There’s no better way to consider how God works on us than to consider the parable par excellence that sets up the non-festival half of the church year. On the one hand we see the rich man, clothed in purple and faring sumptuously at every meal. On the other hand we see Lazarus, a poor man covered in sores who finds his only earthly comfort in dog spit that soothes his sores.
Jesus quickly upsets the apple cart when he shows us the eternal welfare of both men after their deaths. Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. So far so good. We expect each to receive their eternal reward. The rich man’s reward is in Hades, being in torment.
Not much of a reward, eh? Then comes insult on top of injury, or so it seems. The rich man lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. The man he saw, or maybe perhaps tried not to see, lying at his gate every day now has a place of honor. The honorable rich man, having his necessary creature comforts during his life, now has a place of disgrace.
How can it be? It can be because we have it hard-wired into our brains that riches equal success. That success must necessarily carry over into eternity, or so we think. Jesus says otherwise. Perhaps we might consider the opposite true. If you’re poor and covered in sores, you get an automatic pass into eternal life because God loves the poor more than the rich. After all, riches get in the way of salvation. Plenty or want in earthly things do not matter to our heavenly Father. What matters is the condition of your heart.
We get a glimpse into the heart of the rich man as he says three things in order to redeem himself and, ultimately, his family. We might consider each statement under Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The rich man shows no love toward God and his neighbor as he attempts to use Lazarus to help him in the place of torment. Abraham reminds the rich man, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. If that wasn’t enough, there is a great chasm fixed between Abraham’s side and Hades. There’s no way you can travel from here to there.
The impudence of the rich man makes us steam with anger. Look at yourself before you get too worked up. You also show no love to God and your neighbor when you use both to get what you want. You can’t manipulate God. He can’t be bribed. He won’t send a loved one back to you to help you or your family. When death comes your eternal lot is cast. Not even a word to the “man upstairs” from anyone, living or dead, can fix it.
The rich man also shows no fear of God when he begs Abraham to send 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. The rich man did not fear what God says in the Scriptures. We have no evidence from Christ’s parable that he went to the synagogue, let alone the temple. Perhaps he had some head knowledge about the promise of salvation in Messiah, but Jesus doesn’t tell us. His family has every opportunity to hear Moses and the prophets.
You have every opportunity to hear Moses and the prophets, and especially Jesus Himself. Your family has that opportunity, too. Don’t rely on the faith of grandma and grandpa, or uncles and aunts, to suffice for other family members. You can’t ride through the pearly gates on someone else’s coattails. You enter through the narrow Door, Jesus Christ.
The rich man finally doesn’t trust God’s Word to work repentance and faith among his loved ones. No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. He supposes you have to see it to believe it. Reading the Bible isn’t enough. Hearing the Bible read and salvation proclaimed in church isn’t enough. You need to see someone rise from the dead and tell you to repent before it’s too late.
A Day is coming when many will rise from the dead. Some will receive eternal life in the New Creation. Others will receive what they wanted: eternal separation from Christ in the burning lake of fire. Oh, maybe they knew there was a Savior. Maybe they took a risk and figured that God will save everyone regardless if they believed in Jesus as Lord. Maybe they figured all the good things they did and their good behavior would be enough for salvation. When those who would not trust in Jesus Christ as Savior see Judgment Day, the great chasm will be fixed. There’s no more crossing over. There are no more deathbed conversions.
What the rich man forgot was what Lazarus’ name means. When you forget what Lazarus’ name means, you end up in the same place as the rich man. Lazarus means “God is my help.” God is your only help. God does not do some or most of the work, giving you a chance to give Him a hand. God is your help, period. God covers you in the blood of His Son Jesus. He does everything to save you, no matter if you’re filthy rich or gutbucket poor.
The chief concern of God is the condition of your heart. Consider Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted it to him as righteousness. Abram didn’t have any special quality in him that made him more special than anyone else. God chose Abram as the father of the family whom God would make promises and keep every one of them. Like Abram, later Abraham, as we believe those promises, for they are ours not by blood but by faith in God’s only-begotten Son, it is also counted to us as righteousness.
The rich man had the opportunity to receive salvation. It was too late when he discovered his folly. In Christ you are Lazarus, for God is your help. He alone makes it possible for you to rest for all eternity with Him. As you stay connected to Jesus, trusting His Good News of forgiveness and life for you, living in your baptismal grace, partaking of His Supper, rejoicing in the restoration of the joy of His salvation, you will rise from the grave on Judgment Day not to condemnation, but to the bosom of Abraham with all those who have gone before you in the faith.