Over the years I’ve heard many, many sermons preached from this text, and all of them have failed to answer to my satisfaction the question that’s inherent in this particular verse. None of them succeeded in presenting a plausible answer to why somebody rising from the dead wouldn’t persuade an unbeliever. But did Jesus in fact say that somebody rising from the dead would not persuade an unbeliever. The answer, to that question is “no.” The sin of this rich man, whom some have name “Dives,” and his five brothers was not that of unbelief like some have suggested. His sin, rather, was the sin of selfishness – greediness – and was at its heart a lack of love.
Notice what Jesus tells us about this man. He allowed a beggar to live and sleep just outside his gate, to feed on the scraps, the crumbs, that were wiped off of his table. He watched as his sores “ministered” to by the dogs that roamed those ancient streets. It’s interesting that much of the description of this man’s condition would be similar to that of the stray dogs of our day – he was kept outside, fed table scraps, and his body left to fend and tend to itself.
It seems to have been a family trait. The sin of this family seems to have been that of greed and the inability to give, and no greedy man is going to become less greedy by somebody rising from the dead. It’s the only sin that would be unaffected by such an appearance. If one were to rise from the dead, an unbeliever would no doubt lose his unbelief. An atheist would forsake his atheism. The one who denies the supernatural would have to cry out, “There is a Spirit after all.” But somebody rising from the dead is not going to suddenly transform a selfish man into a selfless man. Now, it might make him take food to a hungry man or give shelter to somebody who was homeless, but it would not be because of love. He would only be forced by fear.
A skeptic who rejects Moses and the prophets might be motivated by seeing a spirit. But a selfish man who was not softened by by Moses and the prophets wouldn’t be softened by seeing a spirit. If his heart wasn’t moved by a baby all alone in the Nile river or by all of the abandoned and neglected children since then; if he is not burdened by the suffering slaves in Egypt and those who slave just to barely scrape by today; if his spirit is not humbled by the Man of Sorrows and by all of the sorrowful souls of which He is a type, then the opening of a tomb would be in vain, and appearance of one from the dead would be nothing more than a waste of time. He would still not be persuaded.
How many times have I wondered in the midst of my own trouble why He didn’t appear to me and allow me to see Him solve my problems? The reason, I find from this account, is that my doubts are not the primary focus of His concern. His primary purpose is to deal with my heart. He sees that my real shortcoming is not found in my deep sense of mystery but in my shallow sense of mercy. If my sin was simply the sense of mystery, then He could easily eradicate that through a thousand voices shouting from the sky. But my sin, like that of so many, is so often selfishness – a lack of love. What could a cry from the sky do for that? The voice that speaks to my selfish soul must be as one crying in the wilderness.
“Lord, how I need to hear those wilderness cries. How my soul could benefit by feeling the burden of Moses as he hears the masses crying for manna; to see the crying crowd beside those bitter waters. Lord, give me a picture of the people stricken by the plague, and allow me to sense the depression of those whose life is nothing but desert. Let me know the weariness of worry and waiting, the torture of protracted time, the pain of a promised land that never comes, the murmurings of mornings that never change, for there is no voice from the sky that will ever equal these.”