Dearest Jesus, Make us neither rich nor poor. If you give us riches, give us the heart to use them for your church and for our neighbor. If you give us poverty, keep from us all coveting and make us content with your provision. Give to us your Church the love with which you have loved us, who, being rich, made yourself poor for us, that we may find our riches in you. Remove from our hearts all fear of death and the cowardice that finds its joy in the fleeting pleasures of this world. Direct our hearts constantly to your suffering for us, that we also may be willing to suffer for our neighbor. And grant us to use our mammon for your Kingdom, storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where no moth or rust destroy, and where no thief can break in and steal. Amen.
Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus explicitly against the Pharisees. They are, as Luke describes them, lovers of money. Jesus has just told them, “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” In His usual way – and this is the biblical way – Jesus leaves no mushy middle. If you’re serving money and your own pleasure, you’re not serving God, period. So Jesus’ aim here in this story is to show just how pointless and worthless a life devoted to money, to stuff is. And this is why his description of the rich man’s life and Lazarus’ life is so, so short. Have you noticed this? Just a couple sentences. And then it’s over. Done. Because that’s life on this earth. 70 years, Moses says, and if by reason of strength 80, but their boast is only labor and sorrow. This gives us a heavenly perspective. Why would I put my trust in riches? What will they do me when I die? Will they comfort me? Will they escort me to Abraham’s bosom? Will they buy my way to God? No, they’ll leave me. And so in a short couple sentences Jesus describes the utter absurdity and purposelessness of serving money, of loving it.
And why would I envy those who have a ton of money? If a rich man doesn’t love money, then he gives it away, he does good with it, and there is nothing to envy there. There’s reason to praise God. Foster Friess, may his soul rest in peace, gave a hundred thousand dollars to our school and to several other Lutheran classical schools in the last year. Then he wrote us a letter thanking us for the opportunity to give his money to us and to God. There’s nothing to envy in that. Praise God for rich people who give their money to further God’s Kingdom. God keep them generous and humble. But if a rich man loves his money, then he’s like this rich man in the Gospel, and how could you envy that? What a miserable existence! This rich man has literally no good qualities. The description Jesus gives is almost too much, as if anyone could be so horrible, that he would only always indulge his own pleasure and ignore the need of others. Does anyone like this actually exist? Maybe not on the outside, maybe not as you can see, because people cover up their baseness. But Jesus who sees the heart is describing the heart of money lovers, which he describes as hopelessly, absurdly evil. And we are to look at that man and his self-love, see how revolting it is, and then examine our own hearts and pray our God to remove every vestige, every trace, of love of money, and instead to direct our hearts to the treasures of God’s love, with which we love one another.
The heavenly perspective not only highlights the shortness and the absurdity of the money-lovers’ life; it also shows how God sees it. Notice the rich man has no name. That’s because God doesn’t recognize him as anything. His name isn’t written in heaven. The angels don’t guard him. According to God, who determines reality, he is nothing, he’s nameless. But Lazarus, who’s marked by poverty and suffering, has a name. Heaven recognizes him. The angels who rejoice over one sinner who repents, rejoice over this poor man and rejoice to take him to paradise when he dies. What heaven sees is what the blessed virgin Mary sings, “He hath filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He hath sent empty away.” Lazarus’ name is given because it’s written in the book of life, written on the hands of his Lord Jesus, imprinted on the heart of God, who he knows loves him no matter how bad it looks in his life. And the rich man, who trusts not in God but in his money, has no name, he’s unknown in the book of life or in heaven, because no human heart is big enough to hold both love of money and love of God and neighbor.
This is all a matter of the heart, not of outward riches or outward poverty. What marks the rich man as a wicked man bound for hell is not that he has money; it’s that he loves his money. Abraham, who receives Lazarus into heaven, was one of the richest men in the world. Literally, one of the richest men who has ever lived. Immediately before our Old Testament text, in Genesis 14, the Holy Spirit tells how Abraham took his own personal army out and went to war against 4 kings and their armies and defeated them. Abraham’s ridiculously rich, richer than kings, and it’s of him that God says, “His faith was accounted for righteousness,” it’s he who finds no value in his riches but instead thirsts for the riches of Christ’s righteousness, it’s he whom Jesus uses to represent heaven and all those who go there, Abraham, a man who had money, lots of it, but didn’t love it, and his actions proved it. So the rich man isn’t hell-bound just because he’s rich.
But this rich man is hell-bound. And this is the great thrust of the story. A couple short sentences on life. A whole lot more on hell. This is God’s commentary on those who make riches and the pleasures of this world their god. The rich man loved them, loved what they could do for his life, trusted in them to give him what he needed, and feared ever losing them. Money was his god. He looks a lot like suburban America, people simply too obsessed with their houses and their toys and their money and their social status to give a thought to God and His Word and what they need from Him. In fact, God is never even mentioned in this whole parable. Not once. This is because God is in none of the rich man’s thoughts. It’s as Psalm 11 says, “The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts. His ways are always prospering; Your judgments are far above, out of his sight.” Even in hell, the man makes no mention of God. He hasn’t learned his lesson. He scoffs at the idea that God’s word is enough for his brothers. Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets; they have the Bible.” And the rich man answers, “NO,” just as he did on earth. No to God. No to His Word.
Disregard for God leads to disregard of neighbor. Jesus points to the man’s works to show you his heart. By your fruits you will know them, says Jesus. None of us can judge hearts. That’s why Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you also be judged.” But the same Jesus tells us to judge actions. This is divine logic. It’s what we just heard from St. John, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” That’s not judging the heart, that’s judging actions that clearly reveal the heart. And so it is with the rich man and with his money. He doesn’t use his riches for Lazarus because He knows nothing of God’s generosity toward him. His money gives him everything he needs, so he doesn’t think to ask God for what he truly needs. Forgiveness and a new heart and real virtue. So he enjoys himself without any thought of God or his neighbor. That’s an enjoyment not worth having. I’d rather suffer with a good conscience than eat and drink and enjoy like an animal.
Lazarus trusts in God’s mercy. He’s marked by two qualities. He’s poor and he suffers. And again these speak more to the heart than to the outward appearance. There is something to the fact that the rich man enjoys himself every day and the poor man is miserable constantly. The Christian life is simply marked by suffering. Abraham was rich, very rich, but he suffered. Job was rich, but he suffered. David was rich, but he suffered. Solomon was rich, but he didn’t suffer enough, he lived sumptuously every day, and he fell from the faith. These are written for our learning. That Lazarus suffers reminds us that as our Lord Jesus was so must we be in this world. He suffered. We will suffer. It’s how God keeps our sinful flesh in check and teaches us not to put all our hope in this corrupt and sinful world. Because the last thing we want is to enjoy ourselves every day like the rich man and forget love of God and our neighbor and the sacrifice and suffering that entails. If suffering makes us rely on Christ’s mercy, then God’s will be done. We’ll take our enjoyments from God when he gives them and our sufferings when He gives them. With St. Paul we need to learn to be content in whatever circumstance, because we have Christ, and He is everything.
What is obviously significant about Lazarus is that he’s poor. And every Christian is poor in spirit, as Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is a poverty that recognizes its need for God’s mercy, not only to give us everything we have – house, home, food, drink – but to forgive us our sins, a poverty that has God always before us and so cannot brag of our own righteousness or innocence, but must beg from Him to give us His through the blood of His Son.
So this is how we Christians have to see ourselves before our God. Whether rich or poor in this world. God is no respecter of persons. He simply doesn’t care what standing you have in the world. He knows we are all poor before Him, that our end is death, that we have deserved a very real hell, and that our sins beg for Him to give it to us. We can offer Him nothing in ourselves. We can only beg for what He has promised us, His mercy bought and won by His blood shed for us. It is as the beautiful hymn puts it, “I have naught my God to offer save the blood of Thy dear Son, graciously accept the proffer, make His righteousness mine own. His holy life gave He was crucified for me, His righteousness perfect He now pleads before Thee. His own robe of righteousness, my highest good, shall clothe me in glory through faith in His blood.”
It’s a beautiful thing how Jesus contrasts these two men. The one clothes himself in purple and fine linen. He masks his defects, the warts and blemishes of our lives that we try so hard to keep from each other. He has no thought of God, that what he can hide from others with a smile and parties and nice clothes, he simply can’t hide from the God who searches the heart, that no matter how he appeals to Abraham as father, he is no child of Abraham, Abraham who bared himself before the Almighty, despised his riches, recognized all his vulnerability and need, and begged for the mercy promised in Christ. The rich man pretends he’s something he’s not, and only death reveals his self-deception. So goes the world. So ends everyone who is rich toward himself and ignores God and neighbor. But Lazarus, the beggar, the Christian, he lays it all bare. His festering sores are showing, licked by dogs, despised by those who pass by. He lies before God in the nakedness of his sin, and his only plea is for God’s mercy.
His name is Lazarus. That name means God is my help. Not the riches of this world, not family or friends. God. He is my help. The Father who created me, the Son who redeemed me a lost and condemned creature, the Spirit who gave me my God’s name in my Baptism, He is my help. And so poor Lazarus, who has no money, but has the riches of God and knows that no matter how bad it gets on this earth, no matter how he must suffer, his God will show him mercy, his God will forgive him, his God will clothe him with the righteousness of His Son who came to save the lost, this Lazarus has everything, far more than money can buy.
God knows his name. What an unspeakable comfort. God knows your name. He put His name on you in your Baptism. He marked you as His own, gave you the innocence of His Son, in whom the world is crucified to you and you to the world. Your Lord Jesus feeds you with His very body and blood, things no money could possibly buy. And this flood of God’s love directs your heart to love your brothers and sisters. The only qualities of Lazarus are passive. He doesn’t act. He only suffers and receives. To find how we should behave, how we should act, we have to simply do the opposite of the rich man. He ignored God’s Word. We listen to it. He was stingy with His money, we give ours to the church and to those in need. He lacked all self-control, enjoyed himself without end, we learn to deny our body pleasure at times in order to pray and take care of others. Our god is not our belly. We cannot serve two masters. Let’s sing and mean, “Let none but Christ our Master be.” He is a good master. He knows our name, knows the hairs on our heads, knows our needs and well provides them. May His love for us reign in us so that we love Him and one another now in this life and forever in the life to come. Amen.