“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And 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.”
Of these two men, which would you rather be? The one with the nice suits, the expensive cars, the servants, the Mediterranean vacations, the fine food and wine? Or the one who had to be carried because he couldn’t walk? Who had to beg because he couldn’t work? Whose body was covered with painful sores and whose only physicians were the dogs who licked his sores? Who looked through the window at the rich man’s table and longed to be a dog at his feet, lapping up the the table scraps?
Which of these two men would you say was blessed by God? Be honest. You’d say the rich man. He could count his blessings. It would take the fingers of both hands and his toes, but he had blessings to count. Good things. Lots of stuff. And the poor beggar, whose name was Lazarus, he had nothing. Blessed by God? Hardly! We might suspect he was cursed by God, that he did something to deserve this lot in life. And there we would be very wrong.
This parable comes at the end of a chunk of teaching where Jesus wants to loosen our grip on our money. He starts with the parable of the unjust money manage who used his money shrewdly to make friends while he still had time. He goes on to observe that when it comes to money, the people of this age tend to be a lot smarter than the children of light, that means believers, which includes you. He then observes that how you handle little things like money is a barometer for how you handle big riches like salvation and eternal life. He warns that no one can serve two masters. You will either love money and hate God, or love God and hate money, but you can’t love and serve them both. As believers, you are servants of God and masters of money. And finally, Jesus reminds the Pharisees, who loved money, that what man esteems, God despises, and if you want to be on the same page with God, you better let go of your death grip on money before it drags you like a lead anchor into the depths of hell.
And then comes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. As He does with many parables, Jesus paints this one in black and white. There is a man who is filthy rich who has a filthy beggar lying at his gate. We know the name of the poor man: Lazarus. It’s also the name of one of Jesus’ best friends, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus raised from the dead. We don’t know the name of the rich man. Nor apparently does Jesus, or perhaps he’s forgotten him with the words, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
Both men died. Death is the great equalizer. Rich and poor die alike. The rich die more comfortably perhaps, but rich and poor die alike. And then comes the big surprise. The great reversal of fortunes. In death everything gets turned upside down. The rich man loses everything; the poor man gains everything. The rich man becomes the beggar; the beggar becomes the rich man. The one who was blessed is cursed; the one who was cursed is blessed. Go figure.
Lazarus, who was carried every day of his miserable life to the gate of the rich man, is now carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. “Bosom of Abraham” is a Jewish euphemism for what we usually call “heaven” or what Jesus called Paradise. Let’s agree not to speculate too much about this and just let the parable speak for itself. Lazarus is in a good place, comforted, whole, happy, hanging with Abraham.
The rich man is in Hades, a bad place, a place of torment. The worst of the torment is that he can see Lazarus hanging with Abraham, just as Lazarus used to look through the rich man’s window at dinner time. And the rich man, who was used to ordering servants around all his life, now tries to order Lazarus to please fetch him a drink because it’s damn hot down here. At the very least, just dip the end of his finger in some water to cool my tongue. Lazarus used to long for the crumbs; the rich man now longs for a cooling finger.
And the hell of it all is that there is chasm, this huge gap the size of the Grand Canyon, that prevents that cooling finger from ever reaching the rich man’s burning tongue. The distance between the rich man’s table and Lazarus was considerably shorter, just a few feet.
The parable illustrates what Jesus spoke of earlier. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous Mammon, that is, your money, so that when it fails (and when you die), they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The rich man did not do what the shrewd money manager did. He didn’t invest in the mouth of Lazarus. He loved his money; he hated God. Perhaps he didn’t even bother to think about God much less trust him. Why trust God when you have everything anyway?
A recent study from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School found that money can indeed buy happiness, up to about $75,000. Beyond $75K people aren’t any more happy, $75 K can buy you happiness. That’s rich by a global standard. And if you were to ask the rich man and Lazarus in their lives who was happy, I’m sure the rich man was quite happy in his purple robes sipping his Robert Mondavi and snacking on fois gras. And I seriously doubt that Lazarus was happy, believer though he was, and we know he was a believer by where he ended up, since Abraham is the father of those who believe.
But when money fails, and it always ultimately fails, when you drop dead and all your hard-earned money gets fought over by your deadbeat kids, the happiness that money brings dies with it. And then what? The rich man in his unbelief winds up an eternal beggar, worse off than Lazarus. And the poor man in his faith has the comforts of Abraham.
Of course, there are no atheists in Hades. And suddenly, the rich man, maybe for the first time in his life, takes an interest in someone else and is interested in evangelism of all things. He has five brothers. They’re rich too, most likely. He doesn’t want them to wind up the same way. “Please send Lazarus to warn them.” Now he wants to bring Lazarus back from the dead because that will make an impression but would be a major bummer for Lazarus. Can you imagine being recalled from the bosom of Abraham? Ironically, Jesus actually did raise a man named Lazarus from the dead, and it didn’t do any good. They plotted to kill Lazarus too because he was making a big name for Jesus.
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” They have the Word written and preached. It’s there for them in church, waiting to be heard. That’s all they need to avoid the fate of the rich man. That’s all the rich man needed, and he had it all his wealthy life. Who knows? Perhaps the rich was there every Sabbath in the synagogue sitting in his place of honor as one of the pillars of he congregation. Perhaps he heard the Word every Sabbath because that’s where everyone else was and no one was doing business. Sadly, he is the weedy soil in Jesus’ parable of the four-fold soil, where the seed of the Word is planted but never takes root because the riches and cares of this world choke it out with busy calendars and commitments and concerns. Jesus said it’s easier to pull a camel through the eye of a needle than to squeeze a rich man into the kingdom. This rich man would agree.
Even if someone should rise from the dead (ie Lazarus), they still would not be convinced if they reject the Word, Moses and the Prophets. Resurrections are impressive, but even the greatest miracle won’t produce even mustard-seed sized faith without the Word. Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ – the word of forgiveness in Jesus’ name, the word delivered in Baptism and Supper. The Word that declares a sinner justified before God solely for Jesus’ sake.
Which one would you like to be? The rich man or Lazarus? And the parable won’t let you have it both ways. Would you rather be poor in this life and rich in the life to come or rich in this life only to spend an eternity parted from every comfort in this life?
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “We are all beggars, this is true,” Luther said at the end of his life. We are all Lazarus – helpless and hopeless in our poverty, sick unto death, longing to even eat the crumbs that fall from God’s table. Lazarus is each of us, and unless we see ourselves in him, we cannot be saved. We won’t want to be saved.
Unlike the rich man in the parable, Jesus comes to us in our poverty. “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes, He became poor that we through His poverty might become rich.” He came to us in the poverty of our sin and death. He came to us, condemned under the Law to an eternity of misery. He came to us when we were unable to help ourselves. He took on our weak and diseased and fallen humanity, and He lifted us up from the curb and brought us to His house and washed our wounds with His Baptism and gave us a seat at His table, not as pathetic beggars but as beloved friends, not as strangers but as one of the family, not to eat the crumbs that fall from the table to feast on the abundance of salvation that Jesus has won for you.
The rich man’s brothers had Moses and the Prophets. You have more – the apostles and evangelists. The Word and the Sacrament. You are as rich as Lazarus.
In the name of Jesus,