Text: Luke 16:19-31
Date: Pentecost XVIII + Proper 21 + 9/26/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
You will recall that this chapter of Luke’s Gospel began with a story Jesus told about a dishonest, shifty or crafty steward or manager who, when he found out the end of his employment was near, quickly made arrangements in the nick of time to survive. The surprise ending was that the dishonest steward was commended by his boss for his shrewdness. Jesus was simply saying, because you can count on God’s mercy at least for now, it would be best to take advantage of that mercy now before it is too late, to repent and be received into His eternal family of faith.
Well now, because the hard-hearted, scoffing Pharisees were listening in, Jesus told another story at the end of the chapter, turning up the heat, so to speak; a story about a man who waited too long to turn to the Lord’s mercy and ended up in hell where there are no second chances. The point of the story: the Lord’s mercy is there…it’s been there all along…it’s still there…for you, in His Word and now also, standing right in front of them in Jesus. But there is coming a day when it will be too late. In Hades or hell, the story goes, the rich man, having given up on any further hope for himself, begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers “lest they also come into this place of torment.” Hell is a place of eternal torment. “Surely,” he reasoned, “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But no. “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.” And then Jesus hints at what really would happen in the not-so-distant future, His own resurrection from the dead. Interestingly, even that will not convince people. For Christ is now risen from the dead. And there are plenty of people who have heard that, who, nevertheless, remain unmoved, resistant to God, “feasting sumptuously every day,” ignorant of the coming disaster. From the rich man’s own mouth came evidence that he knew what is…that is, what was (for him) most important: repentance of sin and faith in the mercy of God; something he never did or had. And now it was too late. There is coming a day when God’s mercy will run out, that the door to heaven will be shut, that it will be too late.
For all the details in this story, you see, it’s really not as much about the neglect of the poor at our door or even about a glimpse of the after-life—even though the unrepentant, selfish life that ignores the needs of the neighbor, or that ignores your own personal spiritual lot are not unimportant issues. But that’s not the primary concern of this text.
There are many like the rich man today who need Jesus’ warning, like the Pharisees who began to get the idea Jesus was saying something about them in these stories. Obviously, it is possible to be so comfortable with life that the urgency of repentance doesn’t seem that important. That’s what today’s Old Testament reading is about. “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” says the prophet Amos, “and to those who feel secure… O you who put far away the day of disaster…who lie on beds of ivory…and eat lambs…and calves…who sing idle songs…who drink wine in bowls” (Amos 6:1-7). (When was the last time you drank wine from a bowl?) And maybe here is a tie-in of sorts with today’s Epistle where especially bishops, pastors and deacons are warned against being addicted to much wine, or puffed up with conceit (1 Tim. 3:1-13). Like the rich man in Jesus’ story the danger is always there to take God’s mercy and His gifts for granted and then begin to fall away or fall asleep through such presumption. The warning of Amos is, “therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and their revelry…shall pass away.” Or as the Book of Revelation has it, “All the fruits you had set your hearts on have failed you; gone for ever, never to return, is your life of magnificence and ease” (Rev. 18:14, Jerusalem Bible).
This warning is not just for individuals on the fringes of the Church, however, but precisely for those who, like the Pharisees, considered themselves the insiders, the decision makers, the leaders of God’s people. And who is it today that needs to hear the words, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them”? Is it not those “leaders” who have become frustrated that the Church doesn’t seem to be growing, that they have devised multitudes of “programs” aimed at revitalizing and attracting crowds of people into our sanctuaries—programs, methods or “new measures” copying or imitating the Reformed, baptistic enthusiasts of television or the church down the street?
The real problem behind what has become known as the Church Growth Movement in our day and the myriad of programs devised to help grow the church is lack of faith in the Lord’s Word and SacramentS! “Word and Sacrament” “don’t work,” or “isn’t enough” somehow. But for whatever else you want to call it, you can’t blame God for the sinner’s reluctance or refusal to repent and believe. People, sinners stay away and reject God’s mercy all on their own. And especially in a society such as the one in which we live today in America, surrounded with everything that makes life easier, people don’t see their need of a Savior even though sin becomes more and more visible and acceptable to people whose consciences have at least been seared if not wiped out all together. It is, always and over and over throughout history, the tendency to become wrapped up only in self rather than becoming all wrapped up in God. It is demanding that our so-called “felt needs” be met rather than giving ourselves over in repentance, faith and trust to the Way of God mapped out in His Word. Like the rich man in the parable we need to become aware of the real issues of sin and grace, of repentance and faith before it is too late and the day of mercy and grace has passed us by.
Abraham says to the rich man in hell about his five brothers, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, God’s revelation and Word through Moses and the Prophets, and today through the prophetic and apostolic scriptures, the Bible, has not only the information we need but also the power to call, to awaken, and even to give the power to repent of sin and to believe in God’s mercy. For, as we confess in the little catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” And when and how did the Holy Spirit do such calling, enlightening, sanctifying and keeping?
“So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake. Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that through their own preparations and works the Holy Spirit comes to them without the external Word.” These are the words of the Augsburg Confession to which we, I myself, and this congregation, have pledged ourselves because they agree with the revelation of the Bible.
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” We have Moses and the Prophets and the Apostles, let us hear them. God promises to work mightily through His Word preached and taught. He says in Isaiah 55, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make your free.” And in St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy he writes: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-5a).
Listen! The Word works! Hear the Word of the Lord. Repent of your sins. Believe the good news…today while the door of God’s mercy is still open.