Which One Would You Rather Be?
Which of the two men in our Gospel reading would you rather be? It’s a haunting question. Surely you’d rather be the rich man, and receive and enjoy your good things in your lifetime, right? Certainly none of us would want to be like Lazarus’ in this life, would we—poor, covered with sores, eating only scraps, dogs licking our sores? But then consider how each one ended up. Certainly, no one would choose to be in the rich man’s shoes in the next life, “being in torment” and “in anguish” for eternity. No, it would be much better to be in Lazarus’ eternal shoes—carried to Abraham’s side and comforted forever. Hard question, isn’t it?
Or think about it this way. How would you write the epitaph for these men after they died? Based on Jesus’ story, here’s what we could write for the rich man: “He liked nice clothes and good food.” Talk about shallow! And here’s the epitaph we could write for Lazarus: “Oh, how he suffered!” Certainly not shallow, but also nothing glorious, noble, or memorable.
So, which of these two men before us today would you rather be—the rich man or Lazarus? And, no, choosing the rich man’s earthly life now and Lazarus’ eternal life then is not an option. Sorry, can’t eat our cake and then have it too! Which of these men would you rather be? To answer that, you might want to remember that Jesus’ story is not about the evils of wealth and riches, nor is it about some odd but noble virtue of intentionally putting yourself under the wheels of life and saying, “Please, run over me!” No, Jesus’ story before us today draws our attention to faith in Him, the eternal Son of God.
Nils Jakob Laache was a Lutheran Bishop at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. In his Book of Family Prayer Bishop Laache wrote a great little devotion for today’s Gospel reading. Here’s what he said about the rich man:
“‘It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mat 19:23). Not that the rich man is condemned because he is rich, but rich people are so severely tempted to worldliness and unbelief. The rich man in our Gospel was unfortunate because he was unbelieving, worldly, and self-righteous. His life is summed up in few, but very significant words: ‘He was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.” Then we hear that “in his lifetime he received his good things,” that he did not acknowledge God’s Word as necessary for salvation and did not understand that faith is the way to life. If you strive for earthly things and think that salvation inevitably belongs to you and all decent people, then you are the rich man’s partner, whether you have much or little in the world” (398-99, emphasis his).
Sure hits close to home, doesn’t it? If you strive for earthly things—things such as the nice clothing and the best food, things such as the esteem and popularity in the eyes of others, things such as the latest goodies from cell phones to home entertainment—if you strive for these things, yes, you are the rich man’s partner.
In fact, let’s be honest and say that we all are the rich man’s partner. We may not be “clothed in purple and fine linen,” but we do have our pretty nice wardrobes. We cannot imagine wearing the same set of clothes day after day. Not only would the aroma get, well, a little ripe, but we just don’t want to be seen wearing the same thing every day. After all, that would be boring. And what about that habit that so many of us have of organizing our garments into “winter clothes” and “summer clothes,” if not one set for each of the four seasons. Yes, we have received our good things in life.
And let’s be honest. We do feast sumptuously every day. No, we may not dine on the richest of fare, but most of us really do not suffer from lack of food. Just think of how easy it is to get food. If the cupboard does become bare, we can easily go through the drive-thru at McDonald’s or Burger King or take something to go from Bread Co. or some other place of our choosing. As one friend’s mom would say, “We don’t wait until we’re hungry to eat; we eat so that we won’t be hungry.” Yes, we have received our good things in life.
For the rich man and for us, the problem is not in the clothing and food. The problem comes in where we place our trust, where we look for good, comfort, and blessing. My, how we look to the “good things” we can receive in this life! But that did not help the rich man in eternity, nor will it help us.
The poor man, Lazarus, gives us a different picture. And let’s remember that Lazarus does not attain heavenly life because he was poor. No, Lazarus shows us the necessity and virtue of faith. Here’s what Bishop Laache said about Lazarus:
“Poverty and sickness press hard, and no one is saved merely because he suffers here on earth. But these things can help us to hear God’s Word and turn our hearts away from the world. Lazarus was not saved as a reward for his suffering, but he inherited life, because he believed in the Lord. We learn this from the name ‘Lazarus’ which means one who trusts in God, and, besides, we hear that he is at home in the bosom of Abraham—Abraham, ‘the father of believers’—and that he did not seek his goods in earthly life. You are no ‘Lazarus’ and are not saved—even though you suffer ever so much on earth—unless you believe from the heart, suffer as a Christian, and have your treasure in heaven. But if you do this, your suffering is blessed and your tears are sown for a rich harvest” (399, emphasis his).
It’s no accident that Lazarus ends up side by side with Abraham. After all, Abraham is the “father of faith.” In fact, today’s Old Testament story about Abraham believing and being counted righteous is the first time that faith is explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Abraham trusted his Savior to deliver him and give him an heir. Lazarus trusted his Savior to deliver him from poverty and sores, and give him an heavenly inheritance.
That’s what our Lord calls us to do here today: trust Him above all things; trust Him for deliverance from whatever we may suffer, even if that deliverance comes only in eternity. You see, our Lord Jesus Christ is the true Lazarus. He is the one who did not set his hopes on worldly gain and wealth, but rather had no place to lay His head. He is the one who was left outside the gate of the world’s niceties. He was also taken outside the gate of His own holy city to be nailed to a tree. And on that cross He did not have dogs licking His sores, but He did have people wagging their tongues against Him. But this Jesus, whom our sins of greed and coveting crucified, is also the One whom we hear in Moses and the Prophets. He is the One who does indeed rise from the dead to tell us there is a better way than trusting nice clothes and good food. He is the One who gives us life now, in the midst of our sufferings and poverty. He is the one who brings us to Abraham’s side where we may be comforted both now and forever. As St. Paul said: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
And, dear friends, as we trust our Savior God who loves us enough to rescue us from trusting our good things in this life, we also learn to love our neighbor—every Lazarus whom God puts outside our gate. As St. John tells us today in the Epistle reading: “We love because He first loved us.” Instead of using our good things in life solely for ourselves, we get to use the good things given by God to help and serve the people around us.
So, which of the two men in Jesus’ story would you rather be? Perhaps Proverbs 8(:10-11) can help with that. Wisdom, personified in the Son of God, says: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” Dear friends, our Wisdom, our Lazarus, our Savior, comes to us today in His Body and Blood. Let’s take, eat, and drink, for here is the true sumptuous feast. Here we learn to trust our Savior and love our neighbor. Here we learn to be like Lazarus and rejoice in our Savior’s deliverance. Amen.