Proper 21 • Luke 16:19–31 • September 25, 2016
By Thomas Egger
It is interesting to look at different paintings inspired by this Bible story. The rich man is surrounded by friends and servants and tables furnished with food, and his gaze is fixed on one of his friends or on an alluring woman or on the platters of food. Poor Lazarus is surrounded by dogs and often pictured with his eyes toward heaven or with his hands folded in prayer. One artist paints the scene from outside the house. The rich man is going up the front steps with a bag of money in each hand, and his eyes are turned down, looking right at the moneybags. Lazarus, in this same painting, is lying on the ground below, half-dead, and his tired eyes are turned in their sockets, looking up to heaven.
Jesus’s story of the rich man and Lazarus warns us against greed and loveless ease, but ultimately this story summons us to trust in God’s help in the midst of life’s troubles, to listen to his Scriptures, and to set our hearts on the joy and comfort of his coming kingdom. It calls us, then, to love our neighbor—even, and especially, when our neighbor is in pain and poverty. It calls us to love and trust in our God and in his promises. And it warns us to beware the love of money, which might turn us away from our neighbor and from our God.
Jesus does not name the rich man; he is merely “a certain man (who) was rich” (ανθρωπος . . . τις ην πλουσιος, v. 19). In contrast, Jesus calls the beggar by name— ”a certain poor man named Lazarus” (πτωχος . . . τις ονοματι Λαζαρος, v. 20). This implies not only divine familiarity and care for Lazarus, but also the poor man’s trust in God, since Lazarus is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliezer, which means, “My God (Eli) is my help (ezer).”
Lazarus lived in misery, but at his death, God’s angels carry him to a place of blessed comfort, together with Abraham and the saints. The rich man lived sumptuously, but at his death he goes to Hades. Abraham denies his request for even a few drops of water, explaining: “Child, remember that you received your good things (τα αγαθα σου) during your life, and Lazarus, on the contrary, bad things (τα κακα), but now he is comforted here, and you are tormented” (v. 25).
Such a reversal does not imply a causal relationship: not all those blessed with good things in this life are therefore tormented in the next, nor are all those burdened with bad things in this life for that reason comforted in the next. The point, rather, is that what ultimately matters are not the passing things of this age, but rather the blessed comfort or agonizing torment of the age to come. For that which comes last lasts. The blessed inheritance of those who trust in Christ is final and permanent. Lazarus suffered greatly in the here-and-now of his daily life, but from the standpoint of the coming age, all this is past and “now” (after death) and “here” (among the eternally blessed in the presence of God) he has found comfort (v. 25).
Jesus tells this story as a warning to the Pharisees—and to us—for like the Pharisees, we love the “good things” of this life: earthly honor (Lk 11:43) and wealth (Lk 16:14). It is not wrong to ask God for our daily bread, and to receive the blessings of this life with thanksgiving: health, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, money and goods.
But God has nowhere promised us constant bounty or uninterrupted ease in this life. He has not promised us honor and recognition in the world’s eyes. He has not promised us fine clothes. Sometimes his people are clothed with sores and sickness. Sometimes his people face heartache over their children, disappointment in their retirement years, seeming failure in the pursuit of their dreams, tragic accidents that bring life screeching to a crawl. Sometimes God’s people must endure humiliation. Sometimes they must live as beggars.
What God has promised us is that lasting bounty and lasting joy are found in Jesus Christ, in the world to come. This is the testimony of Moses and the Prophets— and of the Gospels and the Epistles, too, for that matter. These Scriptures convey the promises of God, and God does not lie. Whoever turns aside from these divine promises to set his heart instead on earthly pleasures and riches is a fool—in fact, tragically, a damned fool.
Whether we are rich or poor, when we die each of us will stand as a beggar before God. The good news is that, in Christ, God makes beggars rich. As St. Paul writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
None of us is worthy to ask or inherit anything before God—not the rich man, not Lazarus, not you or me. There is only one who is worthy of riches before God: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (Rv 5:12). And Jesus, who alone is worthy, shares this inheritance with all poor, sinful beggars who look to him in faith.
In the Christian church, Jesus makes beggars rich. Not at the bank, not at the mall, but in God’s house we find our true prosperity. Here the crucified Savior addresses us in word and in sacrament: You have a place at my side forever. When you lack and worry and fear and weep, look up. Turn your eyes up. All my wealth is yours. I have purchased for you an everlasting kingdom with my blood. Come then, dear beggars, to my altar, and feast sumptuously on my forgiveness. Come wear the fine purple and the linen robes of my righteousness! The days of hurting and hungering are almost ended. The feasting and friendship of my coming kingdom are nearly here. Keep praying, keeping waiting, my beloved beggars. Love your rich neighbors; care for your poor neighbors. I will help you—forever.
So he invites us, and so we come. Week after week, we come . . . and we are as rich as Lazarus!