Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our Gospel Reading for today is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. You’ll notice that while this story is never directly called a parable, it functions much like one. This is a story which was told by our Lord for the purpose of instructing through illustration and example. The original hearers of this story are not named directly in our text, but you don’t have to look far to find them. In verses 14 and 15 of Luke 16, we read: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed [Jesus]. And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:14-15). After a few intervening verses in which our Lord continues speaking to the Pharisees, our text begins with the Pharisees still very much the intended audience. The subject matter being addressed, then, is their love of money. So, as we come to our text, we see that its primary purpose is to address 7th Commandment matters—what place do money and possessions have in the Christian life?
2. Our Lord tips his hand already in the first three verses of our text, when he sets up a distinct contrast between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is not given the dignity of having his name recorded. He is the epitome of lavish, over-the-top living. This man dresses himself in designer clothing, he throws parties every day, and he eats the fanciest, most expensive food that he can find. He lives the life of luxury in every way. The reality is, this rich man is out of control. All that he wants is to enjoy life and to worry about no one but himself. The poor man, however, is the opposite of the rich man in nearly every way. We’re told that this poor man’s name is Lazarus. Lazarus means, “God is my help”, which gives us a significant indication of how we ought to view this man. He is a man who can do nothing but rely on the grace of God. He can do nothing but rely on the grace of God because he literally has nothing. He is a poor, homeless beggar sitting by the gate of the rich man’s house. Lazarus is the kind of guy where you look the other way as soon as you see him. He’s pathetic and pitiable, yet no one shows him pity. He desperately needs medical attention, yet the only attention he gets is from the dogs. The rich man and Lazarus could not be painted in starker contrast to one another.
3. This contrast continues in their death. Notice how differently their deaths are described. When Lazarus died, he was immediately carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. Now, this phrase, “Abraham’s bosom”, is a Jewish phrase designating heaven. To be carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom conveys the idea of a child being laid on Abraham’s bosom, or chest, and being embraced by him. Abraham is the father of believers, both in a literal sense for the ethnic Jews, and in a metaphorical sense for us Christians who follow in his footsteps of faith, as articulated in our Old Testament Reading. Since Abraham is the father of believers, to be carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom is an expression which not only denotes being in heaven where Abraham is, but it’s an expression which also denotes being in the most intimate association with the Father of believers—being accepted and acknowledged as a son of Abraham, as Zacchaeus would later be (19:9). The point is, all true believers are carried to Abraham’s bosom after death. The fact that this is the case for the poor man, Lazarus, indicates that God truly was his help, as his name indicates. In significant contrast to Lazarus, we are told that the rich man died and was buried. He no doubt had a funeral service fit for a king, but lavish living and a lavish funeral could not prevent his death, nor could they prevent his destiny in Hades. As the story concludes with a discussion between the rich man and Abraham, it becomes clear that the rich man’s wealth and possessions led him to care about no one but himself. Toward the end of the conversation, he does demonstrate some level of care at least for his brothers, but the way in which he continues to insist upon using Lazarus for his own benefit reveals his own heart and priorities. From what we can tell, it would seem that Lazarus inherited eternal life where he would feast eternally with the Lord because of his trust in God’s grace, whereas the rich man received eternal punishment where he would be tormented eternally because of his trust in possessions.
4. This text is admittedly a difficult one to reflect on because it hits so close to home. The primary thrust of this text is dealing with possessions. And when we naturally compare ourselves with the characters in this text, we find ourselves in conflict. On the one hand, we naturally identify with and feel for Lazarus. He is mistreated and helpless. And because of the rich man’s selfish, proud attitude and actions, we naturally feel bad for Lazarus and want to identify with him. The trouble is, our Lord doesn’t tell this story so that his hearers would identify with Lazarus. He tells this story so that the rich man would serve as a mirror for us. Remember how I said at the beginning that our Lord is telling this story to the Pharisees. We have just been told that these Pharisees to whom our Lord is speaking are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). And so, this story is meant to be difficult. It is meant to hit close to home. It is meant to make us ponder the ways in which we are like the rich man—the ways in which we are selfish, proud lovers of money. And the reality is, in our 21st century American context, it’s so easy to become like the rich man because everything about our culture teaches us wrongly about possessions. Regardless of how affluent we are relative to one another, we are much closer in wealth to the rich man than we are to Lazarus. We get so easily caught up in the race to “keep up with the Joneses.” We get caught up in the race to pay off debt, to save up for retirement, to own nice things and enjoy the blessings that our Lord has given to us in this life. We don’t even realize most of the time how this pursuit of worldly things could ever be a problem—it’s just what you do in our world. But whether we realize it or not, we have become selfish and proud and we look to our own needs over and above the needs of others.
5. But this text forces us to think differently. This text holds up a mirror to our lives and causes us to recognize that the priorities this world inculcates in us are not the priorities we ought to have. This text invites us to recognize that what truly matters most is not this life. What matters most is the life of the world to come. The unceremonious nature with which the rich man’s death is described shows just how much the things of this world really matter, or rather, how much they don’t matter. In this life, the rich man had it all—he had money, fancy clothing, a nice house, friends to feast and dine with. But in a moment, it was all taken away. The moment that the rich man died, it didn’t matter anymore. You can’t take your possessions with you into the next life. And so, this text causes us to recognize that the values of this world are not the values that a Christian ought to have. Accumulating many possessions is not the way to happiness. In fact, the accumulation of many possessions might end up having the exact opposite effect for eternity.
6. So, what is the take-away for us from this text? Is it that possessions are bad? Is it that rich people can’t enter the kingdom of God? Is the take-away that we ought to sell all our possessions and become a helpless beggar like Lazarus in order to ensure our entrance into eternal paradise? The short answer to all of these questions is, “no.” Possessions are not inherently bad. Our Lord demonstrates this in giving the 7th Commandment when he provides for the protection of physical property and possessions with the command: “You shall not steal.” Possessions aren’t inherently bad. And so, rich men can enter the kingdom of God. Earlier I referenced the story of Zacchaeus. It occurs just three chapters later in Luke’s Gospel, and so, we should connect the two stories. In that story from Luke 19, we see that Zacchaeus is an extremely rich man who, like the rich man in our text for today, has little regard for others. Yet Zacchaeus invites Jesus into his home. He repents of his selfish, cheating behavior. And the story of Zacchaeus ends with our Lord saying: “Today salvation has come to this house, since [Zacchaeus] also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). So, clearly rich men can enter the kingdom of heaven. Does this mean that like Zacchaeus, we ought to start giving away our possessions and even go to the extreme of becoming a beggar like Lazarus? Well, maybe. If you feel compelled that possessions have become a problem in your life, it might very well be worth considering giving some of them away for the sake of others and so that you might live a simpler, more focused life on the Lord. But going to the extreme of willingly becoming a beggar yourself is missing the point of this story. The point of this story is not that possessions are the key to salvation. The point of the story is that possessions can be an indicator of where your faith stands.
7. So, the take-away from this text should not primarily be about possessions at all. The take-away from the text should primarily be about trust in God’s grace. When we read this story in the larger context of the Scriptures, we see that Lazarus inherited eternal life because of his trust in God’s grace as I indicated earlier. Possessions become a problem in the Christian life when they become that in which we place our trust. When we rely on our wealth for day to day life rather than on God’s grace, we have lost the Christian perspective. When we rely on our wealth and possessions for comfort, hope, and confidence, we are failing to recognize the fleeting nature of this life. And more importantly, we are failing to recognize the Lord who is the giver of all that is good, both in this life and in the next. And so, the take-away from this text ought to begin with a confidence in God’s grace. We know that for those who reject the Lord, eternal torment awaits. Yet our Lord Jesus suffered torment on the cross in our place so that we would not have to. The Son of Man came to seek and to save people like you and me who are lost without him. Through repentance and trust in his gift of grace and love to us, eternal life in Abraham’s bosom is ours. And so, in this life possessions and wealth are a means to an end. Our possessions are a gift given to us to be used to generously bless others because of our gratitude for the blessings that our Lord has given to us. As the Apostle John says in our Epistle Reading: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). May the Lord help us to do this by his grace and may he bring us by that same grace to the joys of eternal life in the bosom of Abraham.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.