Genesis 15:1-6; 1 John 4:16-21; Luke 16:19-31
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
“Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.” Abram was an aging man; his wife was past menopause and childless. But the Word of the Lord came to Him with the promise that, nonetheless, His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that one of His seed would bring blessing to all the nations. Against all the evidence to the contrary, Abram did not stumble in doubt; he believed. He knew that God was not only powerful enough to carry out His Word–even though Abram didn’t have the first clue how He would do it–but that God was gracious and faithful to bring forth the One who would be the Redeemer of all nations. By that trust in the promise, God counted Abram as righteous, not by works but by faith. God’s ways don’t change. They are the same today as they were in the Old Testament. Faith alone saves.
However, such faith is never alone. In the Epistle John wrote: “This commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must love his brother also.” (1 John 4:21) No one should comfort himself that he shares the faith of Abraham if he is without love toward the brother. Faith alone makes us right with God; but such faith is never alone; it is always accompanied by the fruits of the faith, the works of love.
Did the rich man in the Gospel reading have faith? He surely must have thought of himself as trusting in God. In the torments of hell he calls Abraham his father, and Abraham even calls him “son.” But the fact that the rich man’s faith was a sham is revealed by two things. First of all, it is clearly implied by the Gospel that he walked right by the poor beggar Lazarus without paying him any attention or giving him anything–Lazarus who was pitied only by the neighborhood dogs who alleviated his suffering by licking his sores. What sort of faith is that–that a man has less pity than a dog? But he not only walked by, he feasted just a short distance from Lazarus, and poor Lazarus would gladly have joined the dogs to lick up the crumbs from under the table. How could we say that the rich man had faith?
It is very likely that the rich man rarely missed the opportunity to attend the Synagogue. He might even have had a special seat of honor–the pillars of the community often did. But when Moses and the prophets were read aloud in the Synagogue, he listened but did not take them to heart. He did not let the words sink into him and reduce him to fear. He did not realize that God meant exactly what he said: “Cursed is he who does not continue in all that is written in the book of the law to do it.” To him it was just a nice break during the week, or maybe it was simply a necessary social obligation he had to fulfill. Whatever. He came and listened, but without heeding. And so he was a man without the faith of Abraham, the faith which alone is counted for righteousness, the faith which is never alone, but always breaks forth into deeds of love for the neighbor.
And here’s the second way we can know the rich man didn’t have faith. When he is in torment in hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back as a warning to his five living brothers, and Abraham responds that they have Moses and the prophets, the Scriptures, and they need to listen to them. But the rich man dismisses such a thought. “No, father Abraham,” he pleads, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” You see, even in hell, unbelievers like the rich man despise the Word. They don’t think it has enough power, and they want something else and something more. Miracles, signs, anything. But they don’t think the Word of God is enough.
Abraham, though, is no unbeliever. He knows the power of the promises of God, the might of God’s Word. That Word called him from unbelief to faith. That Word brought him from death to life. That Word gave him a child and through that child the promise of the Messiah who would bring blessing to all. That Word sustained him all the days of his pilgrimage. That Word kept him humble before God so he never trusted in his own deeds, and yet that Word made him fruitful in good works. Abraham was well known for his hospitality. The Word worked this love in him. It was a Word that brought Him joy in the end. It was not a Word to be despised. So he says to the rich man here: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” Miracles don’t work faith; only the Word does that.
So here we sit, richer in the Word than they were. For God has given us the witness of Apostles and Evangelists to add to Moses and the Prophets. We do not merely have the foretelling of the One who would bring blessing to all. We know His story! We know how He came to us who could not get to Him. We know how He shouldered the burden of our sin and carried it to death on the tree. We know how the Father raised Him from the dead and glorified His body with a life that never ends. We know that sharing that life is what the Word of God is spoken to us for. We know He has a baptism that robes us in righteousness and glory. We know that He spreads a table where we may eat a divine food that yields eternal life. The riches are laid out every week.
But are any of us sometimes like the Rich Man? Do we merely hear but do not truly receive the Word that is spoken? Do we doubt its power and instead wish for and look for something more–miracles and signs, impressive performance, something more to really do the job? Or how many of us ignore the particular people God lays at our gate? And would we like a public comparison of what we give in charity and offerings vs. what we spend on our own entertainment and eating out? Or a comparison of the amount of time we spend teaching our children sports vs. teaching them God’s Word, or in recreation vs. in prayer and Bible study? Mere historical knowledge of Bible facts is useless on the day of judgment; it is not what God reckons to anyone as righteousness. As James points out, even the demons believe like that!
What should a person do who wonders if he is like the rich man and his brothers? Abraham points the way. He doesn’t tell you to get busy showing love in your life as though deeds of love are what brings faith alive. No. He tells you to listen to the Scriptures; listen to what the Word of God says. Take it to heart. For the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word.” (Is 66:2) Humbly receive the Word which does its work on you. If the words of God which you have heard cut you to the heart and make you tremble, that is good, for the Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those who have a contrite spirit. To be aware of your sin and to be brought to repentance is the working of the Holy Spirit within you.
Even more so, the working of the Holy Spirit is to bring you to faith in Christ Jesus. In the ministry of the Word, the Spirit is always pointing to the Word made flesh who sacrificed His flesh to save you and to win your forgiveness. The phrase “Moses and the Prophets” should call to mind the time later in this same Gospel when Jesus was walking on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples. There it is written that “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” To believe that Moses and Prophets aren’t enough is to believe that Jesus isn’t enough. But through the Holy Spirit you have been brought to believe that Jesus is more than enough, that He is everything for your faith. From that faith love will come–for faith lays hold of the Word, and the Word is God Himself, who is Love.
We see that love of God most clearly in the fact that He made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us in Jesus. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him. Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet. And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . . And by His wounds we are healed.” Though Jesus was despised by the rich and the powerful of His day, yet the blood that flowed from His wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.
The name Lazarus is the Greek way of saying the name “Eliezer” that we heard in the OT reading. Eli means “my God” and ezer means “help.” My God is Help–Lazarus. Despite his miserable condition in this life, Lazarus trusted in God’s promises, like Abraham his father. He believed Moses and the Prophets and in the Messiah they foretold. He believed in Jesus. By that faith alone He was saved and comforted and granted perfect life without end in God’s presence.
Let us all take our place with Lazarus, then, and trust in God alone as our Help. He has helped you most fully and completely in His Son. Where you have fallen short and failed to love, hear and believe the Word of God that you are forgiven; you are cleansed and holy and put right with God again through the cross of Christ. Receive Him who is perfect love in Holy Communion, let this salutary gift of Christ’s own body and blood strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another and the Lazaruses at your gates. In such faith, trusting solely in what Christ has done for you, you can indeed be confident of dying a blessed death and being welcomed to the Feast that never ends with Lazarus, Abraham, and all the saints and angels in the Kingdom of the Father. To Him with the Son and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor and praise, now and forever. Amen.
(With thanks to the Rev. William Weedon for much of the above.)