Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson: Now even though we are celebrating St. Michael and All Angels this coming Sunday, Pastor Fedderson never wrote a devotion using the Scripture lessons for that Sunday (and I searched the archives thoroughly!). Therefore, these lessons are from the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The first Scripture reading for Sunday is from the Old Testament’s “Spokesman for the Poor” — actually a spokesman or prophet of God — Amos. He lives up to his reputation when he goes on the attack against those who “lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches.” He continues, “You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.”
The Second Lesson for Sunday contains these familiar words from St. Paul — they may be most familiar as words from the service for the committal of the dead: “For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it.” It is also in this reading that we find the even more familiar words: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
On first glance, the Gospel Lesson fits right into the theme of rich vs. poor. It is Jesus’ famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. The story’s message is inherent in its telling, not its interpretation. The poor man Lazarus was covered with sores and lived on the ground outside the rich man’s gate. The rich man was covered with royal purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. Lazarus was starving and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man was apparently more like the objects of Amos’ scorn — not just eating for sustenance, but feasting daily.
Life’s great equalizer, otherwise known as death, came to both men. Jesus said that angels came and carried Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom. Of the rich man He simply said that he died and was buried. Odd that no mention is made of a wake or funeral for either man. Lazarus may not have even had one — those dogs that once came and licked his sores may have come and cleaned his bones. On the other hand, we assume that the rich man would have had quite a send-off. No one could have quoted the as-yet-unspoken words of Paul, but all would have known that the rich man went out just as well-off as he came in — naked and with nothing in hand!
From Hades, the parched rich man could see Lazarus in the lap of Abraham, if not luxury, and he wanted Abraham to send the once poor fellow with a handful of cool water. Abraham said that the chasm between them — just like the gate on the rich man’s house — prevented passage from one to the other.
Interestingly, the once rich, now suffering man turned his attention from himself to his five brothers. He wanted Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn them so they would not follow him to that place of torment. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” The sufferer protested, “But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Abraham said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Have you ever wondered why the rich man did not volunteer to go back to his brothers himself? Why does he ask that Lazarus return to be the “Jacob Marley” for his brothers’ “Ebenezer Scrooge” souls? One pastor suggested that the rich man figured they would not listen to him — it would do no good! But maybe they would listen to a well-dressed and well-fed Lazarus!
I have a question myself! Is this a story about rich and poor in this life facing reversals of roles in the next, or is this a story about heeding the Word of God?
This story follows hard on last week’s Gospel Lesson; it seems to reinforce the facetious nature of Jesus’ suggestion: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you can be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” It has the appearance of one more lesson in the famous saying that “You can’t take it with you!” But is it?
Somewhere along the line you may have heard that the rich man in this parable was named “Dives.” In actual fact, that tradition comes from the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate word for “rich” is “dives.” The name “Lazarus,” however, is significant if for no other reason than the fact that he is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables that has a proper name. His name is Hebrew or the equivalent Greek and it means “one whom God helps.” Because we know of the Bible’s and Jesus’ own penchant for assigning names with significant meaning, we should not ignore the assignment of this name to the beggar.
The world tends to know the names of the rich — they are the famed and renowned. They have “made a name for themselves.” The poor, on the other hand, are the faceless, nameless masses — unknown, unnamed, often uncared for and not cared about. What a reversal Jesus has already made on the earthly side of this story!
Then again, other than their financial condition and their name and lack of name, what is the difference between the beggar and the rich man? One goes to a banquet at the bosom of Abraham and the other goes to torment in the underworld. But why? Is it simply because in this life the first had nothing and the other had everything? Is that why a strange justice gave them an opposite afterlife? In order to believe that, we would have to throw out everything else Jesus said about eternity.
Their situations are, indeed, switched in the afterlife, but another element is entered into the equation: “Moses and the Prophets.” If the rich man’s failure to heed Moses and the Prophets is the reason for his sad situation in Hades, can we not conclude that Lazarus’ happy situation is because he had heeded the law and the prophets? If that is the case, what do you have from the law and the prophets that you want to take with you to the next life? If you don’t have it, when are you going to get it?
Maybe the most important question of all is what is it? I have already interchanged the phrase “Moses and the Prophets” with the “law and the prophets.” The phrases are the same. What do we learn from the one or the other or both? If you are a student of Luther, you know his opinion that “The Law always accuses.” In other words, when we take the law seriously, it brings us to our knees — repentant, and asking for mercy. If you are a Pharisee, then the law provides you with a method of comparing yourself to other people and, thereby, coming up with a rational justification of yourself before God.
If you believe that God will welcome you into Paradise because you are a better woman or a nicer man than the other women and men around you — at least most of them — then I sincerely hope you win the lottery real soon! At least you could be on the rich side of the gate, ’cause you are on your way to the wrong side of the chasm! The singular identification of one man in the parable was “rich” — it seemingly gave him his very identity; it was what he counted on. The singular identification of the other man in the parable was not “beggar” or “poor,” but “Lazarus” — “one whom God helps.” God was all he had and all he counted on.
The prophets taught that all we need is God. Our faith in Him is the one thing we take with us into Paradise. You can take it with you! And it is enough. As long as the Pharisees continued to rely on their own self-justification, they would continue to refuse to bend their knees in repentance before the law and they would refuse to believe in the saving Messiah that the prophets foretold — even if He came back from the dead.
Humans have a penchant for relying on things that are only temporal, that can give us no lasting peace, no eternal assurance, and that we cannot take with us. Dive into the law and the prophets. Learn what is behind the death and resurrection of Jesus, and place all your trust in Him. It is the one thing needful and the one thing you can take into eternity.