[This was shared during worship with the people (and guests) of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
The parable that makes up today’s Gospel lesson was told by Jesus in the face of mockery directed at Him by Pharisees after He told the parable on which we focused last Sunday. At the end of that parable, Jesus said that it is impossible for us to serve two masters. Money cannot be our ultimate loyalty; that place must be reserved for God alone.
The Pharisees mocked Jesus because, Luke tells us, they were “lovers of money.” The Pharisees spiritualized their greed, employing a few proof texts from the Old Testament to support their idea that God gives good people (like themselves, the Pharisees would say) money.
You can hear the echoes of this notion even today. A friend told me about attending a small group Bible study one night at which six of the eight attendees insisted that they had their nice homes in suburbia because they obeyed God’s rules. Like the Pharisees, the people at this small group Bible study also insisted that poor people were poor because they were sinners.
Yet the Bible--in both the Old and New Testaments--is filled with examples of people rich and poor, who were right with God, not because of their goodness, but because they trusted in the God ultimately revealed to the world in Jesus Christ.
People who think that their wealth or success in this life prove their worthiness of God’s favor, ignore certain fundamental truths.
One of those truths is that none of us is worthy of God’s favor. We are all born in sin and deserve nothing but condemnation and death.
The other is that God loves us any way and sent Jesus to die for our sins and rise from the dead so that all who believe in Him may live eternally with God.
Pastor Dale Galloway once wrote memorably, “Jesus never met an unimportant person.” He might have added, “And He always punctured the egos of those who thought themselves more important than others.” You can see Jesus elevating those considered unimportant by the world while puncturing the egos of the proud in today's lesson.
Please go to it, Luke 16:19-31. Jesus begins: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.”
In Biblical times, tyrian purple was the color of royalty. That’s because it was prohibitively expensive due to the rarity of the dye. It was made from the secretion of a particular specie of sea snail, hard to find. So, Jesus is conveying that this rich man was really rich, like a king.
Our impulse at this point is to check out, thinking this is a parable directed at money grubbing rich people, not at people of our financial station. Do you want to hear something daunting? The other night, I found a web site called Global Rich List. It allows you to type in a level of yearly income and see where it stacks up with the rest of the world. I typed in $23,000. I did this because the Department of Health and Human Services says that in the US, a family of four making less than $23,550, is living in poverty. I don’t doubt that’s true. But the Global Rich List says that an American making $23,000 a year is wealthier than 97.75% of the global population! The point is that by global standards, most of us in this sanctuary this morning are among the wealthiest people in the world. We can’t dodge Jesus‘ parable so easily. We--you and I--are among the world’s haves, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable. Please read on.
“But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.”
This Lazarus is not the friend of Jesus who Jesus raised from the dead. This is a fictional character, the only time Jesus ever gave a name to such a character in a parable.
By doing giving this character a name, Jesus is turning the world’s usual way of doing things on its head. The poor, after all, are often a mass of faceless, nameless people in the eyes of the world, people passed by at freeway off-ramps or in walks through usually rough neighborhoods after concerts or ballgames. But by naming the beggar in His parable, Jesus is telling us that the poor among us, are real human beings, with thoughts and feelings and needs no less important than ours.
That’s why donating food to the CHAP emergency food bank, helping with the upcoming community dinners Saint Matthew will be doing with Trinity Lutheran Church, or donating health kit items to Lutheran World Relief, as coordinated by the Women of Saint Matthew, are so important. The poor may be invisible to the eyes of the world. But God sees them and God calls His people to see them and to serve them, just as God has seen and served us in Jesus Christ!
The Lazarus of Jesus’ parable is in a pitiable state. He is full of sores, presumably due to being malnourished. Our text says that he was laid at the gate to the rich man’s estate. But this is a dainty translation. The verb translated as laid is more literally rendered as thrown. Who threw Lazarus away, we don’t know. But Jesus says that Lazarus, this thrown-away man, would have been satisfied with the scraps from the rich man’s table, that he was so weak that dogs, not domesticated house pets in first century Judea, but wild animals, licked his open sores and Lazarus was unable to fend them off. It’s not a pretty picture. Please read on.
“So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.”
Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. Abraham, the Old Testament figure whose descendants became the nation of Israel, “believed in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Despite the torments and poverty of his earthly life, Lazarus also believed in God. Because of his faith, he, like Abraham, was counted righteous, worthy of being at the heavenly banquet with God.
Please look at what happens next. “And being in torments in Hades, [the rich man] lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.'”
The rich man was, like Lazarus, a descendant of Abraham. But, unlike Abraham, he had not put his trust in God. Clearly, his trust had been in his money bag. Had he trusted God and not mammon, the beggar outside his gate, Lazarus, might not have starved to death. A good work done for Lazarus would not have saved the rich man, of course. Only the God we know in Jesus Christ can save us from sin and death as we trust our whole lives to Him. But the clear implication of Jesus’ parable is that if the rich man had truly believed in God--trusted God--rather than his wallet, he would have found it easier to part with some of his money to help people like Lazarus.
The Bible teaches that one of the reasons God gives us money is precisely to help the helpless people of the world like Lazarus. In Ephesians 4:28, those who once made their income by stealing but had come to faith in Christ are told: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In torment in Hades, the place of the dead, the rich man calls out to Father Abraham in heaven for help.
Verses 25 and 26: “But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.'”
Abraham could offer no help to the rich man. Nor could Lazarus. The rich man’s time on earth was done. His wealth, stubbornly held onto, had not made him acceptable in the eyes of God. Nor did his wealth prove that he was better than anyone else, not even a poor man who had been thrown at his gate. Having refused to trust in God while on earth, he was now separated from God’s eternal feast. Habakkuk 2:4 reminds us that we are right with God not because we have fat paychecks or even because we do good works. “Behold the proud,” it says, “his soul is not upright in him. But the just shall live by faith.”
Now, the rich man becomes a beggar. Verse 27: “Then [the rich man] said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"
One of the key themes that Luke hammers away at in his telling of his gospel’s story about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and in Acts, his history of the early Church, is this: The God of the Old Testament is the same God we meet in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. In both Testaments, God hates sin and injustice, calls people to faith in Him alone, promising forgiveness and life to those who believe in Him, and warning of condemnation--self-condemnation, really--for those who turn their backs on the life only God can give.
In Jesus’ parable, Abraham tells the rich man that if the rich man’s brothers didn’t pay heed to the will of God to trust in God, to love God, and to love neighbor when they heard and read about it in “the law and the prophets,” that is, in what you and I know as the Old Testament, neither would they pay attention to God or repent for their sins and trust in God alone for life and hope, if someone who had been dead should rise from death and appear to them.
Some Christians, in a Pharisaic mood, may see Jesus’ words as applying to Jews who refuse to trust in the crucified and risen Christ. But if they do so, they miss Jesus’ point.
The God disclosed to all the world in Jesus Christ has given His witness to Jew and Gentile alike. As tempting as it is to put our trust in things we can see--things like money and possessions--our call is to trust in God alone and then, from hearts brimming over with gratitude for the freedom from sin and death we enjoy as the gift of God to all who live the trust in Jesus Christ, live the faith we confess here on Sunday mornings.
God’s earth produces more than enough to provide for every person’s need for daily bread. We live our faith when we dare to share what God has given to us with those in need.
And we needn’t be afraid that we’ll have less of what we need if we give to others. There is no limit to the bounties of God’s grace or goodness. The God Who loves to give will also empower us to give to others from hearts filled with God's infinite storehouse of love. Amen
[This sermon is really a companion to the one given last Sunday. You might want to check it out here.]