The First Sunday after Trinity
June 6, 2010
“Heaven and Hell”
St. Luke 16:19-31
"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hell, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.' " St. Luke 16:19-31
Jesus tells us the story about the rich man and Lazarus to teach us. He teaches us about life and death, heaven and hell. We should always take our Lord’s teaching to heart because he never teaches us useless things. His teaching is always vital. We cannot afford to ignore it. What Jesus teaches us matters. It matters right now.
We might die tonight. You have no guarantee of waking up tomorrow. If God chooses to take your soul out of this world today, where will you spend eternity?
Make no mistake. Everyone will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. When you die, your eternal future is settled and cannot be changed. Those who go to hell stay in hell forever. Those who go to heaven stay in heaven forever. It is as Abraham explained to the rich man:
And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.
There is no diminishing of the suffering in hell. There is no relief and it lasts forever. The joy of heaven does not grow old or fade away. It lasts forever.
This story teaches us that rich folks aren’t necessarily rich. You may think you own the world. But if you can lose everything you own in a moment – never to see any of it again – you can hardly claim to own it in the first place. The most you can claim is that you are using it. But you are using it only so long as God sees fit. He can take it away at will, and when he does so he’ll do so without consulting you.
This story teaches us that poor folks aren’t necessarily poor. Appearances can be deceiving. A beggar, covered with sores, being fed with only scraps of food others saw as unfit to eat, is obviously a poor man, not a rich one. But it was Lazarus who was rich and it was the rich man who was poor. The rich man was buried. I’m sure it was accompanied by much pomp and ceremony. He was quite wealthy, after all. Nothing is said of Lazarus’ burial. Nobody of importance attended his funeral. But his soul was taken by the angels to the side of Abraham. He was taken to heaven. To be at Abraham’s bosom is to be resting peacefully with God, having everything you need, being content and happy forever. That’s wealth beyond anything this world can offer.
This story doesn’t directly tell us why the rich man went to hell or why Lazarus went to heaven. It is hinted at, but not explicitly explained. Clearly, the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t hate him. He didn’t hurt him. He simply didn’t care. Why not? Because true love comes from true faith. That’s why. The rich man did not love Lazarus because he had not experienced God’s love. Here is how Martin Luther explained it in a sermon on this Gospel Lesson that he preached in 1523:
For the nature of faith is that it expects all good from God, and relies only on God. For from this faith a man knows God, how he is good and gracious, that by reason of such knowledge his heart becomes so tender and merciful, that he wishes cheerfully to do to every one, as he experiences God has done to him. Therefore he breaks forth with love and serves his neighbor out of his whole heart, with his body and life, with his means and honor, with his soul and spirit, and makes him partaker of all he has, just like God did to him.
You can only give what you have received. First you must receive love from God. Only then can you give it. As St. John puts it so succinctly: “We love him because he first loved us.”
True love is incomprehensible to the one who does not know God in Christ. True love is revealed in Christ’s suffering. St. John explains,
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4, 9-11)
The love out of which every loving deed is done is the love of God in sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. This means that he sets aside God’s anger against us. He pacifies God. He quenches the fires of hell. God’s anger against our loveless attitude and selfish lives and hateful words and deeds was directed against Jesus who bore it in our stead. He bore God’s anger. He thus removed God’s anger from us. He turned God’s anger into love. This is what faith receives. Christian faith looks to Jesus suffering for us, taking away God’s anger, and faith lays hold of this divine love and embraces it. This love is our greatest good. It is our dearest treasure. It is God’s mercy. It is God’s care. It is God’s help when we are helpless.
This is what the rich man did not have and this is why he didn’t love. He did nothing to help Lazarus. How could he give what he didn’t have? How could he love when he had not received love?
Faith and love: these two words describe the Christian life. Faith receives God’s love. Love lives in it. If we love God we will love our brothers. The reason folks care nothing about their neighbors in need is because they have not received mercy from God.
Not that God doesn’t offer it. He proclaims it. Moses and the prophets in great unanimity testified to it. God loves this world. He sends his Son to this world. He forgives us our sins, opens the door to heaven, and guarantees us eternal life all the for the sake of the holy obedience and suffering of his dear Son Jesus.
But people prefer the wealth that can be lost to the wealth that cannot fade away. They are more enamored with the wisdom of men than with the wisdom of God. They would rather receive the honor of their own kind than to be honored by the One who suffered and died for the sin of the world. And they have their reward. It is here. It is now. And it is short lived.
Don’t misunderstand. The rich aren’t shut out of heaven because of their wealth. Many rich people go to heaven. Abraham was very wealthy, and he is in heaven to welcome Christians who die in the faith. And poor people go to hell. Material wealth does not keep anyone out of heaven. Material poverty doesn’t gain anyone entrance into heaven. It is not being rich or being poor that is the issue. It is rather a matter of faith.
Those who are trusting in the suffering and death of Jesus for their sins and believe that God for Jesus’ sake freely forgiveness them all their sins and receives them to himself are most certainly forgiven by God and belong to his family. Heaven is their home. It is their home whether they are rich or poor in the things of this life.
Those who are not trusting in Jesus are trusting in something else. It could be wealth, health, wisdom, strength – whatever appears to them to be trustworthy. But those who do not trust that God is merciful to them for Christ’s sake do not receive God’s love and don’t have it. They are not children of God and are not on their way to heaven.
Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. And he is the only source of true love in this life here on earth.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus also teaches us that you cannot scare the hell out of anyone. That’s essentially what the rich man asked of Abraham. “Tell my brothers about my suffering. Tell them of my pain. They’ll listen.” Abraham said that they should listen to what the Bible says. “Oh no, the Bible isn’t enough. If someone were to rise from the dead, well that would persuade them.” To which Abraham replied, “No, if they don’t believe the Bible they won’t believe, even if someone were to rise from the dead.”
And so it is. Jesus died and rose from the dead. It doesn’t matter to those who want their heaven on earth. They don’t care what the Bible says. They don’t care about Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection. They want what they want and they want it now. And they have it now. And that’s all they have. They want no mercy and they receive no mercy. There is no forgiveness in hell.
Those who know that we can’t have heaven on earth but have rather earned hell on earth and eternally because of our sins are those who care about what the Bible says. They listen to the law that shows them their sins and they confess. They consider their spiritual condition and see that they are beggars like Lazarus. They listen to the gospel that tells them that their Savior Jesus took away their sins and they believe. Through faith they are citizens of heaven who don’t fear death.
The good life is the life of faith. It isn’t measured by how much money you have. It doesn’t come about by having influential friends. The true value of the good life is hidden under the sufferings of Jesus. It is shown in little acts of mercy. We receive. We give what we have received. We love because we are loved. And the love we receive from God in Christ is always so much greater than we can express whether in words or in deeds. On this gospel truth our faith rests and when we leave this world the angels will come to carry our soul to Abraham’s bosom. There we will be content. Amen