Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 16th chapter of Luke, beginning with the 19th verse.
16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31, NRSV)
All mighty God, we thank you for your word and the way that you in it revealed to us who you are and what you’ve done for us in Christ. Now, as we open that word, we pray that your spirit may be present, that all thoughts of worry or distraction may be removed and that the Spirit will allow us to hear your voice. And so, oh God, fill us with your spirit through the reading and proclamation of your word this day. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Carried away to be with Abraham”
“He was loved and admired by his community. A model of success and a good family man. He cared deeply for his brothers, who are with us here today. He loved entertaining people, and friends who visited never left disappointed. What a tragic loss as we mourn his passing here today.”
I could imagine words like that spoken as a eulogy if the rich man in Jesus’ parable had lived today. What an elaborate funeral it would be! The finest casket and vault, the most prominent headstone, so many flowers, so many wanting to pay tribute. But what a tragic funeral! For we do not have those words of comfort that angels carried him away to be with Abraham.
But Lazarus, whose dead body may simply have been thrown into an unmarked, common grave with few mourners—what a wonderful funeral! For we are told: “[he] was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” (Luke 16:22). Which will your funeral be?
That eulogy I started with may not strike you as fitting the rich man well. It makes him sound too good. But sometimes, to ease our own conscience, we like painting others as extra bad. That way, we feel good by comparison. So maybe we like picturing this rich man kicking Lazarus when he tries to beg for food or making him the butt of his jokes. Perhaps we justify ourselves by thinking, “Well, I’m not rich like he was, so I don’t have to care about helping the poor.” But those lines of thought harden our hearts to Jesus’ message.
Notice how the rich man respectfully addresses Abraham even in hell, calling him father. No doubt, during this life, he had learned his religion and carried out his religious obligations. He did his duty. And even though we’re not told whether Lazarus was fed, why would they keep bringing him to the rich man’s house if he didn’t get something? I’m not saying that the rich man cared about him. Maybe only the servants dumped the scraps by him. At any rate, the rich man seems to have fulfilled his social obligation. He did his duty.
So why, then, did he end up in hell? Let’s see how the parable answers that. Jesus’ description shows that the rich man focused on the earthly. How much could he get out of life? How much could he enjoy himself? “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen” (Luke 16:19a), the designer clothes of those days. He knew what was fashionable. And he “feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19b). He knew how to enjoy himself.
Also, listen to what Abraham says to the rich man as he suffers in hell, “during your lifetime you received your good things” (Luke 16:25). Yes, your good things—the things that you thought were good, so important—the things you looked to for happiness, joy, peace, security, and comfort. That’s where his life had been focused.
But that’s the opposite of faith. Faith looks to God as the Giver of all that’s good. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Faith trusts God as the Giver of all that’s good; the rich man trusted his riches.
And you don’t need to be rich to trust riches. How easy for us to get caught up in thinking, “I’d be happy if I only had the money to do this or buy that.” Or, “I’d have fewer worries then.” How tempting for us to trust the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty! But the dollar cannot carry you to be with Abraham; instead, trusting in wealth sinks you into the torture of hell’s flames. Beware. Yes, we want the angels to carry us to be with Abraham, but beware of the alternative. Don’t trust wealth to bring you good.
There is a second aspect of the rich man we need to heed as a warning. Beware. And it has to do with God’s Word, the Bible.
At first, we might be struck by his concern for his brothers. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead and warn them about the torture of hell. But how does Abraham answer him? “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Luke 16:29). God used Moses and the Prophets to write his Word, the Old Testament. After Jesus ascended, he used his evangelists and apostles to write the New Testament. But even the Old Testament is filled with God’s promises to send the Savior, the promises Jesus fulfilled.
God’s Word, the Bible, that’s what changes hearts. That’s what works repentance. That’s the tool of the Holy Spirit. That’s what saves—not someone coming back from the dead or some other spectacle. Saving faith takes God at his word. Saving faith cherishes the Scriptures. Saving faith treasures God’s written message. Saving faith trusts what God’s Word says.
But notice the response of the rich man, “No, father Abraham” (Luke 16:30). He knows better than God. In fact, if God had sent someone back from the dead for him, he would not have ended up in hell. It’s God’s fault. The Bible is not enough!
But yes, it is enough. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Faith accepts the Bible as God’s full revelation. The Bible is all-sufficient for our faith and life. We do not need anything more. For “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God’s Word is all we need.
Do you hold the Bible in the highest regard as the very word of God? Or is it boring, and we need to add excitement for it to really do its job? Music, sermons, Bible studies, books, rallies, art, and the like cannot add anything to the power of God’s Word. They’re beneficial only when they highlight the message that’s already there, revealed in the Scriptures. Faith, real faith, needs God’s Word, not some sort of experience, excitement, or miracle, no matter how spectacular.
Do our actions shine with this high regard for God’s Word? How much time do you spend in a week reading God’s Word and reflecting on its message? Is it your comfort, your treasure, your hope? Do you turn to it for your strength? Does it shape the decisions and choices you make? Do you cherish its public proclamation so that you don’t want to miss a worship service? Do you gladly hear and learn it? How we fall short!
Take this seriously, for there is no second chance after death. That chasm in the parable clearly pictures that truth. Those who die trusting wealth to bring them good will not be with Abraham. Those who despise God’s Word or neglect it will not be there. Be warned. The angels do not carry everyone to be with Abraham. Beware the alternative.
But who will be? Whom will the angels carry to be with Abraham? Will only poor beggars who are covered in sores that dogs lick? Being poor or a beggar or having a horrible disease will not get you into heaven. For you see, many who are poor still look to wealth as the source of happiness and good. They’ll be with the rich man in hell. And many who suffer in this life blame God for their predicament, just as the rich man blamed God for his unbelief.
So if it wasn’t his poorness or his suffering, what made Lazarus different? Why did the angels carry him to be with Abraham? That very name for heaven, “To be with Abraham,” gives us the answer. Why was Abraham there? He wasn’t poor; he was wealthy by earthly standards with his flocks and herds. He had no serious disease; he lived to the age of 175. But Abraham believed God’s promise.
Faith in God’s promise, that’s what Abraham had. That’s what Lazarus had. Their faith trusted God’s promise to send the Savior to undo the curse of death that sin had brought into this world. They believed God’s promise for a Savior to rescue them from the damnation their sin had earned and instead bring them eternal life through the forgiveness of their sins.
In fact, the name “Lazarus” is the Hebrew name “Eleazer,” which means “God has helped.” Lazarus trusted God as his one and only help. Money couldn’t help. A health plan or medical coverage couldn’t help. God alone was his help. He trusted God. He trusted his promises. He did not buy Satan’s lie, “If God cared about you, would he really let you suffer like this?” Rather, he trusted God’s love that had promised the Savior, his Savior. That’s the promise made through Moses and the Prophets. That’s the promise Lazarus clung to in faith.
In faith, he looked past his earthly suffering and troubles and saw the eternal comfort of heaven, prepared for him by his Savior—yes, there with Abraham. Like a little child on Daddy’s lap, he found comfort resting in Abraham’s faith. He trusted God’s promise. Nothing could take that comfort of heaven away from him.
So find comfort resting in God’s promises, just as Lazarus did. Even if your life becomes so bad that dogs licking your sores is your only health care coverage and someone else’s trash seems like a banquet to you, even then, find comfort in God’s promises. He has not forsaken you. Trust him. See how he gave up his Son for you. That’s all the proof of his love we need. That’s the proof the Lord’s Supper brings you: The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. Such love has not failed you.
Even when this life, with its wealth and promises of health, fails, God’s love does not. Crawl up into the lap of his promises, revealed in the Scriptures alone. Snuggle there close to his heart. Trust him so that when your last hour comes, like Lazarus, you too can sing: “Lord, let at last your angels come; To Abram’s bosom bear me home That I may die unfearing. And in its narrow chamber, keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until your reappearing. And then from death awaken me That my own eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, your glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise you without end.” Amen.
God our Father, you conquer the darkness of ignorance by the light of your Word. Strengthen within our hearts the faith you have given us; let not temptation ever quench the fire that your love has kindled within us. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)® Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Sermon contributed by Rev. Gregg Bitter.
The rich man and Lazarus had quite different lives and quite different deaths. What does this teach us about where to look for happiness?