As we enter into the second half of the Church Year, our attention shifts. In the first half of the Church Year we focus on the life of Christ. Annually we repeat the cycle of birth—life—death—resurrection—ascension—giving of the Holy Spirit. Having heard once again what Our Lord has done to accomplish our salvation, we now ask a very Lutheran question: “What does this mean?” In other words, what implications does the first half of the Church Year have on my life today? Nothing the Church does is haphazard or accidental. The paraments and vestments have changed to green, the color of life and growth. Now our attention shifts to our spiritual life as it grows out of the life of Christ. The love He gave to us, embodied in His death and resurrection, we imitate by caring for others, by using the gifts and abilities God has given us to serve our neighbor. The faith created by the Word, seeks to grow and do those things which are pleasing to God.
But it can be tempting to think or to worry that our actions or financial status on earth cause our salvation, especially with Gospel Readings like the one we heard today, the account of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The Old Testament reading, whose promise is repeated several times in the New Testament, does not let us believe that. What does Moses record by divine inspiration? “Abraham believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” And don’t forget—Abraham was rich, proof that even the rich can go to heaven! Faith alone saves. However, as St. James teaches, faith naturally lives in a very specific way, doing good works which please God, serve the neighbor, and supply proof that faith is alive and active. As the Epistle and Gospel teach, one of those proofs that we love God, whom we cannot see, is that we love our brother, whom we can see.
Lazarus and the Rich Man lay that out perfectly. The Rich Man had every opportunity to demonstrate love for his fellowman, since one of the poorest, most vulnerable members of his community was literally at his doorstep. But don’t be misled by our translation of what Our Lord tells; the Greek here is vivid. Lazarus wasn’t gently laid at the Rich Man’s door by caring friends; he was dropped, thrown down there, probably by people who didn’t want to look at a sore-ridden homeless person in their white picket fence neighborhood. Doubtlessly, thought they were being helpful, but passing the buck and expecting someone richer than you to be charitable for you is not charity on your part.
The Rich Man thought he was a good, devout, God-fearing person. He calls Abraham his father. He touts his lineage as the reason he should receive divine aid. But as we see laid out in the exchange between the Rich Man and Abraham, he did not have faith that caused him to do what the Law of God commanded, that he see to the welfare of the poor. Instead, he put his faith in himself, in his possessions, in his family tree. He has no faith in the Word of God and rejects God’s chosen, promised way of salvation. When he asks that Lazarus visit his brothers, he openly rejects something as foolish, as simple as faith created by the Word of God. He wants flashy signs with a high production value—a Scrooge-esque vision of what evils await unless the one receiving the vision change course. Even when surrounded by the flames of hell, unbelief refuses to repent.
On the other hand, Lazarus is the image of faith. Although we usually assume Lazarus to be a beggar by trade, Jesus does not call him one. Even when he is thrown at the Rich Man’s door, he does not beg. Instead, Jesus says he simply desires or longs to be fed with what falls from the table. He trusts in God to provide for all his needs, and knows that his days are in God’s hands. He accepts whatever comes from his God, fearing, loving, and trusting in Him above all things.
Lazarus is the picture of how we are as Christians. He suffers as we all suffer in this life, and he lives by faith. He trusts the promises of Holy Scripture, that the Messiah would come, that God loves him and cares for him. His sorrows don’t impress God, rather God uses his sorrows to keep him dependent. That’s what crosses do in this life, the suffering we all endure. They teach us that we cannot rely on ourselves at all, but rather trust in God to satisfy the desire of every living thing. The crosses you bear, be they illness, poverty, addiction, lust, all are designed to teach you to pray,
“Let no false doctrine me beguile, let Satan not my soul defile, grant strength and patience unto me to bear my cross and follow Thee.”
In the Gospel, we see these crosses in the form of Lazarus’s wounds. Our translation is wrong when it says “moreover, the dogs came and licked his wounds.” The Greek is simply “but the dogs came and licked his wounds.” Lazarus received mercy, he received compassion from the dogs. They didn’t do anything to change his situation, but they did help him bear that affliction. They were a blessing to him, not a further curse. Our wounds are licked by the dogs God sends to us, in the form of pastors, Christian friends, and especially His gifts in the Divine Service. When we receive these divine blessings they may not necessarily remove the cross, but they make it easier to carry. We receive strength and encouragement from the Word of God, from the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, from the ability to call upon His Name in prayer in every trouble, from the families—biological and otherwise—into which God has placed us.
The point of all this is that God would not leave us in unescapable sorrow. He reaches out to us. We have Moses and the prophets and are comforted by their promises. We have hope! And He sends the Gospel to us, the cleansing and life-giving Words by which He creates faith that receives every good, perfect, and merciful gift from above. No matter what your circumstances, addictions, abuse, neglect, sin, God does not leave you in your sorrows without comfort. He reaches out to you in love which gives you the ability to reach out to others with that same love, a reflection of the dying love God has for His children.
As your faith grows and does those things which are pleasing to God, the greatest good work it can do is bring you to this place, to receive from God those gifts He loves to give in an abundance you could never deserve. Here you have every consolation, every comfort, and promise, and hope which you can confess to those around you. And because of the gifts of God you have been given, like Lazarus the angels will carry you to Abraham’s bosom where you will see Jesus Christ, your Savior and your Fount of grace.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.