Why does the Rich Man in today’s Gospel go to hell? Why is Lazarus borne by the angels to Abraham’s bosom? Is it because of the life they lived? Is it because, in the end, God makes everything fair? The Rich Man had good things, so now it’s time for him to experience the bad? Lazarus starved, was unable to help himself in any way, and now lives in the lavishness of heaven that far exceeds what the Rich Man had? No. None of that is right, though we’d like it to be.
What it all comes down to is the Word of God. One easily missed detail in this story is names. Jesus only names on person—Lazarus. Lazarus is another version of the Old Testament name Eliezer, meaning “The one whom God has helped.” The Rich Man has no name. Certainly he did in his earthly life, but in eternity his name is not important. Though this seems minor, it is not. It means that Lazarus was helped by the Word of God, by Moses and the Prophets. Faith had been created in him by the Holy Spirit, and so his name was found in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:15). The Rich Man despised the Word of God and was nameless before God; no entry was found for him in the Book of Life and he was cast into the lake of fire.
On earth, he had his good things. He doesn’t go to hell because of that, but because he loved his things, loved himself before God and neighbor. Jesus said he wore purple and fine linen, the most expensive clothing of the first century. He fared sumptuously every day; daily he gorged himself on the most expensive food, passed out drunk off the finest wine. As far as he was concerned, he had everything he needed. Despite being content, he didn’t feel any need to share. He chose to ignore Lazarus. Lazarus was unavoidable. Our English translation is too soft. He wasn’t “laid at his gate.” He was thrown into the Rich Man’s door! Lazarus’s “friends” figured the easiest thing to do with him was to leave him on the doorstep of the richest man alive. Certainly he or his friends would throw him something! But they didn’t. Lazarus’s only companions were the merciful dogs who licked his sores, trying to give him some kind of comfort. Despite these crosses given to Lazarus, he remained faithful. He cherished the promise of Moses and the Prophets, that One would come to relieve his burden of sin and would bring him into eternal paradise. He was confident that one day his name would come true.
And eventually it did. Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, to the bliss of heaven. His name was found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and he was brought into the presence of God.
On the other hand, the Rich Man found out that, in death, his riches meant nothing. He died and was carried into hell. And even in hell, he is not brought to repentance. The very first thing he does is think about himself. To him, Lazarus is still worthless, nothing more than a tool to be used to his own happiness. He demands that Abraham release Lazarus from the joys of heaven to descend to hell with water to cool his tongue dried up like a clay pot by the flames. When Abraham says no, the Rich Man reacts like a snubbed restaurant customer threatening to tell all their friends to avoid the place where they were treated poorly. He demands that Lazarus rise from the dead, that is, go back into his sin-wracked, sore-filled body and tell the Rich Man’s brothers to avoid hell where everyone is mean. Abraham denies the man’s request again. “They have Moses and the Prophets, they must hear them!” And then the eternal hardness of heart is shown: “No!” he retorts. Not even a “please” or “have mercy.” Just a sharp “No, father Abraham!” What he’s really saying is “Moses and the Prophets are useless. I had just as much access to Moses and the Prophets as they do, and look where it got me. If God really loved me, He would have made it obvious, He would have been flashier.” But that is not how God operates. Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. Lazarus trusted that God would be his Help, and he entered heaven. If the Words and promises of God won’t create saving faith, nothing will, not even the resurrection of one who was dead.
So what of us? Where are we in this account of Lazarus and the Rich Man? The Rich Man’s sin is that he did not allow the Word of God to operate in his heart to create faith, and that faith to produce the fruit of good works towards the neighbor. He silenced his conscience by intentionally ignoring the dying man on his doorstep. So what of us? Have we let the Word of God work in us? How is your fervent love toward one another, the other gift of the Word of God in the Lord’s Supper? To what blight of your fellowman have you turned your eyes and closed your ears? Giving charity is what our faith naturally wants to do. How often does selfishness or fear drown that action of faith? And that doesn’t necessarily have to be thought of in terms of money. How often are we praying for our enemies, reaching out faithfully with the Word of God to those who despise it? We all resemble the Rich Man in some way, failing to be good stewards of the riches of God’s Word and the earthly goods He has given us.
And because our actions resemble his, our fate should resemble his as well. Before that happens, we must repent and beg God to forgive us, to soften our hearts, and to give us a stronger faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another.
Because He is faithful, He will do it. At your Baptism, He made you a sort of Lazarus. He placed His Name on you; He figuratively called you Lazarus, one whom God has helped. He made the death and resurrection of Jesus yours, forgiving your every sin and making ready His angels to carry your soul to heaven at the Last Day. And flowing from that forgiving flood, that lavish washing away of sin, He forgave you again today and every time you come into His house. He forgives you for your every sin, for failing to live, as His Word has commanded, in love for one another.
But He doesn’t just forgive you. He gives you His Holy Word and Sacraments, the Food your faith needs. Through these He gives the Holy Spirit who reminds you how the love of God was manifested, that Jesus came into the world to be the sacrifice to pay for your sin and to give you eternal life. By filling your mind and soul with that love, He causes you to reflect that love and to give it to one another. The Holy Spirit works in you to cause you to do those things that are pleasing to God and beneficial to your neighbor, physically and spiritually. He causes you to be a hearer and doer of the Word, one whom God loves and in whom He makes His home.
With all of these blessings of God you are the true Lazarus, an inheritor of riches that make every good thing in this world look like absolute poverty. Because you have received His Help, the death and resurrection of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, you will join Lazarus and all the blessed in that paradise forever.
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.