The First Sunday after Trinity
June 7, 2015
“Wealth and Poverty”
"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.' "
The story of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us about wealth and poverty, heaven and hell. The man who appeared to be poor was wealthy. The man who appeared to be wealthy was poor. He whose suffering on earth made it look as if God cared nothing about him was, as his name says, helped by God. He who lacked nothing his heart desired in the end could not even receive a drop of water to quench his burning thirst. The rich man was poor and the poor man was rich.
Appearances can be deceiving. Materialists think that the only things that exist are things we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. They judge what is true by their senses and by what they can deduce from their senses. That’s why they don’t believe in heaven or hell. One thinks of the Soviet cosmonaut who, when travelling through space, sneered that he didn’t see God out there. The materialist is deluded by the notion that what he cannot see cannot be. The psalmist said, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.”
Christians are influenced by materialism without being aware of it. We wouldn’t insist on seeing proof of heaven, but we might go out and buy a book by someone who claims to have been there. We should take to heart what Abraham said to the poor rich man in hell. He said:
You can’t talk to anyone who has actually been to heaven or hell to get a firsthand account. People sell books about dying and going to heaven and coming back again. What these books prove is the truth of the old adage that there’s a sucker born every minute. Religious hucksters make money off of naïve Christians who forget that the only source of reliable information about heaven and hell is the Holy Scriptures.
When it comes to matters of eternal significance, the only source of truth on which our hearts can rely is the Word of God. As Abraham told the poor rich man in hell,
Years ago, during a discussion in Bible class, a lady took strong exception to the teaching that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. She thought that a God of love could not punish in hell forever those who do not trust in Christ. She said to me, “You may want to believe that God sends everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus to hell, but I don’t believe it.” I replied that I did not want to believe that God sends anyone to hell. It’s not what we want to believe. It’s what the Bible says.
Our wants don’t define truth. God’s Word does. The rich man in the parable represents everyone who lives to satisfy his wants. He sees what he wants as the greatest good. He becomes his own god, and worshipping his god is to worship his own appetites. He dresses in the most expensive clothes and gorges himself on the most expensive foods. The body that God gave him, that God clothes and feeds, is his god, as he places the desires of his body above the needs of a hungry beggar lying outside the gate of his home. The rich man is an idolater. He worships the creation rather than the Creator. It is this idolatry that yields a complete disregard for the needs of his neighbor.
If I am my own god you exist for my use. If I am my own god you don’t matter for your sake. You only matter for my sake. As we are seeing in our catechetical review on Wednesday evenings, the love God commands that we show to our neighbor is inseparable from our love for God. The rich man’s self-love was too great to include love for either Lazarus or God. It is as if Jesus was anticipating the gospel of self-esteem that has captured the hearts of our generation. If you want to see self-esteem, look at the rich man in this parable. Oh, he loves himself very much. He is the center of his universe. He lives as he wants to live. His desires define for him the greatest good in life.
And this is why he is beyond God’s help. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not as if God’s hands are tied. God is God. He is almighty. Nothing and no one can resist his will. The rich man was beyond God’s help because God helps only the helpless. This we need to understand. If you are sufficient, if you are strong, if you are rich, if you are wise, you cannot be saved. You are damned. Listen to Jesus’s words of rebuke to the church of Laodicea, as recorded in Revelation 3,
Lazarus is helpless. His name means “the one whom God helps.” This is the only parable Jesus tells that features a character with a name. Just as our names and God’s name are joined together in Holy Baptism, so Jesus gives a name to this unknown beggar. The rich man was too important to know or help him. But God knew him and he knew God.
He was a helpless beggar. We come before God as beggars. Consider the Divine Service. The confession and absolution comes before the service proper begins. The service begins with the Introit when the minister, on behalf of the people, walks into the chancel and right up to the altar. After the Introit, what do we say? Every Sunday, Sunday after Sunday, what do we sing as the Divine Service begins? What is our posture of worship? How do we approach God?
We come before God as Lazarus came: as beggars. God makes beggars rich. That is what the rich man learned, but he didn’t learn it until he was in hell. He would never leave hell. He would never enjoy true wealth. Everything he trusted in failed him. Death destroys all of our idols. We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. If you trust in the treasures you have in this world you are not trusting in the God who gives them. You will be broke the moment you breathe your last and you will spend eternity in hell regretting the false faith to which you clung in this life. You will be an eternally poor beggar who never gets anything good from anyone. Only beggars become rich. But begging in hell is vain.
The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers. Then they will repent. If someone were to rise from the dead, they would believe. But even Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, of itself, converted no one. Only the Word of God can do that. Conversion or repentance entails two things. You are sorry for your sins and you believe in the gospel. Sorrow over sin means that you are sorry you have broken God’s law. You have offended God. You have not loved him with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. You have not loved your neighbor as yourself. Faith in the gospel means that you believe God when he tells you that he freely forgives you all your sins for the sake of Christ’s vicarious obedience, suffering, and death. God works repentance through his Word. There is no other way. Only the Word of God can work genuine sorrow over sin and sincere faith in Christ the sin-bearer and Savior of sinners. God converts sinners.
The rich man went to hell because he despised the Word of God. He kept on despising it in hell, as we see from his conversation with Abraham. Lazarus went to heaven because God helped him. The whole world ignored him. He was a nobody. He did nothing important. Important people didn’t notice him. But he trusted in the Word of God. He lived on every word that comes from the mouth of God. He received everlasting wealth, even when he was suffering want, sickness, and hunger. When his body died, the angels carried his soul to heaven. He was taken to Abraham’s side to enjoy perfect fellowship with God, pure and eternal joy, peace, and contentment.
You don’t earn heaven by being poor. You aren’t kept out of heaven by being rich. The only way to heaven is through faith in Christ, our God and our brother, who has won heaven for us unworthy sinners by his perfect obedience to God’s law and bitter suffering and death on the cross. Heaven is God’s gift. God gives it to beggars. If you won’t be a beggar you cannot be saved.
Martin Luther found within the Holy Scriptures the pure gospel that God justifies and saves poor, lost, and condemned sinners, not because of their good deeds, but solely because of the merits of Christ. Luther taught that we receive heaven only by faith in Christ. As he lay in bed dying, he wrote these words: “We are all beggars. This is true.”
Luther was right. And only beggars go to heaven. Let us pray:
Rolf D. Preus