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Bible Commentaries

Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Luke 16

Verses 1-12

THE passage we have now read is a difficult one. There are knots in it which perhaps will never be untied, until the Lord comes again. We might reasonably expect that a book written by inspiration, as the Bible is, would contain things hard to be understood. The fault lies not in the book, but in our own feeble understandings. If we learn nothing else from the passage before us, let us learn humility.

Let us beware, in the first place, that we do not draw from these verses lessons which they were never meant to teach.

The steward, whom our Lord describes, is not set before us as a pattern of morality. He is distinctly called the "unjust steward." The Lord Jesus never meant to sanction dishonesty, and unfair dealing between man and man. This steward cheated his master, and broke the eighth commandment.—His master was struck with his cunning and forethought, when he heard of it, and "commended" him, as a shrewd and far-seeing man. But there is no proof that his master was pleased with his conduct. Above all, there is not a word to show that the man was praised by Christ. In short, in his treatment of his master, the steward is a beacon to be avoided, and not a pattern to be followed.

The caution, now laid down, is very necessary. Commercial dishonesty is unhappily very common in these latter days. Fair dealing between man and man is increasingly rare. Men do things in the way of business, which will not stand the test of the Bible. In "making haste to be rich," thousands are continually committing actions which are not strictly innocent. (Proverbs 28:20.)

Sharpness and smartness, in bargaining, and buying, and selling, and pushing trade, are often covering over things that ought not to be. The generation of "the unjust steward" is still a very large one. Let us not forget this. Whenever we do to others what we would not like others to do to us, we may be sure, whatever the world may say, that we are wrong in the sight of Christ.

Let us observe, in the second place, that one principal lesson of the parable before us, is the wisdom of providing against coming evil.

The conduct of the unjust steward, when he received notice to quit his place, was undeniably dexterous and politic. Dishonest as he was in striking off from the bills of debtors anything that was due to his master, he certainly by so doing made for himself friends. Wicked as he was, he had an eye to the future. Disgraceful as his measures were, he provided well for himself. He did not sit still in idleness, and see himself reduced to poverty without a struggle. He schemed, and planned, and contrived, and boldly carried his plans into execution. And the result was that when he lost one home he secured another.

What a striking contrast between the steward’s conduct about his earthly prospects, and the conduct of most men about their souls! In this general point of view, and in this only, the steward sets us all an example which we should do well to follow. Like him, we should look far forward to things to come. Like him, we should provide against the day when we shall have to leave our present habitation. Like him, we should secure "a house in heaven," which may be our home, when we put off our earthly tabernacle of the body. (2 Corinthians 5:1.) Like him we should use all means to provide for ourselves everlasting habitations.

The parable, in this point of view, is deeply instructive. It may well raise within us great searchings of heart. The diligence of worldly men about the things of time, should put to shame the coldness of professing Christians about the things of eternity. The zeal and pertinacity of men of business in compassing sea and land to get earthly treasures, may well reprove the slackness and indolence of believers about treasures in heaven. The words of our Lord are indeed weighty and solemn, "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." May these words sink into our hearts and bear fruit in our lives!

Let us notice, lastly, in this passage, the remarkable expressions which our Lord uses about little things, in close connection with the parable of the unjust steward. We read that He said, "He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much."

Our Lord here teaches us the great importance of strict faithfulness about "little things." He guards us against supposing that such conduct about money as that of the unjust steward, ought ever to be considered a light and trifling thing among Christians. He would have us know that "little things" are the best test of character;—and that unfaithfulness about "little things" is the symptom of a bad state of heart.—He did not mean, of course, that honesty about money can justify our souls, or put away sin. But He did mean that dishonesty about money is a sure sign of a heart not being "right in the sight of God." The man who is not dealing honestly with the gold and silver of this world, can never be one who has true riches in heaven. "If ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?"

The doctrine laid down by our Lord in this place, deserves most serious consideration in the present day. An idea appears to prevail in some men’s minds, that true religion may be separated from common honesty, and that soundness about matters of doctrine may cover over swindling and cheating in matters of practice! Against this wretched idea our Lord’s words were a plain protest. Against this idea let us watch and be on our guard. Let us contend earnestly for the glorious doctrines of salvation by grace, and justification by faith. But let us never allow ourselves to suppose that true religion sanctions any trifling with the second table of the law. Let us never forget for a moment, that true faith will always be known by its fruits. We may be very sure that where there is no honesty, there is no grace.



v1.—[And he his disciples.] The parable of the unjust steward is notoriously full of difficulties. The curious diversity of the explanations of it which have been given is sufficient to prove this. Those who wish to examine some of these explanations fully, will find them in Trench on Parables. I can only briefly refer to them.

Pearce thinks that the "rich man" means God, and that every man is His steward.

Schleiermacher thinks that the rich man represents the Romans, the steward the publicans, and the debtor the Jewish nation,—and that our Lord’s object was to vindicate the publicans, and prove their kindness to their countrymen.

Anselm and others, think that the rich man means God, and the steward all true penitents,—and that the steward’s lowering the bills represents the first actions of repentance and charity.

Vitringa thinks that the rich man means God, and the steward the Pharisees,—that the accusation against the steward means, the charges of the prophets and of Christ,—and that the lowering of the bills means the effort made by the Pharisees to retain their position by lowering the standard of righteousness.

Jerome records an opinion ascribed to Theophilus, that the unjust steward is the Apostle Paul, who was thrust out of Judaism, —and then made himself friends by preaching the Gospel.

Gaudentius, Bishop of Brescia, and Olshausen think that the unjust steward is the devil, and the creditors, whom he makes his friends, mankind.

Some have thought that the unjust steward represents Pontius Pilate or Judas Iscariot.

Many think that the parable is nothing more than an earnest exhortation to liberal almsgiving. This is the view of Irenæus, Augustine, Athanasius, Theophylact, Erasmus, Calvin, and Luther. Luther says, "It is a sermon on good works, and especially against avarice, that men abuse not wealth, but therewith help poor and needy people."

I shall not discuss these opinions. I will only say that I cannot assent to any of them. Some seem to me very fanciful. All seem to me more or less untenable or defective. My own opinion shall be summed up in a few general remarks.

(A.) In interpreting this parable, we should carefully observe to whom it was addressed. It was not spoken to the "Scribes and Pharisees," like the three last parables, but "to the disciples." They had heard a lesson to the proud and self-righteous. Now let them hear a lesson for themselves.

(B.) The connection between the parable of the unjust steward, and that of the prodigal son, which it immediately follows, is probably something of this kind. The disciples had heard of one who sinned by wasting money. They should now hear of one who sinned by dishonesty.—They had heard of one who by carelessness squandered all his property and lost all his friends. Let them now hear of one who, by cunning management of money, made friends, and secured himself a home.—They had heard of the wickedness of riotous living. Let them now hear of another kind of wickedness no less abominable in God’s sight, dishonesty, cheating, and fraud.— They had heard the sins of Pharisees denounced and exposed. Let them now hear an exposure of the sins of impenitent and extortionate publicans. They had heard what Pharisees ought to do,—to rejoice at the conversion of sinners. Let them now hear what publicans ought to do,—to be faithful in money matters, and to make themselves friends by a right use of their wealth.

These, or some of them, appear to me the connecting links between the parable before us, and the preceding chapter. It looks to me like a caution to our Lord’s "disciples." They were not to suppose that all Publicans were right in the Lord’s eyes, or that the sins of Publicans were not noticed by Him as well as the sins of Pharisees.

(C.) The rich man and the steward and the debtors do not appear to me to be allegorical persons. I regard them as actors in the story, which our Lord is telling; but I cannot think that they were intended to represent any particular persons.

(D.) The great lessons which the parable is intended to convey, appear to me to be three.—The first is the wisdom of providing against the future. This is taught by the story of a rich man’s steward, who by a wicked contrivance secured himself a home when he lost his office. If a wicked man can do this for an earthly home, and in a wicked way, how much more ought a righteous man to provide for himself a heavenly home, in a lawful way?—The second lesson is the importance of using money rightly. By prudent management of money, however dishonest, the unjust steward made himself friends. Let the disciples follow his example, but in an honest and righteous manner.—The third lesson is the importance of faithfulness in the least affairs of business, as a test of character. The dishonesty of the steward showed plainly the state of his heart. Let the disciples remember that unfaithfulness in money transactions, is a sure evidence of a rotten state of soul. The cheating Publican who persevered in dishonesty, and the self-righteous Pharisee who trusted in his own goodness, were both alike in one respect. They were both unfit for the kingdom of God.

[A steward.] The steward in this parable seems to have been an agent, who received his master’s rents, which were paid in kind and not in money, and through whose hands all his master’s receipts passed.

[Was accused.] The word so translated is only found in this place in the New Testament. It is the root of the word "devil." The word devil means "accuser." It does not however mean in this place that the steward was falsely accused. On the contrary, his own language seems clearly to show that he felt the accusation to be just, and incapable of refutation.

v2.—[Thou mayest be.] The expression so rendered means literally, "Thou wilt not be able to be steward any longer."—It is impossible that thou canst be. I cannot allow thee.

v4.—[I am resolved.] The Greek word so translated means literally, "I have known."—I know what I will do.

[They may receive me.] Let it be noted that the expression "they" is here used generally and indefinitely. We are not told to whom it is applied. Precisely the same expression will be found in the ninth verse.

v6.—[An hundred...fifty.] The dishonesty of the steward, we should observe, consisted in this:—He struck off part of what was due to his master. He remitted debts which were lawfully due to his lord. Instead of attending to his employer’s interest, he robbed him, and made a present to his debtors. His master apparently had no means of checking this dishonesty. If his steward told him that a debtor only owed him one half, or one fifth, of his real debt, he could apparently only take it for granted that the statement was correct.

[Of oil.] We should remember that olive oil was largely used in eastern countries, and formed a large portion of the annual produce of the land.

v8.—[The lord commended.] Let it be always noted in reading this parable, that the expression "lord" here, does not mean the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the "master or lord" of the unjust steward. He saw the result of the steward’s schemes, in his reception at his creditors’ houses. It is not, however, quite clear that he saw that he himself had been cheated.

Compare with this expression the words of David, "Men will praise thee when thou doest well unto thyself." (Psalms 49:18.)

Perhaps it is well to mention here, that some think the dealings of the steward with his lord’s debtors were not really so dishonest and fraudulent as they appear to us in the present day. They say that this steward had a plenary power to remit or abate part of the debts due to his master, and that he simply exercised this power at a time when it very much promoted his own interests. If this explanation were true it would certainly account for the absence of angry expressions on the part of the master. But it is an explanation which is slenderly supported.

[The unjust steward.] The Greek words here are remarkable. They mean literally the "steward of unrighteousness." The expression translated the "unjust judge," in Luke 18:6, is precisely similar.

[Done wisely.] The word translated "wisely," might have been better rendered "prudently." The wisdom commended in the steward, is wisdom in attending to his own interests. It is not wisdom unto salvation. The Greek adjective of the adverb "wisely," is the very word that is used in the Septuagint about the serpent in Genesis 3:1. "He was more ’subtle’ than all the beasts."

[Children of the world.] This expression means worldly people; and the opposite expression, "children of light," means godly people, people who follow the light, and walk in the light. See John 12:36; Ephesians 5:8. Compare also Luke 7:35.

[In their generation wiser.] The meaning of this expression is, "The children of this world are wiser towards their generation—that is, in what relates to this world—than the children of light are toward their generation—that is, in what relates to the kingdom of God." It might even be rendered more closely, "The children of this world are wiser toward their own generation, that is, in their intercourse with worldly people like themselves,—than the children of light are in their intercourse with their own brethren."

v9.—[Make to yourselves friends, &c.] The meaning of this saying of our Lord’s, is often much misunderstood. The true sense of it I believe to be as follows, "Make to yourselves friends with your money,—by a right use of it,—in order that when ye die, ye may be received into everlasting habitations."

[Friends.] This question is often raised, who these friends are, whom we are to "make" in life, and to be "received by" in death. Some have thought the Three persons of the Trinity are intended,—some the angels,—and some the people to whom our money has done good. I cannot assent to any of these three views. The expression appears to me to be general and indefinite, and to be borrowed from the conduct of the unjust steward, in order to make the lesson more pointed. The meaning seems to me to be no more than this, "Use your money with an eye to the future, as the steward did his. Spend your money in such a way that your expenditure shall be a friend to you, and not a witness against you in another world."

[The mammon of unrighteousness.] This is a very remarkable expression. It means "riches." But why "riches" are so called in this chapter and no where else in the Bible, we do not know.

The word "mammon" is Syriac; or, according to Augustine, Punic. It means, all are agreed, riches or gain. Some think that it was a name given to the god of riches. But this is questionable.

The expression, "riches of unrighteousness," is very peculiar. Some think that our Lord meant "riches acquired unrighteously," like "treasures of wickedness." (Proverbs 10:2.)—Some think that He meant "riches which in the nature of things can never be got without some unrighteousness of sin."—Some think that He meant "uncertain, unstable riches."—This last, compared with the expression, "true riches," in the 11th verse, appears most likely to be the true meaning. Pearce quotes in support of this view, John 7:18, and 2 Thessalonians 2:12. Compare 1 Timothy 6:17.

[When ye fail.] This expression evidently means, "when ye die." It is very peculiar, and the Greek word is only found in this sense here. It is the root of our English word "eclipse."

[They may receive you.] I cannot believe that this expression refers either to the Trinity, the angels, or the persons whom we have helped with our money. I regard it as indefinite, and signifying only, "Ye may be received." The same sort of expression is found in Matthew 1:23, Matthew 5:15; Luke 12:20; Acts 7:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; Revelation 6:4.

[Everlasting habitations.] This expression must evidently mean heaven. The word translated "habitations," is translated "tabernacles" in every other place where it is found in the New Testament.

In leaving this verse, I will mention two cautions which should always be remembered in interpreting it.—On the one hand let us beware of supposing that by any use of money we can purchase to ourselves God’s favour and the pardon of our sins. Heaven is not to be bought. Any such interpretation of the verse is most unscriptural.—On the other hand, let us beware of shutting our eyes against the doctrine which the verse unmistakeably contains. That doctrine plainly is, that a right use of our money in this world, from right motives, will be for our benefit in the world to come. It will not justify us. It will not bear the severity of God’s judgment, any more than other good works. But it shall be an evidence of our grace, which shall befriend our souls. There is such a thing as "laying up treasure in heaven," and "laying up a good foundation against the time to come." (Matthew 6:20; 1 Timothy 6:19.)

v10.—[Faithful...least...much.] This verse seems to be used in a proverbial way. It is an acknowledged truth, that a man’s conduct in little things is a sure test of what he is likely to do in great things, and that when a man is unfaithful in small matters, we do not expect him to be faithful in important ones. The application of this principle is made in the two following verses.

v11.—[If therefore...not been faithful.] The argument in this and the following verse is one and the same, though the expressions are different. The "unrighteous mammon" here means "money." The "true riches" mean treasure in heaven. The doctrine is, that he who is dishonest and unfaithful in the discharge of his duties on earth, must not expect to have heavenly treasure, or to be saved.

v12.—[That which is another man’s.] The argument in this verse is like that of the preceding one.—Money is called "that which is another man’s," because it passes from one to another, and is never our own long.—Eternal life is called "that which is your own," because it is the only property which endures for ever. Everything else that we have is only a loan from God, and may be withdrawn any day. Grace and peace once given are an everlasting possession. Once ours they are ours to all eternity.

Verses 13-18

THESE verses teach us, firstly, the uselessness of attempting to serve God with a divided heart. Our Lord Jesus Christ says, "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other: or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

The truth here propounded by our Lord appears, at first sight, too obvious to admit of being disputed. And yet the very attempt which is here declared to be useless is constantly being made by many in the matter of their souls. Thousands on every side are continually trying to do the thing which Christ pronounces impossible. They are endeavoring to be friends of the world and friends of God at the same time. Their consciences are so far enlightened, that they feel they must have some religion. But their affections are so chained down to earthly things, that they never come up to the mark of being true Christians. And hence they live in a state of constant discomfort. They have too much religion to be happy in the world, and they have too much of the world in their hearts to be happy in their religion. In short, they waste their time in laboring to do that which cannot be done. They are striving to "serve God and mammon."

He that desires to be a happy Christian, will do well to ponder our Lord’s sayings in this verse. There is perhaps no point on which the experience of all God’s saints is more uniform than this, that decision is the secret of comfort in Christ’s service. It is the half-hearted Christian who brings up an evil report of the good land. The more thoroughly we give ourselves to Christ, the more sensibly shall we feel within "the peace of God which passeth all understanding." (Philippians 4:7.) The more entirely we live, not to ourselves, but to Him who died for us, the more powerfully shall we realize what it is to have "joy and peace in believing." (Romans 15:13.) If it is worthwhile to serve Christ at all, let us serve Him with all our heart, and soul, and mind and strength. Life, eternal life, after all, is the matter at stake, no less than happiness. If we cannot make up our minds to give up everything for Christ’s sake, we must not expect Christ to own us at the last day. He will have all our hearts or none. "Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." (James 4:4.) The end of undecided and half-hearted Christians will be to be cast out forever.

These verses teach us, secondly, how widely different is the estimate set on things by man from that which is set on things by God. Our Lord Jesus Christ declares this in a severe rebuke which he addresses to the covetous Pharisees who derided Him. He says, "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God."

The truth of this solemn saying appears on every side of us. We have only to look round the world and mark the things on which most men set their affections, in order to see it proved in a hundred ways. Riches, and honors, and rank, and pleasure, are the chief objects for which the greater part of mankind are living. Yet these are the very things which God declares to be "vanity," and of the love of which He warns us to beware! Praying, and Bible-reading, and holy living, and repentance, and faith, and grace, and communion with God, are things for which few care at all. Yet these are the very things which God in His Bible is ever urging on our attention!—The disagreement is glaring, painful, and appalling. What God calls good, that man calls evil! What God calls evil, that man calls good!

Whose words, after all, are true? Whose estimate is correct? Whose judgment will stand at the last day? By whose standard will all be tried, before they receive their eternal sentence? Before whose bar will the current opinions of the world be tested and weighed at last? These are the only questions which ought to influence our conduct; and to these questions the Bible returns a plain answer. The counsel of the Lord,—it alone shall stand forever. The word of Christ,—it alone shall judge man at the last day. By that word let us live. By that word let us measure everything, and every person in this evil world. It matters nothing what man thinks. "What saith the Lord?"—It matters nothing what it is fashionable or customary to think. "Let God be true, and every man a liar." (Romans 3:4.) The more entirely we are of one mind with God, the better we are prepared for the judgment day. To love what God loves, to hate what God hates, and to approve what God approves, is the highest style of Christianity. The moment we find ourselves honoring anything which in the sight of God is lightly esteemed, we may be sure there is something wrong in our souls.

These verses teach us, lastly, the dignity and sanctity of the law of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ declares that "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail."

The honor of God’s holy law was frequently defended by Christ during the time of His ministry on earth. Sometimes we find Him defending it against man-made additions, as in the case of the fourth commandment. Sometimes we find Him defending it against those who would lower the standard of its requirements, and allow it to be transgressed, as in the case of the law of marriage. But never do we find Him speaking of the law in any terms but those of respect. He always "magnified the law and made it honorable." (Isaiah 42:21.) Its ceremonial part was a type of His own gospel, and was to be fulfilled to the last letter. Its moral part was a revelation of God’s eternal mind, and was to be perpetually binding on Christians.

The honor of God’s holy law needs continually defending in the present day. On few subjects does ignorance prevail so widely among professing Christians. Some appear to think that Christians have nothing to do with the law,—that its moral and ceremonial parts were both of only temporary obligation,—and that the daily sacrifice and the ten commandments were both alike put aside by the gospel. Some on the other hand think that the law is still binding on us, and that we are to be saved by obedience to it,—but that its requirements are lowered by the gospel, and can be met by our imperfect obedience. Both these views are erroneous and unscriptural. Against both let us be on our guard.

Let us settle it in our minds that "the law is good if a man use it lawfully." (1 Timothy 1:8.) It is intended to show us God’s holiness and our sinfulness,—to convince us of sin and to lead us to Christ,—to show us how to live after we have come to Christ, and to teach us what to follow and what to avoid. He that so uses the law will find it a true friend to his soul. The established Christian will always say, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man." (Romans 7:22.)



v13.—[No servant can serve two masters.] These words are evidently connected with the preceding verses, in which our Lord had taught the duty of faithfulness in money matters. They were intended to answer the secret objection of some, that a man might divide his diligence between the things of this world and the things of the world to come, and so reap the full benefit of both. Against this secret thought the proverbial saying of this verse is a testimony.

[Hate the one and love the other.] The remark made on a similar expression about "hating," in a former chapter, (Luke 14:26,) applies to this expression. The meaning appears to be that the man will love one more than the other.

v14.—[Derided.] This word is only found in one other place in the New Testament. (Luke 23:35.) Our English word "sneered," answers to it more closely than any other.

The consciences of the Pharisees were evidently pricked by our Lord’s remarks about money, and the necessity of faithfulness in the management of it.

v15.—[Justify yourselves before men.] The Pharisees made great professions of righteousness and holiness before men, while their hearts were full of wickedness and covetousness, Our Lord warns them solemnly of the uselessness of all such professions, while the heart is unrenewed and cleaving to the world. And the state of their hearts, He reminds them, is known to God. They might deceive the eye of man, but they could not deceive God.

[Highly-esteemed.] The Greek word so translated means literally "high." This is the only place in the New Testament where it is rendered as it is here.

v16.—[The law and the prophets were until John.] This verse seems rather elliptical. Its connection with the preceding verse is not at first sight very clear. It is probably something like this.

"You make your boast of the law and the prophets, O ye Pharisees, and you do well to give them honour. But you forget that the dispensation of the law and prophets was only intended to pave the way for the better dispensation of the kingdom of God, which was to be ushered in by John the Baptist. That dispensation has come. John the Baptist has appeared. The kingdom of God is among you. While you are ignorantly deriding me and my doctrine, multitudes of publicans and sinners are pressing into it. Your boasting is not good. With all your professed zeal for the law and the prophets, you are utterly blind to that kingdom into which the law and the prophets were meant to guide you."

[Every man presseth into it.] The Greek word translated "presseth," is only found in one other place in the New Testament, It is there rendered, "suffereth violence." (Matthew 11:12.)

By "every man," we must of course not understand literally every Jew. It either means, "a very large number press in while you stand still deriding;"—or else, "every one who enters the kingdom, enters it with much exertion and labour, under a conviction that it is worth while to use exertion. And yet you stand still."

v17.—[Easier...heaven and earth pass.] This is a proverbial expression, indicating the perpetual dignity and obligation of God’s law.

[One tittle.] The Greek word so translated means the slight mark which distinguishes some Hebrew letters which are much alike, one from another.

[To fail.] The word here means literally "to fall." It is like the expression about the words of Samuel, "The LORD did not let any of them fall to the ground." (1 Samuel 3:19.)

The connection between this verse and the preceding one is somewhat abrupt at first sight. The chain of thought is probably this:—"Think not because I say that the law and the prophets have introduced a better dispensation, the kingdom of God, that I count the law and the prophets of no value. On the contrary, I tell you that they are of eternal dignity and obligation. They have paved the way to a clearer revelation, but they have not been cast aside."

v18.—[Whosoever putteth away his wife, &c.] The connection of this verse with the preceding is again somewhat abrupt. The chain of thought seems as follows:—"So far from coming to destroy the law, O ye Pharisees, I would have you know that I am come to magnify it, and reassert its righteous demands. With all your boasted reverence for the law, you are yourselves breakers of it in the law of marriage. You have lowered the standard of the law of divorce. You have allowed divorce for trivial and insufficient causes. And hence while you make your boast of the law, you are, by your unfair dealing with it, encouraging adultery."

We must take care that we do not misinterpret the language used about divorce and re-marriage in this verse. It is perfectly clear from another passage that our Lord allowed divorce in cases of adultery. (Matthew 5:32.) The act of adultery dissolves the marriage tie, and makes those who were one, become again two. Neither here nor elsewhere can I see that our Lord regards the re-marriage of one who has been divorced for the cause of fornication, as adultery. It is divorce for frivolous causes which He denounces, and marriage after such frivolous divorce which He pronounces to be adultery.

Verses 19-31

THE parable we have now read, in one respect stands alone in the Bible. It is the only passage of Scripture which describes the feelings of the unconverted after death. For this reason, as well as for many others, the parable deserves especial attention.

We learn, firstly, from this parable, that a man’s worldly condition is no test of his state in the sight of God. The Lord Jesus describes to us two men, of whom one was very rich, and the other very poor. The one "fared sumptuously every day." The other was a mere "beggar," who had nothing that he could call his own. And yet of these two the poor man had grace, and the rich had none. The poor man lived by faith, and walked in the steps of Abraham. The rich man was a thoughtless, selfish worldling, dead in trespasses and sins.

Let us never give way to the common idea that men are to be valued according to their income, and that the man who has most money is the one who ought to be the most highly esteemed. There is no authority for this notion in the Bible. The general teaching of Scripture is flatly opposed to it. "Not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble are called." (1 Corinthians 1:26.) "Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he knoweth and understandeth me." (Jeremiah 9:24.) Wealth is no mark of God’s favor. Poverty is no mark of God’s displeasure. Those whom God justifies and glorifies are seldom the rich of this world. If we would measure men as God measures them, we must value them according to their grace.

We learn, secondly, from this parable, that death is the common end to which all classes of mankind must come. The trials of the "beggar," and the sumptuous faring of the "rich man," alike ceased at last. There came a time when both of them died. "All go to one place." (Ecclesiastes 3:20.)

Death is a great fact that all acknowledge, but very few seem to realize. Most men eat, and drink, and talk, and plan, as if they were going to live upon earth for ever. The true Christian must be on his guard against this spirit. "He that would live well," said a great divine, "should often think of his last day, and make it his company-keeper." Against murmuring, and discontent, and envy, in the state of poverty,—against pride, and self-sufficiency, and arrogance, in the possession of wealth,—there are few better antidotes than the remembrance of death. "The beggar died," and his bodily wants were at an end. "The rich man died," and his feasting was stopped for evermore.

We learn, thirdly, from this parable, that the souls of believers are specially cared for by God in the hour of death. The Lord Jesus tells us that when the beggar died he "was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom."

There is something very comforting in this expression. We know little or nothing of the state and feelings of the dead. When our own last hour comes, and we lie down to die, we shall be like those who journey into an unknown country. But it may satisfy us to know that all who fall asleep in Jesus are in good keeping. They are not houseless, homeless wanderers between the hour of death and the day of resurrection. They are at rest in the midst of friends, with all who have had like faith with Abraham. They have no lack of anything. And, best of all, Paul tells us they are "with Christ." (Philippians 1:23.)

We learn, fourthly, from this parable, the reality and eternity of hell. The Lord Jesus tells us plainly, that after death the rich man was "in hell,—tormented with flame." He gives us a fearful picture of his longing for a drop of "water to cool his tongue," and of "the gulf" between him and Abraham, which could not be passed. There are few more awful passages perhaps in the whole Bible than this. And He from whose lips it came, be it remembered, was one who delighted in mercy!

The certainty and endlessness of the future punishment of the wicked, are truths which we must hold fast and never let go. From the day when Satan said to Eve, "Ye shall not surely die," there never have been wanting men who have denied them. Let us not be deceived. There is a hell for the impenitent, as well as a heaven for believers. There is a wrath to come for all who "obey not the Gospel of Christ." (2 Thessalonians 1:8.) From that wrath let us flee betimes to the great hiding-place, Jesus Christ the Lord. If men find themselves "in torment" at last, it will not be because there was no way to escape.

We learn, fifthly, from this parable, that unconverted men find out the value of a soul, after death, when it is too late. We read that the rich man desired Lazarus might be sent to his five brethren who were yet alive, "lest they also should come to the place of torment." While he lived he had never done anything for their spiritual good. They had probably been his companions in worldliness, and, like him, had neglected their souls entirely. When he is dead he finds out too late the folly of which they had all been guilty, and desires that, if possible, they might be called to repentance.

The change that will come over the minds of unconverted men after death is one of the most fearful points in their future condition. They will see, and know, and understand a hundred things to which they were obstinately blind while they were alive. They will discover that, like Esau, they have bartered away eternal happiness for a mere mess of pottage. There is no infidelity, or skepticism, or unbelief after death. It is a wise saying of an old divine, that "hell is nothing more than truth known too late."

We learn, lastly, from this parable, that the greatest miracles would have no effect on men’s hearts, if they will not believe God’s Word. The rich man thought that "if one went to his brethren from the dead they would repent." He argued that the sight of one who came from another world must surely make them feel, though the old familiar words of Moses and the prophets had been heard in vain. The reply of Abraham is solemn and instructive,—"If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The principle laid down in these words is of deep importance. The Scriptures contain all that we need to know in order to be saved, and a messenger from the world beyond the grave could add nothing to them. It is not more evidence that is wanted in order to make men repent, but more heart and will to make use of what they already know.

The dead could tell us nothing more than the Bible contains, if they rose from their graves to instruct us. After the first novelty of their testimony was worn away, we would care no more for their words than the words of any other. This wretched waiting for something which we have not, and neglect of what we have, is the ruin of thousands of souls. Faith, simple faith in the Scriptures which we already possess, is the first thing needful to salvation. The man who has the Bible, and can read it, and yet waits for more evidence before he becomes a decided Christian, is deceiving himself. Except he awakens from his delusion he will die in his sins.



v19.—[There was a certain rich man.] The parable of the rich man and Lazarus has occasioned some diversity of opinion among commentators, and called forth some strange allegorical interpretations.

From the very earliest days it has been matter of dispute whether it ought to be regarded as a parable or a real history. The truth seems to me to lie between the two extremes. I see no reason why it should not he regarded as a real history. And yet it may be a history employed to point a lesson, after the manner of all our Lord’s parables. The whole subject will be found fully discussed in Suicer’s Thesaurus, under the word Lazarus.

I cannot see in it the allegorical meanings which some have discovered. I cannot hold, with Tertullian and Schleiermacher, that the rich man meant Herod Antipas, and Lazarus John the Baptist.—I cannot see, with Vitringa, that the rich man represents the Jewish nation,—Lazarus our Lord Jesus Christ,—his sores the sins of man which He bore,—the death of the rich man the downfall of the Jewish polity,—the request for sending Lazarus the Jew’s vain desire of a Messiah,—the five brethren the Babylonish Jews,—the licking of the dogs the conversion of the Gentiles.—I cannot see, with Theophylact, that the rich man is a type of the proud and self-righteous Jewish nation, and Lazarus a type of the Gentile world.—All such interpretations appear to me unsatisfactory.

I believe the parable was specially intended by our Lord for the benefit of the Pharisees, to whom He was speaking when He delivered it. I believe the connecting link is to be found in the 9th verse, where Jesus said, "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness," and in the 14th verse, where it is said, "The Pharisees, who were covetous, heard all these things, and derided Him." And I believe that our Lord’s principal object was to rebuke the selfishness, worldliness, want of charity, and general forgetfulness of their responsibilities, of which the Pharisees were guilty, and to expose the fearful end to which their unbelief and neglect of their own Scriptures were rapidly bringing them.

[Clothed in purple.] Purple was a peculiarly rich and expensive dye, and clothes dyed with it were worn by none but the rich and noble. Lydia, in the 16th chapter of Acts, is mentioned as a "seller of purple."

[Fared sumptuously.] The Greek word rendered "fared," is only translated so in this place in the New Testament. In other places the verb is rendered "to be merry,"—"make merry,"—"rejoice,"—or "be glad."

Let it be noted, that we are not told that the rich man was an open breaker of any one of the ten commandments. It is not said that he was an idolater, blasphemer, murderer, adulterer, or thief. But he was one who lived only for himself. This was the ruin of his soul.

v20.—[A certain beggar named Lazarus.] The Greek word rendered "beggar" does not necessarily mean what our English word implies, a mendicant. In thirty one out of thirty two other places where it is used in the New Testament, beside this parable, it is translated "poor."

We know nothing of this Lazarus, excepting that he was not the brother of Martha and Mary. Several of the fathers call attention to the fact that the beggar’s name is given, but not the name of the rich man. It is thought to imply that the rich man’s name was not in the hook of life, while that of Lazarus was. Let us add to this, that to mention the name of the rich man in such a history as that before us, would have been most invidious, and most offensive to his relatives and friends.

v21.—[Desiring to be fed.] This does not imply that he was not fed, though he desired it. It rather signifies, as in the case of the prodigal son with the husks, (Luke 15:16,) that he was "only too glad to have" the crumbs. That which fell from the rich man’s table, as refuse, was food for Lazarus.

[The dogs came and licked...sores.] Some have thought that this is mentioned as an aggravation of Lazarus’ misery, and that the dogs added to his sufferings. I cannot see this. To me it seems rather to imply that the dogs cared more for Lazarus than man did. It was an act of kindness.

v22.—[Into Abraham’s bosom.] This expression is most probably a proverbial one. It signifies the place of rest and safety to which all believing Jews were carried after death. Abraham was the father of the faithful, and the head of the whole Jewish family, and to be with him after death implied happiness. The expression, "to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God," is somewhat like it. (Matthew 8:11.)

v23.—[In torments.] In interpreting the expressions of this verse, and several of those which follow, we must carefully remember that we are reading a parabolical narrative. Our Lord’s language is adapted to our understandings. How a lost soul can be susceptible of bodily suffering before the resurrection of the body, we cannot explain. The whole subject of the sensations of a disembodied spirit is far too deep for us to dogmatize about it. Let it suffice us to believe that lost souls can suffer intensely before the resurrection, and that they are conscious of their own lost condition, and of the happier condition of those who are saved.

v24.—[Father Abraham, have mercy.] It is highly probable that this description of the rich man crying to Abraham to help him, was intended to rebuke the superstitious reverence of the Jews, and specially of the Pharisees, for Abraham. "Think not," says our Lord, in another place, "to say, We have Abraham to our father." (Matthew 3:9.) [Note, it was John the Baptist who said this.] He would have them learn from this parable that Abraham himself could do nothing for those who died in sin, and that connection with Abraham would save no one from hell.

[ my tongue.] The fathers, and all commentators have justly dwelt here on the awful contrast between the state of the rich man before death and after death, and the complete change between his condition and that of Lazarus in another world.

[I am tormented in this flame.] Let that expression be noted. Few sayings in the Bible prove more strongly the reality of future punishment.

v25.—[But Abraham said, Son.] In this, and the following verse, the dignity and solemnity of Abraham’s language should specially be noted. On the one hand there is nothing about it of severity, harshness, or unkindness. On the other, there is nothing of affected pity or compassion.

[Remember.] This word should be noted. The recollection of former things will be one of the worst parts of hell.

[Thy good things.] This expression deserves notice. It is not merely "good things," in contradistinction to "evil things," which Lazarus received. It is "thy good things,"—"Things which thou didst consider good, and care for as thy only good, to the utter neglect of thy soul, and its everlasting interests. Thou didst choose thy portion, and wast content with a mere earthly possession. Thou must now reap according as thou hast sown."

v26.—[A great gulf fixed, &c.] The language of this verse teaches plainly, if words have any meaning, that there is no hope of deliverance from hell for those who die in sin. Once in hell, men are in hell for ever. The doctrines of purgatory, or of a limited duration of punishment, are both incapable of reconciliation with this text.

v27.—[Send him to my father’s house.] It has been argued by some that the rich man’s anxiety about his five brethren was a sign of improvement in him, and that his punishment had already purified his heart, and made him love his brethren, and that the notion of purgatory is consequently not without truth. Both these ideas appear to me destitute of foundation. That the rich man’s state was hopeless is clear from the preceding verse. That he felt anything like true love, or spiritual affection for his five brethren is mere gratuitous assumption. It might easily be argued that his desire to have Lazarus sent to them arose from a selfish dread of their following him to the place of torment. Their company would doubtless add greatly to his misery. But it must not be forgotten that we are reading a parable, and that particular expressions in parables must not be stretched too far.

v28.—[Testify.] The Greek word so rendered is a very strong and intensive one. It is the same that is used in Acts 2:40; Acts 18:5; Acts 20:21; 1 Timothy 5:21.

v29.—[Moses and the prophets.] This expression doubtless means the writings of Moses and the prophets, and the instruction contained in them. It is a strong evidence of the sufficiency of Scripture for man’s salvation. If the Old Testament alone was better than a dead man’s testimony, how much better must the whole Bible be!

v30.—[They will repent.] This is the reasoning of ignorant natural man. He knows neither the difficulty of repentance, nor the foolishness of expecting results from miraculous visions which have not been produced by the word.

v31.—[Though one rose from the dead.] Let the striking fact be noted that after this a man named "Lazarus" did rise from the dead, yet the Jews remained unbelieving! Above all let it be remembered that Christ Himself rose from the dead, and yet the Jewish nation would not believe!

Baxter remarks on this verse,—"God will bless His own means. Affrighting men will not renew their natures, and kindle in them a love to God and holiness. How little should we know whether one from the dead was a devil or a credible messenger? and whether he said true or false? Should he dwell with us as long as ministers, men would again despise and persecute him. Should he come but once, it would not equal the daily solicitations of God’s ministers."

"Would not the rich man’s guilty brethren accuse him of scandalizing and slandering the soul of their noble deceased brother, for telling them he was in hell,—and persecute him, if he was within their power?"

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Bibliographical Information
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Luke 16". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels".