“Thinking he has everything, the rich man fails to see that he has nothing that matters” Trinity 1 2023

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11. June 2023

Trinity 1

Luke 16:19-31

He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man tells the story of two men. One of them has God as his master. The other is ruled by mammon. What is the worldview of both men? How do their attitudes toward God and mammon shape their lives in this world and the next? And thus, what is Jesus saying and giving to you?

The rich man is introduced first. He sports purple robes – the most expensive available. Moreover, he “dresses himself” every day in purple. He also wears high-quality Egyptian cotton used for expensive underwear. Nothing but the best for our man! But he has a problem. Why the inner need to “dress to the teeth” every day? His desire to impress the world with wealth and success is never fully satisfied.

As to food – he insists on sumptuous banquets – again – every day. Naturally, that means his staff is never given a day off! Due to their employer’s self-indulgence, they cannot observe Sabbath. Thus, the rich man weekly violates the Third Commandment, let alone the spoken law of the times, with its strict rules regarding sabbath observance! What then of Lazarus?

Lazarus is sick, unable to work, and without extended family to assume full responsibility for him. The community, however, respects him and does what it can.“At his, (the rich man’s) gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus.” The rich man is the only man in town with the resources to help Lazarus adequately. Thus Lazarus’ friends carry him daily to the ornamental gate at the entrance to the rich man’s garden. The rich man and his guests cannot miss seeing him. Perhaps they will help him? It is Lazarus’ best option. But does the game plan work?

Dogs in the Biblical and Rabbinic traditions are almost as unclean as pigs. Dogs are kept as guard dogs (Isaiah 56:10), never as pets. Only those who feed them dare approach them. A rich man needs such dogs because they are his “home security system.” The story assumes that the guard dogs are fed the scraps Lazarus longs to eat (cf. Matthew 15:27). Lazarus goes hungry. The dogs are fed.

Yet, those wild guard dogs, whom no one but their handlers dares approach, realize that the weak, sick man by the gate is their friend. They lick his wounds. The saliva of a dog’s mouth is sterile. The ancients discovered that healing occurs more rapidly when a dog licks a person’s sores or wounds. Archeologists in the Philistine capital of Aschelon uncovered a center where 1300 dogs are buried in individual plots. The site has been identified as a Phoenecian semi-religious center where the sick could go, pay a fee, and have trained dogs to lick their wounds as medical treatment. 

In this story, the master refuses to help the poor sick man outside his gate – but his wild guard dogs will do what they can. They will lick his wounds. Their master will not help Lazarus. They will. Lazarus’ quiet, gentle spirit breaks through their violent hostility to humans, and they care for him, knowing he cares for them.

Amazingly, throughout all of this, Lazarus is quiet. The New Testament has two words for patience. One refers to the patience of the weak and the suffering. The other defines the patience of the strong who have power over others. The first is the patience of the victim. The second is the patience of the victor. The weak who suffer need the ability to endure. The word is often translated as “long-suffering” and is the patience of the oppressed, who can do nothing about the hunger, hardship, and injustice they endure. This describes Mary at the cross and, humanly speaking, is seen in Jesus, who agonizes over enduring the cross while despising the shame. Jesus, like Lazarus, has no harsh words for the evil forces that swirl around him.

Then, like a clap of thunder, the drama quickly shifts. Lazarus dies and naturally has no funeral; he and his friends cannot afford one. But the angels are standing by to escort him to a banquet spread in his honor by the patriarch of the entire clan Abraham himself. At the feast, Lazarus “reclines on the chest” of Abraham (i.e., has the place of honor at the banquet table).

The rich man also dies and “is buried.” He had money. So he is given a funeral. No doubt it was a grand affair. But to his utter shock, the rich man ends up in Hades. This a classic “pearly gate story” that people can use to make astute political, ethical, and cultural comments on the ambiguities of life. The dramatic surprises continue. The rich man sees Lazarus, recognizes his face, and can call his name. Thus, he saw and even knew the sick man at his gate and chose to do nothing for him! But now the tables are turned!

The rich man sees Lazarus in a position of power at the right hand of Abraham and must make an abject apology to Lazarus, begging his forgiveness. But this is not what happens. He ignores Lazarus and addresses Abraham. Paraphrased, the rich man is saying: “Abraham, I am suffering. This is not what I am used to. When beggar types are hurting, it doesn’t matter – there is always something wrong with them. But for people like me, this is terrible, and something must be done about it- right now! I see that Lazarus is feeling better and is on his feet. Send him down with a nice cool drink.”

Unbelievable! At this point, the story should explode. Lazarus is expected to let the rich man “have it!” with every four-letter word in his vocabulary. Cleaned up, the gist of what he is expected to say is as follows: “You no-good half-dead dog – you want me to serve you? You can’t be serious! Where were you when I was hurting? You fed your dogs but wouldn’t feed me. I longed to eat the scraps you threw to them – but no – I WASN’T WORTH IT TO YOU!! Abraham! Leave this monstrous ego to fry in hell. What he’s suffering is less than half of what he deserves!”

But Lazarus remains quiet. In his day of power at Abraham’s side, he has no vengeance to exact. On earth, each day for Lazarus was a journey of faith. Like Abraham, he went out daily, not knowing where he was going. Here, Lazarus exhibits the other New Testament form of patience, makrothumea. This later virtue describes the ability to put anger far away in the day of power. God was his master. His name was Lazarus – the one whom God helps. Only with the help of God are hupomone (long-suffering) and makrothumea (putting anger far away) possible.

At the end of the story, the rich man retains his pride, his total self-centeredness, and his indifference to any suffering other than his own. He recognizes the resurrected Lazarus, but doing so makes no impression on him. Thus, his claim that such a vision will bring his brothers to repentance is hollow and vain. Mammon continues to rule his life. At the end of the day, the parable offers a profound insight into the ambiguity of possessions. While they have an indispensable potential for good, possessions can also create and feed self-aggrandizement and, in the process, dull sensitivities to both the rights (the servants) and the needs (Lazarus) of others. 

The root problem Jesus gives explicitly is, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” Without the indictment of God’s Law and the daily, rich forgiveness of Jesus, we’d be just as selfish and dead as the rich man. The Bible clearly shows that material possessions belong to God, not humans. What we do with our possessions profoundly influences every area of our lives in this world and the next. 

What the rich man did with his mammon colored, shaped, and finally destroyed him. Like an alcoholic, he was unaware of his self-destructive behavior even after its bitter conclusion. What Lazarus was able to do without mammon becomes an inspiration for all. Why? Because mammon cannot save you from sin, cannot resurrect you from the dead, and cannot give you life that lasts forever. Thinking he has everything, the rich man fails to see that he has nothing that matters. 

But faith in the God of Abraham can and does save you. Faith trusts God the Father, who gives everything needed for body and life. Faith trusts in Jesus Christ through His suffering and death, he has opened heaven to all who believe in Him. And that faith believes because the Spirit has worked it in your heart. And trusting, you are given to be long-suffering amid all pain, difficulty, loss, and even death. And trusting, you are given to put away all anger towards those who have much and those who have little and depend on you. 

What is the world to me with all its vaunted pleasures? Jesus, your priceless treasure, has already overcome sin, death, and the devil for you. He gives you now, in this place and at this very moment, the spoils of His victory—your forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation. 

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin

I am indebted to an article by Kenneth Bailey for the historical content.