A Tale of Two Sermons
James C. Denison
I have been preaching for 32 years, but I’ve never done what I’m going to do today–preach two sermons in one service. I’m going to preach first the sermon I had planned before Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News was published, and then the sermon I need to preach in light of its front page.
Since I’m not Joshua and cannot make the sun stop or time stand still, both of my sermons will be as brief as I can make them. Then I’ll show you how they relate to each other, and why I believe they are so crucial to our souls today.
First let’s walk through our parable, one of the most striking stories in all of Scripture. It begins: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” (v. 19). Jesus could not have painted a more picturesque image.
He “was dressed”–the Greek means to dress continually in this way. “Purple” was made from the shellfish murax, requiring ten thousand to produce an ounce. “Fine linen” was imported from Egypt, and was extremely expensive.
He “lived in luxury”–the Greek is lampros, “to shine brilliantly.” He was one of the leading social figures of his day, wealthy beyond measure, someone like a famous movie star, athlete, or tycoon today.
By contrast, “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” (vs. 20-21). This is the only character to be named in any of Jesus’ parables. Note that he receives a name, but the rich man does not.
He was “laid” by the gate–Luke’s Greek means that he was thrown there every day. He was “covered with sores,” a medical term occurring only here in the New Testament; it means to be covered with ulcers or bedsores.
He was “longing to eat”–the original means to desire without satisfaction, to yearn for something you cannot have. He wanted to eat “what fell from the rich man’s table.” Wealthy people used bread to wipe their hands after a meal, then threw the bread out.
This beggar longed to eat such bread, but “the dogs came” and most likely ate it. Dogs were not pets in Jewish society, as they might eat or touch something which was legally unclean. They would gather in packs around the doors of the wealthy and eat the bread which was thrown out. That’s Jesus’ picture here.
In contrast to the rich man’s purple robes, Lazarus’ rags are so poor that they do not even cover his body. As a result, “the dogs came and licked his sores,” rendering him ritually unclean as well.
Now comes the shock: “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” (vs. 22-23).
In Jesus’ day it was conventional wisdom that the wealthy are blessed by God, while the poor must be cursed and punished by him. For Lazarus to go to “Abraham’s side,” a metaphor for heaven, was a great shock. For the rich man to go to “hell, where he was in torment,” was an even greater shock.
The irony is remarkable. Lazarus was likely not buried, his body thrown out into the garbage called Gehenna, a biblical image for hell. The rich man was buried with great pomp and ceremony. Now the rich man is in hell, and Lazarus is in the paradise and palace of heaven.
The rich man makes two responses. First, he asked Abraham to “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” (v. 24). This is what a servant would do for his master.
Failing this, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers (v. 28). This again is something a servant would do for his master. But Abraham refuses to send his impoverished saint in heaven to serve this wealthy sinner in hell. What a powerful story Jesus told that day.
The first sermon
Here’s the point of the sermon I was planning to preach before Tuesday: our relationship with Lazarus reveals our relationship with God. It doesn’t create it, but it reveals it. The way I love my neighbor shows the way I really love my Lord.
How you treat my children shows your real regard for me. How we relate to those we don’t have to treat well reveals the nature of our relationship with God. Here’s the biblical logic behind my assertion.
The rich man is in hell. Scripture clearly teaches that we don’t go to hell because of our relationships with people, but our relationship with God. Jesus was blunt about this: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
If the rich man was condemned purely for his treatment of Lazarus, our salvation would be based on works, not grace through faith. He is in hell because he has rejected the word and love of God.
But Jesus’ story shows us the best indication of that spiritual condition: his treatment of Lazarus. He could have fed him the bread which the dogs ate. Better, he could have brought him into his mansion, cared for his wounds, and given him a new life. He had the means to change Lazarus’ life, but he did not.
Even in hell, he continues to treat Lazarus as his servant, asking that he be sent to give him some water or to bring a message to his family. His relationship with Lazarus reveals his true relationship with God.