Listen to him! | Luke 16:19-31
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
(2 Corinthians 8:9)
Money talks. You’ve heard the expression before. It means that money has persuading power. Sure, it can buy you stuff at the store or from amazon.com, but money can also buy you access and influence. A well placed $20 to the hostess can get you a table at a crowded restaurant (though, I’ve never tried that…but if movies are to be believed…). Or, as we recently learned on the national news, if you have a whole lot more than $20, you might be able to get your kid into a prestigious university (though that one doesn’t seem to be going well for those who tried it). Money talks, and maybe what matters more for our purposes is that people listen to it. Money talks, and it tells you something about yourself and the person next to you. It becomes an easy measuring stick for our life’s value; when net worth becomes life worth. So, we see the neighbor with a boat so big it won’t fit into his three car garage, and we think, “He’s got a good life.” Money talks. We drive to the other side of town and see dilapidated houses and unemployed residents unable to make ends meet, and we think “They’ve got a bad life.” Money, or lack thereof, talks. But isn’t that all relative? I mean, you might look at Person A and determine Person A has a bad life, but Person A might look at Person B and be convinced he doesn’t have it so bad after all. That green paper in your pocket with pictures of pale white guys on it is always talking, and what’s more, people are always listening to it.
If it’s true that “money talks,” then by all outward appearances, the two lives of the two men we hear about in our gospel lesson speak volumes. There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. Lots of people in Manhattan, KS are clothed in purple every single day, and nobody thinks a thing of it. But back then, having a purple garment didn’t mean grabbing one for $8 off the rack at Walmart. It meant squeezing thousands upon thousands of little shellfish just to get enough dye to color one garment. Labor intensive doesn’t seem to cover it. This was labor insanity just to prove a point. It would be like wearing a jacket made out of $100 bills. It doesn’t keep you warmer, but everyone who sees it would know something about you. But wardrobe wasn’t this man’s only nicety. He lived in luxury every day, more literally, he celebrated sumptuously every single day. Every day of this guy’s life was a party, and you don’t get the impression that the menu included mac ‘n cheese and peanut butter and jelly. Money talks, and this guy’s life was telling quite the story! There’s the rich guy – and then there’s Lazarus. You remember him, don’t you? Deposited at the gate of the rich man – probably for two reasons – first it seems he wasn’t physically able to walk there himself, and secondly maybe, just maybe the rich man and his friends would slide a little something out for this beggar. Pathetic hardly seems the right word. Laid up, not clothed in purple, but covered in boils and sores, so hungry he longed not for food on the table, but for just a portion of what fell off of it, so weak and frail that he couldn’t even keep the packs of wild dogs from licking up whatever pussed out of his open wounds. If money talks, and if that’s the metric for what it means to have a good life or a crummy life… Whose life was good and whose life was crummy? Well, look no further than the guy who wanted to eat crumbs!
That’s what our eyes tell us, but your eyes can deceive you, and they often do especially when it comes to categories like “good and bad,” or “blessed and cursed,” or “loved by God and forgotten by God.” If you heard just those first verses of Jesus’ story, who would you say was living a good life? Who would you perceive to be blessed? Which one would your eyes tell you, was clearly loved by God? Well, of course, it would be the one who was clothed, fed, and happy with life, right? But your eyes deceive you. Here is where Jesus’ story starts again; The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. Death is no respecter of persons – rich or poor. And then what happened? The angels carried [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side. No more suffering, no more hunger, no more want, just the loving embrace of God’s eternal presence. The one who had to be carried to his begging spot was now carried by angels to heaven. The guy whose stomach grumbled for even a few crumbs was now filled with every good thing. Now there was peace. But there were two guys in this story, weren’t there? The rich man also died and was buried. But six feet under is not where his downward trek stopped. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ No more fine clothes, because the unquenchable flames had burned them away. No more of the finest food and choicest wine, because now he would give anything just to have a single drop of water to soothe his agony for a millisecond. The poor beggar who suffered so greatly on earth goes to heaven, while the rich man whose life on earth was a party ends up in hell. That’s the story.
Every story Jesus tells is meant to teach us something. So, what’s this one all about? Well, its purpose is not really to teach us about the eternal afterlife; heaven and hell. We hear about them here, but we have a lot of other passages of Scripture to teach us more clearly about that. And it’s not really even about helping the poor, though we certainly do see the rich man’s neglect of his neighbor’s need. We have plenty of other Scripture to point us in that direction. So, what is Jesus getting at? If he’s not giving us a treatise on the reality of heaven and hell and he’s not advocating for a socialistic redistribution of wealth, what’s his point? Money talks, and here, Jesus talks money. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Jesus sure does talk about money an awful lot. Why? Because he knows that money can always get our attention, but his greater goal is to show us that it should never get our attachment. Here’s the point: money talks, but so does your Savior. So, whose voice will you listen to?
I think we get to the point when we hear the discussion between the agonizing rich man in hell and Abraham in heaven. ‘I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ ‘He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ Did you notice what the rich man called Abraham? “Father Abraham!” He was a fellow Jew, and not only one ethnically, but apparently was raised to know who Father Abraham was – the one through whom the Savior of the world would come! This rich man knew who Abraham was, and you can bet he learned about the salvation God promised through Abraham’s descendant, but now the rich man was suffering in hell. What gives? At some point, he stopped listening to the word of God’s promise and started listening only to his wealth and pleasure. As he grew up, he grew apart from God. As he accumulated many earthly treasures, he had to make room so he jettisoned the promise of heavenly treasure. His eyes told him that all his earthly wealth would provide him with all the security he’d ever need. But his eyes deceived him. The rich man’s money talked. He listened to it. He put his trust in it. He abandoned the word and promise of God, and he ended up in hell.
Money talks, and so does your Savior. So which voice are you listening to? It doesn’t really matter how much money or stuff you have. What matters is how much of a hold your money has on you. This is the temptation no matter where you fall on the economic spectrum, isn’t it? The poor wish they were rich, the middle class is lamenting its disappearing spot between poor and rich, and the rich are worried about staying rich and not becoming poor! It doesn’t matter how much money you have or don’t have, because this is not a financial problem. It’s a problem with this sinful heart that wants to fear, love, and trust in anything other than the word and promise of God. Money talks, and too often we listen. Your neighbor’s new car talks. Your brother-in-law’s enormous house talks. Your coworker’s extra week of vacation talks. And we listen! What do all those things tell you? What muffled sermon is the wallet in your pocket preaching right now? With a little bit more of me, you’ll be happy. With just a bit more of this, you know you’ll be safe. And so we fear, love, and trust in the gift and don’t take too seriously the promise of the Giver.
This was the rich man’s problem in life and in death. He thought the word and promise of God wouldn’t do the trick. That’s why he abandoned them in favor of wealth. That’s why he wanted Abraham to send someone back from the dead to preach to his brothers. He figured the word of God wasn’t enough. But Lazarus knew differently, and by the Spirit’s grace, so do you. Because someone did rise from the dead to bring you a word from God. His name was Jesus, and he did that so you could know without a shadow of a doubt that your sins are forgiven, and that when the time comes, his holy angels will carry you to his eternal embrace. That’s the promise he fulfilled by dying on the cross to pay for our every sin of loving gifts more than the Giver, and rising from the dead so he could speak a word of forgiveness and life just to you. Listen to him! Because he’s still speaking! In the water and word of your baptism, Jesus delivered you from death and hell, and parked you right at his side for all eternity. In the bread and wine, Jesus gives you the priceless gift of heaven – his own body and blood – for the forgiveness of your sins. And, grace upon grace, he doesn’t leave it at that – he sends a mouthpiece into your world to stand before you and proclaim a promise into your ear: In the stead of and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins. In his grace, Jesus sends proclaimers into your world who handle the priceless treasures of heaven and whose job it is to give them to you! That’s where real wealth is found.
Real wealth is found in heavenly treasure. This story is usually called “The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus,” but which of them was rich? Maybe we should flip it to, “The parable of the poor man and Lazarus.” At first glance, your eyes see what is obvious – there’s Lazarus, poor, lonely, hungry, naked Lazarus. But instead of looking, you should listen, and what do you hear? That Lazarus is the one who is wealthy beyond compare because through faith he holds the promise of free forgiveness from God’s Messiah. This is your good news, too. Real wealth is found in heavenly treasure. Sometimes, that sounds a little bit “pie in the sky.” Kind of like it doesn’t really matter how bad you have it on earth, because you have heaven to look forward to! That’s true enough, but I think if we look at it that way, we’re selling God’s gifts short. The promise of eternal treasure opens up a world of comfort for us right now, as we live in this world. You’ve been set free from sin, from accusation, from guilt, from reliance on the things of this world. In the gospel, straight to you, Jesus lets you know that he has a crown of life waiting for you – a treasure that not even death can take away. Money talks, and can’t promise a thing. Jesus died and rose to make you a promise that he’ll never break. Listen to him!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
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