Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 21)
September 25, 2016
Text: Luke 16:19-31
Jesus paints a picture for us this morning, a study in contrast between two men: The one a rich man, clothed in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every day; the other a poor man, Lazarus by name, laying at the rich man’s gate, covered in sores, longing to eat the portion of the dogs, namely, what falls from the rich man’s table. And, indeed, the dogs are his only companions, his only comfort their licking his sores. At first blush, the contrast seems to be that of rich vs. poor. The story fits neatly with the narrative of our day. Look at that rich man, sitting in the lap of luxury, who has not a care for the plight of his underprivileged and suffering neighbor. And look at the poor sick man laying at the gate, hoping for only a crumb, undoubtedly poor because the rich man has exploited him, and is unwilling to pay his fair share. In the narrative of our day, to be rich is to be evil, to be poor is to be virtuous. And it is tempting to use this Gospel text in support of this thesis. But not so fast! That’s just not the point of our text.
The point is not that the rich man is evil insofar as he is rich. The point is not that the poor man, Lazarus, is righteous insofar as he is poor. Nor is the point that the rich man would become righteous by sharing his riches with Lazarus. For all we know, the rich man regularly gives alms to poor Lazarus, as is the honorable thing to do in Jesus’ day, and would explain why Lazarus is laying at this particular gate. It is good to give alms. We should do it. But that is not how one becomes righteous. The point is this: The rich man looks to his riches to provide him with good things now. Poor Lazarus looks to God to give him an inheritance that cannot perish, spoil, or fade then, in heaven, and in the resurrection of the dead. The rich man’s faith is in his riches. Lazarus’ faith is in God. That’s the real contrast. And what it comes down to is the hearing of the Holy Scriptures. Lazarus hears Moses and the Prophets in faith that the promised Messiah will come and make all that is wrong right again by His saving work. The rich man hears Moses and the Prophets as, at best, a Law to be kept and so gain favor from God, at worst, a mere distraction to the real work of this life. In either case, for the rich man, his riches are proof to him of his righteousness. He deserves these riches. He has earned them. The very heavens smile down at him. And this Lazarus, well… he’s earned his lot, too. I’ll help him out, throw him a few crumbs and a few coins now and then, let him sleep there on my porch and keep warm with the dogs. But he obviously doesn’t have God’s favor like I do. Just look at him, the poor, dirty, pathetic corpse of a man. Well, so it goes. Let’s not let it ruin a good dinner.
The rich man takes the short view. What matters is this life, the riches and rewards one can enjoy now. Lazarus takes the long view. Present circumstances, good or bad, have a short shelf-life. They are only for a little while. But God has promised good things to come for those who trust in Him. Moses and the Prophets were given to tell of the coming One, the Savior, Messiah, who will save us from our sins. He will free us from slavery to sin and death, drown our enemies in the Red Sea, and bring us through the wilderness of this life into the Promised Land of His Kingdom. Now there is suffering. Then there will be comfort. Now death appears to have won. Then the victory of life will be manifest. Now there is sorrow and sadness. Then God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And so it is that Lazarus’ hope in God, in Messiah, in Jesus, is fulfilled, as the angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom, in other words, heaven. There he receives his good things. The rich man, who believes in his riches and ultimately in himself, receives everything money can buy, which, in the end, is nothing. The rich man also dies, just like Lazarus. Except the rich man had no hope in Jesus. He did not believe in God. He believed in riches. And now he is in hell. In this life, Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, but he trusted in God to deliver him. Now he is satisfied with heaven’s bounty. In this life, the rich man feasted sumptuously, trusting that his riches would never give out, that God would always reward a good man like him. Now he longs for Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his hellish tongue. The tables have been turned. The contrast is not one of money. The contrast is one of faith.
It is tempting to live for the good things of this life, ensuring our comfort and satisfaction now, at the expense of faith in Christ and love toward our neighbor. By nature, we fallen human beings take the short view, this life, now, the 70 or 80 years we’re given to live on earth, and maybe the legacy we leave for our children and grandchildren. What does not come naturally to fallen sinners is the long view, that trusts in God to provide all things needful for body and soul, receives the good things of this life as pure gift from God, and when the bad things come, waits upon God to deliver for the sake of Christ, His Son. The long view, which is to say, faith, is not something we can drum up within ourselves. It is not something we decide or will into existence. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him…” “I believe that I cannot believe,” we confess in the Small Catechism. But the Holy Spirit does it by the Word. Faith is a gift from God. To believe in Jesus is something that God does in you. How? Holy Scripture. Moses and the Prophets. The Bible. The preaching. The Word made visible in the Sacraments. That is how faith in Christ is given. The rich man wanted Lazarus to go back and warn his unbelieving brothers. But they had Moses and the Prophets. They had the Word. And as for them, so for you and me. If you do not believe the Word, neither will you believe if someone should rise from the dead.
And that’s where the irony hits us between the eyes. Someone has risen from the dead, and that changes everything. That is the fulfillment of Lazarus’ hope, and yours. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He died… You cannot rise from the dead unless you are good and dead… He died, not for any sin He had committed, but for your sins, for you, in your place. He suffered your punishment. Your death. He was nailed to the cross, pierced for your transgressions, and by His wounds you are healed. By becoming in His precious Body all that is wrong, He makes everything right for you. He suffers and is rejected. Rich men walk by and scoff. Poor men mock Him. His wounds ooze, and there are not even dogs to comfort Him. He thirsts. He longs for a fingertip of water to cool His hellish tongue. He suffers your hell. And He dies. Your death. He is buried. Your tomb. And He rises from the dead. Your life. Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, in His Body, His holy angels will carry your soul to Abraham’s bosom, heaven, when you die, and on the Last Day the risen Lord Jesus will call you out of the grave. He will raise you from the dead. In your body. Made like His resurrection Body. Perfect. Healed. Whole. And you will receive your good things then, and forevermore.
And what if you’re rich now? What if you enjoy good things now? Praise God! He gave those things to you. Give thanks, and whatever you do, don’t put your trust in them. They could be gone in a moment, and you won’t take them with you when you die. But God has given them to you to help your neighbor. So go find a Lazarus and make an investment in your neighbor that will last on into eternity. And what if you’re poor now? What if you’re sick or suffering, worried about what you’ll eat, what you’ll wear, where you’ll live? Praise God! You do have some good things or you wouldn’t be alive. These are gifts from God. Receive them with thanksgiving. But remember, things don’t save you. Things don’t make you right with God. Jesus does. And after all He paid for you on the cross, to make you His own, He won’t forsake you now. Trust Him. He’s given you a cross to bear, now, for a little while. But He will provide for you, and your good things await you in the end, with Him, in heaven. Rich or poor, we put no trust in the stuff of this life. The real good things are the things Jesus gives: His Word, His Body, His Blood, His righteousness, His life, His peace.
And just so you know and believe that the good things are coming in all their fullness, He gives you a little foretaste here and now. He’s set a Table. And there’s a place for you. Yes, you, laying there in your festering wounds and sins. Yes, you, caught by your wealth or your worries, obsessed with the short view of things. Yes, you. You. There is a place here for you. This Feast keeps your eyes focused on the long view. Here, heaven breaks in, Jesus is present, and He feeds you with Himself. Gathered around this Table with you are angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, Father Abraham and Lazarus and all your loved ones who died in the faith. Gathered around this Table are brothers and sisters in Christ from all times and places who look to Jesus to feed them and deliver them. Here are the good things. Take and eat. Take and drink. Jesus is the good thing. He died for you. He is risen for you. Here He gives Himself for you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.