Appearances are often deceiving. Jesus tells a story in which the poor man goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell. It might appear that Jesus is teaching us about social justice, but he’s not. It might seem like the message of this story is, “Have compassion on the underprivileged,” but that’s not the point. Nor is Jesus teaching us that being wealthy is sinful. The poor man didn’t go to heaven because he was poor, and the rich man didn’t go to hell because he was rich. In fact, the man who seemed poor was actually rich, and the rich man was poor. Appearances are often deceiving.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day (Lk 16:19). This guy had it all. All the things we might daydream about – the six-figure income, the million dollar house, Armani suits, Tesla cars, and parties late into the night with no alarm clock the next day. Friends, recognition, success – everything this world considers valuable – and what did it matter. The rich man died and was buried, and woke up in hell. The truth that was hidden in life was revealed clearly in death. This man whom the world called rich was actually poor. He who had tasted the finest wines now begged in vain for a single drop of water.
There was another man, who was thrown at the rich man’s gate, a poor man name Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores (Lk 16:20-21). There is nothing about this poor man that we would envy. In fact, if we saw this beggar on the street, oozing puss from his sores, we’d likely feel disgust, not compassion. If you accidentally touched him, you’d feel contaminated and unclean. Yet, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side (Lk 16:22). This beggar whom the world despised was revealed in death to be truly rich. Lazarus was given a place of honor in heaven, at the side of Abraham, the great patriarch and father of faith.
Now, of these two men, which one enjoyed God’s blessing in life? There’s a tough question. You see, we’ve got funny ideas about what a blessing is. Think of a way God blessed you in the last month. How many of you have in mind something that brought you suffering? When you dream about your future life, does it look like the life of Lazarus or the rich man? We are very quick to focus our concern on the cares of this world instead of on eternal things. What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? Is it the hope of the resurrection, or is it the hope of earthly pleasures? When you pray, do you pray that God would strengthen your faith – even through suffering – or do you pray only for success, comfort, and possessions? Repent. How many of us daydream of heaven? If you’re honest you’ll admit that you dream more often not of being a beggar, but of being a benefactor. You dream of sumptuous fares and recognition. Your dreams show what you love. Repent. The deceitfulness of riches led the rich man away from Christ. His wealth was not a blessing to him; it became a curse. What he needed most was not stuff, recognition, or power. Jesus said, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). We know the poor man’s name, Lazarus, which means “God is my help.” But what was the rich man’s name? Nobody knows. His name was not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and has been forgotten.
The rich man called out from hell, “Father Abraham!” but Abraham was not his father. Oh yes, he was a Jew. He was a physical descendent of Abraham, but he had no share in the faith of Abraham. The Jews also said to Jesus, “Abraham is our father,” but Jesus replied, “… you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil” (Jn 8:39,43b-44a). This is the reason the rich man was in hell – not because he was rich. Remember, Abraham was also very, very rich and he was in heaven. The rich man was in hell because he could not bear to hear the Word of Christ.
And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; they have the Scriptures; let them hear them.” And [the rich man] said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Lk 16:27-30). In death, just as he had in life, the rich man despises the Scriptures. He rejects the means that God had provided to give him faith – faith comes by hearing the Word of God – and insists that God provide some other means. Do something flashy and amazing! Perform a miracle! The rich man doesn’t repent of his unbelief. There’s no repentance in hell. Instead, he tries to invent a new means of grace for his brothers, one that God should also have given to him. His plea for his brothers is an accusation against God. He knows better than God how his brothers could be saved, and he blames God for his own terrible fate. He rejects the Word of God as the means of salvation and substitutes a new means, one that was invented in hell instead of in heaven.
We see this too often in the church today. Back home some folks came up to my pastor and said, “Pastor, our church is full of gray hair. We’ve got to do something or the church will die. So what’s your plan, Pastor?” He answered, “Preach the Word of God and faithfully administer the Sacraments.” They looked confused, and then one said to the other, “Pastor doesn’t have a plan.” So what do we often do? We come up with our own plan. Rather that believing that the Word of God alone can bring us sinners to repentance, we put together a new program. We get some flashy lights and smoke, we tune up our electric guitars. We reject the righteousness that comes by faith and turn instead to a false righteousness of social or environmental activism. We forsake the words of Christ that call all men to repentance and choose new words that help us feel comfortable in our sin. In short, we become just like the rich man. We would rather fill our bellies with the gimmicks and treasures of this world than come as beggars to the Table of the Lord. We turn from Christ and become idolaters.
But death destroys all of our idols. Death exposes the glittering gizmos of this world. Death washes away everything built on any foundation other than Christ and his Word. Repent and return to your baptism. Repent and trust in God’s promise, for his Word will accomplish that which he purposes (Is 55:11). Only the Word of God can work genuine sorrow over sin. Only the Word of God can convert sinners. Only the Word of God can create faith where there was once unbelief. And that’s exactly what God did to you in your baptism. Your sins were washed away. You were grafted into the family of God. You became a true child of Abraham, a child of faith. Just as it is said of Abraham, “He believed the Lord, and [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6) so it is said of you. You have been made righteous by faith – faith in Christ and his cross. Faith means that you believe God when he tells you, “Your sins are forgiven.” Faith believes Christ when he says that his cross is now your cross, his death was your death to sin, and his resurrected life is also your new life. You don’t need a more powerful sign. You don’t need a more trustworthy word. There is nothing more powerful or trustworthy than the Word of God that has been delivered to you. And if you had no other treasure, if you became a beggar, covered in sores, yet had the Word of God, you would be the richest person on earth.
Although Satan seeks to use the suffering of this life to harm you, God uses that very suffering to draw you closer to himself. Death was the devil’s last gambit, his last shot at Lazarus. Then he could do no more. And in the moment of your death, the work that God began in you in baptism will be completed. Death is the consummation of your baptism; it removes you forever from Satan’s reach, and seals you forever in the faith. Yes, we are beggars here on earth, but God fills the hungry with good things (Lk 1:52a). Here on earth, God gives us his Word and fills us with his Supper as a foretaste of the feast of heaven. Let us pray:
Lord, let at last thine angels come, To Abraham’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see O Son of God, thy 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.