June 18, 2017 A+D
St. Luke 16: 19-31
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Twice in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” When Luther on his deathbed famously says: “We are all beggars,” he is not being merely descriptive. He is also being proscriptive. This is what we must be if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God.
What is exalted among men, wealth and success and status, is an abomination in the sight of God and that which is despised by men, humility, is loved by God.
We often use the word humility to mean the same thing as modesty. Men love modesty but they hate humility. Modesty means not bragging or showing off. When a person shows off his body and uses sexuality to get attention he is being immodest. So also when a person drops names or dominates a conversation or comes late, he is being immodest, that is inconsiderate of other people and elevating himself. Modesty is a virtue like gratitude and it is not something that men hate.
In the Bible, to be humble means to be poor, lowly, and oppressed. Humility is an objective reality. For the most part it describes a social situation based upon material things and health. The Greeks use this word only in a negative sense. They hate it. They don’t want to be poor or weak or slaves. They respect, admire, and love modesty even as they respect, admire, and love strength, beauty, and power.
The Bible, of course, does use the word humility in a positive sense. It does this as a contrast to the world’s view of things, not so much because it is a virtue to be poor and weak, but because it is a virtue to be dependent upon God, to wait upon and trust in His mercy and not in one’s own power or status or wealth.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man condemns what is our hearts. We are all lovers of money, of power, of prestige. We all shrink away from those who are mentally ill, who smell, or who want our stuff. We all love, in part, the wrong things and therefore we are all in danger, according to our flesh, of going the way of the rich man. The parable calls us to be humbled like Lazarus, like Israel in the desert, like Jesus on the cross, and to live by God’s mercy. Again and again, God promises to save the humble, to hear the humble, to lead and teach and exalt the humble and He also threatens damnation to the proud and those who love money.
That is a hard preaching of the Law and it is a good thing if it scares you some because you need to take it seriously. The Law and the Prophets have not been voided by the Gospel.. Not one dot will pass away from them. If a man will not hear them, if he will not humble himself to be rebuked and instructed by them, then he will not believe in Christ even if someone rises from the dead because they all testify of Christ.
All of this is illustrated in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is humble and has nothing in which to boast, nothing to offer to God. He is poor and weak. The rich man is delusional. He thinks that his wealth is a sign of God’s favor, but what is in his heart is an abomination to God. So Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom without merit, by grace while the rich man goes to Hell by his own works.
The name Lazarus means mercy. This whole parable might well be a play on the relationship of Eleizer, the servant of Abraham, to Abraham and to the God of Abraham. In Genesis 15 Abraham challenges God because he has no heirs. His inheritance is set to pass to Eliezer. God intervenes. Though Abraham is old and Sarah is barren, God will reverse their fortunes and provide an heir. Following on the heels of that promise comes circumcision and then Isaac. That laughing little boy is the beginning of the fulfillment. He will not be sacrificed but will be spared and the lamb caught in the thicket will die in his place. Through Isaac, son of Abraham, God will provide the Messiah and a people as numerous as the stars. Those people, the sons and daughters of Abraham, will be spared for the Messiah will die in their place. Thus Abraham is the progenitor of Israel, of God’s people, and not Eliezer. The descendants of Eliezer will be Gentiles and God says of Eliezer, “This man shall not be your heir.”
In much the way that the names Jonathan and John are related in English, so it is that Lazarus and Eliezer are forms of the same name. They are derived from the word mercy. In the parable, the beggar Lazarus is outside the gates of the rich man. The rich man seems to be Abraham’s heir. He is of the blood of Abraham. He is wealthy and successful as Abraham was. When the rich man assumes that Lazarus is Abraham’s servant it may be that he recognizes the name Eliezer in it. Yet it is Lazarus who goes to Abraham’s bosom and not the perceived descendent of Abraham, the one with lineage back to Isaac. The true sons of Abraham aren’t those with the right DNA but those with the faith and hope of Abraham, those who live by the mercy of the Messiah.
Abraham was saved by grace, not by birthright. He wasn’t morally superior to or more clever than Eliezer nor was he a Jew. Jewish people didn’t exist. At the time of Genesis 15, he was lowly and despised because he couldn’t produce heirs. In the ages before ours, when children were loved and fathers were truly honored, the more children a man had the more manly he was considered and the more respected he was. Without children, Abraham was less than a man, almost effeminate. Abraham was humble. That is underneath his complaint. He wants children not just because children bring joy but also because children bring stability and longevity. He has no reason to expect children at his age. But God tells Abraham that He will intervene and keep His Word. Abraham believes and it is reckoned to him as righteous. He believes that God will do what He says – not merely to reverse Abraham’s fortunes, but provide a Messiah and salvation. He believes that God will be good to him and love him and his descendants.
The only way that Abraham’s children can be as numerous as God promises is if the promise is for more than the blood relatives of Abraham. Ethnic Jews don’t number like the stars. So it is that Eliezer and Lazarus, like Abraham, get in by God’s mercy. Christ opens the kingdom to all believers – even to Gentiles and He makes of them sons of Abraham, heirs of the Kingdom of God. We are the sons and daughters of Abraham along with Lazarus and Eliezer. And since none of us ever die, because whoever believes in Jesus lives, we are, in fact, like the stars and sand. This we know from Moses and the Prophets as confirmed and expounded in the Gospels and Epistles.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Just before Jesus tells this parable, Luke tells us that the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were ridiculing Jesus for His teaching on money. Jesus responded to this by saying: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. (Luke 16:15–17, ESV)