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“The Rich Man and Lazarus”
Luke 16:19-31

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—September 26, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What is the point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which Jesus tells in today’s Gospel Reading?  Is the point that being rich automatically means you are going to hell?  Paul does tell Timothy in today’s Epistle Reading: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this.”

But, the Bible reports that Abraham was fabulously wealthy, a multi-millionaire or even billionaire of his day.  And in the parable, where is Abraham? Not in hell, but in heaven.  So, possessing worldly wealth does not automatically condemn you to hell. 

Paul is often misquoted as saying “money is the root of all evil.”  But, what he actually says is “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  It is not possessions themselves that are the problem, but your attitude toward them, and the place you give them in your life.  Jesus put it this way: “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

What really condemns the rich man to hell is not what he possesses but what he lacks: faith.  Jesus describes the rich man’s self-centered pursuit of pleasure and his callous disregard for the beggar at his gate because those things show whom he was serving and putting first in his life: not God, but money.

So, is the point of the parable that being poor automatically means you’re going to heaven?  I’ve told you before the true story about a missionary in Africa who was asked by a visitor what was the greatest barrier he faced in his mission work there.  The people among were very poor, living mostly in mud huts.  The missionary himself was privileged to live in a hut made of cow manure, which was actually considered to be a better building material than mud.  Surprisingly, this missionary responded that the greatest barrier to his mission work among those people was materialism.  “How can that be?” the shocked visitor replied, “They don’t have anything!”  “Well,” the missionary said, “If a man has a mud hut, he wants a cow-manure hut; if he has a thatch roof, he wants a tin roof.  Materialism doesn’t depend on how much you have or don’t have.  Materialism is not a disease of the wallet, but of the heart.”

Being poor does not automatically mean you’re going to heaven.  Jesus put it this way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  It’s not a question of assets, but of attitude.  Paul describes in today’s Epistle Reading what it means to be “poor in spirit,” no matter how much you may possess or not possess: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Jesus told about 40 different parables, and in all of them only one of the characters is given an actual name, in “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.”  It’s no accident that Jesus gives this particular character a name.  For, the name “Lazarus” is the key to understanding this parable, to understanding the REAL difference between the rich man and the poor man, why one went to heaven, and the other hell.  The people Jesus was speaking to would have instantly understood the significance of the poor man’s name, for “Lazarus” means: “God Is My Helper.”

He was sick, he was homeless, he was hungry, he was covered with sores, and even the dogs licked his wounds.  But, he still had faith: “God Is My Helper.”

In the parable, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”  That reminds us of what Luke says about Jesus walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

The poor man went to heaven because he believed “Moses and the prophets.”  He believed in the Messiah they prophesied, who would take the sins of the world upon himself and earn FOR us God’s favor and a place in heaven.  That is what the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has done for you.  As Isaiah prophesied, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.  We observed him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” 

Despite his circumstances, Lazarus had faith in the Lord and his promised Messiah.  When the people who first listened this parable heard the name “Lazarus,” “God Is My Helper,” they instantly understood what Jesus is saying in this story.  Lazarus went to heaven, not because of what he lacked, but because of what he possessed: faith in the Lord and his Messiah.

So, what is the point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?  There are all sorts of important doctrines presented in this parable.  One important doctrine in this parable is that there are only two places in the afterlife, no limbo, no purgatory.  Upon death the sprints of believers depart the body and are escorted by angels into the blessedness of heaven.  After death it is too late to repent and cross over into heaven, or to say prayers or do good works on behalf of the dead so that they can cross over into heaven.  As Abraham in the parable tells the rich man in hell, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

Those are all important doctrines, but the real point of this parable is found in the rich man’s second request, and Abraham’s response: “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”  The rich man is really saying, “If only I had known!  If only someone had told me!”  And he is really pointing an accusing finger at God: “It’s your fault that I’m here, and my brothers will end up here too if you don’t do something about it!”

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’”  That is the point of this parable.  God has done something to get you into heaven.  He sent his Son to be your Savior, and he has sent to you in his Word and Sacraments the Good News of salvation.  “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  Before it’s too late, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; and, you”—like Lazarus—“will be saved.”


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