This morning’s parable from Jesus sounds like more on money, the evils of riches, and concern for the poor, but it actually isn’t. It’s actually about faith and the Word. Rich and poor are incidentals. Important incidentals but incidentals nonetheless.
There was a rich man and there was a poor man. It doesn’t get more binary than that, does it? The poor man was named Lazarus, the same as Jesus’ good friend from Bethany, the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus’ friend was not a poor beggar. He owned a home and lived with his sisters. The Lazarus in this story was poor and begged in the streets. We don’t know the name of the rich man, which is kind of strange. The Lord who knows and calls us by name doesn’t give the rich man a name. He’s a kind of generic, faceless stand-in. One who would knock on the Lord’s banquet door only to hear, “I don’t know you. Name’s not on the list. What’s the name again?” In the town, everyone knew the rich man’s name and probably very few knew Lazarus’ name. Not so with the Lord.
The nameless rich man was clothed in purple and fine lace. Armani, Versaci, you get the picture. The best. He feasted sumptuously every day. He probably had servants to prepare his meals, servants to set his table, servants to wash the dishes. While he sat at the table, Lazarus laid at the end of his driveway by the locked gate. “Was laid,” the text says, which suggests that Lazarus couldn’t walk and had to be transported, or you might say, “dumped” at the rich man’s gate. He could see the rich man in his expensive clothes sipping his fine wines and dining on the finest tidbits. He would have been happy to be one of the rich man’s dogs who licked the crumbs and morsels that fell from that table. Instead, the dogs of the street licked his oozing sores, which was probably more of a ministry than most people were willing to give to him.
You couldn’t have two more polar opposite characters than this rich man with no name and this beggar named Lazarus. If you were to ask the people of Jesus’ day which one of these two was “blessed by God” and had God’s “favor,” they would have said the rich man, as would most, if not all, of our prosperity preachers today. Count your blessings. The rich man had a lot of blessings to count. Clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home. He is blessed, so in the moral calculus of Jesus’ day, Lazarus must be cursed. He must have done something to deserve this. Don’t we always assume that of the homeless begging in the parking lots and on the street?
Both men died. Death is the great leveler, rich and poor die alike. And you can’t take it with you. But in death there is also a reversal of fortunes, and that’s unexpected. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to the “bosom of Abraham,” which is a Jewish euphemism for “heaven.” “Lord, let at last thine angels come. To Abram’s bosom bear me home.” That’s where it comes from. Lord, treat me like Lazarus the beggar and carry me home. So Lazarus, who was carried around all his life and dumped at rich men’s gates is now carried by the angels as a son of Abraham.
The rich man also died. I’m sure there was an impressive funeral and lots of dignitaries to make speeches on his behalf and an elaborate burial in an impressive tomb. So much for what we see. But take the heaven’s eye perspective of Jesus and you see a man in torment in the unending fire of Hades. He lived a comfortable life only to die a very uncomfortable death. And his discomfort is amplified by his being able to see Abraham and good old Lazarus at his side. Talk about reversals! The rich man is now the beggar and the beggar is the rich man.
“Father Abraham,” he calls out religiously as a child of Abraham. Have mercy on me. The one who had no mercy on the poor beggar at his gate now seeks mercy from the gates of Hades. “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I’m burning up.” He never invited Lazarus into his home, much less to his table, nor did he ever go out to Lazarus. But now, all of a sudden, he wants Lazarus’ company. In fact, he want Lazarus to bring him a drink much the way his servants filled his wine glass whenever it was empty. But this is a far deeper thirst.
“Child.” Abraham calls him “child,” a child of Abraham. “You received good things in your lifetime and Lazarus bad.” Now things are flipped. He is comforted, and you’re in anguish. His discomfort was temporal, as was your comfort. His comfort is eternal, as is your discomfort. And, even if we wanted, we couldn’t get to you. Great chasm. Bigger than that chasm between your table and the gate where Lazarus lay.
Then send Lazarus to my brothers. I have five. I don’t want them to wind up here. They say there are no atheists in fox holes, but actually there are. Some atheists are made in fox holes. But there are no atheists in hell. There the awful truth of unbelief and rejection are known. And the consequences of grace rejected. I wonder when the last time was the rich man talked to his five brothers. Or if he talked to them, when was the last time it was about eternal things instead of the stock market. Suddenly he’s interested in evangelism to his brothers, and Lazarus is going to be his evangelist. Poor Lazarus. He’s finally at rest from his labors in the bosom of Abraham and everyone is ordering him around and making work for him.
It reminds me of a quip from the sainted Prof. Kurt Marquart of our Ft. Wayne seminary. I once asked Prof. Marquart what he thought about the practice of praying to the saints, those who have died and are with the Lord. I’ll never forget his answer, as only he could put it. “I scarcely can imagine that those who enjoy the beatific vision should have to be troubled with our trifles.”
“They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.” In other words, they have the Word – the Torah and the Prophets. The Writings too. The Word of God. They have everything they need to know to make them wise to salvation. It’s all there. Oh, it would answer every question, scratch every itch, unlock the mysteries of life, or give you the secrets to success, but the Scriptures will make you wise to salvation through faith in Christ. Faith comes by hearing, not seeing, not touching. Hearing. Let them hear Moses and the Prophets. We don’t need to be bugging Lazarus.
Ah, but if someone comes back from the dead, that will impress them. Probably scare the daylights out of them and repentance into them. Do you ever wonder if Jesus had his tongue firmly planted in cheek when He told this story? Did the corner of His mouth betray a slight smile? Really? If Lazarus comes back from the dead they’re going to repent? Here’s how it actually went. Jesus actually did raise a man named Lazarus from the dead, the guy who lived with his two sisters in Bethany. Jesus went to his funeral and raised him from the dead in full view of a bunch of people who had come to mourn. You know what happened after that? They plotted to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus. That’s how hardened unbelief is. If you won’t hear the Word, you won’t believe even if a dead guy gets up to shake your hand.
And let’s not forget. Jesus rose from the dead, unassisted by man. He was crucified and on the third day rose again from the dead. And the people didn’t believe. Even His own disciples doubted. No, let’s get it clear: If you won’t hear the Word of God through Moses and the Prophets, and let’s add the apostles and evangelists, if we plug our ears and harden our hearts and close our minds to the Word, then we’re not going to be convinced by a resurrection.
So where does that leave us? Luther said it best at the end of his life. We don’t know if he actually said these words but they were penned on a small scrap of paper at the nightstand next to his bed. People in Luther’s day took great care about their last words and wrote them down in case they were in no shape to speak them. What Luther wrote was: Wir sind alle Bettler. Hoc est verum. We are all beggars. This is true.
We are indeed all beggars. We’re Lazarus laying at the rich man’s gate, no matter how rich we might be in this world. The problem is that most of us, all of us, would rather be the rich man than Lazarus. Who doesn’t want nice clothing, a nice home, good food and drink, a decent health plan? No one in their right minds would want to be Lazarus. We avoid Lazarus. If he were parked at the end of our driveways, we’d call the police to have him removed. We admire the rich man. We want to be the rich man. We think we’d be happy and comfortable and at peace if we were the rich man. And maybe in this life, we would be. And that’s the danger of riches. For the sake of things temporal, we lose sight of things eternal.
That’s why Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, and woe to those who are rich.” The poor live in hope, the rich have nothing to hope for. The poor live by grace, the rich live off the interest. That doesn’t mean that being rich is a vice and being poor is a virtue. Nor does being poor commend you to God, though the Lord does keep watch over the poor. Abraham, at whose bosom Lazarus reclined, was a rich man. As was Solomon. And Lydia, who sold the purple goods that the rich man in the parable wore. Being poor doesn’t grant you an E-ticket to heaven, nor does being rich put you on the fastrack to Hades. But riches are an easy impediment. Just as the rich young ruler who came to Jesus wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus told him. “Sell your stuff. Give the money to the poor. Follow me.”
We are, in the end, beggars all. This is true. Where’s Jesus in all this? He’s with Lazarus. He was rich in eternal treasures. The Son of God. He became poor, a beggar who borrowed everything – His crib, His donkey, His cross, His tomb. All borrowed. He had no place to lay His head in this world. The Lord of the universe, the eternal Son, took His place at the end of our driveway. A beggar king among beggars. We are all beggars.
Had the rich man dared to look up from his dinner and out his window to his gate, he would have seen something Christ-like. Lazarus. “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” He would seen in the poverty of Lazarus the poverty of his own existence, the poverty of his riches, and the poverty of Christ.
Christ was rich but for our sakes became poor, a Lazarus to this world, despised, rejected, left to die with the dogs. He became poor so that in His poverty you might be rich in eternal treasure. You might be clothed not in fine designer purple but in the royal robes of Jesus’ righteousness. You might feast not on the delicacies of this world’s table but at the Lamb’s table of which His Supper is a foretaste of a feast to come.
You have Moses and the Prophets. You have the apostles and evangelists too. How rich you are! Hear them. They will make you wise to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
And you have Jesus risen from the dead. Believe Him and take your place with Lazarus.
In the name of Jesus,