This is a long post, but I wanted to consider Jesus’ parable concerning Lazarus and the rich man, contained in Luke 16:19-31.
It would be easy to take the parable and view it as accusation against rich people; to make it only about that. After all, the rich man is the one who goes to hell and the poor man Lazarus is the one who goes to heaven. In addition to this, Paul in his letter to Timothy says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (see 1 Timothy 6:6-19). Notice that it’s the “love of money,” not money itself, that’s the root of all kinds of evil. Money, by itself, is part of God’s creation and useful in our life together, just as are food and drink; money is how we value and therefore allocate scarce resources. Yet, like food and drink and many other things, money can be turned into an idol. The “love of money” creates an idol out of it and violates the First Commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. All sin, in fact, flows out of a violation of the First Commandment.
So, we could take Jesus’ parable as an indictment against the rich, as many people do. And that’s a part of it, since there is always the temptation to trust in our riches, rather than in the Lord. Yet, it is not the rich only who have the temptation to “love money;” all people have this temptation. So, taking the parable as only a discussion about money would miss the larger point of the parable. If we let the parable tell us what it is saying, rather than trying to read into it things we may want it to say, then we discover some profound things.
And there are really two profound things going on in Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man. The first profound thing centers around the contrast between the rich man and the poor man Lazarus. The second profound thing centers around Moses and the Prophets. Let’s take them in order.
First, the rich man and the poor man Lazarus. The rich man in Jesus’ parable is clothed in purple, a very expensive color in that day due to the fact that the dye came from a special type of crustacean in the ocean. His clothes are made of fine linen and dyed in purple, and the man had great meals each day. But, at the gate of the courtyard of his house there was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, and who wanted only the crumbs from the rich man’s table. The rich man showed no concern for Lazarus; he didn’t show any generosity or care for Lazarus, but the dogs did. They came and licked his sores, caring for him when no one else would.
Just taking this description on its surface, which man would the reason of this world consider to be blessed by God? Which of these two men would the world consider blessed based on outward appearances? It’d be the rich man, wouldn’t it? Surely the poor man isn’t blessed. Isn’t that how we normally think? Karma, right? What goes around comes around? Many people hold to this basic type of thinking. It is, in fact, prevalent in our culture without us really even thinking about it.
The underlying belief is that we can determine the mind of God based on outward appearances. What I mean is that there is a natural inclination to draw conclusions based on what we see. We want to try to figure out God. We even see this in the New Testament with the scribes and Pharisees, like when they ask Jesus about a blind man, wanting to know whether it was for his sins or his parents’ sins that he was born blind. They believed that the man was cursed by God, because of what they saw. They extrapolated what they saw to make conclusions about the hidden mind and will of God. God becomes like a test subject in a laboratory experiment.
In Lutheran circles, we call this the false theology of glory. If we see someone with outward blessings, like the rich man, then we conclude that God is pleased with him and blessing him. We base our thinking on the outward glory that we see. Conversely, if we see someone with outward hardships or with no outward glory, like Lazarus or the blind man, then we conclude that God is displeased with him and punishing him. The theology of glory makes determinations about God based on what we see.
The problem with this, though, is that we really don’t know the hidden mind and will of God in matters such as this. And so outward appearances can be deceiving. We can not actually draw conclusions about God’s hidden will and mind based on what we see. To do so would be speaking where God has not actually spoken; it would be attributing things to him that we do not know for sure to be true. So, the theology of glory is fatally flawed.
Appearances can be deceiving. Have you ever seen the movie adaptation of C.S Lewis’ book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy? In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the White Witch is evil. But, she doesn’t look it; she appears friendly. Conversely, the weak-looking children are the ones who help save the world. Likewise, in the Lord of the Rings, the White Wizard ends up siding with evil, while the weak, small, maligned hobbits save the world. Appearances can be deceiving.
And so it is in our world. We can’t say that a person is blessed by God because he has a good job, family, and health. And we can’t say that a person is accursed by God because he is unemployed or divorced or in bad health. We can’t do the reverse either, because we can’t draw conclusions about the hidden mind and will of God based on what we see.
So, in Lutheran circles we have instead what we call the Theology of the Cross. What it means is that we don’t try to peek behind the curtain to look at the hidden God. We don’t try to read the mind of God or discover things that He has not told us about Himself and about His will. We can’t know all things, because to do so would be to be God Himself; to attempt to do so would be to try to be our own gods, just as Adam and Eve sought to peek behind God’s revelation of Himself in order to know things apart from that revelation.
So, instead of trying to discover things about God that He has not told us, we trust in what He has clearly revealed to us about Himself, and that revelation comes to us at the foot of the cross.
In 1518, Martin Luther presented a series of theses to debate with other theologians. This is known today as the Heidelberg Disputation. In these theses, Luther gets at the same point. He says:
“That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.”
Luther mentions theologians; you are all theologians, because you all think and speak about God. And Luther’s point is that we can’t know the hidden things of God or discover them for ourselves based on what we see; for all we can know for certain about God comes from His revelation to us. And this revelation comes to us most clearly at the cross.
For what we clearly see at the cross is the Son of God dying for our sins. God came in the flesh to fulfill the Law on our behalf and sacrifice himself for our failure to do so. He came to restore His fallen creation to Himself. So, what we need to know about God is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh. And what we see at the cross is that God took our sins upon himself and died for them there in order to save us from eternal death.
And in the end, that’s all we need to know about God. He has revealed Himself to us through Christ as a God who created us and couldn’t bear to see us separated from Him due to sin and death. So, he came to reconcile us to himself, along with the rest of his creation. This is the revealed God whom we meet in the shadow of the cross and the chasm of the empty tomb. This is the God we confess in the Creed, our Father who created us and all things, the Son who died and rose for us and all things, and the Holy Spirit who brings us to faith so that we receive the restoration and reconciliation of the Son as a community of believers, the Church.
What this means then, is that there are some things that God has kept hidden. We can’t determine His secret, hidden will; we can only know Him as He reveals Himself to us, like how children know their father only through their father’s own self-revelation to them. And God has self-revealed himself to us as loving and gracious and merciful, and he does this through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
So, that’s the first profound truth in this parable from Luke’s Gospel: the fact that we can’t figure out God based on outward appearances, the fact that we can’t determine the mind of God based on what we see, because appearances can be deceiving. Instead, we rely on God’s revelation to us as loving and gracious and merciful, a revelation that is seen most fully in the death and resurrection of Christ.
And this then leads into the second profound truth in this reading that I hinted at earlier. This is the fact that all the Scriptures point us to Jesus Christ, because it is only in and through him that we meet God. All the Old Testament, “Moses and the Prophets” as Jesus terms them in the reading from Luke, point us to Jesus. They tell us of our problem, the fact that we are born sinful – due to the sin of Adam and Eve – and the fact that this sin leads to death. They also tell us of God’s promise to forgive us our sins and redeem us from death through the promised Messiah or Christ, the one born of a woman who would take our sins upon himself and gather up people from all nations into Israel, the Church.
But, many people don’t believe this. Many Christians, even, fail to see Christ in the Old Testament. Yet, he’s most definitely there, because that’s the whole point of the Old Testament, to point to Christ’s coming. The faith of the Church of the Old Testament was placed in God’s promise to send this Christ, just as the faith of the Church of the New Testament is placed in God’s fulfilled promise in sending this Christ to die and rise for us.
But, if people do not hear Moses and the Prophets, if people do not believe in our need for a savior and God’s promise to send one, then “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Christ has risen from the dead, but people who don’t see the need for a savior are not convinced by this. They’re not convinced by the witness of the Church in the death and resurrection of Christ.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable thought that if someone went to his brothers from the dead that they would repent. Well, they already had the Scriptures calling them to repentance and pointing them to the Christ who was to come, yet they did not repent, nor did they believe. What use, then, is it to send someone to them from the dead? – because God has in fact done this. He’s sent Christ to them from the dead, because he has risen; and the Gospel – the Good News – of his death and resurrection is proclaimed to all people.
Yet, not all people repent and believe. If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they believe in Christ, because Christ came in fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets; he came in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
And why do not all people repent and believe? Going back to the first point again, the answer is that we don’t know. We do know that God works through the Gospel to bring people to faith and keep us in that faith. But, we do not know why not all people who hear the Gospel come to faith. And it’s not ours to know. God doesn’t tell us why. What He does tell us is that the promise of the forgiveness of sins is for all people, because all people need this forgiveness, and Christ died for the sins of all people. So, we can confidently tell people that Christ forgives them of all their sins, without hesitation, because God tells us that this is true.
So, in summary, within this parable in Luke’s Gospel we see these two profound truths.
The first is that we can’t determine by outward appearances God’s hidden mind or will. Indeed, the cross itself looks like a defeat to the eyes of the world, since it is the symbol of death. Yet, through this symbol of death comes our salvation; a counterintuitive thing if there ever was one, as it goes against the wisdom of the world, that from death could come life. It’s like the bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the wilderness in the book of Numbers in order to save those who had been bitten by the serpents; from the symbol of death comes life, just as Jesus is lifted up and saves all who look upon him in faith. It’s also like our Baptisms where we die to our old nature and rise to new life in Christ.
This leads into the second profound truth found in this reading. The fact that Jesus Christ came in the fulfillment of the Scriptures in order to save us. We may not know the hidden mind or will of God, but we do know His revealed will and revealed mind. And this revelation comes to us through Christ, showing us that God is loving and gracious and merciful and desires all people to be saved.
And this is what we rest our faith on, the fact that Christ died and rose for us and did everything needful for our salvation. We may suffer in this world, like Lazarus, and we may see decay and death, and we may have many unanswered questions. Yet, we know that at the end of the age what awaits us is the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting with Christ and with each other forever. Christ has come to us from the dead to bring us to this faith, and that – ultimately – is the only answer we need.
(Image of Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Gate By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov – http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122 )