Lazarus and Us

A Sermon on Luke 16: 19-31,

Rev. Thomas Steers

Christ the Saviour Lutheran Church, Toronto

Brothers & Sisters, peace grace and mercy be to you through God our Father and  our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The last words Martin Luther wrote before he died may have well been inspired by our Gospel account of the rich man and Lazarus.

Luther wrote, “We are all beggars. This is true.”

At times in life every one of us feels like the poor Lazarus.

Vulnerable, in need, perhaps alone, we watch the world go on around us, a world that parties and feasts, and often ignores those going through difficulties and hardships.

And though each of us before God is, like Lazarus, poor and helpless, or as Luther would say a beggar, we haven’t had to settle for mere crumbs fallen from God’s table.

Instead we’ve been invited—indeed carried into and seated at the table of the Lord and His feast in the Church, and as believers one day will be carried to heaven to be with God, the source of all riches.

God feeds us here with His Word.

This is the message from today’s Gospel lesson in Luke.

It’s the Good News, but there’s a warning as well that Christ is giving.

It’s not a warning a casual reading of this scripture leaves us with,                                                                     but an important warning none-the-less.

First let’s go back to this account of Lazarus, and I call it that because Jesus doesn’t use the word parable to describe it, but He does include a name, Lazarus, and that’s unique, this is the only time in any of Jesus’ parables or stories where Christ uses a name, so it may have been an actual individual.

The name Lazarus in Hebrew means “God is my help.”

And that was certainly true with this poor individual.

God ultimately helped him when no one else would.

Lazarus is the child of God whose help is in the name of the Lord.

The rich man is heartless, wicked — he knowingly withholds food and shelter from the poor man outside his door.

We could take away the lesson that being a child of God is no guarantee of ease or success in this life, and that would be true, but that’s not the point of the account.

Neither is the wickedness of the rich man the real message, it’s just a tool in the story.

Let’s go back to the text.

The rich man had been aware of Lazarus and ignored him.

The scene is set: the good but poverty-stricken, versus the rich and heartless.

Where could we find a clearer contrast?

Sadly, in this world, in many countries, even our own.

Should we care about those less fortunate than us?  Of course.

Should we respond to such situations and take a warning from the parable?

Yes, when we can.

Is that the point of what Jesus is saying though — no.

We can draw these lessons out of the account, but so can the unbeliever.

God calls us to be compassionate, but compassion can be shown at times even by the atheist.

And compassion on its own does not save us.

The heart of this Bible account lies deeper.

Lazarus dies. We’re told he is carried away by angels to be comforted by Abraham.

This is a 1st century Jewish image for what we would call “heaven” or “paradise.”

Then the rich man also dies, and his fate is coldly reported simply as “being buried.”

Once again, the contrast is maintained. One fate is good, the other not. 

Immediately, the rich man finds himself in torment in Hades.

This is a place of fire which doesn’t go out, and where pain doesn’t cease  as Jesus describes it elsewhere.

Part of the torment for the rich man is knowing not everyone is suffering as he is.

The rich man sees Lazarus at a great distance in the company of Abraham, at peace and comforted.

The rich man apparently understands something of the justice of the situation, and pleads for only a small mercy – a drop of water to cool his tongue.

He’s informed by Abraham of the nature of the situation and reminded how, when the situation was reversed during life, Lazarus received no such mercy from Him, and besides, things are so arranged that even if he wanted to, Lazarus couldn’t provide the requested relief.

Are we supposed to be frightened by the threat of condemnation depicted here?

That would be a reasonable response, but it’s still not the purpose of the account.

Everyone hearing this story from Jesus understood the justice of the situation, and as they listened they were probably nodding in agreement with Christ.

But they already knew evil people will suffer in judgment.

They already knew God called them to be compassionate.

The rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers to warn and spare them the misery of his condition.

Abraham reminds him they have Moses and the Prophets — they have the Scriptures, the Word of God to warn and instruct them!

Again, this was something people listening to Jesus were aware of.

Then the rich man makes his point — the Scriptures didn’t work with him!

The Word of God had failed in his case, but he reasoned that if someone came calling from beyond the grave that kind of sign would shake them to the core and wake them up!

People listening to Jesus that day might have agreed with the rich man on this point.

We might be tempted to as well.

The Word of God just doesn’t seem to get through to some people.

They either won’t go to church to hear it preached and taught, or if they do, they don’t, in some cases, seem to listen and take it seriously.

The feeling for some appears to be God’s Word is always there, and it will wait until they’re ready to believe it.

So here is where this account of Lazarus by Jesus is really going.

Jesus drops the whole message on his listeners that day and today when He says, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’

Christ is saying that if the powerful and holy Word of Almighty God won’t reach some people, neither will a corpse that rises out of the ground persuade them.

Our Saviour is being very blunt in saying it is God’s Word or nothing at all that  will work!

Now, I imagine there were a lot of people listening that day who disagreed with Jesus.

And I’d guess that some of them thought Jesus was wrong, that a person rising from the grave would move people to sit up, take notice, and start believing.

But that’s a little like the people who say that if they could just find Noah’s Ark that, for them, would prove the Bible is true and bring the whole world around to the Christian faith.

Unfortunately seeing Noah’s Ark didn’t work that way for people back when it was built.

So why would it work that way for skeptics today?

Jesus gave the world the ultimate proof of what He said by dying and then rising from the grave.

A number of the very people listening to Jesus’ account, like some of the Pharisees Luke tells us were there, may have witnessed Christ’s death.

The Pharisees knew from many credible witnesses, even one of their own kind, Nicodemus, that Jesus rose from His grave, and yet they would not believe in Him.

Some of the Pharisees and Scribes tried to silence the witnesses to the resurrection.

They paid the guards at the tomb of Jesus to lie and say it didn’t happen.

Jesus has risen from the grave, but not all people will believe.

Christ has risen, but people still sin without repentance and abuse one another, and don’t care about the misery and poverty around them.

They’ve heard about sin and hell, and just brush it aside without a care.

But if the Word of God can’t move them sometime in their life to believe in Christ as Saviour, nothing can and nothing will.

Jesus paid the sin debt of the world. As believers your sins have been forgiven because Christ died in your place on the cross.

He rose from His grave to prove that sin, death and hell have been conquered and taken out of your future.

It was His resurrection that mattered for the whole world.

And you will rise from death one day by the power of Jesus, and live with Him forever.

Should we live a life of compassion?  Yes.

Should we attempt to live a holy Christian life. We should try.

That is the command and will of God.

But will these things save us? No.  Jesus has already done that.

This account of Christ teaches us to listen to the Word of God, and take it to heart.

And when we do we have the comfort that one day, despite the pain and hardships of this life, we will be held by God, and have peace and all we need from Him.

This account of Jesus is meant to assure you that saving faith comes from one place!

The Bible is clear – faith comes by hearing the Word of God, or not at all. (Romans 10:17)

You are born again by a Word that is living, powerful, and imperishable.

So as believers, whatever your status in the eyes of the world — no matter your outward appearance or success as measured by earthly standards — you will be carried by angels to paradise.

Until that time we’re nurtured by the true Church where God’s Word is taught correctly, and where we’re fed at the table of our Lord and given a foretaste of heaven.

So may the peace that passes all human understanding comfort you, and keep your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.