Rich in Faith
Text: Luke 16:19-31
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have a lot of passages about money today. And I’ll admit, it’s always an intimidating task to preach about money, especially in an affluent suburb. But Jesus does not seem to be shying from it today, nor is St. Paul, nor is the prophet Amos. As so, we would do well to listen.
We have before us the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Right off the bat, just looking at the name of the parable, we can learn something from it. In this parable, and this parable alone, is one of the characters named. In no other parable is anyone named. It’s always “a certain man”. But here, someone is given a name: the poor man, covered in sores, tended by stray dogs, hungry, longing to be fed with the scraps from the rich man’s table. This poor man is Lazarus. His name means “the one God helps.” This character alone, out of all the parables, has the honor being named by Jesus. Meanwhile, the rich man in the parable remains nameless, in spite of his wealth and legacy, and thus has any kind of personal identity fade away from remembrance. This small tidbit alone should teach us something about how fleeting and trifling earthly wealth really is.
Indeed, that is a large part of our lesson today: the fickleness of riches. The prophet Amos, 700 years before Jesus told this parable, declares that the rich in Jerusalem, who keep themselves comfortable with their wealth while they’re hardly moved at the decline and ruin of Israel all around them, these will be the first to go into exile. And St. Paul warns in our reading from 1 Timothy, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” So too, here Jesus teaches that for all the rich man’s comforts and treasures, in the end, none of it could save him as he was in torment for the rest of eternity. Meanwhile, Lazarus was carried into bliss and peace, in the company of saints, like Abraham, and the choirs of angels.
So yes, this is a lesson about earthly treasures compared with heavenly joys. But, as always, there is more to be learned from the parable than simple morals and ethics. We have a hint at this deeper lesson in a repeated phrase spoken by father Abraham. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” This reveals the heart of what this parable is trying to teach. It’s the source of every lesson in this parable, whether it’s about money or not.
When you hear this parable, do you wonder why the rich man ends up in torment in Hades? It’s not just because he’s rich. Remember, God is the one who ultimately gives all wealth, earthly or not. Simply having possessions, whether it’s many or few, is not a sin. So it’s not just because he has wealth that he suffers in Hades. Rather, it’s because he did not listen to Moses and the Prophets. Father Abraham reveals that this is the most important thing: hearing the Scriptures. And what is it that the Scriptures teach? Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Don’t trust in earthly stuff that’s here one day and used up the next. Don’t trust in princes, in political leaders who promise the world but never deliver. Don’t put your faith in yourself for salvation, limited mortal that you are. But the rich man made a god out of his wealth. He had a celebratory feast every day, worshiping at his own table, worshiping food and drink and luxury. He trusted in his possessions, his wealth, to save and comfort him. He believed it was a sign of his favored status in God’s eyes. You can tell that he thinks a lot of himself because even in the afterlife, he still tries to treat Lazarus like a lower class servant: “Father Abraham,” he suggests, “send Lazarus to hell—yes, send him to hell just so that I can get a drop of water off the tip of his finger to cool my tongue.” And what’s most telling about the rich man’s disdain of Scripture is that he doesn’t think that the Word of God is enough to convert his still-living brothers. “Then I beg you, father Abraham, send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” And here’s where Abraham explains the most powerful tool to change hearts and minds. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But the rich man doesn’t believe that God’s Word is enough. “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But Abraham knows that nothing can compare to the power of God’s Word, not even a miracle. The parable ends with these words, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The rich man is separated from bliss forever because of his disbelief in God’s Word and promises.
Likewise, Lazarus does not go to heaven simply because he’s poor. Rather, he goes because he’s had nothing else to rely on, to trust, except God’s promises. Even when it seemed like they wouldn’t be fulfilled when he was sick, hungry, lame, dying—he still believed God would help him, as his name literally means: “the one God helps.”
That’s really the whole point of what we’re doing in Christianity. It’s about faith—what we believe will save us in the end. Yes, our faith will show us the best way to use our time and treasures and talents. But all that flows from what we believe; faith in God’s promises. For God did fulfill all that was written in Moses and the Prophets. He brought salvation into the world through the promised Messiah, the descendant and heir of Abraham. He was born of the virgin, as the prophets foretold. He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, like Isaiah said he would be. He bore our stripes and disease and uncleanness, as promised. He was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, as prophesied by Zechariah. He suffered the torments of hell—complete separation from God—as He cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He died in our place so that we would be carried into eternal life. And then God raised the Messiah, His Son, from the dead. But for those who would not believe His fulfillment of all that Moses and the Prophets wrote concerning Him, who would not put their faith in Him as the Messiah, they did not believe, even though someone rose from the dead.
What are we to do with this parable then? The same we do with all Scripture—let it lead us to faith in the Messiah. Trust in Him. Let that trust shape your entire life. So if you’re rich, give thanks to God and trust in Him. If you’re poor, give thanks to God and trust in Him. If you’re rich, which almost all of us are by Scripture’s standards, then let us do as God’s Word instructs: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty; nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” Do good with what God has given you, whether it’s a lot or less than what others might have. Don’t do this because you hope to earn heaven or any reward, but because you trust that God has you entirely covered, because He’s already taken care of those big things like eternity and salvation. And if you’re poor, trust that God has all your needs covered. Do not pierce yourself with many pangs to become rich in passing, temporary worldly stuff.
Hear Moses and the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles. You have so much more waiting for you: the company of saints and angels, the cool water of Baptism to relieve you in your distress and suffering. You have so much more than scraps from your Lord’s table. You have the bread of life, the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. You have a Savior who bore the torment of Hades for you. You are the one God helps. You have everything in Him. In the name of Jesus, who makes us rich toward God. Amen.