Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 26, 2010
Text: Amos 6:1-7; Luke 16:19-31
“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1; ESV). It is a prophetic Word for a people who have become complacent, who have neglected the poor, who do not mourn for the afflicted, who have made Mammon their god. This is the Word of the LORD to those who lie on beds of ivory and luxuriate on their couches, feasting and drinking wine by the bowlful, while the precious lambs whom our Lord Jesus Christ has purchased with His own blood are sacrificed in their name on Mammon’s altars. These are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. These are not grieved over the ruin of God’s people. This Word of the LORD is a warning for all those who worship at the altar of pleasure and possessions and riches: The Judgment is coming! “Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,” says the prophet Amos to the rich in Israel of old, “and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away” (v. 7). But the message is not just for the rich in ancient Israel. It is a message for us today, for every one of us who is enticed by the false promises of the god, Mammon… every one of us who look to our savings accounts and our jobs and our real estate, or any created gift, for security… every one of us who place our own comfort and security above that of our neighbor in need. That means that this message is for me. And that means that this message is for you, beloved in the Lord. Repent.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable this morning is one who is at ease in Zion. He has become complacent, which is to say, self-satisfied, self-righteous, smug. He neglects the poor in their time of need. And for the rich man, this is not just a theoretical negligence. He has a flesh and blood poor man named Lazarus lying at his gate. The rich man cannot plead ignorance. Lazarus’ plight is obvious. He is covered in sores. He has no one to care for him. He has no shelter. He has no food. He is sick unto death, and begs only the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, the crumbs that go to the dogs. The rich man withholds even this mercy. Only the dogs have compassion on Lazarus, licking his sores. Finally, Lazarus dies. And so ends the earthly part of the story.
It may surprise you, though, to learn that the rich man is devoutly religious. The people who gather at the rich man’s table for the daily feast love and revere the rich man for his great piety. He is held in honor by all. He is quite possibly a Pharisee, a religious leader, and in this parable Jesus is certainly indicting the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). In any case, the rich man is considered a shoe-in when it comes to eternal life. He zealously obeys the Law of Moses. His outward conduct is blameless. As for his riches, one might say he earned them. Clearly the material blessings enjoyed by the rich man are a result of God’s favor. Or so the rich man thought, and so thought his admirers. It is not uncommon for Christians today to draw similar conclusions. One who is materially blessed is perceived as favored by God. And of course, if this is the case, then one who is poor must not have God’s favor. Perhaps the poor have committed some grievous sin by which they merit their desperate condition. At the very least they must be lazy. “Get a job!” we say, and of course, there is a point to be made here, as Paul says, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). But you know and I know that not all poor people are poor for lack of initiative. An economy like ours at the present moment makes this point all-too-clearly. But you get the idea. If the story ends with the death of Lazarus and the feasting of the rich man, which is to say, if we only see the story from the earthly perspective, we may think that the rich man has God’s favor, and Lazarus has God’s wrath. Both men get what they have coming to them.
But whatever the rich man’s wealth can buy, he cannot buy his way out of death. So the rich man also dies, and in death, we now see things from God’s perspective. In spite of his poverty and helplessness, Lazarus is in heaven, Abraham’s bosom, where he awaits the resurrection of the dead. In spite of his riches and honor, even in spite of his meticulous keeping of the Law, the rich man is in hell, Hades, the prison where the spirits of unbelievers are kept in torment for the Day of Judgment. There is a wide chasm between Abraham’s bosom and Hades, so that none can pass over from one to the other. The rich man, who enjoyed his good things and lived for his good things and worshiped his good things in this earthly life now had no good. He longed for even a drop of cold water from Lazarus’ finger to cool his burning tongue. Lazarus, who had no good thing in this earthly life now enjoys all that he lacked: comfort, healing, mercy. But it is just here that we may miss the whole point of the parable. It is not the riches of the rich man, the good things, that finally condemn him. It is his idolatry, his god, Mammon. Nor is it Lazarus’ poverty and suffering that save him. No beloved, don’t get the wrong idea here. Wealth is not condemned, but the love of money and the worship of Mammon. Poverty is not commended, but rather spiritual poverty, helplessness, the very opposite of the supposed self-sufficiency of the rich man. Lazarus is utterly helpless. He must be saved by someone else. He can do nothing for his own salvation. Beloved in the Lord, Lazarus is saved by grace alone. Lazarus is saved by faith.
The fundamental difference between the rich man and Lazarus is not wealth, or the lack thereof. It is faith. The rich man has wealth, but he has no faith. Lazarus has no wealth, but he has faith, faith in Christ, and in faith he is rich beyond all earthly treasure. He trusts in God. He trusts in His Savior. He brings nothing to the table in his dealing with God but his poverty and disease and inability to help himself. And he places it all at the foot of the cross. He casts himself on God’s mercy. The rich man does not trust God’s mercy. He does not believe he needs God’s mercy. Remember, he is self-sufficient. He is at ease in Zion. But it is an illusion. The rich man shows that he does not understand God’s mercy, because he does not have mercy on Lazarus. His lack of mercy demonstrates his lack of faith. It is only in hell, where he is beyond help, that the rich man shows any concern for others, namely, for his unbelieving brothers who are living just as he lived. “Send Lazarus to them, Father Abraham.” But God has already given the brothers the Word, Moses and the Prophets, the Holy Scriptures. And if they do not believe the Word, they will not believe even if someone should rise from the dead.
Beloved in the Lord, you cannot be saved by your wealth. Nor can you be saved by your poverty. You cannot be saved by your meticulous keeping of the Law. Nor will earthly suffering merit you God’s favor. You are saved by Jesus Christ alone. You are saved by His suffering. You are saved by His death for you. You are saved by His victorious resurrection. You are saved by faith in Christ. Faith is trust in the mercy of God on account of the sin-atoning work of Christ. By faith, you will stand with Lazarus on the Last Day. If you do not believe, if you reject the mercy of God, if you believe you are self-sufficient, then you will be in agony with the rich man in hell. By faith, when you breathe your last, the holy angels will carry you to the bosom of Abraham. In unbelief, the demons will drag you with them into everlasting torment.
But God’s mercy is so great, His love so steadfast, that He has given you the Word, the Holy Scriptures. And more than this, of course, someone has risen from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has conquered sin and death and hell forever, for you. The Holy Scriptures and the Sacraments, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, bring you the crucified, yet living and risen Christ! He is your Savior. He speaks His saving and forgiving Word to you. You are Baptized into Him. You have tasted, and will taste again this morning, His body and blood, given and shed for you for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. By these means of grace, your Lord Jesus Christ grants you His Holy Spirit, who creates and strengthens faith, so that you need not fear hell. Heaven is yours, because of Christ.
For rich or poor in terms of earthly wealth, you are poor in spirit. Like Lazarus, you can bring nothing to the table in your dealing with God but your poverty and disease and helplessness. You can bring nothing to the table but your sin. And it is precisely this that He heals. You are blessed, for the Lord Jesus came to save sinners. He came to save you. So do not be among those who are at ease in Zion. Do not allow Mammon to lull you into complacency at the expense of your afflicted brothers and sisters. Do not worship at that altar. Worship at this altar (pointing to the altar). YHWH is your God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is your God. Jesus Christ alone is your help and salvation. He showers His mercy upon you. So, receiving this mercy in abundant and never-ending supply, may it flow through you and to your neighbor in need. For your neighbor is not just theoretical. There are Lazaruses among us here this morning. There are Lazaruses living next door to you. The Lord has placed you here to help them. He has given you good things to help them. You do this not to earn salvation, but because you have been granted salvation already in Christ Jesus. This is your sacrifice of thanksgiving. This is the godliness with contentment that Paul speaks of in our Epistle, in which there is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6). “[F]or we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (v. 7), except those who will believe in Christ on account of His mercy bestowed through us. That is our heavenly treasure. That we can take with us. But it is all by grace. The steadfast love of the Lord comfort you according to His promise in Christ Jesus (Ps. 119:76). For by His mercy alone, we live (v. 77). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.