Text: Luke 16:19-31
Date: Pentecost II + 6/10/07
The first half of Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is simple and should stun us as to its striking reality of our own experience, the universal contrast between the rich and the poor, selfish indulgence and neglect of those in need, especially those right on our own doorstep. But the second half of the story needs to be handled in a parabolic way since it involves communication and dialog between heaven and hell, between the saints and the damned, something denied by the rest of scripture (Isaiah 63:16) and, indeed, by Jesus’ words themselves when he speaks of the “great chasm fixed” between heaven and hell (v. 26). The main point of Jesus’ “story” is, clearly, the need of men to hear and discover the truth of our sin, to repent of our sins and to believe God’s plan of salvation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ by listening to and hearing the Holy Scriptures, the Divine Truth revealed in the Bible.
Now it strikes me that this has been a main theme of most of my sermons in the past few years. These days I’m drawn to constant harping (as my dad used to say) on the fundamental truths not only because there are an ever-increasing number of people who haven’t heard the truth of the Bible, but it seems there is an ever-increasing number of people even in the Church who, in the words with which the Lord commanded Isaiah to preach, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive,” whose hearts have grown dull, their ears heavy, their eyes shut, who truly have forgotten (if they ever knew) what it means to “turn and be healed,” to hear the Word, to repent and to believe (Is. 6:9-10). Repentance, like believing, is not just a one-time thing. Repentance and faith is to be a daily thing, a life style. I’m referring to the many instances of conflict, disagreement, anger, division, holding grudges, gossip and refusal to forgive going on in the church today. It is evident in almost every parish as well as on the regional and national levels of the church. It is evident in angry words of judgment, refusal to forgive or be reconciled, or in just giving up and staying away.
Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees, that group of religious leaders who emphasized the Law of God to such a heightened degree as to separate people into groups of supposedly true, pure believers on the one hand and faithless “sinners” and outcasts on the other. The word “Pharisee” has come to define hypocrisy, as Jesus put it, “for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:3).
In reaching out to the Pharisees, among other things, Jesus told this story. His audience should be able easily to identify themselves with the rich man who “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously,” that last word meaning not just occasionally as you might at a wedding or a special banquet, but “every day.” The guy was really out of control. Life for him was just one, continual party. But even if you are more disciplined than that, and more importantly, we all can identify with the rich man’s lack of concern for others. For, in stark contrast was the poor, sickly man lying right at the rich man’s gate. Notice that the rich man has no name but the poor man’s name is Lazarus, a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Eleazar which means “the one whom God helps.” This is the only time a personal name appears in any parable or parable-like story of Jesus in the gospels. This little detail already predicts what will happen as God knows and calls by name those who belong to him. Those who refuse to repent and believe, however, will hear the dreaded words of the Lord on judgment day, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
The contrast couldn’t be clearer between the seemingly happy-go-lucky rich man, dressed in fine clothing, pigging out on the finest of foods and poor Lazarus, hungry and full of sores, humiliated being surrounded by dogs licking at his sores. We who have clothing, food, shelter and some semblance of character and good reputation ought to thank God daily for his provision and gifts. We also ought to be aware, take notice and give of our abundance to help those less fortunate than ourselves, the poor, the homeless, the sick and suffering. A nurse and member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Monroe, Louisiana attended the recent Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod “Conference on Mercy” hosted by our World Relief/Human Care department. “Raised in a German Lutheran home and church, Karolyn Martinez says the typical view of mercy was to send money to a mission fund. But after gleaning two days’ worth of ideas and inspiration, her eyes opened to a world of new opportunities for reaching out to people in need.” “There are countless ways we can show mercy,” she said, “feed and clothe the needy, medical ministries, just sharing Christ with them, just being an example for children” [Reporter, June 2007]. Recall the beatitude of Jesus describing the character of the Christian, saying, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7).
Now Jesus takes us into the second half of the story, the Great Reversal, the eternal destiny of these two men. Lazarus received divine mercy. Not only does he have a name, and God knows his name, but it is written in the book of eternal life. His death was probably hardly noticed by anyone except those who had the task of providing for his lonely burial. How different the other side, however! For he was carried in joyous procession by the very angels of God into the bosom of Abraham, the closest communion with God in the heavenly, messianic banquet. How comforting is this promise for Christians that is the prayer of the third stanza of the hymn, “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart”:
Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abra’ms bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing.
On the other hand you can be sure that the rich man’s earthly funeral was quite a magnificent event, surrounded by the great names, the elite of society, with full honors, the heirs elbowing their way in line to scramble for the leavings. Yet Jesus describes his death in the fewest of words, “the rich man also died and was buried.” How different the other side for him, too! For, “in Hades,” in hell, “lifting his eyes, being in torture, he saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus at his bosom.” The Great Reversal, indeed! The essence of hell is the total and complete separation from God and from any hope.
Then follows a conversation between the rich man and “Father Abraham.” Apparently aware that his lot was permanent and there was no more hope of heaven, still the rich man is unrepentant. He speaks of Lazarus—a detail, by the way, that condemns him even more, for it shows he even knew the name of the man whom he so completely ignored at his front gate. But he speaks of Lazarus, still, as some sort of slave as he says, “send Lazarus…to cool my tongue.” Only when his request is denied does the rich man think of someone beside himself, begging that Abraham send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. And here is the first of the two punch lines of the story. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the Prophets,” they have the Bible, “let your brothers hear the scriptures.” Everything you need to know about salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of heaven in the day of resurrection is all there in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. This is what makes Biblical illiteracy or denial so tragic! For without the revelation of the God Who is love in His Word, people are left to the ways of spiritual blindness, frustration and the fear of death.
Now the complete anger and frustration of the damned comes from the rich man’s lips, saying, “NO!” At least the man now sees how crucial repentance is, though he still does not consider the Word of God sufficient to produce it. He demands the miraculous sign that God send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers. And here is the second punch line, if you will. Abraham doesn’t change his response with respect to Moses and the Prophets, but he adds an intriguing twist, saying, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, not even if someone were to rise from the dead will they be persuaded.” And we have the proof that this is true. For Jesus Himself is the One who was crucified, died and was buried, but on the third day He rose from the dead. The whole world knows that this is the meaning and message of Easter. Yet still many are not persuaded.
But what about us? Think of the story of the Emmaus road when the risen Christ appeared to the two disciples. Even though they, like we, knew about the empty tomb and the announcement of the angels still they were downcast, depressed, unbelieving. Knowing “about” the Gospel apparently isn’t the same as knowing and believing the Gospel! It was only as they became enrolled in the catechesis, the teaching of Jesus as he opened up Moses and all the prophets to them, how the resurrection is clearly taught in the Scriptures that their hearts began to burn within them. Still their eyes were not opened to see the crucified and risen Christ until Jesus entered their home and sat at table with them. St. Luke tells us, “he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” [Luke 24:30-31]. A person becomes a participant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Lazarus, and all the company of heaven, only as he or she becomes a hearer of the Word and comes to the fulfillment in the breaking of the bread, the eternal banquet through Jesus’ body and blood.
With the Pharisees we all need to become hearers of the Word and repentant guests at Jesus’ Table. Then follows the Great Reversal as through radical repentance and a break with the past, one enters the kingdom where one shows mercy as the Father in heaven has shown mercy. As St. John wrote in today’s Epistle, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” [1 John 4:7-8, 20-21]. Let us, therefore, hear, repent and believe today. Let us be reconciled to God and to one another today in the love of God for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.