The basic story that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 16:19-31, had, scholars say, been around for centuries before Jesus told it. But as was true of everything Jesus said and did, He turned the old tale on its head in His telling of it. The twist Jesus gives it is designed to get our attention and to remind us of the urgent need each of us has to turn from sin and claim God’s grace now.
Jesus says: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Purple was, in the ancient world, the color of royalty and of the wealthy. The “fine linen” referred to here is an expensive underwear imported from Egypt. Ordinary folks couldn’t afford it. This first character mentioned in the parable really is a rich guy then.
Read on, please. “At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” The verb translated here as laid literally means thrown. This beggar has been tossed aside by a world that has no use for the poor, the powerless, the incapacitated, the racially different. For all of the indignities to which this man is subjected though, the beggar is the only fictional character in any of Jesus’ parables given a name: Lazarus, meaning God is my help. (He’s not to be confused with the real man Jesus raised from the dead in Bethany.) The fact that Jesus gives this character a name indicates that God has a high regard for every human being made in His image, no matter what their status among other people may be. The name is ironic though, because no one seems to help Lazarus.
In those days, there were no napkins. (Or silverware.) So the wealthy used scraps of bread to wipe the residue of food off of the fingers they’d just used to eat, then tossed the bread scraps to the floor. And since this was in an age before Hoovers or Dysons, often, dogs, which no one kept as pets and lived as scavengers, would come along and eat the scraps from the floor. In Jesus' parable, Lazarus, desperately hungry, wishes that, like a dog, he could get to the bread scraps the rich man and his guests tossed on the floor. He can’t even do that! He occupies a place lower than dogs.
No two people could be more different than Lazarus and the unnamed rich man in Jesus’ parable. But the difference between them is greater than what can be observed by the naked eye.
See what happens next. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”
Don’t be misled here. Lazarus isn’t saved from hellish torment by his poverty and the rich man isn’t denied entrance into the heavenly banquet because of his wealth.
Abraham, the ancestor of all of God’s people, to whose side Lazarus is carried by the angels in Jesus' parable, was himself a wealthy man, wealthy enough to duke it out with kings and kingdoms. But his wealth didn’t keep him out of God’s kingdom.
There are poor people in God’s Kingdom. There are rich people in God’s Kingdom.
Entrance into God's Kingdom happens by a different route.
Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham (then Abram) “believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to [Abraham] as righteousness.” Abraham trusted the promises of God. He trusted God to cover his sins and give him a future. That’s what faith does. Its gifts are available today to all people who turn from sin and trust in the God we now know definitively in Jesus.
The rich man clearly had no faith in God. He lived in unrepentant disrespect for the God he knew about as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, and as a consequence, with callous disregard for the poor man at his gate.
The rich man seems to feel no sense of irony about asking Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him by cooling his tongue, even though he had, in this life, passed on the opportunity to serve Lazarus in his need.
And it’s here that Jesus’ parable differs from the usual popular tale. Go to verse 25, please: “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’”
In the common folk tale, Abraham granted the rich man’s wish and sent Lazarus to Hades to give the man relief. But not in Jesus’ parable! Abraham refuses the request.
Because the rich man had countless opportunities in this life to repent for sin and trust in God as Lord of his life, Lord of his pocketbook, Lord of his attitudes and actions. He had chosen instead to be his own lord, to live for the moment, for his own convenience and comfort.
But time was up. He was past the point of God’s consolation.
Listen: God never tires of forgiving, renewing, and helping those who repent and trust in Him. Even the woeful Old Testament book of Lamentations declares: “...Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” [Lamentations 3:22-23].
God loves to forgive us and give us new life! As long as we are on this earth, we human beings, like the thief of the cross, can turn to Him.
But because this life is so fragile, so unpredictable, and because life with God here and now is indescribably better than it is without Him, the best time to turn to the God we know in Christ is now, this moment, every moment.
As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2: “...now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”
The rich man had wasted the gift of now--the gift of this life. Now it was over and he was inconsolable. Beyond the gates of death, there is and will always be a great chasm between those who trust in the Lord and those who trust in other things.
But, for all his lack of faith or compassion, the rich man in Jesus’ parable does seem to have what we would call “family values.” He thinks of his brothers, all evidently as unrepentant and disbelieving as he had been.
Verse 27: “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’”
For centuries, God had spoken to His people through “Moses [or the Law] and the Prophets,” what we call the Old Testament. That book, the record of God’s encounters with His people over centuries, had called God’s people--and even Gentiles who heard it--to repent and trust in God.
This Word, Abraham is telling the rich man, is sufficient to communicate God’s call to repent and believe...if people will only pay attention to it. This same Word should have been sufficient for Jesus’ fellow Jews to know that He was God in the flesh when they saw Him.
But people always seem to want one more thing for God to prove Himself and His authority to them.
Years ago, I got to know a Pentecostal pastor named Howard, a wonderful man. He and I had traveled to an event in downtown Cincinnati and, stuck in traffic, we talked about things that mattered to us. At one point, Howard said, "One of the things that bothers me about Pentecostals is that they're always looking for some new revelation from God, some fresh word of prophecy or direction. But the thing is, God has already told us everything we need to know on the pages of the Bible." I chuckled and said, "Howard, you sound like a Lutheran!"
What Howard was saying is exactly what Abraham tells the rich man in Jesus' parable: "God's Word is sufficient. You don't need to ask God to do something special to prove His Lordship or people's need to repent and believe. It's all there in black and white."
The rich man isn’t done, though. “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
‘No,’ Abraham says to the rich man in the parable, ‘if your brothers refuse to trust in God when they have the testimony of God’s faithfulness found in the Old Testament, they won’t believe a man risen from the dead.’
In our home church was a woman named Rosie. Rosie was older. She lived by herself and didn't say much. We were in an adult Sunday School class being taught by a seminarian, who asked us, "If you could add a commemoration or holiday to the church calendar, what would it be?" The question was met with silence until, of all people, Rosie spoke up. "Well, I always thought that we should have a day to thank God that we live now because if I'd been alive when Jesus walked the earth, I might not have believed in Him. Now, I know that He died and He rose and it makes it easier for me to believe."
You and I are especially blessed. We live on the other side of Easter: Jesus has died and He has risen from the dead. The Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus, God on earth. And we have the testimony of the New Testament about Jesus, how He died and rose to set free all people--Jews and Gentiles--from sin and death and to live in God’s kingdom now and for all eternity, if they will do what the rich man never saw the need to do until it was too late: To daily turn from sin and daily trust in Christ above all. Rosie was right!
“In the past,” Hebrews 1:1-2 in the New Testament tells us, “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”
Jesus has spoken to us, not just or even primarily with His words, but with one eternity-changing action, the sacrifice of His earthly life on the cross, where He took our punishment for sin and gained life for all who trust in Him.
Today and every today is a good day to repent and follow Jesus.
But watch out! When we do that, God will enlarge our hearts and help us see the poor men at our gates and even learn from them more deeply what it means to be a disciple. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was presented during both worship services this morning.]