In the church year there is no change quite so abrupt as the change from Trinity Sunday to the first Sunday after Trinity. Jesus comforting words to Nicodemus about God loving the world and sending his only begotten son, give way to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
There are many comforting Gospel readings throughout the year. This is not one of them. Are the rich condemned and the poor saved? Not at all. Jesus isn’t saying that. It’s not about the money. We always want to make that clear because we fall far closer to the rich man than to Lazarus. We eat out at restaurants – what is that but having servants prepare and bring the meal? We have the finest clothes – closets full of them. Most today don’t have a stable full of horses because who needs them – we have cars and trucks that do the work of several teams. We have TV’s to divert our attention and amuse, also computers, cell phones, tablets. The list goes on and on.
So the first thing we want to make sure we understand is, it’s not about wealth.
Because if it is, we are condemned. And we certainly don’t want that to happen. So, we talk about how it’s really about the lack of faith of the rich man vs. the faith of Lazarus.
The only problem with that is that it is nowhere in the parable. We want to read it into the parable, because we know that we are saved by grace through faith.
So, we try and reconcile this parable with what Paul says, and we just slip faith in their as the distinction between the two, and move on: content that we have solved this problem, assured that we DO have the faith of Lazarus, and self-satisfied that there is nothing to worry about, because our intentions are honorable.
The road to hell is paved with just such good intentions.
Luther’s sermon on this Gospel reading would earn him an “F” in preaching courses. There is practically no Gospel at all. It’s almost all Law – and very stern law at that. But then, the Gospel reading itself is mostly Law.
“At his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores” Anyone signing up to be Lazarus? Anyone ready to say, “Here am I send me send me?” Is that what it takes to be saved? Again, it’s not about the money. Luther makes the distinction: He says that the difference was that the poor man used his poverty rightly, the rich man used his riches wrongly. Wealth can not be the thing itself that condemns – because God has created those things. He has given us this world with all its wonders and told us to use it. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” – the blessing given to Adam and Eve – does not mean fill the earth like a pestilence of locusts. It means fill and use and enjoy the earth. And that blessing – though now under the curse of sin and death – still stands. God has given us this land as a heritage. He has given us the things we need in this world, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home land animals and all we have, and still takes care of them. God does not give a blessing, and then say, “And by the way, that blessing is by definition a curse.” No, we find ways to misuse it. We find ways to make it a curse for us. But God’s giving is good. Which means that it isn’t the wealth as wealth that condemns the rich man.
It’s that he doesn’t use it properly. Let’s just quote Luther on this one, because he says it so well:
QUOTE LUTHER p. 231.
Of course, as soon as we hear that we assume that we are using it properly. After all here we are, the offering plate is passed around, and we are giving of our treasures to support the work of the church. Of course, even if we were to conquer our greed, we still fight with pride. If we were to conquer our pride we still fight with anger. And instead of admitting sin, we give it pretty names. Greed is not greed, it is prudence. Pride is not pride, it is honor. Anger is not anger it is righteous indignation. And so we make our peace in our own minds that we are not the rich man.
But being the rich man is not what should scare us. After all, he’s long dead – gone to his eternal reward – and certainly we aren’t like him. The really scary thought is that we might be his brothers. The ones who will not listen to the prophets. The ones who still have a chance, but are blowing it.
If only God would send some sort of message to us. Some sort of assurance that we are on the right path. Lord, I don’t want to end up like this guy. Save me, like you saved Lazarus. And if we could just assure ourselves of salvation, then we can go home feeling better about ourselves. We can get on with our day and not worry.
But here’s the thing. This parable comes after the ones about forgiving. Lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal Son – those came last chapter. This chapter is unjust steward and then Rich man and Lazarus. If it had been the other way around, we would know – trust not in your works, but trust that God will save you. Jesus tells them in the wrong order. Trust not in works – and if you don’t treat your possessions right, you’re toast. So, works then. Many come to that conclusion. They work very hard to try and make God happy. But their works are forced – they don’t come from a grateful heart. And God isn’t happy because of what you do. The good works we can manage on our own never measure up to the standard God requires, because we are sinful. There’s always that sin lurking in our hearts. That’s why God sent Jesus.
We just spent the last six months hearing that. God is forgiving because of who Jesus is. God is loving and merciful in sending his Son to you. Jesus took your sins away. That’s the promise. Lazarus and the Rich Man are for us the next step – the one that makes Lutherans uncomfortable. We want to stop at redemption. We want to stop at God doing it. We don’t want to go another step, because that means we have to do something. And of course, we can’t. We just spend half a year hearing that. Now, Lazarus comes along and says, “Better do something.” Confusing? Certainly unsettling. The nice thing about “God does it all” is that we need never worry about our own actions.
But of course, that’s a lie, and Paul lays that lie to rest. “Should we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. How can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?” Even the Epistle reading for Easter – the day of resurrection itself – says, “purge out the old leaven.” Jesus has saved you so that you may pure.
The next few months, we hear of the life of the Christian. Growth in faith and love. The life of the Christian is not an easy life. It’s a life of struggle. Because although we have been saved by Jesus from our sin, we are still sinners in a sinful world. Even though we have been made holy and righteous in His sight, we are still weak. We have been given the promise, but we still struggle to live out the hope of that promise in our lives.
That’s why Jesus tells parables such as this one – so that we realize how very much danger we are in. So that we would understand that this struggle we find ourselves in is not just child’s play. Rather we would see our sin for what it is – damnable. We would truly repent in terror for our sin – and we would be restored by Christ’s life-giving sacrifice – his body and blood shed.
The world wants so much to distract us from the reality that Jesus gave his life for you. That’s all there really is. It changes everything.
The parable of Lazarus and rich man isn’t the “you’d better do this” parable at the end of the forgiveness section. It’s a parable told by the one who did die for you. Who did rise from the grave. That changes things, doesn’t it?
The one who said how to get to heaven also then died to get you there. This past week, a Marine was given the Medal of Honor for stepping in front of a grenade to save his comrades in arms. Although he is scarred and lost an eye, he survived. He carries those scars for the rest of his life. But those scars are testimony to his love and devotion – his bravery.
Jesus went into death for you. He bears the marks of death on his hands and feet. But they are not marks of shame. They are marks of glory. They are marks of love, and now, of victory over death. And so, every word, every action is seen in that light. This parable is a warning. But listen to Abraham’s words, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Jesus did rise from the dead. He took away death’s power and left life for you. That changes things. With that in view, this isn’t just a warning parable. It points to Jesus. You have the testimony in the hands and feet.
Repent. Turn from your sin, Let Jesus do the saving, and live.