Sermon on Luke 16:19 – 31 (by Martin Damašek)

Dear brothers and sisters,

the narrative of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the greatest and strongest texts that are out there and that run to us and after us and that do not leave us untouched. Every time I read it, I get chills but at the same time deep and profound assurance and comfort. And interestingly, the morally radical story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is seldom misused for some of the social utopia that are out there in the world, perhaps because it involves in itself the unpleasant goose bumps and a certain heaviness.   

The Rich Man and Lazarus in Christ´s narrative in an intensive and serious way show and testify to us what is life and what is man´s position in life.

In a way, life is a time and a chance in which we have a certain relation to God (and remember, not to have any positive one is a relation as well), a relation to God, to others and to the world in two essentially very different ways that have two very different consequences. The uncompromising consequences of the two different ways result from the heavy and terrible judgment of the law: The Rich Man rightly deserves the torment for his heartlessness and breaking the commandment of “love thy neighbor”. Lazarus is a different story and I will dwell with him later on.  For now, let us ready the text slowly and seriously and take it personally to ourselves:  Justice and righteousness are served in a perfect way for the Rich Man!  As Augustine says “Proud in the world, in hell a beggar.” There is no “way between”.  The Rich Man is condemned by the law, because in his heartlessness, he neglects his neighbor and the commandment to love, he is crushed by the law’s condemnation to hell and torment. That is it! The deal is done! Nothing more, nothing less! The law convicts and serves in a perfect and complete way – with perfect, complete and eternal consequences.  And it probably is this sense of the terrible hammer of the law that makes the narrative so humanly serious and why it is not usually misused for a cheap “social justice” chatter. Rather, it is usually approached with chills or humble fear and trembling.   

We must not slip to the other seduction. We should be at guard against any theology of glory or prosperity and against false “salvation” in works that leads to nervous and proud activism. Tragically enough, this sort of activism of “self-salvation” does not stop even at the life of a brother as we have seen in so many revolutions.

Neither, should we slip into the stinky self-deception of moralism. Clearly, Lazarus, the beggar, found favor of the Lord, not the Rich and successful man. But how many times do we, ourselves, want exactly the same as the Rich Man? How often do we, ourselves, want and wish to become rich, powerful and arrogant to the extent, so that we are not aware of God´s gifts of bread, housing, clothing and friends so we waste them in pointless partying like the Rich Man?! We want to become something so we get recognized by the world and in the world, but in the kingdom that is not from this world, Christ warns us of the Great Reversal: To become nobody, like begging Lazarus, is to receive everything, namely eternal life and the most privileged place at the side of Father Abraham.

While the Rich Man is a deviated and lost man crushed by the law, Lazarus is a Christian, a saved man. Why is he saved? He does not get to Abraham´s side for fulfilling the law. Note, in the narrative, Lazarus is so unfortunate, so crippled, so poor, and so sorrowful that he is not able to actively do much to fulfill the law or to earn his salvation. Quite the other way around.  He may be easily provoked to hate the whole world and to be so resentful and desperate to turn his back to God. How close is Lazarus to our every-day experience when we, ourselves get desperate! Note, how close Lazarus and with him, we, ourselves, are close to breaking the commandment to love and to being condemned by the law! Then, why Lazarus? Why is it he  who gets to the side of Abraham in heaven? He was totally neglected, his only hope and source of life was to beg and hope – to trust that he will be provided for…“…give us our daily bread…”, we are taught to pray. And when he died, he was not merely buried like the Rich Man, but a help appeared – he was carried by the angels to Abraham´s side. Not the law or any of his not possible merits but by being poor in spirit, that is, humble, knowing and living in a way he cannot help himself. When living as a beggar who could not even chase away the harassing dogs (what a humiliation, being even a sub-human by being an object for the beasts), he was trusting in a free daily bread provided for and was carried to haven by merciful acceptance after his death. Clearly, Lazarus is the “one whom God helps”.

What is there left then? There is no pass through from the Rich Man to Lazarus or the other way around. What then? Well, the Rich Man did not become poor in spirit, that is, humble, even in the middle of his torment. He tried to boss Lazarus around once again. In vain! Then, he showed at least some interest in his brothers who are still alive and wanted a sign. But the rich man resembles some much ourselves in relying on a sign and underestimating human stubbornness. There is no need for any sign.  Men will be stubborn even if God raises somebody from the dead (as He has in John 11). Rather, God´s mercy to save is here with us already and is sufficient. It is the saving power of the Word of God about the Gospel of Jesus Christ who came to rescue us and to redeem us by His blood shed on the cross. And this Word of the saving Gospel is to be preached and heard so we can all be men “whom God helps” at Abraham´s side forever.