Monday, June 07, 2021

A Picture of Reality


Luke 16:19-31

"Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.

"Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.'

"But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.' "And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father's house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' "But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' "But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!'

"But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'"

Sermon for First Sunday After Trinity 06/06/21

A Picture of Reality

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I have preached this Gospel lesson at least a dozen times. I have heard it preached at least a dozen more. Most of what I remember about the preaching I have heard is a misapplication of the text. The text is so inviting for misunderstanding. This is one where the reader must struggle to apply the principle of the point of comparison. When one does, this parable is a picture of reality, drawn in terms of life in the first century. Our theme is A Picture of Reality.

One of the reasons that this parable is so hard to keep straight on is that it is so real. Jesus doesn't indicate, for example, that this is a parable. He is talking just before this pericope about the permanence of the Word of God and about divorce, and suddenly we are into this lesson about the Rich Man and Lazarus. It sounds like a story, and yet Jesus gives one of the characters a name - so some have speculated that Jesus was telling about a real event, learned by divine observation of two real people. It is a parable, however. The contents of the story are realistic but stylized and the name given to the poor man is an explanation of why the rich man and the poor man are differentiated. "Lazarus" means "He whom God helps", and indicates that this one is a faithful child of the heavenly Father.

Knowing that this is a parable tells us that not every detail is significant. Some details are there to inform the story – like the details of the moral character of the rich man – and some are there just to make the story work - like the dogs licking the sores of poor Lazarus - but have no meaning in terms of the truth which the story is intended to teach. Knowing it is a parable means that we look for the point of comparison - the touch-point between the parable and reality. In this parable, it is all very real, and so it is easier at times to sort out what the parable does not teach than to tell what it does teach.

Most preaching on this parable is Law - but the parable is Gospel. Let me illustrate what this parable does not say. The parable talks about the rich and the poor. It is true that there are and always will be both rich people and poor people. Neither condition all by itself automatically indicates anything about our standing before God. Some of God's people will be affluent, and some, probably many, will be financially challenged, if not downright poor. Neither condition means that God loves you more, or loves you less, or that you stand in His favor or His displeasure.

This parable also does not suggest the promise that everyone will eventually have both "good things" and "bad things". Some people will never know hardship, and yet they will be found to be God's people, and others who are poor and desperate will go to hell for their unbelief. I have often seen this mistake made when people go to foreign countries and see the intense fervor of the religion of the poor and judge them as "wonderfully Christian" for their fervor, without recognizing that their fervor is established on false doctrines and sometimes pagan rather than Christian foundations. Some people are fervent about their religion because it is all they have - no other forms of entertainment or public contact is permitted by their culture and their poverty. The "pious poor" can and will be condemned to eternal destruction if their piety is not Christian piety.

Another thought you often hear in connection with this parable is that the rich man was facing his troubles because of the way he used his riches during his lifetime. There is nothing to indicate that this is true, in this parable. The use of his wealth did not determine where the rich man was going - it only reflected it. How he used what he possessed was a reflection of what sort of man he was, and what was going on inside of him. His hoarding of his money and ignoring the needs of Lazarus did not earn his sentence to hell - it just illustrates that he was the sort that goes to hell.

By the same token, the poverty of Lazarus did not determine his eternal destination, nor did his use of it, but his use of it also reflected who he was, as shown by his name, and therefore where he was going. He did not go to heaven, called "Abraham's Bosom" here in accord with the custom of Israel in those days, because he was poor, or sick, or maltreated. He went to heaven because He believed. He was identified by Jesus as one of those whom God helps - the faithful. He remained faithful in spite of his outward state - although there is no indication of that in this parable other than his name and his final disposition.

So, we learn from this that your condition in this life does not tell us anything about how you stand in the favor of the Lord. We also observe that how you use the things with which you are blessed - the "stuff" of life - does not determine either your standing with God, nor your eternal destination, but can only reflect who you are as you stand before God. In other words, the details that seem to scream so loudly, because we can relate to them, are just there to hold the story in shape so Jesus can get to the tertium - the point of comparison and the point of the story.

The description of the chasm between heaven and hell may or may not be realistic. Such judgments are way outside of our ability to make. You may not be able to see from one to the other - no one knows except those who are there, and they are not talking, at least, not to us. The details of the parable do underline the teaching of the finality of the judgment, but that is not the point of the lesson, just a truth that happens to fit into the storyline.

We come close to the meaning of the parable when the Rich Man pleads for special assistance for his brothers. Here he blames God for his circumstances - saying that the Word preached is insufficient for salvation and that we need signs and wonders - like someone rising from the dead - to get our attention and bring us to faith. That is a common theme of television religion, pentecostalism, and really, of most religions - Protestant and Roman Catholic included - today. They all want you to feel something, to be impressed, to have a wonder or a sign to look at, an experience to validate your faith commitments, a relic to adore, or a decision that you made to look back on.

Abraham is the voice of God in this story, and Jesus speaking through him says, "No!" He says, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." When the Rich Man argues, I hear in the back of my mind, in the response of Abraham, the words of Jesus in another place in John, "He that is of God hears the word of God." But what He says, and what the parable is all about, is this, "If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead."

Only the Word of God has the power to convert. Only through the Word can anyone be saved. The messenger is of secondary importance if that much. Only the Word has the power to work faith and cause one to be born-again to living hope which Jesus purchased for us with His own blood and death on the cross. Jesus proved the absolute truth of this statement of Abraham in the parable by rising from the dead. His resurrection did not change the hearts of His enemies. It made them more bitter and determined to destroy Him. It has the same effect today. Wonderful signs and terrifying natural disasters do not have the power to change men's hearts. The tragedy of the collapse of the twin towers of September 11th only made people go to church for a couple of weeks. Within a couple of months, the bubble in church attendance was gone, and in its place was an even more furious rejection of the simple truths of the Gospel - both inside the churches and out.

Should we have compassion on those less fortunate than we are? Surely, that seems like a reasonable idea - but it is not what this text is about, nor what it teaches. If you want to do that, it is a godly thing to do, but find your motivation in the love of God for you - it is not part of this parable.

Should we use our resources for the welfare of others? Again, this is another nice idea - it just not part of this lesson. You can find that thought in the Law, but that is not what this parable is about.

I could preach about the torments of Hell, based on the description in this parable, but it isn't really taught for that purpose. The depiction of the agony of hell is impressive, but the reality of the agony of hell is, I suspect, beyond our comprehension. It simply fills out the motivation of the rich man in the story. It isn't the love of the truth that moves the rich man, it is the realization of what awaits his brothers - everyone who, like him, live their lives without a thought for God and eternity and judgment and justice and – well, everyone who lives like modern Americans tend to live - for the moment, in the pleasures of life and for the sake of enjoying it to the fullest.

Is this a condemnation of you and your life? You might hear it that way, but that is not what Jesus was saying. If you think your life ought to be different than it is, perhaps you ought to do something to make it different. But not so that you get to go to heaven. Jesus already made that difference, and has done everything you need done for your salvation, and has poured it out on you in baptism and feeds you eternal salvation in the meal of His body and blood which brings us also forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.

All Jesus is really saying, in a most persuasive way, I might add, is, "Be careful to hear – and believe – the Word of God." This is true for rich or poor."

6 And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. . . . 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us. 20 If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

My, what a perfect picture of reality we have in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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