Sermon for Trinity 1
Jeremiah 9:23-24 + 1 John 4:16-21 + Luke 16:19-31
Last week, on Trinity Sunday, we heard Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and we learned of God’s gracious plan of salvation, which includes the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross, and the new birth of faith, worked by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace—faith which looks up to Jesus and receives eternal life from Him. We heard Jesus say that, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This week, we see a vivid example of that very truth.
This week, in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus, we encounter a man—the rich man—who was not born again and didn’t enter the kingdom of God; instead, his soul went to hell when he died. But we also encounter another man, Lazarus, who was born again and did enter the kingdom of God.
The rich man is the main character in this parable, because Jesus was addressing this parable to rich men, to a group of Pharisees. The entire chapter of Luke 16 is Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees for all their hypocrisy, for their love of money, for their unscriptural divorces and remarriages and adulteries. Now, with this parable, Jesus reveals the source of their wickedness: a loveless, godless heart. And He will drive home to them the seriousness of their condition and the dire consequences of going through life with a loveless heart. A loveless heart is a dead heart that needs to be replaced, lest they, or we, end up like the rich man in hell.
As Jesus describes the rich man in the parable, we’re struck by how innocent the man appears. He is no murderer, no thief, no adulterer. He, like all citizens of Israel at that time, was a church member, a circumcised son of Abraham, a worshiper of the true God—or at least so he appeared to be. Jesus describes him as a rich man who “fared sumptuously every day.” He wore expensive clothes, he had more than enough to eat, and he had enough wealth that he wasn’t just living paycheck to paycheck. Nor is he described as an abuser or oppressor of the poor, as if he got rich at their expense. So far, nothing that sounds hell-worthy, is it?
So what is it that Jesus highlights as his hell-worthy flaw? He did…nothing. He did nothing, when he could have easily done something to help poor Lazarus—poor Lazarus who was not just some poor man out there in the world, but the poor man placed at the rich man’s gate every day.
And yet, even then, it wasn’t the doing nothing that condemned him. Because Lazarus also did nothing, didn’t he? Is Lazarus credited with a single good work in this parable? No. He sat at the rich man’s gate, with sores all over his body, begging. Begging is not a good work. Being sickly or poor does not make you closer to God or more pleasing to God. Lazarus did nothing, and yet he entered the kingdom of God, while the rich man did nothing, and went to hell. No, it wasn’t the doing nothing that condemned the rich man. It was the apathetic, loveless heart that prompted him to do nothing for his neighbor, for his brother, for his fellow church member in his desperate need.
Now, Jesus says that when Lazarus died, the angels “carried him to Abraham’s bosom” where he was “comforted.” Why speak of this place of comfort as “Abraham’s bosom”? Because Abraham was the father of the Jewish people. Abraham was the one whom the Pharisees claimed to be their father as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus for daring to claim that salvation was by faith alone in Him alone. The Pharisees fully expected to be dining with Abraham at the heavenly banquet because of their good works. Well, here Jesus describes Abraham as the comforter of the poor beggar who receives the poor beggar to his side even while the rich man is separated from Abraham by a great chasm and receives no comfort at all from Abraham.
What does that tell us? Who are the true “sons of Abraham”? The Apostle Paul tells us very plainly that the true sons of Abraham are those who walk in the footsteps, not of Abraham’s good works, but of Abraham’s faith; he is the father of those who believe in God and trust in His promises of eternal life through Christ.
As Jesus revealed in the Gospel last week, the only way to not perish but to have eternal life is to look to the Son of Man, to Jesus, in faith, to be born again. So, even though this parable doesn’t say anything about Lazarus’ heart, we let Scripture interpret Scripture, and therefore, we know that he ended up at Abraham’s side because he shared Abraham’s faith in Christ.
This parable presents a real problem for those false teachers who make the Christian life about personal fulfillment and prosperity and happiness and health. Look at Lazarus. He was a believer. He was loved by God and favored by God and granted a place of comfort in heaven, but his earthly life stank. And so it is in this life that believers in Christ are often not the prosperous ones, not the rich ones, not the healthy and happy ones, while the wicked often prosper and have a cushy life full of earthly pleasures. But we see how things end for the believing Lazarus and for the unbelieving rich man. If you could trade places with one of them, which would you choose? Only a fool would choose the rich man, who enjoyed earthly pleasures for a little while but will spend eternity in torment, in flames.
His own words to Abraham demonstrate his own regret, his own desire to go back and do things differently. And yet, his words also reveal, that his heart is the same old dead heart as before. Why? What is his first concern? Himself and his own suffering. Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. When Abraham says that there’s nothing to be done to help him, then what? He does think of his brothers who are still alive. He doesn’t want them to come to this place of torment. Isn’t that a little bit of love? No. Not at all. Not to want other people to suffer is not the same thing as love.
As John said in the Epistle, “God is love.” Do we hear a word from the rich man about God? No. Does he trust in God? No. Does he fear God? No. Does he love God’s Word—the Law and the Prophets? No. On the contrary, he denies that God’s Word will have any power to convince his brothers of anything. Only something else will convince them. Only a man coming back from the dead! No, Abraham says. If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.
And right there is where Jesus is hammering the Pharisees. They had Moses and the prophets. In fact, they boasted about how well they knew and obeyed the Law of Moses and how much they honored the prophets. And yet what did Moses and the prophets require? Very simply, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But they didn’t. They had a bad heart. As Jesus says elsewhere, “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”
A loveless heart may produce all of those evil things, or it may simply produce no good thing. Either way, a loveless heart is a dead heart. And the only thing to do with a dead heart, is to replace it with a new, living one. Only God’s Spirit can do that. He does it by revealing people’s dead hearts to them and by bringing them to be sorrowful and terrified over their lost condition, because it really will lead to hell and eternal torment. And then, to those who are terrified, He reveals Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, whose death on the cross makes up for all the lovelessness of men.
Now, when God’s Spirit, working through God’s Word, brings sinners to faith in Christ, He gives us new birth. He creates a new heart in us and replaces the old, dead one. And that new heart is a living heart, a loving heart. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by love. John spoke in the Epistle today about the impossibility of loving God who is unseen, if someone has no love for his neighbor, whom he sees.
The Spirit’s work of renewal in the reborn, regenerated heart is an ongoing work, a work in which He battles against our sinful flesh that still doesn’t love and never will. But where the Spirit is working, where this struggle is happening, the Christian will love his neighbor. God said in Jeremiah 9, I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight. Lovingkindness, justice and righteousness are also the delight of those who have faith in Christ, and the entire Christian life is a life of growing in these things as the Spirit of God molds us into the image of our brother Jesus, and of our Father in heaven.
Where there is no love for the neighbor, there is no faith, and where there is no faith, there is no life, only death. But where there is repentance and faith in Christ, there is pure forgiveness, life and salvation. And there is a person who loves and who will continue to grow in love, even as Christ has commanded us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. This is the new birth that God gives through water and the Spirit, not a faith of the lips only, but a faith of the heart that expresses itself in love. The rich man in Jesus’ parable ignored the warnings of Moses and the prophets and didn’t believe them. May Jesus’ words today serve to renew your regenerated hearts, so that you may be zealous for every good work, and that genuine love may rule your words and your actions today and every day. Amen.