Sermon for First Sunday after Trinity
Jeremiah 9:23-24 + 1 John 4:16-21 + Luke 16:19-31
Today’s Gospel about the rich man and poor Lazarus is full of hellfire for the unbeliever, and rich in heavenly comfort for the believer. As always Jesus teaches us here about faith and love—how they go together. There is no such thing as ‘faith or love.’ There is only ‘faith and love.’ We see in the rich man what it looks like in this life when someone does not have faith and love. We see in poor Lazarus what it looks like when someone has faith and love. And we see that the end of our earthly life is not the end at all; whether or not a person has faith and love in this life has eternal consequences.
The rich man in Jesus’ story showed in two ways that he had neither faith nor love. As Jesus describes him, he was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. He wasn’t a murderer or an adulterer or a drug dealer. In fact, Jesus describes a man who did nothing wrong at all in the eyes of this world. Anyone who looked at him would say, “Now, there’s a successful man. He is truly blessed by God!” It’s not sinful to dress in purple or to eat gourmet food. Many godly men in the Old Testament were wealthy and dressed and ate well—King David, King Solomon, Abraham himself. But the way Jesus describes this rich man, that he dressed like this and ate like this “every day,” shows us that this man didn’t just happen to be rich. He loved his riches. He lived for this luxurious lifestyle. He lived for clothing, for food, for parties, for serving himself and glorifying himself. There was no room for God in this picture, no daily repentance, no faith in God, no time for God’s Word, no relying on God for every morsel, for every breath. He was an Israelite, a church member, and he certainly didn’t go around denying the God of Israel. He just didn’t rely on God as his only good. He didn’t fear, love and trust in God above all things. He didn’t care much for God at all.
The other way in which he showed his lack of faith and love was in his lack of compassion for poor Lazarus, begging at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus, the rich man’s fellow Israelite, fellow descendant of Abraham, according to the flesh, his fellow church member, since they were both Israelites. But the rich man was oblivious to him. He obviously saw him, and even knew his name, because later he recognizes Lazarus there with Abraham in paradise. He had every opportunity in the world to help Lazarus, even if only to give him some of his leftovers that were destined for the garbage. But no. No compassion. No mercy. No love.
What? Did he not know that his neighbor needed his help? Did he not know that God expects the one who has to be merciful toward the one who doesn’t have? Did he not have the Scriptures? He did. He had the words of the prophets, like the words of Jeremiah that you heard in the Old Testament reading today: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD. The rich man had the Law of Moses where God says, “You shall surely give to [your poor brother], and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
So, why didn’t he help Lazarus? Why did he glory in his riches instead of glorying in God? Because he had no faith in God, no love for God, no love for his neighbor. It’s like John said in the Epistle today: If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?
The rich man in Jesus’ story looked and acted an awful lot like the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking. The verses just before our Gospel tell us that the Pharisees loved their money, but they had no love for their neighbor. So when they claimed to love God, when they claimed to be ‘children of Abraham,’ it was nothing but a lie, a sort of self-deception. Why? Because those who truly love God also love their brothers. Those who are truly children of Abraham also have the faith of Abraham—faith in Christ by which they are justified before God, and the love for their neighbor that always accompanies faith and flows from faith, just as it did in the life of Abraham.
The rich man represents all unbelievers in today’s world, too, wrapped up in their lifestyle, in their things, too busy enjoying their life to worry about God. You don’t have to be rich, dining on gourmet food and Champagne. There are plenty of people who are just as godless in their infatuation with their beer and video games, their truck and their parties. God is, at best, an afterthought, certainly not the desire of their heart. They have no faith in God, and so they have no compassion for their neighbor, either.
Then there’s Lazarus, the polar opposite of the rich man. Poor Lazarus. No money. No clothes. No food at all. All he had was faith in God and love for his neighbor. Because of his poverty and his weakness, he had no opportunity to show that love to his neighbor, but the intention was there, just as the faith was there. How do we know that? Because, when he died, he was borne by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, and received there by Abraham. Abraham is the father of believers, as the Apostle Paul explains in Romans, not of unbelievers. Without faith it is impossible to please God, as the writer to the Hebrews says. And where there is faith, there is also love. Always. Lazarus didn’t go to heaven because he was poor. He didn’t go to heaven because he suffered on earth. He went to heaven because he had faith in God and the Savior God promised to send. He commended his cause to God, and through faith, Lazarus was pleasing to God, and because Lazarus believed, Lazarus also loved.
During Lazarus’ life on earth, it didn’t look like he was pleasing to God. He didn’t look prosperous. It didn’t look like God was blessing him, or like God cared about him at all. In fact, in the eyes of the world, everything was reversed. It looked like the rich man had God’s favor and like Lazarus was despised by God, but it was just the opposite, and it always is. The things this world prizes, God hates. As Jesus says a few verses before our Gospel, For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
Lazarus finished out his earthly years in toil and pain and poverty. But then—then he was borne to Abraham’s bosom and, as Abraham says, there he “is comforted.” And that’s the way it is for all believers in Christ. In this world, believers are called heretics and are despised by the world. But there is comfort waiting—a comfort that is much, much greater than any suffering here on earth, a comfort that will last much, much longer than this brief pilgrimage on earth, a comfort for which, if they only knew, if they only believed, the unbelievers of this world would trade all their earthly fame and wealth and comfort. That’s what the Apostle Paul says, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us—in us who believe in Christ.
So it was with the rich man, as he was tormented in the flames of hell. He repented too late. He saw Lazarus, comforted in Abraham’s bosom. And just as Lazarus had longed for a few crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table in life, so the rich man now longs for just a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger. But while the rich man could have easily shared his crumbs with Lazarus, Abraham says that no one can cross over into hell to help the suffering souls there. It’s too late for faith and love after death.
So the rich man pleads for his brothers, that Lazarus might be sent to them to warn them. But no, Abraham says. They have all they need to escape eternal condemnation. What do they have? They have Moses and the Prophets. They have the Word of God. That’s all they need. Let them listen. Let them hear.
What do Moses and the Prophets say? They command love for God and for our neighbor. But they also reveal that no one loves God or his neighbor. As the Psalm says, “There is no one who does good, no, not even one.” So, what then? Moses and the Prophets also testify about the Christ who would come from God, who would be God, who would suffer for our faithlessness and lovelessness and who would grant forgiveness to all who trust in His name. Where there is faith in Christ, there is forgiveness. Where there is forgiveness, there is new life created by the Holy Spirit; there is love that flows from the love God has shown to us who didn’t deserve it. There is compassion, like the compassion of God who came down to us beggars and gave Himself for us.
So it is that, for the unbelievers, there is neither true faith nor true love in this life, even though they may boast about how much they love God, even though they may prosper and enjoy their good things here on earth. And for believers, there is both faith and love in this life, faith that is born of and sustained by the Word of God and the Sacraments of God, love that sees our neighbor in need, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, and reaches out to help. Why? Because we who believe in Christ are the only ones in the world who truly know how much God has loved us. As John said in the Epistle, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” May God continue to sustain and strengthen the faith and love He has created in you through Word and Sacrament, so that you, too, may join Lazarus and all the saints at Abraham’s side in the everlasting comfort of a heavenly home. Amen.