave; 


Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, a few brief years, 
Each with its burdens, hopes, and fears; 


Each with its clays I must fulfill, 
living for self or in His will; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

When this bright world would tempt me sore, 
When Satan would a victory score; 
When self would seek to have its way, 
Then help me Lord with joy to say; 

Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Give me Father, a purpose deep, 
In joy or sorrow Thy word to keep; 

Faithful and true what e’er the strife, 
Pleasing Thee in my daily life; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.


Oh let my love with fervor burn, 
And from the world now let me turn; 
Living for Thee, and Thee alone, 
Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne; 


Only one life, “twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one, 
Now let me say,” Thy will be done”; 


And when at last I’ll hear the call, 
I know I’ll say “twas worth it all”; 
Only one life,’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”


Beloved, do not gamble with your life for we only have one life and it will soon be past. Always remember, only what’s done for Christ will last. 




[2] Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke: 9:51–24:53 (Vol. 2). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[3] Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke: 9:51–24:53 (Vol. 2). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
[4] http://hockleys.org/2009/05/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem/ accessed on 8.3.14 
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Steven Brazzell

Charlotte, NC