June 10, 2007

Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity: Luke 16.19-31

Man was rich – but he gorged on food that made him poor.

This is the story of that first man, who ate food contrary to the command of God. He did so because he thought that by his taking, by his consumption, he would become as God. He sought to make himself rich and make himself God. He lost the riches that he had, and he lost God. He died and was buried.

The same story Jesus tells in today’s lesson. The emphasis falls on the first word in the Greek text: :Anqrwpoj: “Man.” “Man, a certain one, was rich.” That man is not named. He is you. You are the man. The story is a warning to you. Woe to you who trust in your possessions; woe to you who trust in your status; woe to you who trust in yourself.

The story is a warning to you. Your eternal outcome can be the exact opposite of what you expect. There is a hell, and you deserve to abide there forever in unending torment. Do you say, “But I have faith”? You can lose your faith. The Holy Spirit will depart from the man who says he has faith but rejects the life of faith. “He who loves God must love his brother also.”

The man who was rich called Abraham his father, trusting in his status as a Jew to save him. It did not. He was obsessed with what he possessed, but was “not rich toward God” [Lk. 12.21]. He used his gifts from God apart from God. For Lazarus, whose name he knew, he did not help. His true god is mammon—money and possessions. Mammon, Luther says in the Large Catechism, “is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.” He is joyful and secure right up to the moment he is in hell.

This sin of greed, the worship of mammon, is not isolated to the wealthy. The Large Catechism continues, “On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knows of no God.” For example, less wealthy people pursue possessions by borrowing and taking loans. Borrowing is not wrong if you have a reasonable certainty of being able to repay the loan; yet how often people borrow because they want to live beyond their means! Your approach to money is also unholy when your offerings are your leftovers and not your first-fruits. Release the fixation your heart has on money, for God wants “to turn us away from everything else that exists outside of Him and draw us to Himself” [Large Catechism].

The Church is the place for those who despair of themselves and all things. Lazarus has a life that would drive us to despair. He has some sort of paralysis or leg injury, because he cannot walk; he has to be carried to the gate outside the rich man’s house. His body festers with some kind of skin disease, and cannot even fend off the dogs who harass him. He is starving, but can see the rich man gorging.

Why is this happening? And why is the rich man rich? Both of them, rich man and Lazarus, are being tested. For both poverty and riches, sickness and health, bad times and good, are trials, tests. For the man who was rich, his wealth was his test. How would he use it? What god would he serve with his abundance?

For Lazarus, poverty, sickness, and indignity was his test. How would he use it? Would he curse God and lash out at the miserable people who cared nothing for him? Or would he trust God to keep His promises and redeem him from his miseries?

Notice that in their lives, the answer is never made clear. Both are hidden until the judgment. The rich man is never punished in this life. Lazarus is never shown mercy. The tests keep going right up to death. The outcome is only clear post-mortem.

The only clue, before their judgment, is the name that Jesus gives the poor man: Lazarus, which is a variant on the Hebrew Eliezar, meaning “My God helps.” By naming him thus, Jesus makes Lazarus one who lives with the faith of Job, who said, “Though [God] slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

We cannot know why suffering, or prosperity, comes. But how we use it makes it blessing or curse for us. The blessing of wealth becomes a curse for those whom it binds and destroys. Suffering and affliction is a curse that becomes a blessing if it drives us to Jesus. Even if we suffer on account of the sins we commit, that too is a blessing to us when it drives us to Jesus. God does His alien work—punishment and wrath—for the sake of His proper work: forgiveness and mercy.

On that verse from Job, “Though [God] slay me, yet will I trust Him,” Luther commented, “God has promised that He will be my God and Lord. If He wants to slay me with hunger, let Him do so by all means. I will hope in Him in spite of this.”

So our suffering should chase us to God; and the suffering of others should chase us to our neighbor. We are not so good at this in either case. With our own suffering, we grumble and complain; with the sufferings of others, we turn a blind eye, or simply write a check to clear our conscience. All of this is sin. All of this is death. And both of these men, Lazarus and rich man, we see end up in death.

But the death of the rich man carries him to hell, while at the death of Lazarus, angels carry him to the kingdom of God, pictured as reclining at table at the highest spot, next to Abraham. Why? Why does rich man go to hell, and Lazarus to heaven, at Abraham’s side? Abraham is the clue. Both rich man and Lazarus deserve hell; so do you. But Abraham, we heard earlier, believed the Lord, that is, he trusted God’s Word. And it was credited to him as righteousness.

That is what we call “justification,” credited with righteousness even though undeserving. Neither Abraham, nor Lazarus, achieve heaven by being better than others, by being sincere, by some religious activity. Believing what God says is what accounts for righteousness. What is this faith? “Faith is the forsaking of all that is not God or of God, and the seeking for and cleaving to God alone.” You see, faith is not knowing right answers, but a disposition that God Himself works in us. So “the greater the faith, the deeper the repentance” [Henry E. Jacobs].

The rich man doubtlessly believed in God’s existence; he probably went to the house of God regularly. But he, like his brothers, did not listen to Moses and the Prophets, taking their words to heart. He had faith, but not right faith, not repentance and trust in God’s mercy. If he had known anything of God’s mercy, he would have shown mercy on his neighbor.

Henry Jacobs said that contrition is “man’s aversion to sin.” Are you really contrite, are you really repentant, if you keep on willfully sinning? Does this frighten you? It should! That’s the point of this gospel lesson – take heed, for you are that rich man, bound for hell if you don’t wake up, repent, amend your ways and your doings.

Death is coming for you, at an hour you do not expect. Turn from your hypocrisy, awake from your slumber of sin before it is too late. But if these words frighten you and are burdensome, then take heart and be of good cheer, for Christ has died your death, was punished for your sins. Say with Lazarus, “My God helps”; and let today’s Introit be the antiphon of your life: “O Lord, I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.” Mercy, salvation, and help are yours in the Jesus who died and rose for you. Go in peace. XinjX

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