Riches and Poverty
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is unique among the stories told by Jesus, in part, because, if it is a parable, it is the only one Jesus told in which one of the characters is given a proper name. Lazarus, the poor man in the story, whose name means, “God has helped,” represents the faithful who depart this world to be with the Lord. The Rich Man, who isn’t given a name in the story, represents the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who, as we learned earlier in the chapter, were lovers of money.
A quick look at the story might give us the wrong impression. The proverbial moral of story might appear to be, those who are rich, because they’re rich, go to hell when they die and those who are poor, because they’re poor, go to heaven when they die. While the story might seem to suggest such a thing, there is certainly nothing in the rest of the Scriptures to support such a conclusion. Still, in the story, the Rich Man seems to get what was coming to him. After all, Jesus says to him, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here (that is, in heaven), and you are in anguish.”
The story though isn’t about a supposed curse of wealth, or, a virtue of
poverty. In a way, it’s a commentary on Proverbs 30, where the writer says
to God, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty
nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and
deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
The Rich Man, of course, was very wealthy. He “was clothed in purple and
fine linen and (he) feasted sumptuously every day.” As it happens, the word
that is translated as “feasted” is pretty important to the story. The original
word tells us something about the rich man that isn’t conveyed by the simple
word “feasted.” The word is actually related to happiness, or, to
contentment. You could say, the Rich Man found happiness in feasting
sumptuously on fine foods every day. For him, the purpose of money was to
satisfy his passions and to make him happy. In his pursuit of happiness, his
life bore witness to his denial of God. Indeed, give me neither poverty nor
riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny
you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
It’s at this point that the story speaks volumes to us today. For many people happiness is the central, even the ultimate goal of life. Some of you may remember Marvin Zindler, who was sort of an iconic commentator for one of the Houston TV stations. He’s probably best known for his role in closing down the famous Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas. At any rate, he would always close his commentary by saying, "Have a good weekend - good golf, good tennis, or whatever makes you happy."
It’s not my intent to attribute our cultural obsession with happiness to Marvin Zindler. It’s simply to say that, like the Rich Man in this story, there is a temptation, perhaps even a tendency, for us to see happiness as the primary goal of life. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who, by the way, Luther had very little, if any, time of patience for, enshrined happiness as a central purpose of life and a goal in itself. In fairness to Aristotle though, he also believed that happiness depends on the cultivation of virtue.
For many people today, however, virtue is not a part of the quest for happiness. Rather, the quest is driven by the fulfillment of one’s own desires and passions. As an illustration, a parent may become aware of the fact that their daughter is living in a marital relationship with someone outside of the bond marriage. The Scriptures say, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” Still, with happiness as a central goal of life, parents may be inclined to say, “I know it’s wrong, but “I’ve never seen her (meaning their daughter) so happy.”
There is more to life than happiness. The Rich Man pursued happiness through his great wealth and, in the process, he forgot the Lord. His great sin wasn’t that he was wealthy, it was that the two great commands of God, to love God with his whole heart, mind, body and soul, and to love his neighbor (in this case, Lazarus) as himself were meaningless to him!
Finally, in a moment of desperation, the Rich Man thought about someone other than himself. “I beg you, father (he said), to send him (that is, Lazarus) 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, it was too late! And, perhaps the saddest thing of all, is that a person who will not believe the testimony of the Word of God, will not believe even if someone returned from the dead to testify to the torrents of hell!
Unlike the Rich Man, Lazarus was poor. So poor, in fact, that he laid every day at the gate of the Rich Man’s residence, hoping he would be able to eat some of the crumbs that were thrown out from the Rich Man’s table. His condition was miserable, evidenced by the sores on his body that the dogs came by to lick.
In his poverty, his temptation was different from the Rich Man’s. Again, the writer of the Proverb said to God, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
“Feed me with the food that is needful for me.” Lazarus, being named in this story, is perhaps symbolic of God’s naming each of His children by water and the Word in Holy Baptism. God has called you by name and you are His. Throughout the days of your life He feeds you with the food that is needful for you, His body and blood and His Word, that nourish you and keep you strong in the true faith.
It is the food that is needful for you that enables you to see beyond yourself to myriad needs of others around you. Your record of tending to those needs, while not perfect, is sanctified, that is, it is made holy through the perfect life and the atoning death of Jesus. The life of Christ flows through you and you become then a blessing to others.
I spoke to someone in a nursing home sometime back. This person said, “pastor, I pray every day that I will get better so I can help around the church and help other people.” I said, “your prayers are enough.” The prayers of the saints for others is evidence of the fact that God has taken our eyes off of ourselves that we might see the Lazarus figures in our own lives, that we might reach out to them in whatever way we can to lessen their suffering and to bring them Christ.
Like Lazarus, as you close your eyes in death, you’ll be carried by the angels to Abraham’s side where you will be comforted eternally, not because you have a lived a perfect life, or, because you have helped others, but because God has called you by name and He has given you the name that is above every name, the name of His own dear Son.
“Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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