Luke the Ghost-Buster: Luke 16:19-31

Charles Dickens thought ghosts could change us. You’ve probably watched or read his ever popular, A Christmas Carol, a number of times.[1] But Luke proves to be a Dickens’ ghost-buster, a Christmas spoiler.  


Luke the Ghost-Buster

You know the story. The haunting ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come eventually persuaded tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge to embrace Christmas and its spirit of generosity to the needy and poor.

It was the ghosts. They caused the radical change in Scrooge. Cute story with a happy ending. Very Christmas like.

But very misleading.

Dickens’ story of how ghosts changed Scrooge’s attitude reminded me of Luke’s story of ghosts. Dickens thought ghosts could change people’s hearts. But Luke’s a ghost-buster. He sets the record straight about what ghosts cannot do.

Luke believes people can change and become generous and liberal in their attitude toward the marginalized and poor. But Luke also shows Dickens’ method of change is only a hopeless mirage.

The rich man[2] — who ignored the beggar Lazarus at his gate[3] and ended up in Hades — knew that his family did not take the Scriptures very seriously. Well, neither had he. It was a family trait, a fatal flaw. They lived comfortably, ignored the poor at their gate, and maintained a ho-hum attitude toward Scripture.[4]

The rich man believed that his family needed something more than “unimpressive” Bible teaching.[5]

They needed a light show. Something sensational, glitzy, full of celebrities, something radical and titillating to persuade them to listen to God. Give them a “Six Flags Over Jesus” experience and they’ll be convinced. Make their liver shiver and they’ll listen to God and become generous, you’ll see!

So, while suffering agony in Hades the rich man, desperate to keep his family from joining him, begged Lazarus to become a ghost — return to earth and warn his five brothers of their impending doom.

Surely his brothers, like Ebenezer Scrooge, would repent and take Scripture seriously if they encountered a ghost, someone risen from the dead! After all, it was a series of ghost-encounters that transformed Scrooge from a miser to a generous man.

Surely my five brothers will be persuaded by Lazarus’ ghost!

Well, surely not, says Luke.

This time Abraham, not Lazarus, shreds the rich man’s Dickens’ ghost theory: “If they do not respond to Moses[6] and the prophets,[7] neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Luke 16:31

Luke is a ghost-buster. Ghosts, regardless of how scintillating they might be to one’s emotions, cannot overhaul the stony hearts of people. Chills and thrills might impress.

But God’s Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit, creates new life.

“And how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3:15


Thank you for reading.



[1] Hard to believe, I know, but I viewed it for the very first time over Christmas 2018. No kidding. My very first time. Really had no choice. But I digress.

[2] The idea that he would spend eternity in misery probably sounded preposterous to him while living.

[3] The presence of a beggar at the gate of a Jewish person was an indictment against him/her. “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any gate in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather, you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks… Give generously to him to him and do so without a grudging heart…” Deut. 15:7-10

[4] One common misunderstanding of this story is that the rich man missed heaven because he was not generous enough to the poor and needy. Half of this assumption is true. But this understanding contradicts the concept of grace. God, in mercy, according to His eternal plan of salvation, in accordance with His sovereign choice to choose and predestinate them, pursues underserving sinners, quickens them from corpsehood, breathes eternal life into them, forgives them through the atoning merits of Jesus’ death on the cross. Grace — God’s undeserved favor and initiative — is the only explanation for God acting in mercy to dead sinners. Salvation is a grace-gift to the undeserving dead. The rich man, though, never really believed what he said he believed. His behavior reflected a corpse faith (James 2:14-24). His true god was wealth, not the God of Israel. His behavior demonstrated Jesus’ assertion: you cannot serve God and possessions/money.

[5] The rich man undoubtedly claimed to have believed Scripture, that it was the Word of God, and that heaven and hell were real. But he never really believed what he professed to believe. His lifestyle, his behavior, showed that he possessed a dead faith, not a faith energized by God’s life.

[6] “Moses” refers to the Pentateuch, the Book of the Law, or the Torah.

[7] “The prophets” refer to the second section of Israel’s Scripture, the former prophets (beginning with Joshua) and the latter prophets (the ten so-called minor prophets).

Tim Cole