Repentance and Faith
St. Luke 16:19-31 (6/7/15)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 16:22-23 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord…Let’s start by making one thing clear: The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich. And Lazarus didn’t go to heaven because he was poor. Having a lot of stuff in this life is not a sin, just as having nothing isn’t necessarily a virtue. Since Jesus is telling this story, it can’t be about social conditions or economics. It is about repentance and faith, like everything else Jesus teaches us.
And here is the repentance that is preached: Jesus warns us about taking the gifts of God and turning them into idols. Again, the rich man’s sin is not that he had a lot of wealth; it’s that he made that wealth the most important thing in his life, his idol, his god. Instead of giving thanks to God for what he had and using it to help and serve his neighbor, the rich man just hoarded it for himself and wouldn’t spare even a penny or a scrap of food for the poor beggar who was right in front of his face.
But there is a worse sin rebuked by this story. The context of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees teaches us that they had taken God’s Word – the same Word of God that revealed the Savior – and turned it into a book of rules so that they could save themselves and show everyone else how righteous they were! Rather than receive the gift of the Savior whom the Scriptures promised, they instead turned God’s Word into a false religion where they were their own saviors.
What saved Lazarus? Why did he end up in the bosom of Abraham? To be in the bosom of Abraham means to be on the receiving end of God’s promises. God had promised to Abraham that he would be the father of nations, and that he would have a son born from his own body. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. St. Paul later writes that all who believe in Christ are sons of Abraham and heirs of the promise.
So what is the promise? The promise is that we cannot and do not have to save ourselves from sin and death; that God Himself will do it by sending His own Son in the flesh. Jesus, the Son of God, takes on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary who is of the line of Abraham. He is born into this world to fulfill the promises God made to Abraham by taking our sins upon Himself and dying for them on the cross. The promise of a Savior from Abraham’s family line is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His work of rescuing us from sin, death, devil and hell.
So for Lazarus to be in the bosom of Abraham means nothing other than that Lazarus is in Christ. We know this also because Lazarus has a name and the rich man doesn’t. To have a name given by God is to be baptized, born from above and named by God Himself as His own child.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you hate your neighbor? Do you hate your brothers and sisters in Christ? The simple fact is that if you see them in need and do nothing for them, you hate them. St. John tells us that much in his epistle. Maybe the Rich Man prayed for Lazarus. Maybe you pray for your neighbors and others in the church who need help. That’s good. But if you see a brother in need and you don’t help, then you are no neighbor. In fact, says, St. John, you are no Christian either.
I’ll bet the Rich Man in Jesus’ story was religious. He probably went to synagogue and maybe even gave lots of money. He probably made it very clear, as the Pharisees did, how much he believed in God and how hard he worked to obey the law and the commandments. And all the while Lazarus is having his sores licked by dogs out at the gate.
What about you? Do you actually love others with your words and actions or do you just talk like you do? Do you take what is given to you and hoard it in case you can’t make ends meet, or do you use what you have been given and look around for someone to help? If you don’t love a person you can see, how can you claim to love a God that you cannot see? That’s what St. John asks.
There’s loads of repentance right there, folks, for you and me together. It’s all well and good to say we “sympathize” and we are “thinking about” someone. But if we can help and we don’t, then what good are we? If you hang onto what you have in this life just so you can be “safe and secure,” then watch out! If you work hard to give yourself a good life, be very careful! Abraham’s rebuke of the rich man is a strong one: “you had your good things in life but now you are tormented!”
But here’s the real kicker! We all have enough to repent of when we fail to serve others. But when we do good works, then do we suppose that God is pleased with us? What if we take the things God has given us and do some good with them and then suppose that we’re pretty good Christians? This is what the Pharisees did: they took God’s Word as a guide to how they should live, and when they lived that way, they were proud of themselves. Then they could claim that if a man was poor, it was his own fault for not following God’s Law the right way.
That’s exactly what the TV preachers today tell you; that if you believe enough and are a good Christian with lots of faith, God will bless you and give you all kinds of goodies. In other words, such false faith doesn’t make an idol out of our earthly goods, it makes an idol out of God Himself, turning our heavenly Father into a big Mr. Money Bags who throws you all kinds of money and riches and things when you do good and live right and believe hard enough.
Dear friends, it is so easy to justify ourselves! Whenever some good comes along, we suppose we have earned it by our hard work and persistence. We conclude that God is blessing us because we’re good Christians. There is no end to our ability to take the good that comes to us as somehow an indication of how good we are. You know the saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s a terrible saying, not only because it is not in the Bible but because it is so exactly NOT how the Lord works! It assumes that you have to do your part before God does His. And if God needs you to do something before He works, then He is dependent on you! That’s a pretty pathetic God.
Brothers and sisters, we must learn to be as Lazarus, having nothing in this world: no claim on anyone, no rights, no riches, no claim on God. Lazarus had nothing in this world going for him. All he had was the Lord. All Lazarus had on the whole earth was faith and trust in God’s promises. And that certainly didn’t get him anything in this life, did it? But it did bring him to eternal life.
You and I need to learn that we have nothing but what the Lord gives us. Whether it’s our material goods or forgiveness and eternal life, everything is His gift to us. We must again confess that even if we have nothing in this life, we have His water and His Word, we have His Gospel, we have His absolution, we have Jesus’ body and blood.
Poor Lazarus begged for scraps from the rich man, but here, in Christ’s church, you have a feast laid before you – a feast that is your confidence and certainty against all suffering and misery in this life. Here you have a religion in which God doesn’t reward you for doing good but instead does not hold your evil against you. Here you have the Good News that you, who are often bad neighbors, are not cast into hell. And even better news, that you, who think you are such good neighbors, are not cast into hell!
Here in Christ’s church we poor beggars are laid at the gate of a Rich Man who does not ignore us; instead He brings us in, He heals us, He feeds us, He restores us and makes us members of His own house and kingdom! Here we have a Rich Man, Jesus Christ, who became poor for our sakes, so that by His poverty and misery and suffering and death, we might become far richer than anything on earth could make us!
Watch out, dear Christians! It’s easy to take the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as some kind of moral lesson about how being rich is bad and being poor makes you somehow more blessed in God’s sight. No. Rather, we learn repentance for taking anything God gives us and turning it into something that is only good for us, a false god and idol. And we learn faith in which we despise our own ability and worthiness and cling only to Jesus and all that He has done for us and gives to us.
Here we learn the repentance of despising God’s Word and learn to trust that Word which gives us Jesus. But we also learn that being in Christ means we are so free as to spend what is given to us for the good of others. And being free in Christ means most of all, dear children, that you are safe in the bosom of Abraham now and forever.
And that means that you are in Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.