In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A person’s faith is only as good as what it receives. We hear people say nowadays “you just gotta have faith” or I believe in having “faith”. Faith for faith’s sake is not faith at all. Think of faith like a paper lunch sack that a child is using for trick or treating. The sack has little to no value to the child, but suddenly it has great worth when it contains all the treats graciously poured into it by the neighbors. After it’s filled you would have great difficulty taking that sack out of the child’s white-knuckled grip.
That is what all of our Scripture lessons challenge us to think about today. Where does one fill their paper sack? What are they grasping and receiving their value from? Amos chastises Israel saying “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.” Jesus challenges the Pharisees who loved their money by talking about a rich man and poor Lazarus. And St. Paul warns us that “money is at the root of all kinds of evil.”
Here’s a paraphrase of some of Jesus’ parable. “There was a rich man who was decked out in Armani suits and loved to eat at the finest restaurants each night as he dined on prime rib and lobster and sipped his wine with other friends just like him. Every time he left his home outside the gate was this miserable fellow Lazarus who was decked out in sores and stray dogs were his only friends.”
The rich man was busy filling his sack with the good things of this life. He thought the ultimate purpose of his life was to fill himself with his possessions. He was a Hebrew, a son of Abraham and sadly he likely thought that his possessions and his food were a sign that he was in God’s good graces.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they’re like this man. The Pharisees needed to heed his warning and warning of Prophets like Amos. “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion.” In other words “Woe to you who have no concern for the state of God’s People, especially those suffering at the gates. Woe to you who spend your time at late night parties and then sleep-in missing the call to worship or are too tired to hear the Law and the Prophets read and preached publicly. Woe to you who are complacent about sin and unmoved by God’s forgiveness. Woe to those who think they have God’s grace just because they have good things in the life while others have evil.”
Our lessons this morning don’t pull any punches. As I’ve heard a few pastors say, “Never trust a happy theologian.” If there is nothing to their message that really makes us sad, despair of ourselves and the world, or even frighten us then they’re not being faithful. Look at the example of Jesus, the only perfect theologian. Was He always happy in His ministry? Did He confront the Pharisees with a smile on his face? Was He joking when He said, “Woe to you hypocrites.”? Was He gleefully skipping about while He cleared the temple with a whip when they turned His Father’s house into a den for robbers?
This is not to say that it’s wrong to enjoy nice meals or drive a nice car and have a comfortable life. It’s okay to recognize the good things God has given you. But when earthly possessions create spiritual complacency or when they become the measure of what it means to be blessed by God then there is trouble. Also when one claims faith in God, but they ignore their neighbor’s needs like the rich man they’re proving that their faith is not filled with God, but something else. When one is fixated on and worried about the next job promotion or next raise or worldly success rather than daily remembering their baptism into Christ then they’re guilty of idolatry. How many of us wake each and every morning remembering first thing our Baptism into the forgiveness of Christ? Sadly, I wish I could report that I always do, but honestly I don’t. I think if most of us are honest often the morning begins with thoughts of a hot cup of coffee and worries about all that must get done in the day. But how different are the mornings when we awake and say to God, “I am your child. Thank you for baptizing me into your Name, drowning my sins, and giving me Christ my Savior and making me a new creature who is free to serve you and those you have given me to serve.”?
Jesus’ point in the parable is that the rich man would never think of such things. He wasn’t concerned for God. His “paper sack” was full of distractions of his work, his wealth, his food, and possessions. But poor Lazarus who would be happy with dog food, mere crumbs, lays there and hopes that perhaps the rich man will see his need. Lazarus though in his lowly state does not complain, does not have a leg of worth or entitlement to stand on, rather he accepts his position and trusts in God. His faith is filled with the promises of God, the one’s written in Moses and the Prophets that God will save His People.
Then they both die and everything is equalized between them. The rich-man has nothing to bring with him. His possessions remain behind; he can’t keep what he treasured most. The poor man had nothing in the first place, but he gets what he treasured most. He gets God’s comfort. Lazarus knew that it was better to be God’s possession than to have great possessions. So, in the interim, before the new heavens and the new earth, he received comfort because he believed what Moses and the Prophets had written. But the rich man gets the exact opposite, the roles reverse. Now the rich man is the beggar, but it’s too late, Lazarus and Abraham can do nothing to help him. So, he tries to bargain. Now for the first time ever he worries about someone other than himself. “Send Lazarus from the dead to my living brothers he begs.” But Abraham says they have the word of God. If they don’t believe that, a wonder like a dead man walking won’t help.
I think it is likely Jesus knew the irony of all this. He would raise a real man named Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus means “helped by God.” The Lazarus of the parable receives God’s help and comfort. The Lazarus of reality receives God’s help when he dies. You can’t get any more poor than being dead! When you’re dead you have nothing, but Jesus, the resurrection and the life, raises Lazarus comforting his sisters and all the more showing that He will raise all of those who have faith in Him to eternal comfort.
Yet, what happened when Lazarus was raised? Exactly what Jesus said in his parable. Sure, some people did believe in Him because of this sign, but it angered the Scribes and the Pharisees all the more. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The raising of Lazarus didn’t cause Jesus’ enemies to repent, but rather they rejected Him all the more and sought to kill Him.
You, dear Christians, have Moses and the Prophets, but in these latter days you have the assurance of what they spoke because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. You know how he became poor that we might be made rich. You know how he died that you might live. You know how He poured out all that He has achieved for you in your baptism, giving forgiveness, comfort of eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives you the faith which is only as good as what it receives and it receives the greatest good, Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther’s final words were written on a small piece of paper moments before his death. It read, “We’re all beggars.” We’re beggars like Lazarus who can give nothing to God, but hold out a worthless sack trusting that He will fill it with His treasure. And now by the Holy Spirit we hold it with a white-knuckled grip. Faith that is filled with Jesus will not let anything tear Him away from us, not another god, not money, not the American Dream, not food, nor possessions. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.