Outside the Gates
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Rare, indeed, is the person who does not dream of prosperity-or at the very least, financial security. Who would not desire to be able to put their children through college without needing a loan? What farmer wouldn't want to be able to purchase a needed piece of equipment without a thought to the cost? What dutiful son or daughter does not wish for their parent the best possible health care without concern for what some bureaucrat might say about deductibles or "quality of life"? With this in mind, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus might seem like a harsh conviction of the desire for anything beyond the basic necessities of life. After all, Lazarus, the poor man who rested outside the gates of the house of the rich man, whose sores were licked by dogs, only desired the basest of foods, the crumbs that fell from the table of the rich man; and when he died, he ended up being carried by angels to his rest, reclining against his father Abraham. Meanwhile, the unnamed rich man who lived in luxury, who ate great feasts every day and who dressed in the finest of clothes, died an unheralded death and became the subject of the torments and terrors of hell. At first glance, this parable might seem to be a cautionary tale against the accumulation of wealth.
When reading one of the parables of Jesus, one must always consider the context in which Jesus spoke it. In the chapters previous to this, which seem to encompass one day or one continuing series of events, Jesus had dined with the Pharisees and spoke harshly to them when he saw how they selected the best seats instead of approaching the table in humility; then he had been surrounded by tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes complained that He was associating with the wrong kind of people. Finally, after Jesus cautioned them that they could not serve both God and wealth, the Pharisees ridiculed Him. So Jesus told them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
The parable struck at the heart of all the Pharisees held so dear. Luke describes the Pharisees as "lovers of money". In addition, the Pharisees enjoyed high status in society. And, of course, the Pharisees possessed a great confidence in their own righteousness, for they were obedient to the laws of men and outwardly obedient to the Law of God. Jesus turned each of these things on their heads. The rich man obviously loved wealth, based on his extravagant lifestyle. Feasting isn't evil of itself; after all, the wedding feast is the image Jesus uses to describe the Church in heaven. But the fatted calf was for special occasions. As for the status the Pharisees held so dear, Lazarus was the lowest a man could be and still be a member of society. And self-righteousness? Lazarus certainly wasn't in any position to prove his righteousness before God or his fellow man. The rich man was everything the Pharisees desired to be; Lazarus was everything the Pharisees despised. Yet the rich man, the prosperous son of Abraham, was in the torment of hell, and Lazarus, the companion of dogs outside the gates of an earthly paradise, rested in the company of Abraham himself.
Despite the obvious differences between these two men, the issue is not really about the wealth of the rich man or the poorness of Lazarus. It does not take a rich man to make an idol of wealth. In fact, those who have little make an idol of that lottery ticket that they buy every few days, saying, "If those numbers come out right, everything will be better." In his Large Catechism explanation of the First Commandment, Father Luther writes, "What is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. . . . Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god."
We all have our idols. In most cases, the American household sets its pews in a rough half-circle around the television, and we worship at its feet daily. We have our altars-excuse me; I meant to say desks-where we worship the god of social networking on our computers. Men have their devotional books which they keep in their pockets, while women have their communion kits hanging from their shoulders, both of them filled with gods of plastic and paper and circuitry. We worship in nature's sanctuary, blessing the sun or cursing the crabgrass that threatens the beauty of our many places of worship. Even our dogs have their own gods, whether it's the supper bowl or the person who fills it! Jesus is lying outside the gates of our homes, and we leave him to suffer there with the dogs licking His wounds while we feast on sinfulness. When we ignore Jesus-when we make things other than Jesus and His holy Word the top priority in our lives-we deserve nothing more than the torments of hell.
But Jesus is not merely some beggar outside our gates. Would the rich man have been saved if he had just given some food to Lazarus? No. But had he trusted in God and thanked God for the many gifts God had placed into his life, he would have gladly fed and clothed and cared for Lazarus. In the same way, our salvation does not depend on you putting just a little more in the collection plate or feeding your pastor and his family-though he certainly appreciates it when you do!-but rather, our salvation depends on the Christ, who, ironically, goes outside of the gates of the city to die. Our salvation is that the Christ that we despise does not despise us. Our salvation is that the Christ that we despise and reject was despised and rejected on the cross on our behalf. Jesus endured the tortures of hell that our idolatry deserves. Our salvation is that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions. And as Jesus lies outside the gates of the earthly paradise where he is unwelcome and despised, He leaves His wounds for us to lick. We feast on the body and blood of Jesus and receive forgiveness, given freely and fully.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is not about money; this parable is about faith. Faith, like forgiveness, is a gift from God, a gift we receive in Holy Baptism. It is that faith which allows us to do good works-works that do not merit us a place in heaven, but works that reflect the love of Christ which is in us, reflecting it to the world around us. Yes, let us repent of not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. But more than that, let us rejoice that God has forgiven us for our lack of love. Let us rejoice that Christ washes and heals us as we lay outside the gate in Baptismal waters that flow from His side, clothes us in His righteousness, and feeds us with His body and blood. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.