Children and grown-ups like hearing this parable. In this story it seems that for a moment, the curtain is drawn aside and we get a tiny glimpse of the hereafter, of heaven and hell. The other thing that pleases a child’s imagination and perhaps many adults, is to see how this rich guy, who had it so “good” in this life, gets what’s coming to him in the next life, while poor Lazarus, who had such a hell of a life on earth, at last receives the joy and consolation of heaven.
But by focussing on that aspect of the story, we’re missing its central point. The real point of the story is not so much about the rich man or about Lazarus, but rather about what Abraham says to the rich man about his five brothers still at home on earth and their need to hear God’s Word. The sin of the rich man isn’t that he was rich but that he was indifferent. It’s not bad to be rich, nor is it a sign of goodness to be poor. But it’s wrong when a person is so wrapped up in his possessions and affluent lifestyle and is so thoroughly selfish that he is totally indifferent to the needy person placed at his gate. The rich man’s terrible sin isn’t that he never helped Lazarus, but that he did nothing at all, feasting while Lazarus died at his gate. In the time of Jesus, affluent people used bread as we use serviettes – to wipe their fingers. Hungry Lazarus would gladly have fed on such scraps, but the rich guy pretends not to notice Lazarus’s desperate need for food.
What’s more, he pretends not to notice God, His Maker and the Giver of all the gifts he enjoys. These two realities go together – if you love God, you will love your neighbour and have a special compassion for a neighbour in need. At the other end of the scale, indifference to your needy neighbour is a reflection of your
indifference to God. God’s Word says to you, “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20).”
Let’s focus on being different now. Lazarus certainly was a different person in the next life. In contrast to the rich guy in our parable who is unnamed, Lazarus has a name. His name is a very important clue for understanding this story, because his name means “God is my helper.” His name shows that despite all his poverty and misery, he has put his trust in God. He believed God is his Helper. And when he dies, what he has always believed comes true. In heaven he discovers the joy of being with the God in whom he trusted.
The rich man is certainly a different person in the next life. For him it is a “riches to rags” story. In the next life he finds himself in hell. What is hell? To be separated from God. And what is heaven? To be with God. In this life the rich man separated himself from God; in the next life, the separation from God becomes absolute. So now he’s a radically different person – no more enjoying the comforts of this life, but enduring the discomforts of hell. Another thing is different about him in the next life. For the first time he thinks of someone other than himself. He is concerned about his five brothers left on earth and asks Abraham to send someone from the dead, lest they also come to the place of torment.
He thinks that there’s only one thing that will change his brothers on earth and make them different, that is if someone comes from the dead to warn them and then they will believe. “Not so”, Abraham tells him. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And if they won’t listen to them, that is, if they won’t hear God’s Word for them, then they won’t listen even if someone comes to them from the dead.
Although this is only a story told to us by Jesus, nevertheless what He said actually happened. There was a brother who did come back from the dead, and would you know, his name was Lazarus! Remember how Jesus raised Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. And what happened after Jesus raised Lazarus? Those who already believed, believed all the more. But those who didn’t believe immediately began plotting to assassinate Jesus. There were times like the feeding of the five thousand when people saw the miraculous things Jesus did and still didn’t believe in Him. Seeing is not necessarily believing. Rather, faith in Jesus gives us super-sight. Jesus says to Martha at the death of her brother Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God? (John 11:40)” Faith enables us to see God at work in our lives and around us, things those without faith cannot see.
So who are we in this story? We’re the ones still alive. We are the five brothers. And like them we have Moses and the prophets. In fact, we have even more, because not only do we have Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament, we also have the Gospels and the Epistles, the New Testament of our merciful Saviour Jesus Christ. We have the life-giving good news of His grace that can make us different, and can make us dare to live differently. What an incomparable blessing that is. It’s all about the Word who took on human flesh and lives among us, full of grace and truth.
Our Lord Jesus Christ became poorer and more wretched than Lazarus was so that by His poverty we could become rich in the things that matter eternally. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you, through His poverty, might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).”
After His birth, where Jesus lay in a borrowed manger in a lowly stable, He was rejected, scoured, despised, tortured and crucified for us. Jesus gave up everything for us and our eternal benefit and blessing. After Jesus rose from the dead He became Lord of heaven and earth and the real owner of everything on this earth. He now says to you and to me: “Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured into your hands – all that you can hold (Luke 6:38).” Or as the prayer of St. Francis puts it, “For it is in giving that we receive” the joy of knowing that we are blessing others with what God has given us. Jesus says to you “Blessed are those who hear God’s Word and put it into practice (Luke 11:28).”
It’s not hard to put ourselves in the rich man’s place and imagine what he might think, looking at Lazarus, all covered in loathsome sores: ‘But if the doctors cannot do a thing for him, what am I expected to do? He is as poor as the stray dogs themselves. But surely it is not my fault that he is poor. I never robbed him or stole from him. God knows the streets are full of beggars. There are plenty of others as badly off as he is. But what can one man do about it? They would have to bankrupt the government to make any noticeable difference. If one lone beggar finds his way to my door, does that give him more claim on me than the others have? I have let him live exclusively, for weeks and months, on the discarded scraps from my table. Surely that is something I am doing for him. What more can I do?’
When we suffer from donation-fatigue like that, we need to pray to Jesus, “Thank You for loving me so much more than I could ever deserve. Through Your Word and sacraments, continually fill me with a love that overflows into the lives of others.”
People who love each other want to be together and hear each other speak. When we love our Lord, we want to be where He is with us in a very special way, that is, in the Lord’s Supper, where He gives Himself to us in an awesome act of love. He does this to continue making us more and more like Him. More and more we will become eager to love others with Christ’s life-transforming, life-renewing love.
We give to God because God promises to multiply with His blessing whatever we give, whether to Him or our needy neighbour. “God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).”
For souls redeemed, for sins forgiven, for means of grace and hopes of heaven,
To you, O Lord, what can be given? You give us all.
We lose what on ourselves we spend; we have as treasure without end
Whatever, Lord, to You we lend – You give us all.