To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Sermon based on Luke 16:19-31
An epitaph once written upon a gravestone said:
Remember, Friend, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, soon you shall be
Prepare for Death, and follow me.
As we explore our gospel lesson this morning, the rich man likely would have added these words to that gravestone:
To follow you, I’m not content
Until I know which way you went!
In this 16th chapter of Luke we have the only occasion when Jesus drew aside the veil between this world and the next and allowed us to see what was beyond, and to see the relationship between the here and the hereafter. This parable found in Luke 16 grows out of the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus’ story of the dishonest steward. Jesus emphasized and underscored the link between money and spirituality. He indicated that people must love God and use money, instead of using God and loving money. Because of this teaching they ridiculed Jesus. Those who opposed Jesus openly mocked him. To answer their ridicule, Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He set the scene in the opening verses.
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)
Obviously Jesus intended to draw a deliberate and vivid contrast between the rich man and the poor man. Some scholars have referred to the rich man by the name of “Dives.” Dives is simply the Latin word for “rich.” When translated from Greek into Latin, this is the word that was used, and consequently this rich man has often been referred to as Dives. Jesus though does not give him a name. All we are told about him is the way he dressed and the way he ate. He was dressed in purple and fine linen, considered the finest color and material for clothing in those days. He also set a very fine gourmet table, not once a week but every day. He lived a hollow life concerned only with a desire for self-indulgence. In direct contrast, Jesus named Lazarus. He is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is given a name. The name is significant; it means, “God is my helper.” Scholars have said perhaps this was deliberately intended by Jesus to suggest that Lazarus was a godly man. Even though he was poor and a beggar, God was his helper. Though he was a godly man, he nevertheless lay at the gate of this rich man, sick and hungry, his body covered with loathsome, running sores, waiting for any scrap of food to come from the rich man’s dinner table. In those days people did not use knives or forks or napkins; they would eat with their hands, wiping them on crusts of bread, which were thrown out following the meal. This was what the poor man, Lazarus, was waiting to receive. All he desired were those crusts of bread that had been thrown out after the feast. The only help that Jesus indicated came to this man was from the dogs that would lick his sores. That was the only comfort he had in the midst of his unhappy life. The rich man walked daily out the gate but never bothered to acknowledge Lazarus.
Soon, we see how Jesus moved this parable into a different direction, a comparison of the afterlife. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham in heaven. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus. And he called out,
“Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. (Luke 16:24-25)
There are two frequent reactions to this story of the rich man and Lazarus. The first one is that it rather pleases us to see this rich man suffer. We feel it is rather fitting that he is in torment for not expressing more compassion for Lazarus. We of course feel sorry for Lazarus. As the custom of those times would dictate, Lazarus’ body was probably thrown out onto the city dump, outside the city walls, as was customary for the bodies of beggars. However in the afterlife Lazarus was comforted and found relief, while the rich man was in pain and anguish. Often people react to this by saying, “That’s the way it should be.” Many feel that this is what the afterlife is all about that it is a way to help even things out. But if that is the way we feel we have misinterpreted our text. We must understand that the rich man was not in Hades because he was rich any more than Lazarus was in Heaven because he was poor. As we wrap up our sermon series on the subject of discipleship this passage today in relationship to outreach teaches us the importance of the power of persuasion. Beginning at the 27th verse we read:
“And he said, ‘then I beg you father to send him 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.’ But Abraham said ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said ‘No father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'” Luke 16:27-31)
Here, for the first time, the rich man begins thinking of someone other than himself. He showed love and concern for his brothers. Yet it only adds to his torment for he can do nothing. In reading one commentary on this parable, I was struck by one sentence. The author wrote: “The torment of the dead is that they cannot warn the living, just as it is the torment of the mature that the young will not listen to them.” In relationship to our faith we often become defensive about our faith rather than persuasive. We feel people won’t bother listening to us, so why try. When studying this passage people have felt that perhaps God was being unfair. Why should God not grant this person his request to warn his brothers? If God really wants the best from his children, then why does God not allow the rich man to warn them, and persuade them to change their ways? This parable stirs within us a desire for the spectacular, the dramatic and the shocking to occur when it comes to God. Will God do more? Will God one day open the heavens and speak to us? Will God send a special messenger from heaven to speak to us more clearly?
Sometimes it is easy for us to forget that God actually did this through his son, Jesus and through Scripture. I know of someone who has struggled in their faith journey over the years who once commented that if they were to see a miracle, that their faith would be strengthened even more. If we perhaps feel that way we must ask the following:
- How many who saw the miracles in Jesus’ day still believed in him at the end of his life?
- How many stayed with him who believed because of the miracles?
Judging by the fact that only a handful of Jesus’ followers stood around the cross, the answer to those above questions is very few. Even after Jesus’ resurrection many still did not believe. Further study of this passage reveals to us that the rich man was not denied his request because God was unwilling to give as much opportunity as possible. He was denied this request from God because God knew it would not work. According to Abraham from our passage, if people did not hear Moses and the prophets it was doubtful that they could be convinced if someone should rise from the dead. The most convincing proof as shared in this passage is “Moses and the prophets,” or rather the word of God as found in Scripture. The rich man was in Hades because he refused to follow the teachings of Moses and the prophets, not because he was rich. His activities as a rich man grew out of his refusal to hear Moses and the prophets. His self-centered, self-indulgent life is a reflection of that refusal, but he is not in Hades because he was rich. Lazarus, on the other hand, is in heaven because he believed Moses and the prophets. He made God his helper and trusted in him. He is not in heaven merely to make up for the suffering that he went through on earth. There will be people who are poor in Hades, just as there will be those who are rich in heaven. Lazarus was in heaven because he believed Moses and the prophets. He believed in the word of God.
Our lesson from Jesus is pretty simple. We are to pay attention to what God has said, to listen to Moses and the prophets. We in essence are like the five brothers, who are left behind; we must make our own choices in our faith and even how to share our faith. We may be young, middle aged or old. We may be struggling through life and thinking we just need to take things one day at a time. We can enjoy life now in the present, and upon our passing we can deal with the cards we are dealt. But the point of this parable is that there is still time for us to shuffle the deck. What we do in the present can in fact influence our future. We are here as God’s children, as followers of Jesus and each of us is called to persuade others to join us in our faith journey. Sharing our faith means helping others to distinguish good and evil. Sharing our faith, persuading others means sharing the word of God with others. Jesus believed that people could change. Jesus throughout his life was teaching, preaching, traveling, performing miracles and mentoring.
Jesus offered us the promise of eternal life. Through His sacrifice upon the cross, we have been given a faith that brings us joy and happiness, and this is a gift that we need to share. Throughout this month we have seen how Scripture brings it right to the point. To share our faith we must be willing to proclaim, have presence and persuade. Let us venture into this exciting role of discipleship together!
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
September 25, 2016