First Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Luke 16:19-31| May 29, 2005
Once upon a time people gave alms. Today nobody knows what they are. The word “alms” comes from the Greek word for mercy. We show mercy toward the poor by giving alms for their support. Those who have received mercy from God express both their faith in God’s mercy and their love for God. They express their faith and their love by showing mercy to others, especially to fellow Christians.
Christian almsgiving goes back to the very beginning. When Jesus sent out the apostles to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments they went out and preached the gospel and administered the sacraments. That is what ministers of the word do. That’s what they did. But that’s not all they did. They also took care of the daily distribution of food to the needy widows. The preaching of God’s mercy and acts that express His mercy go hand in hand. The heart that receives mercy from God is thereby made merciful to others. When the church first established an office to assist the preachers of the word it was a ministry of mercy that they established. It was taken for granted that Christians were responsible for caring for the poor among them. That some should go hungry while others were well fed would have been a scandal. And in fact, the Corinthian congregation participated in just such a scandal, for which St. Paul severely chastised them.
Nowadays Christians assume that it is the State’s responsibility to care for the poor. A government run bureaucracy combines a graduated income tax with various entitlement programs in order to transfer money from the rich to the poor without anyone having to make a moral decision to do what mercy requires for another human being. The State has taken the place of God, the Church, the conscience, and any responsibility for moral action. Just pay your taxes and let the system care for those less fortunate than you. You don’t have to love. You don’t have to show mercy. You don’t have to care. You don’t even have to know. You can walk right by the beggar at the gate and know that it isn’t really your Christian duty to do anything at all for anyone at all. After all, why do we pay taxes?
But it doesn’t require socialism to harden the heart against the needs of those less fortunate than we are. The Welfare State is just a convenient excuse. What it requires is selfishness and greed. My desires become more important than my neighbor’s needs. What I can live without becomes more important than what my neighbor cannot live without. This is what happens when we make ourselves into our own gods. That’s what greed is. It’s idolatry.
The rich man is given no name. God did not know him as His child. The beggar is given a name. “Lazarus” means God is my helper. It is the name of the man whom God helps. There is an old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not quite biblical. God helps those who cannot help themselves. God helps those who beg him for His help. As we sing in Mary’s Magnificat, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent empty away.”
You cannot always see God’s mercy. Mercy lies hidden under many kinds of weakness. It requires faith to see it. And without faith it cannot be received. Let me explain what I am talking about. God’s mercy is His love, His compassion, His fatherly goodness. Look at the rich man and you would think that here was a man who had received God’s love, compassion, and fatherly goodness. After all, he lived in the lap of luxury and had more than enough to satisfy every conceivable desire. Was not God the giver of every good thing the rich man had? Of course He was. But the rich man had no faith. He did not trust in God’s mercy. Had he trusted in God’s mercy he surely would have seen the man lying, half starved, outside his gate. But he didn’t see him. He did not know God. He did not know mercy. He did not see the one in need of mercy. So while you would think that the rich man was greatly blessed by God, in fact he didn’t even know God.
On the other hand, you would think that Lazarus had received no mercy from God. Had God been merciful to Lazarus, why would He have left him in such a miserable state? If God loved the beggar, why did He leave the beggar to beg? But God’s mercy is often hidden from our eyes. Faith sees it and faith alone receives it.
We do not see Christ. The greatest gifts He gives to us remain unseen in this life. We do not see the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Yet we have all these things and with them we have pure and undiluted mercy. This is eternal mercy. The beggar had it. It belonged to him. He was wealthy beyond description even as he had to beg for his daily bread. Imagine that! An heir of everlasting joys and nobody would have known it. It was hidden from sight.
Only in heaven is the mercy fully seen. To be taken by the angels to Abraham’s bosom is to be brought into perfect fellowship with God. Abraham represents the faithful of all generations. He is our spiritual father. He believed the gospel promise and through his faith in the promised Savior God reckoned Abraham to be righteous. Those who trust in the merits and mediation of Jesus are the children of Abraham. They often appear to this world as losers. They haven’t got status, prestige, or wealth. Nobody even notices them. But through faith in Christ they are wealthy because they are heirs of heaven itself. They have received mercy from God.
It was the cry of beggars begging for mercy from God that sent Jesus to the cross to suffer. Yes, it was God’s eternal counsel and will to lay the burden of all our sins on His beloved Son. But it was also the prayers for mercy that reached the heart of God. Prayers for mercy are always prayed from the posture of a beggar. This is why Lazarus represents all Christians. If you will not beg you cannot be saved. God doesn’t save us in our pride and self-reliance. He saves us from it. He makes us beggars. He shows us our mercenary, selfish, and greedy motives and desires and He shows us that this is sin. He won’t relent from insisting that we be merciful, even as He is merciful. And when we see ourselves as so lacking in charity that we fear the same fate as the rich man who went to hell our gracious Savior takes those fears away and assures us that we live under His mercy. We don’t get what we deserve. He got what we deserve. We get what He deserved. The evil that we did was borne patiently by Him and we receive the rewards of His goodness. This is how we can be confident that we receive that for which we beg. We freely admit that we don’t deserve to receive it. But we plead the help of God for Christ’s sake. We plead as Lazarus and our pleas are heard.
But it is only in this life that the cry of repentance can be heard. There is no repentance after death. There is either heaven or hell. There is no place in between. A gulf is fixed between heaven and hell that no one can cross. There is no second chance. After death is the judgment. While Judgment Day will occur on the last day at the resurrection, there is nothing that can happen after death to change the judgment of Judgment Day. There is heaven and there is hell.
Lazarus did not go to heaven because he was poor. Poor people die and go to hell every day. The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. Rich people die and go to heaven every day. Jesus emphasizes the one man’s wealth and the other man’s poverty in order to illustrate their faith. The rich man trusted in his riches. The poor man trusted in God’s mercy.
The source of faith is the word of God. Not even the resurrection of Christ – witnessed to by hundreds of people – was sufficient to convert those who refused to hear God’s word. The rich man thought that the resurrection of Lazarus would bring his brothers to repentance. But the source of our faith is God’s word. As Jesus said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets they will not be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” God will not use any other means to lead people to repentance and faith than His word. He will speak. His law will continue to condemn us for our greed and selfishness and God won’t tailor His law to avoid offending our sensibilities. His gospel will continue to give us forgiveness of all our sins freely for Christ’s sake, and He will never fail to be merciful to those who call on Him in Jesus’ name. So we hold on to God’s word and rely upon its power. We don’t depend on gimmicks, signs and wonders, or various manipulative schemes to convert people. We depend on the pure gospel of Christ because this reveals God’s mercy to us and it is only by means of God’s mercy in Christ that we can be led to faith and kept in the truth faith. When we receive God’s love we receive a little bit of heaven. The love that God has shown us in Christ is the same love that will be confirmed in us in heaven. The peace that we receive from Christ here and now is the peace that we will enjoy with God throughout eternity. The difference between now and then is that now we have what we have by faith and we still suffer from sin and sin’s effects on our lives. In heaven our faith will give way to sight.
Hell is constant suffering and no rest. Heaven is a deep satisfaction that no amount of self-serving on earth could possible match. The only true rest in time or in eternity is in Christ. It is a rest in divine mercy that will never end. It is a joy that will never diminish. It is a peace that will never be broken. Heirs of heaven are able to show mercy to the least of Jesus’ brothers here on earth with confidence that they are being merciful to Jesus Christ Himself. There are no rules governing how this is to be done. There is no law that can compel its doing. But mercy begets mercy and love begets love.