'Martin Luther's Last Words'- A Sermon
Dear friends in Christ: Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Are you the Rich Man, or are you Lazarus?
At first glance, the question of who represents you and me in this parable seems a straightforward one. And so does the answer. Jesus, after all, was telling this story to the Pharisees- to hardened hypocrites who thought that God owed them His blessing.
Most were probably better off than most in material things. But more to the point, they were the people who were made much of in Jewish society- the Teachers of the Law, the learned men who were the repository not only of God’s revelation, but of the cultural heritage of the Hebrew nation. These were the people to whom everyone looked up. These are the people with whom everyone was impressed- and the Pharisees themselves not least of all.
These were the people to whom one deferred in public, and whom it was good manners to treat as better than oneself. The Pharisees and the Sadducees may or may not have been men of great personal wealth. But few of them went hungry, and all were people of standing in the community.
Contrast the Pharisees with poor Lazarus. He lay there at the rich man’s gate, and the dogs were kind enough to lick his sores. The Rich Man himself probably didn’t even notice him. Jesus didn’t tell us whether he was sick, or simply really, really down on his luck. One thing, though, seems certain: he was undoubtedly someone people walking down the street steered a wide birth around.
We have people like Lazarus today. In fact, I saw one on Sixth and Euclid just this week, holding a sign that said, “Homeless Veteran. Please help.” Perhaps some did. But for the most part, most people- myself included- just tried not to notice that he was there. He represented a reality it was simply easier not to acknowledge.
And people must have felt the same way about Lazarus. No, we don’t know much about his life’s story, or how he got there by the rich man’s door. But hunger was only one of his problems. He must have struggled with depression, and with bitterness at his lot. And here, right in front of him, was a man who had all the comforts he lacked- and probably took them for granted.
Who was the better off? Which of these two men was truly blessed by God? God, as Martin Luther was fond of saying, works by opposites. He conceals His working behind a screen, if you will- sort of like the Wizard of Oz- that makes it difficult to see what He’s up to. But He does so, not to pretend, like the Wizard, to be something He’s not, but in order to work His good and gracious will in ways that we would never expect- and in ways which make it clear that it is He Who is responsible.
The two men die. One is in heaven. The other in hell. The one who had nothing now, and for all eternity, has everything. The one who has had an easy time of it in life now finds that he has lost everything. It’s not so much that being rich is a sin. Doubtless the rich man’s neglect of Lazarus was one manifestation of the reason for his eternal destiny, but the cause lies deeper than that.
In what did he trust, when the chips were down? In his wealth. In his power. In his influence. Jesus once said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. The reason isn’t that God isn’t offended by wealth. The reason is that those who can rely on other things tend to put their faith in them, and not in God.
But Lazarus didn’t have that problem. In fact, the very name Jesus picked out for him tells us something about the point He wanted to make with this parable. The name “Lazarus” means, “God is my help.”
We trust in many things in this life: a good job, a loving family, our 401K, our education and talents and abilities. All of these are great blessings. But then the economy collapses, our loved ones die or simply leave us, we suffer a stroke or disabling injury or perhaps the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. And it is then- and not in the good times, when everything is going smoothly- that we cry out to God. It is then, when we have nothing left to hold onto, that faith is tested, and stretched, and grows. It is then that we learn to trust in God.
In The Hammer of God, a novel by Bo Giertz, a sophisticated and highly-educated young curate is called from a party at the parsonage of the rector to call upon a dying man. It is the first such call he has ever made. And when he arrives, he finds to his surprise and horror that he has nothing to say to that man.
That man- like the rich man of the parable- is in torment. Looking back over his life, he sees only his sin. Despite a lifetime of struggling to live a Christian life, in the face of death he is brought face to face with how little his efforts have meant.
At last, a pious old neighbor woman happens by, and by the grace of God is able to do for that man what the ill-prepared young pastor is not: to point him, not to the very things he has trusted in all his life, and which now have failed him, but to the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world. The man tells the neighbor lady that he has struggled all his life in the vain pursuit of a pure heart. Why has God not given him one?
That young pastor had been pointing him to the broken reed of the Law throughout their conversation. He had been pointing out that despite his sins, he had been a better man than most. But the man knew his Bible too well for that. It was left to that old woman- uncalled, and by divine decree disqualified from the pastoral office- to do in this emergency- and with God’s blessingl what the called and ordained man cannot.
Why has God not given him a pure heart? Her answer is simple, biblical- and exactly the right answer. She does not burden him further with his own failure to trust in God’s grace. Instead, she points him to it. God has not given him a pure heart, she tells him, so that he might learn to love Jesus.
And so, through the Word spoken through this old woman, this would-be rich man, determined to enter the Kingdom through his own resources, was brought to see that in fact, he was Lazarus- and the man who moments before had believed himself about to be plunged into the depths of hell dies asking the pastor and his family and the old woman whether they can see the angels, too.
Luther’s last words- scrawled on a piece of paper when he no longer had the strength to speak- sum all of life up in six words: “We are beggars. This is true.” The Liberation Theologians of the ELCA to the contrary, the rich man’s problem was not that God loves the poor, and hates the rich. No- his problem was that he was blinded by his wealth to the fact that he was just as much a beggar as Lazarus was.
The Law’s second and most important use is to convince us of our poverty, and to drive us to Jesus. That’s why Abraham tells the rich man that the only help for his brothers is not the return of a spirit from beyond the grave, but Moses and the Prophets. The only hope any of us have is to realize that, when all is said and done, we are beggars.
“The cause of hell is never in such peril,” C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape writes to his nephew and fellow demon, “as when a follower of the Enemy looks out over a world from which every trace of Him seems to have disappeared- and still believes.” More to the point, it’s when the wheels fall off our lives and we have nothing but our faith in God to fall back upon, that faith is most possible. And sometimes it’s only then when it’s possible at all.
The world just doesn’t get it. Our own fallen natures just don’t get it. The preachers of the so-called “prosperity gospel” suggest that wealth and happiness and success are the marks of God’s favor. Common sense and our own flesh are quick to agree.
And yet the mark of God’s favor in fact is the cross. Jesus bore that cross to take away our sins. And He sends the cross into our lives to help us trust in His love, and not in the idols which make us feel secure.
So are we the Rich Man, or our we Lazarus? The only truthful answer is “Yes.” Our fallen natures, like the Rich Man, trust in earthly wealth and worldly power; in resources which may seem perfectly secure one moment, but vanish like the fog on a summer morning the next.
But when that happens, we are revealed to be Lazarus- just as the Rich Man, when it was too late for him, finally realized just how much he had in common with the beggar who lay at his gate all that while. We are thrown back upon God, and left in a situation in which if we’re going to hope, it has to be in Him.
And God is faithful. He is just as faithful to us as he was to Lazarus. He forgives us our sins, and bestows the riches of His grace to make up for our spiritual poverty. He cares for us in precisely the way and at precisely the time which He knows, in His wisdom, will be most helpful for us- not only here in time, but also in eternity.
And He does so, not by showing us with riches and earthly glory, but by doing us the unspeakable honor of sharing with us His own cross.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.