19th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 16:19-31 Sermon
October 7, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
428 “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”
499 “I Heard The Voice Of Jesus Say”
578 “Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling”
406 “How Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds”
READING THE FINE PRINT
TEXT (vs. 27-31): “[The rich man] answered, 'Then I beg you, father [Abraham], send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
Credit cards. We all know what they are. We might even have a few of them in our possession right now. When I mention that word “credit card,” what pops into your mind? Most likely, it won’t be anything too positive. We think of things like high interest rates, and debt, and maybe even bankruptcy. Credit cards and the associated charges and payments are the key topic in a lot of marital problems. Christian financial counselor Dave Ramsey has a lot to say about credit cards, and why people should never have them in the first place. And he is right too.
You’ve probably heard the statistics, but at the risk of being redundant, I’ll share them with you again. According to the American Consumer Credit Counseling, the total U. S. credit card debt in just the first quarter alone of 2002 (and I’m sorry I don’t have more current figures), but at that time, the figure was 60 billion dollars; and if you factor in all types of consumer credit, the figure jumps to a whopping 1.7 trillion dollars. In case you’re wondering, by comparison the entire national debt is somewhere around the 9 trillion dollar mark. But I digress.
In 2001, the average credit card debt carried by Americans is 8,562 dollars. The total of just the finance charges paid in that year was 50 billion dollars. And just last year, approximately 1.3 million credit card holders declared bankruptcy. And only 36 percent of all credit card holders pay off their entire balance each month to avoid finance charges and interest fees.
Credit card companies really lure you in too. They may promise you a low interest rate if you consolidate your credit card debt. However if you are late with just one payment, that low interest rate can jump anywhere from 24.9 to 32.6 percent. Those so-called “checks” which come with your credit card bill that you can use like a normal check also carry a higher interest fee and a cash advance fee that they don’t tell you about.
People are astounded when they make the minimum payment on their credit cards, only to discover that their balance has gotten bigger the next month when they haven’t made any purchases. They find out that they have created some very real “plastic monsters” in their lives.
Why do people get suckered into this? Why are credit card companies cashing in on these billions of dollars paid out by poor folks just in interest? How in the world do people allow themselves to get stuck paying interest rates to the tune of 20 to 30 percent?
I suppose I could put greed somewhere at the top of the list, and that would be true in a lot of cases. People have champagne tastes and beer pocketbooks. And so they get into this trap of spending more than they earn, and they keep doing it. Even though this is a valid point, that’s not the point I’m trying to make today.
I believe that people get suckered into this bottomless credit card pit, or abyss for one simple reason. They don’t read. They don’t bother to look through all of the fine print documentation that the credit card companies send out. And you can call it what you will—laziness maybe, or stupidity, or even the reluctance to do the simple math it takes to calculate what kind of financial problems they’ll be bringing upon themselves.
But it’s all there, in black and white—all of the facts, figures, charges, percentages, everything. It has to be there. It’s called “disclosure,” and the law requires them to make it available for the consumers to read and study, even before they apply for the particular card.
But the credit card companies want to make it difficult to plow through. In fact, that’s what they count on! They want you to toss that piece of paper explaining things aside and never look at it again. They want to hook you, and hook you good.
Every year, people flood the courts with various lawsuits against credit card companies. Suits are also filed regarding other contracts and agreements as well. And if you get to the bottom of it all, the people are in court for not reading and understanding what those documents say. Judges are continually rendering judgments for the defendants, and telling the plaintiffs, “Well, here it is, in black and white; you should have read it thoroughly before you signed it.” And then these people are on the hook for violating the original agreement, all because they chose not to read it through or pay attention to what it said. It is their own fault, and they have nobody to blame but themselves.
In our text for today, we find two key characters, the first of which is the rich man. He had wealth, and he had the lifestyle to prove it. He lived in a mansion. He wore the finest of clothes. And the food? Oh there was no end to it. Every day would have been like a huge thanksgiving dinner at this rich man’s table. Eating was one of those things that he liked to do the best.
In fact, eating and drinking was one of the ways the rich liked to indulge with all their friends. In Greek, this was called a “synposion,” which literally means “drinking together.” These things sometimes went on for days. Servants kept bringing the food and drink. Other servants would also go around with a bowl and a feather. When someone got too full to eat any more, the servant would take the feather and tickle the back of the person’s throat, and they would vomit into the bowl so they were able to keep on eating. The name for this feast “synposion” is where we get our English word, “symposium.”
Besides the usual fare, the rich also had some interesting delicacies. They would sprinkle gold dust on their food. They would mix pearls in with their peas. And sometimes they would feast on nightingale tongues. And if you know how small a nightingale bird is, you can only imagine how many it would take to get enough tongues to make a whole meal.
Of course we aren’t told exactly what kind of food was being served at this rich man’s table, or even if it was one of these “synposion” meals, but it shouldn’t surprise us if things were like I just explained. This is the way the rich did things.
What makes matters worse is the stated condition of this poor man named Lazarus. He was one of the poorest of the poor. He had nothing. He could have probably had meals for many days just from what was discarded from the rich man’s table. He was also an “unclean person.” This does not refer to the fact he hadn’t bathed, but the fact that his body was covered in ulcerated sores. In those days, he would have been considered a leper, and therefore any contact with him would have made that person ceremonially unclean. A person who made contact with him would have had to go through a Jewish purification rite, and that was a lot of time and bother for someone to go through, just for having made contact with the likes of Lazarus. So the rich man ignored him; at least the dogs had some compassion.
What should interest us too, is the religious connection these characters had. We can assume right away that this rich man was Jewish, because he both recognizes him and calls him “father.” Only a Jew would do that. If we look at John 8, we would find several references to the Jews claiming descendance from Abraham. In particular, verse 39 says, “Abraham is our father, they answered. If you were Abraham's children, said Jesus, then you would do the things Abraham did.”
We also might assume that this rich man was a Pharisee for several reasons. First, the Pharisees were great lovers of money, and they loved to live a lavish lifestyle. Second, he was Jewish and claimed Abraham as his spiritual father as we just determined.
Thirdly, we get a clue from the setting where Jesus was telling this story. This is part of a much longer dialogue where Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, but the Pharisees were eavesdropping. Just several verses before our Gospel lesson for today, we are told: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”
So what Jesus was saying had some particularly sharp barbs directed at the Pharisees. They were probably able to recognize themselves in the role of the rich man in this story, which would have further infuriated them.
So as the story goes, both the rich man and Lazarus die. The rich man has gone to hell, and he is in absolute torment. But the angels have carried Lazarus to heaven, and he is at Abraham’s bosom.
This picture is especially meaningful, because at these lavish meals the rich people would have, the guests would eat semi-reclined on couches. The guest of honor would share the couch with the host, and would recline against the bosom of the host. This was the position Lazarus was now occupying in heaven while the rich man was suffering the torments of hell.
Now I’m not going to expand very much on the realities and seriousness of hell today. I focused on that the last time I preached on this text, which was three years ago. If you want to, you can go back and read my sermon on-line from October 9, 2004; or I’d be happy to print out a copy for you. Suffice it to say however, that hell is a definite reality for unbelievers, and it is anything but pleasant.
There is one thing that does stand out. The rich man didn’t have to be there. He was there as a result of the choices he made, and he knew that. Somehow he was now filled with compassion for his family. So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to go and warn them. And what does our text say in reply to this? Verse 29 says, “Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'”
The reference to “Moses and the Prophets” is a direct reference to the Holy Scriptures. The rich man and his family were Jewish. They had the Scriptures in their hands. Everything was there to “Make them wise unto salvation” as Paul writes to Timothy.
This rich man in hell was in much the same boat as those people who find themselves suckered into paying exorbitant interest rates to credit card companies, or who find themselves on the losing end of a bad contract. It’s all there in the Scriptures in black and white—everything. But unlike those credit card agreements where you have to read the fine print, the Bible makes things as plain and clear as possible. To ignore Moses and the Prophets like the rich man did is far worse; financial ruin is nothing compared to spiritual bankruptcy, death, and damnation.
How seriously do we regard Scripture? How do we read it? All the words are there. We can clearly see the reward of faith and the penalty of unbelief. How do we regard it?
We know that the Scriptures are the very voice of God speaking to us. We can read the Bible and see our sinfulness, and what our sinful thoughts, words, and actions should get us. But we also read the Gospel, where we are promised forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Through faith in Christ, we can be assured of our place at Abraham’s bosom, where we will enjoy the feast of the righteous instead of the torments of hell.
God the Holy Spirit works this faith in us through the clear words of the Holy Scriptures. God brings us to faith through Word and Sacrament. It is all there for us, and it is so simple and clear.
But there are those people who will, because of laziness or stupidity or something, reject what God has said. They will cast it aside as being “too much” like people do with those credit card agreements, and ultimately find themselves with some stiff penalties. They will, like the rich man in our text experience spiritual bankruptcy.
The rich man had a religion however. He was Jewish. He claimed Abraham as his spiritual father. In his mind, he had kept the commandments of Moses. Because of this, he thought that God should reward him with heaven.
The rich man had a religion; but Lazarus had a relationship. The rich man’s religion lacked one very key ingredient, and that was faith. Without faith, he lacked the love of God which should have shown itself in his life. So he cast aside the Holy Spirit and the words God had spoken, and he did things his way instead. And we can see where that got him.
Lazarus had the faith which made his relationship with God possible. He knew his earthly sufferings were only temporary. He knew that God’s eternal paradise of heaven awaited him.
When we see ourselves like Lazarus, wounded and sick because of sin, then we have begun that important relationship with God. Through faith in Christ our Saviour, we have the healing we need and our eternal reward is guaranteed certain.
As Christians, there will always be opportunities to express the love of Christ that lives within us. We will be moved with compassion to show love to others. This will be the evidence the world sees that we have more than just a religion. We have a relationship with God through Jesus our Saviour.
May that relationship we have encourage others to emulate our faith. And through our witness of faith, we pray that many others will look to Moses and the Prophets, namely the words God speaks in the Bible, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, become as Paul writes to Timothy, “Wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”