My God Is My Help (Luke 16:19-31)
Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation today comes from our Gospel lesson, where Jesus tells His hearers, “And [the rich man] said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

For many centuries, artists have attempted to paint or otherwise portray biblical imagery. This story which Jesus tells, true or allegorical, is no different. Often what one will see with paintings of this text is the rich man, partying it up, surrounded by friends, enjoying an incredible feast, fine clothing and riches, with his eyes always fixed upon something or someone around him as the object of his happiness. He’s at ease, living the high life, care-free. Lazarus, however, is often portrayed as having his eyes lifted up to heaven. He’s usually on the periphery, maybe in the corner, with dogs surrounding him, licking his wounds. Perhaps he’s got an outstretched hand, reaching out for alms or a touch of mercy, but his eyes are fixed heavenward, seeking reprieve from his suffering.

It may not be as well-known as other parables and illustrations that Jesus uses, but as the number of such paintings clearly shows, our text often captures people’s imagination, undoubtedly because of how dramatic it is. These two characters are seemingly symbolic of the “haves” and “have nots,” living as they do and receiving the just rewards upon death – only, with the rich man descending to Hades, to hell, the place of unquenchable fire, as poor miserable Lazarus is borne to his rest in heaven on the hands of angels. 

The unnamed rich man, tormented as he is in the flames, finally lifts his eyes and sees the old haunt of his stoop, Lazarus, to whom he had never given the time of day, resting in peace and comfort and relief from all his sorrows and pains. In desperation, he calls out to the one whom Jesus refers to as “father Abraham,” asking for the slightest of graces from Lazarus, a drop of water from the tip of his finger. This request is impossible to acquiesce for a few reasons: the moral dubiousness aside of giving relief to one who’s going through eternal punishment, the simple fact is that there exists between Lazarus and the rich man a great chasm that had been fixed, immovable, unwavering, so even if Lazarus wanted to help, he wouldn’t be able to. 

Now whether it’s out of concern for his loved ones or for another reason, the rich man asks for an alternative: “Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” The understanding of the rich man remains as little in hell as it was in life; his family already has everything that they would need to avoid the fiery perdition. They have the Word of God, in what Moses and the Prophets wrote, and Abraham says as much. Unsatisfied with this answer, and perhaps aware of the real issue his brothers have, the rich man tries one more time: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The final word from Abraham may seem terse, but as the rich man clearly hasn’t gotten the message, he tells him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Let’s be clear about this: the rich man’s offense which merited this eternal punishment was not his riches. Likewise, what bestowed eternal life, rest, and reprieve for Lazarus was not his poverty, as if living in squalor is somehow more virtuous that being rich or, indeed, that being virtuous at all merits eternal life. No, being a “have” or a “have not” has nothing to do with one’s standing before God any more than how well one keeps God’s commandments. What does … is where one places one’s trust, what one believes.

I’ll grant you, nowhere here does Jesus explicitly say that the rich man was an unbeliever, but unlike the unnamed rich man, He gives a name for the poor man, “Lazarus.” It’s dubious that Jesus did this as an homage to His friend, Lazarus, but the name itself is the giveaway. Lazarus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Eliezer,” which means, “My God is my help.” Jesus gives this name to the character to illustrate the point that the Lord is the God of the helpless and hopeless, those who cry out for mercy in this life, those who look to YHWH Elohim for their help, and one only does this is one believes and trusts that YHWH Elohim can do something for help.

The rich man is Lazarus’s foil, and that means he is an unbeliever. He’s not an unbeliever because of his riches, or even because of his lack of compassion for Lazarus. He’s an unbeliever because he doesn’t trust God’s Word to do what He intended it to do, so he looks to the fantastical, the dramatic to do the job of saving his family. He desires a sign – namely, the rising of a dead man. The problem is, his brothers are likely also unbelievers, and their unbelief will not be swayed by flashy miracles, however extraordinary. No miracle would be enough to make them repent, for “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

This, of course, is how it plays out in the real world, outside the scope of this parable. When Jesus raised his friend, the actual Lazarus from the dead, it’s not long afterward that we hear the Pharisees begin to actively seek ways to put Jesus to death. They remained unswayed when Lazarus’s revivifier Himself, after being crucified and killed, was reported to have risen from the dead. Down to this very day, despite the mountain of evidence pointing to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days after His sacrificial death on our behalf, people still deny that He even existed, let alone died and rose again. Those arguments and signs won’t sway them; it is only by the gift of faith that one believes.

And we do. By God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s working, we believe. We believe God’s Word of Law, convicting us of our sins. We believe His Word of Gospel, clinging to the fact that our parable-teller, Jesus, died to atone for our sins. We believe that three days later, He rose from the dead, just as He said He would. We believe that He is coming again one blessed Day to restore creation and bring us to live forever with Him. None of us is worthy to ask or inherit anything before God—not the rich man, not Lazarus, not you or me. There is only One who is worthy of riches before God: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We are all beggars, the rich and the poor, but those whose gaze is heavenward, who look to the Lamb of God for comfort and peace and forgiveness, receive precisely that. He is our God, and He alone is our help.

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.