“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, 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.’ ” Luke 16:19-31
You don’t know my name. In fact, almost no one knows my name. But you know me, and you know my story. You just heard it from Jesus, and chances are, you’ve heard it many times before. You identify me as ‘the Rich Man,’ the same way that I identified myself. But now, that’s not really true about me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I was rich. I wasn’t just a part of the 1%; I was at the top of the One Percenters. And like a lot of people do, I thought that meant I had it all figured out. But I’m here to tell you that I was wrong.
It should have hit me the first time that I ever laid eyes on Lazarus. There he was, laying at my front gate. A grown man whose body was covered in gross sores and who looked as though he had just bathed in garbage. I can’t say I really know how he go there. I’m guessing somebody got tired of taking care of him and figured I had more than enough to do the job. So they dumped him off hoping that I would show him some kindness. But I didn’t want to bother with him; didn’t care one bit what happened to him. Every once in a while, I would toss him some scraps from the table, telling myself that was good enough. Only now do I realize that I wasn’t even close.
How easy it would have been for me to take him in? How simple it could have been for me to share my food with him? Instead of letting dogs tend to his wounds I could have sent a doctor his way. Instead of sleeping outside I could have let him stay in one of my many spare rooms. I could have done so much more for him, but my selfish heart wouldn’t even consider it. I could have helped in so many ways, and maybe, he could have helped me too. I really wish he had.
You all know me as ‘the Rich Man,’ but that’s really not accurate. I have existed now for over 2,000 years. But I was only rich for, maybe, 75 of them. Once my final breath left my body, my riches left me too. So that means that I was only rich for 3% of my life. And the longer that time goes on, the lower that number goes. Rich does not describe me at all, because I have been poor in hell for over 2,000 years.
I don’t know what people are saying about hell these days, but I never thought much of it. But oh, how I wish I had thought of it more. Just imagine, if you could, placing your hand in the flame of a simple candle and holding it there for 30 minutes. Imagine dealing with that kind of constant pain. Those thirty minutes would feel like an eternity, wouldn’t it? But at least, there would be an end. But for me, you see, this pain doesn’t end. And it’s not just one hand, but both…and my feet…and my chest…and my head…and my…everything. It’s been over 2,000 years, and it’s not stopping.
But that’s not the only pain that I feel. Every day my emotions are crushed because I get to see what I missed out on. There is Lazarus – poor, dirty, abused and neglected Lazarus – sitting comfortably in the arms of father Abraham. His pain is all gone. The sores have all been healed. No longer is he curled up against the gate. Instead, he stands with his arms outstretched receiving blessings as countless as the sands on the seashore. Every day I have to see that and know that I can never get there.
On top of this, there is no mercy in hell either. I’ve tried asking. I called to Abraham, ‘Please, I’m in pain, I’m in agony. Don’t you feel sorry for me? Help me!’ But he told me, ‘Merciful is all that God was with you on earth. You think you deserved all that wealth? You think you deserved your good health? God gave you those things so you would realize how good he is to you and then seek him all the more.’ You don’t know how horrible it is to live without God’s mercy, because you’re all receiving it right now. But trust me, once it’s gone you realize how awesome it is. But during my days on earth, I just didn’t see it.
I have had plenty of time to think about what went wrong, to think about how I ended up in this horrible place. I noticed how many of my formerly rich friends were down here with me while poor Lazarus was up there. So at first I thought, ‘It must have been because I was rich.’ It just made sense: rich on earth, poor in hell; poor on earth, rich in heaven. But then I noticed plenty of other people beside me who I used to step over and ignore like Lazarus. Then it hit me: I’m not in hell because I was rich. I’m in hell because being rich was the most important thing to me. And you can feel that way whether you have lots of money or no money at all.
The only difference between the rich and the poor in hell is that the rich had money on earth and the poor didn’t, but they still defined themselves by it. They believed it would solve their problems, that it would bring them more joy, that it would give them the security they longed for. And so they became obsessed with it. Some worked hard to get it. Others expected people to feel sorry for them and give it to them. But in the end both defined themselves by what they did and did not have, which left no room for a relationship with God. And now, their greatest hope is not a bigger home or a better clothes, but only a single drop of cool water so that for just one second their tongue won’t be on fire.
I feared for my brothers while they still lived. I didn’t want them to make the same mistakes as me. I demanded that Abraham send someone from heaven to let them know what they didn’t have. But you know what he said? ‘I don’t need to send anyone. They already have what they need. They have Moses and the Prophets. They have the Word of God.’ I used to think that wasn’t enough, that something more miraculous was necessary. After all, I had heard that same Word and look where I ended up. But then I realized, I never really payed attention to it. I never really listened to it. The warnings against selfishness, greed and pride. The calls to find true and lasting peace in the LORD. It was all there, but I ignored it. And that is why I’m suffering down here, and Lazarus is happy up there.
Lazarus heard Moses and the Prophets talk about a man who did for all people what I refused to do for even one person. A man who became poor—even poorer than Lazarus—so that we could become rich—even richer than me. A man who emptied himself of all that he had to fill us up with what we needed. A man who chose to hang on a tree so that our sins would not condemn us. Lazarus heard this Word of the Lord, and believed it. That’s why I never heard Lazarus complain about his place in life. That’s why I never heard him say that life was unfair because of what he didn’t have. He had Jesus, so he didn’t need anything else. He had Jesus, and so he knew he would have everything in heaven forevermore.
The reason that Jesus told you my story is because he doesn’t want you to end up where I am. He knows how easy it is to focus so much on the here and now and to forget about the hereafter. He has seen again and again how mankind loves to define themselves by the abundance of their possessions. And living in your world today, how easily does it happen? You have chariots that move without horses and travel ten times as fast, metal birds that fly you around the world, little plastic cards that that let you buy whatever you want, homes that stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, little boxes that let you talk to people thousands of miles away. You have things that people in my day never would have dreamed of! But if it is this stuff that gets you going in the morning, if it is holding on to this stuff that brings peace to your heart, if very little matters more to you than using this stuff, then you are putting yourself at great risk of ending up like me.
You know what the saddest part of being me is? God doesn’t even acknowledge my name. I’m just some anonymous rich man, a stranger to him, a nobody. But he calls Lazarus by name, just as he calls yours as well. Jesus once said, ‘I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.’ And now I see how true that is. For those who know Jesus, regardless of your situation in life, no matter what you have or what you don’t have, no matter if you are rich like I was, or poor as Lazarus; Jesus sees you, he knows you, and he loves you. He knows how you feel, knows what you need, and will give more in eternity that you can ask or imagine.
Don’t be like me and define yourself by the things you hold now. Be like Lazarus and be defined by your Lord and Savior who in mercy calls you by name, who in compassion fills you with the riches of his grace, and who in love will carry you home. Amen.