19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’
25 “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. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “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)
It was the senior banquet for me and my classmates after studying to be pastors at our seminary. We were just days away from being assigned to our first congregations. The seminary president got up to speak. The room got quiet. He told a personal story about his kids and an experience they had growing up together. When he finished the story, everybody leaned forward, waiting… He said, “There’s actually no point to that story at all, but I’ve heard that people like stories, so I thought I’d tell one.” Then he went on to give us encouragement as future pastors. What’s ironic is that I don’t remember any of the encouraging things he said. I just remember the story!
Stories are powerful, aren’t they? People love stories. Stories change lives. God knows that. So he gave us the Bible. Sometimes people picture the Bible as old and stogy and boring. Ever thought that? If you have, I’d encourage you to trying reading it. The Bible isn’t boring. It’s the greatest adventure and action and love story ever told! Do you know who the best storyteller in the Bible is? Jesus. Jesus loved to tell stories. We call them parables. Jesus’ stories are different than the story that seminary president told. His stories always have a point to teach us about God.
But here’s a problem: Sometimes the “point” of Jesus’ stories doesn’t seem true. Sometimes it seems like what Jesus says is just plain wrong. Upside-down. Here’s an example: Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied” (Luke 6:20-21). Blessed are the poor and hungry… Does that match what you see? No way! When the wealthy Pharisees of Jesus’ day heard that, they sneered at Jesus. “What are you talking about, Jesus? Just look at us. We’re rich and loving it! Life is not the way you describe it.” Ever wrestle with that? Does what you see not match what Jesus says?
Jesus knows. So Jesus tells a story. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” And the Pharisees in their fancy suits must have smiled and said, “Yep, that’s us! It pays to be rich!” “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 people with tattered clothes and rumbling stomachs sadly nodded their heads with tears in their eyes: “Yes, that’s us. Life’s hard. It doesn’t make sense.”
Whom would you rather be? The rich man or poor Lazarus? Dressed with fine linen or dressed with sores and licked by dogs? Whom would you rather be? Can I see a show of hands? Wealth, friends, and food… or hungry, forgotten, and alone? Have everybody know your name… or have no one look your way? Blessed are the poor? “There you go again Jesus. That’s upside-down!”
Until they died. Both of them died. Death is the great equalizer. Have you heard that? Death doesn’t discriminate. Rich or poor. Black or white. Man or woman. Everybody dies. There’s a reason for that. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). How many people have sinned? Everybody! So how many people die? Everybody! That’s true for rich and for poor.
But death is where Jesus’ real story starts. All die, but all don’t go to the same place. Life in our upside-down world doesn’t make sense unless you see what happens after death. Just like you can’t understand a book by reading just one chapter, so you can’t understand life by just seeing this world. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” What a beautiful surprise! The angels carried poor Lazarus to heaven. There’s no purgatory. No waiting. Just heaven. What we see with our eyes doesn’t tell the full story. Earthly suffering doesn’t indicate a bad relationship with God. Lazarus was carried by the angels to heaven.
That means that heaven is a real place with real people in it. At least Jesus thinks so! Who welcomed Lazarus to heaven? Father Abraham. Have you heard of him? Maybe some of you can sing his song with me: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!” Abraham was the one God choose to be the father of the Israelites. He was the guy God promised would have a son, even though he was 100 years old. Sounds upside-down! What did Abraham do? “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham hoped against hope. Abraham believed in what he couldn’t see. A man of faith. Where is Abraham right now? In heaven!
So how did Lazarus get up there? Here’s a cool detail: In all of Jesus’ parables, Lazarus is the only character who has a name. Ever noticed that? No other person in any other parable has a name. Just Lazarus. Jesus must be teaching us something! Do you know what “Lazarus” means? It means, “God has helped.” Lazarus on earth seemed unknown and forgotten. Was he? No way! Lazarus’ name was written in heaven! It seemed like only the dogs were on his side. True? No way! “God has helped.” Lazarus was loved by God! Remember the word for God’s undeserved love? Grace. Lazarus was saved by God’s grace. “God has helped.” Tattered clothes. Sores all over his body. Poor. Hungry. That didn’t matter! Lazarus was carried by the angels to heaven.
But not the rich man. Jesus doesn’t even bother to give him a name. That’s ironic, because I bet everybody knew his name on earth. I bet he was famous. But his name wasn’t written in heaven. “The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment…” Where did the rich man go? Hades. Hell. It’s interesting that way more people today believe that heaven is real than that hell is real. Do you know who tells us about heaven? Jesus. Do you know who tells us about hell? Jesus. Like heaven, hell is a real place with real people. What we see with our eyes doesn’t tell the whole story. Lots of people are going to be surprised when they die! Are you?
So how bad is hell? It can’t be that bad, right? Listen: “In Hades, 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.” How bad is hell? This rich man begged for just one drop of water in the midst of the fire. That’s bad! Surely Abraham will say, “Yes,” right? We expect him to say, “It’s all going to be okay.” But he doesn’t. Not even close! “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 set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” There’s no getting out. No second chances. That’s hell!
Why would God create a place like hell? Because we deserve it. When we gorge ourselves and ignore those starving around us, there’s a hell for that. When we treat our dogs better than other human beings, there’s a hell for that. When we reject God and love our money, there’s a hell for that. I have a problem that all the money in the world can’t solve. So do you! It’s my sin! Earthly wealth is no guarantee of a good relationship with God. If my heart isn’t right with God, if I treasure money—or anything —more than him, I’ll end up in hell forever. Do you get the point? Jesus’ stories have a point! What we see on earth—good or bad—doesn’t tell the whole story!
Finally, the rich man started to get it. He got how awful, how eternal hell is, and he didn’t want his brothers to go there too. So he said to Abraham, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” I once heard someone say that we Lutherans must not believe in hell. “Of course we do! Why would they say that!” Because we don’t have much urgency in our evangelism. If you believe hell is real, you’d tell everyone you know! “Send Lazarus to my family!” But Abraham said, “No. They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” What’s another word for Moses and the Prophets? The Bible. That’s all we need. Faith comes from hearing God’s Word.
Because stories are powerful. Especially God’s story! Jesus’ little story today is part of the big story of how God has saved us from hell. Do you know it? Could you tell it? God’s story starts with creation. God made you, me, everything. You’re not an accident. There is purpose and meaning for your life. You’re God’s creation! But instead of thanking him, we sinned—Adam and Eve and us. Sin wrecks everything. God should have sent us all to hell right away! But he didn’t. He sent Jesus our Savior. You talk about upside-down… Jesus died on the cross for you and me and the sins of the whole world. You’re forgiven. For every sin. Forgiven. But the story doesn’t end at the cross. Jesus rose again and promises life in heaven to all who believe in him. It doesn’t matter how upside-down your world looks, here’s the truth: Jesus’ story changes lives. “Faith in Jesus through the Word of God,” Abraham said. “That’s what your brothers need!”
But do you know what the rich man said? “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. The Word is not enough. That book is too old. They need more. Something big. Like having someone rise from the dead. Then they will believe!” But Abraham said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This is so important! Faith in Jesus comes from the Word of God. If we don’t believe the Word, than nothing will convince us, not even if someone rises from the dead.
Here’s the irony: Someone did. A dead man did come back to life, but it wasn’t Lazarus. It was Jesus! You talk about an upside-down story. Jesus left heaven to open the way to heaven for us. Jesus was poor, so that we are rich. Jesus died, so that we live. What we see with our eyes doesn’t tell the whole story! The Gospel message is not about seeing. It’s about believing. Believing the upside-down story of Jesus. Victory through a cross. Those who are poor are blessed. Those who are weak are strong. Those who die, live. That’s Jesus’ upside-down story!
That story changes your life. Whether you’re rich or poor or somewhere in the middle, you matter to Jesus. He wants you to know that your outward circumstances don’t tell the full story. Life in our upside-down world doesn’t make sense unless you see what happens after death. Until you see faithless men in flames and beggars with angels. When times are good, your wealth or success doesn’t mean that you’re better than anyone else. So be careful not to trust in it! When times are bad, your suffering doesn’t mean that you’re forgotten by God. He knows your name. It’s written in heaven! So don’t trust in what you see. Trust in Jesus and his upside-down story.