Posted on June 15th, 2009
“Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity; let us give glory to Him, for He has shown mercy to us!” Thus the Divine Service began last week, on Trinity Sunday: praising God for His mercy toward us. Today’s Gospel warns of a radical disconnect—does our life, do our words and actions, reflect the mercy of God?
Jesus tells a parable, a story designed to teach us a spiritual reality. God had showered Rich Man with extraordinary wealth. He lived in a mansion, he had all the finest things, but he showed no mercy to Lazarus, a poor sick beggar who had been unceremoniously dumped in the gutter at Rich Man’s gate. Now Rich Man showed no restraint; he treated every day like a holiday, gorging at every meal. But he could spare nothing for Lazarus. Every day it was a mad scramble between Lazarus and the wild dogs for the scraps of discarded food tossed out in the trash.
Rich Man knows who Lazarus is, but he shows no mercy toward him. He wishes mercy for himself, but does not show it to others. This parable has the same message as the parable of the unforgiving servant. There, a man owes the king an enormous sum of money, which he can never repay, and the king is going to sell this man’s wife and children as slaves, and throw the man in jail until the money is repaid. He will die in prison. The man pleads for more time, and instead of just giving him more time, the king forgives the debt.
You would think he would be filled with gratitude at the king’s mercy, and that would spill over into his life; but instead, he goes out and finds another man who owes him a relatively small amount of money, grabs him by the throat and demands payment. This poor fellow says the very same thing: “Please, give me more time, and I will pay you everything,” but instead of showing mercy, he has that man thrown in jail. When the king learns of it, he withdraws his own mercy from that foolish, unforgiving servant.
The same thing is going on in today’s parable. God showered blessings on Rich Man, but he did not share his blessings with others. And so the purpose of this parable is to direct us to the right use of money. The right use of money is for mercy, especially where the opportunity is put right before us, like Lazarus thrown at the gate of the Rich Man.
This is why we as a church must use our corporate goods, our treasury, to show mercy toward others. By this parable, Jesus is teaching us to cast our eyes outward, beyond our gates, to a world in need often lying at our doorstep. This was one of the two main functions of church offerings in the early church: to support the ministry of Word and Sacrament, providing for pastors; and to support the ministry of mercy to people’s temporal needs: food for the poor in their own midst, and sending relief to places of poverty. This past Wednesday night we commemorated St. Barnabas; the book of Acts describes how Barnabas was entrusted with money that the Christians of Antioch sent to Judea to care for the people suffering from a great famine there.
Those early Christians are great examples to us because they reflected God’s mercy in their lives. “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity; let us give glory to Him, for He has shown mercy to us!” They confessed the same faith as we do, and then responded to it by showing mercy to others. Isn’t this what we heard from the Word of God earlier? “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Now this sounds like a lot of Law, and it can drive us to despair because we’ve never done enough. We could look at today’s parable and ask, “How much would Rich Man have had to give to Lazarus to stay out of Hell?” But that’s asking the wrong question. The love of the Christian is not a work that seeks to fulfill a law or keep a rule; there is no scale by which we can add up the good things and score enough points to get into heaven and stay out of hell. Real Christian love is not a work done to keep a commandment, but a response to the love of God already shown to us, an imitation of the God who is love, an imitation of the God who first loved us.
And so what the Rich Man lacked was not a high enough score on the good works scale; there is no http://freegoodworksreport.com that you can go and check your divine credit report with God. What the Rich Man lacked, he learned too late: he lacked repentance. It is those who refuse to repent who are condemned to hell, a place of everlasting torment where no pity is shown. It is from there that the Rich Man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers: “If one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Repentance was what the Rich Man lacked.
Repentance and faith go together, and repentance and what our Lutheran Confessions call the New Obedience likewise go together. That new obedience is what the Scriptures call “bearing fruits of repentance.” For the Rich Man, bearing fruits of repentance would be to begin showing mercy, begin sharing his goods with those in need. What would it mean for you?
Perhaps we do not really want Christ to come and this world to pass away. We enjoy our vices, we love our possessions, and the thought of sharing them is painful. That’s the weakness of our mortal nature: we are by nature selfish, and even as baptized children of God we struggle with that sinful nature. Because of our weakness, we can, by ourselves, do no good thing.
It is entirely by God’s grace that we are made able to keep the commandments and please God. So we must pray that when Christ comes He will find us His people: people of faith and mercy, the kind of inhabitants He desires to share His kingdom with. There is a little prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom that I think is fitting for us: “O God, even if I have done nothing good in Thy sight, yet grant me, according to Thy grace, that I may make a start in doing good.”
Now all of this is founded on everything we have heard in the preceding six months: the birth, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s how we are saved. You cannot possibly work your way into heaven, or work your way out of hell, even if you were the richest man alive, and gave everything you had to the poor. There is only one name by which we are saved from hell and receive life from God: our Lord JESUS Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading, then, doesn’t teach us how we are saved, but how the saved are: God has called us to be people of mercy, just as He is merciful toward us. God calls us to love, just as He is love. That love and mercy is given to us, freely, at His table, where we dogs and beggars are given riches from our merciful Lord.