THE HOLY GOSPEL for many Lutheran churches on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost comes from Saint Luke. In this lesson, the story of eternal fate for persons both rich and poor is told. The story ends in prophetic words spoken that relates to the out pouring sacrifice of Christ…
"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.'
But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'
And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.'
But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'
And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31)
Luke tells us that our Lord spoke to a mixed audience of Pharisees and disciples, and related a story about the death and eternal fate of two men. Not told by Jesus as a parable, however, the story described of the fate of a rich person over against the future, restful abode of the poor. Therefore, we today may say that the characters represent the socio-economic strata of the persons to whom the story was originally told, and also may be applied to similar persons in the world today.
We note that after his life in which the rich man had ignored the plight of the poor, and saying nothing else about the character of the two men... the telling revealed that the poor man was carried by angels to heaven, while the other was received by the grave and Hades. The heavenly location was depicted by Jesus as being graced by the presence of Abraham. There, in the company of the audience's faith ancestor, the poor man received eternal comfort.
The story told that across the chasm that existed between the two realms, the rich man was plagued by the sight of the poor man. He thus also asked for relief. Getting no respite from his capture and torment, he then asked that his family that he had left behind might be warned, so that they may learn to live differently.
We can safely say that at this point in the story, that those gathered around Jesus already had been given a warning… for it was expressed in the Law and the prophets. This pressed hard upon the hearers that as a sinful and stubborn people, they... and we also today… do not take our Lord’s words of future judgment into account. We do not adhere to God’s warnings told.
At the last portion of the story, where the rich man asked that someone may be sent from the dead to warn them... when the audience heard this, they likely knew that this request went against the dictate of Hebrew scripture, in that it was written…
Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Isaiah 8:20-21)
Thus the scriptural tradition upheld rightly that the wide chasm between the two realms is indeed fixed. It is not possible for the rich, the poor, or Father Abraham to cross from death unto life. The great divide can only be crossed by the power of the One who created, and yet creates… all things… even the heavenly chasm that cannot be crossed by human toil. At best the story reveals that those who go into punishment can behold the eternal comfort of those who are saved; whereas, no such vision is claimed for persons in the heavenly realm to "look down" upon persons still striving upon earth. Does this image counter the commonly held belief that our dear and departed relatives can watch over us?
Possible For God!
The question then arose in scripture, however..., “If that Holy One who set the corners of the chasm in place, should cross the divide… would persons who consider themselves as rich now believe?” Thus Jesus ended the story with a very prophetic word. The question was indeed prophetic for the answer spoke of Jesus’ own death and Resurrection. The question pointed beyond the telling of the story to the eminent crucifixion event… and the denial of its sacrificial character of Jesus' death by those who believed they could earn their way to the heavenly realm. Jesus thus warned his listeners that day by saying…
'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'"
Now… lest we stand in judgment of the rich Pharisees, the impoverished, or the disciples who listened to this story, we must recognize that these words of prophecy are revealed to us today only by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, as scripture tells us…
“And we have the prophetic word made sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 2:19-20)
Thus we are called to carefully note that this was... and yet is... the revealed message of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection. The message was given by Jesus and then later told by Peter and the disciples after Pentecost. This lesson thus now becomes a prophetic message to us. The words guide us to understand the salvation offered through Jesus Christ.
Take note! Just as in Luke’s day, when this story was related to the disciples of the churches in Rome, Greece and Asia Minor, we also now may come to know the sure and certain hope that God has reached in love across a chasm that has been fixed and is unmovable. God did send someone to save us. Jesus himself came back from the dead to retrieve those who will believe.
Also note! Jesus related to his audience that like Lazarus, we are saved by nothing that we do. We must rely solely on the grace of salvation which is made available through faith. For this reason, we recall happily from the story that the angels took Lazarus to his heavenly rest due to no earthly apparent reason other than his dependence on God's abundant grace.
What then are we to do with this story? Since we work as the baptized in the Church., we are called to carefully note that the Greek word for angels (angelos) is interpreted as both as "angels" and “holy messengers”. Thus we know that the messengers from God are those beings who are grace revealing spirits. They are thus those who repeat this wonderful story and help to carry the “poor in spirit” toward the heavenly realm.
Remember! In Luke we know that the poor are those who knew they surely could not buy, or do anything to earn their way to heaven. Consequently, we sinful creatures who thought ourselves rich, but found out rightly through the gospel told that we are really the impoverished. By hearing, we became like the angels… the right messengers of God. We are witnesses like the angels! We stand to be right messengers of God for others who yet walk the face of the earth!
Through this story told, therefore, we as disciples know that those who walk the earth today can rely only on graceful faith in Jesus Christ. We are messengers that can relate to others the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit… for that faith was and is not built by any works that we do. It is a gift granted only by God... let us all just ask for it... and also give it away freely for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen!