Luke 16:19-31; 1 John 4:16-21; Genesis 15:1-6
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In many ways, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a conflation of several of Jesus’ main teachings. It includes Jesus’ teaching about the one thing needful – namely, faith in the Word of God. It also includes Jesus’ teaching against the love of mammon, or wealth, and the praise of men. It includes Jesus’ teaching on mercy, compassion, and love for those who have nothing. And it includes Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Additionally, outside the Book of Revelation, this story includes, perhaps, the clearest teaching we have on what we can expect after death – and that teaching comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Himself.
To summarize a story that you likely know very well, there was a rich man who dressed well and feasted sumptuously every day of his life. Now, there is no condemnation of being rich and dressing and eating well; indeed, some enjoy such blessings from God. Likewise, there is no explicit statement indicating that the rich man was mean or selfish or an unbeliever. All that we know is that there was a poor man named Lazarus who begged near his gate, who desired only to glean from the leftover scraps from the rich man’s feasts. For all we know, the rich man was unaware of Lazarus, or maybe he ignored him. Whatever the situation was, the poor man simply wasn’t on the rich man’s radar screen.
As the story goes, both men died. The rich man found himself in torment in hades, and Lazarus found himself reclining upon the bosom of Abraham, a place of comfort akin to the paradise promised by Jesus to the repentant thief on the cross. We see that the rich man considered himself a believer, for he appealed to Abraham as “father,” and, in turn, Abraham answered him as his “child.” Yet, even in hades, the rich man, if he noticed Lazarus at all, considered him of a lower status than himself, as a servant. He asked father Abraham that he might send Lazarus to serve him by cooling his thirst with a few drops of water.
Now, if we were to dissect the story thus far in light of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the Gospels, we would discover that the rich man, while not entirely without faith and love, placed his faith and love in created things above and before God, the Creator and giver of all things. We see this in the fact that the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, presumably even on Sabbaths and Holy Days – there was no fasting for this son of Abraham. Further, he did not show love for his neighbor in need; perhaps he did not even recognize his needy neighbor. Lazarus, on the other hand, was not after the man’s riches, or even his sumptuous feast, but desired only “to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” – that is, the scraps that would be thrown to the dogs, the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.
In hades, the rich man pleaded with father Abraham for mercy, whereas mercy is precisely what he failed to show to Lazarus, the archetypal poor man, in his life. Even in torment, still he did not consider Lazarus in mercy, love, and compassion. Further, the rich man was looking for comfort in Hades, just as he had in life, in all the wrong things – not in the Word of God, but, rather, in physical comfort. And, since his priorities were out of order, and he had made of physical comforts an idol, father Abraham directs him back to what the rich man truly loved saying, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
Then, perhaps one of the most chilling statements in Jesus’ story are these words of father Abraham, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” On one level, this may very well indicate something real and true about the relationship of paradise and hades, or heaven and hell. While, on another level, and probably more to the point, there is a great separation between trust in wealth and material possessions and trust in God’s Word. The former brings only death and damnation, while the latter gives life and eternal salvation.
Upon that invalidating judgment, the rich man began to plead that Lazarus be sent to his brothers. See, he is caring and compassionate about some people – people like himself. Father Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” That is to say, let them hear and trust in the Word of God which testifies about Jesus. Shockingly (not really), the rich man objects saying, “No! Not the Word! There has to be some other way! I know, why don’t you send Lazarus back from the dead? Then they’ll believe! Anything but the Word of God!” Truly, good works, genealogy, piety, tithing, speaking in tongues, meditation, giving to the siding fund, serving on council, attending lots of Bible studies, coming to church every Sunday, visiting the homebound, giving to charity, even feeding and clothing the poor, and anything else that you can think up, dream of, or imagine that you might place before and above faith and trust in the Word of God – these, no matter how good they may be, will not deliver you to Abraham’s bosom, paradise, or heaven; they will not deliver you to Jesus. Indeed, Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets [if they do not hear and trust in the Word of God], neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
You see, the rich man wasn’t a bad man, he was just an idolater, just like you are too often tempted to be. For, the first and most important Commandment is “You shall have no other gods.” Luther explains this commandment in the Small Catechism saying, “You should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Did you hear that? “Above all things.” That is to say that nothing, absolutely nothing, not even good and beneficial things, are to be permitted to get between you and God.
For, when things do get between you and God, the inevitable consequence is fear. Does this surprise you? Perhaps you think that I must be wrong about this? However, is this not what St. John is teaching in today’s Epistle: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him. […] There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” The commentary in the Lutheran Study Bible on this passage is spot on: “Love is the work and will of God and the fruit of faith in God for the salvation of every human. In this, there is no fear. Jesus is God’s perfect love that has come to seek and to save, not to condemn. In Christ, God’s love reaches its goal; love is perfected in us when we believe in Jesus and no longer fear that God might still be angry with us because of our sin.”
If you have placed your fear, love, and trust in something other than God and His Word, then your love is compromised, because you can only love others when you have been loved by God and have loved Him in return. “We love because He first loved us,” writes John. Indeed, it is with His love that we love others – that we are able to love anyone at all. Therefore St. John continues, “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 so, the rub of all this is that, if you love God, you will love others. In fact, it is in loving others that you love God. That is why no one can hate his brother and love God. Hate is the antithesis of God, and hate is what your enemy, the devil, would have you feel, and be, and harbor in your heart against your brother and your neighbor. And, the only cure for hate is repentance and forgiveness. Therefore, if you harbor any hate against your brother or your neighbor, you must confess it and ask forgiveness. And, your Father in heaven will forgive you, for Jesus’ sake.
Therefore, you have nothing to fear but God. And, fear, love, and trust in Him will cast out all fear. How can you know this? It is written, in His Word. Indeed, Abram himself once feared that he would not have an heir to inherit his covenantal blessing, but God promised Him in His Word, “Fear not, Abram, I am you shield; your reward shall be very great. […] Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. […] So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness. So, through your own faith and trust in the Word of the LORD, everything that rightly belongs to Jesus is counted to you: righteousness, holiness, Sonship, eternal life, and communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. May you, like the poor beggar Lazarus, whose name means “God is my help,” desire to be fed with crumbs that fall from the table of the Lord, for you will find, instead, that you have feasted sumptuously upon God’s gift of love and life Himself, His Son and Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.