In 1989 the movie “Back to the Future 2” appeared in theaters. It continued the story of the immensely successful 1985 movie by the same name that had starred Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. In the first movie, McFly had travelled back in time thirty years to 1955 using a time machine built by his friend Doc Brown. There after accidentally interfering with the event in which his parents fell in love, he had to make sure that they did become a couple in spite of interference by his father’s antagonist Biff, so that Marty could one day be born.
At the end of the movie, Marty returns to his present day of 1985 and finds that his actions in 1955 have altered his present for the better. However in the very last scene Doc Brown appears in the time machine to tell Marty that they most go to the future to address a problem that has developed in Marty’s family.
In “Back to the Future 2” Marty and Doc Brown travel thirty years into the future – to the year 2015. Now in 1989, 2015 sounded a long ways away. Now that we are here, this date in the movie just makes me feel old. And of course the future depicted in the movie isn’t exactly the way things have turned out – we are still waiting for those hoverboards.
The rest of the movie’s plot is highly convoluted – and with apologies to my children, not very good - but it revolves around a basic fact. Marty’s family has fallen into financial ruin while Biff’s family is now incredibly rich. Marty buys a sports almanac that has the outcomes of sporting events from 1950 to 2000 intending to use it to make money when he goes back in time. However, Doc Brown catches him and makes Marty throw it away. Instead Biff finds the almanac and then uses the time machine to go back to 1955 and give it to himself. The sports almanac turns out to be the way Biff makes his fortune by betting on sporting events whose outcome he already knows.
Think of the wealth you could acquire and the lifestyle you could lead if you could go back in time with the knowledge you possess today. What if you could go back to 1976 and be there to provide venture capital to two guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who were starting a little computer company called Apple. There is almost no limit to how much money you could make. And there would be no limit to the lifestyle you could lead.
That last statement describes the rich man in our Lord’s parable today. There was no limit to his lifestyle and he chose to enjoy that fact to the full. Jesus says, “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” This was the picture of absurdity – he was using hundred dollar bills to light his Cuban cigars. Here was the use of wealth unhinged from reality.
The contrast of Lazarus with the rich man could not be more stark. We are told, “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” Destitute and sick, Lazarus was a pathetic figure.
Luke’s Gospel often develops the theme of the great reversal. In the very first chapter, Mary said in the Magnificat, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” And here in our text we see a prime example of this in death.
Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, while the rich man finds himself in torment in Hades. This fact is a shock … and it would have been a tremendous shock to some of the people who were listening. Jesus has just said, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” And then Luke tells us, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”
The Pharisees reflected the prevailing view of the day. They came from the Joel Osteen school of theology and believed that wealth was a sure sign of a right standing with God because God wants to bless you if you are just faithful. On the other hand, poverty was a sure sign of God’s disfavor, and clearly you the person had deserved that as well. And so when Jesus spoke about wealth as a spiritual hindrance, the Pharisees mocked Jesus.
In the parable the rich man learns that there is nothing that can help him. And so he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers. Yet Abraham refuses and says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man pleads, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” And with finality Abraham answers, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Now if you have been in the Church for any amount of time, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is no doubt familiar to you. But the reality is that when we think about this parable we usually go looking for meaning in the wrong places. We are fascinated with questions about what things are like between death and the return of Christ. And so we are drawn to the description in this parable. Yet it is a parable – a story. It draws upon stock images and ideas that were present in first century Judaism in describing the dead. And besides that is not Jesus’ focus. Instead he is always talking about his return to raise the dead and judge.
The last statement in the text - “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” – has provided the basis for many sermons. A message about the power and adequacy of God’s Word is certainly true to this text – I’ve preached it that way from this pulpit in years past.
But the main point here – the thing that is the true focus of the parable – is something we often miss. And to be honest, we want to miss it. It involves a difficult spiritual truth we don’t want to confront.
The clue about this is found in the rich man’s hope that his five brothers will repent. He wants his brothers to do something that he himself did not do. Up to this point, the only thing we have been told is that the rich man lived an absurdly rich lifestyle and went to Hades, while Lazarus lived an absurdly destitute life and received salvation.
The language of repentance tells us that this is about more than just a reversal of fortune. It becomes clear that in the way the rich man used his wealth, he sinned. He is an illustration of what Jesus has just said: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” While Lazarus lies at the gate of his house, the rich man serves himself with his money. And at the same time, Lazarus is an illustration of faithful trust in God.
The use of wealth and the way this interacts with faith is an important theme in Luke and Acts. It’s a theme you and I really don’t want to hear. Because you see, we want to be the rich man in the parable. We want to have wealth and we want to use it to give ourselves pleasure and enjoyment. And we don’t want to use it to help others if this in any way impinges on our ability to have the full enjoyment we think we deserve. Oh sure, we’ll help some – we’ll give our offering at church; we’ll give a little to some other ministries and charities – but we aren’t going to do anything that fundamentally changes our own comfort level. And when you deal with wealth that way … well, there is your god.
I’ll bet my last dollar that this is true of every single person here this morning – well maybe not yet the babies Aubrey and Elliot. But it won’t be long for them either. Living in the western world of affluence, it is part of the air we breath.
This morning, Jesus calls us on it. He confronts us with the fact that we serve wealth as our god. He shows us that spiritually we are Lazarus – destitute and covered with oozing sores. On our own we are helpless and cut off from God.
But the good news is the Good News – the Gospel. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He told the disciples after his resurrection that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Jesus Christ died on the cross because you make wealth your God. He died for you because you break the First Commandment in this way. And by his resurrection from the dead he defeated the death that sin produces.
He has freed you from sin through this forgiveness. He has lifted you up, so that now as a baptized child of God you already know that salvation is yours. You live as someone who doesn’t belong lying at the gate, but instead dining in the big house. In fact you will receive a foretaste of that feast in a few minutes.
This is what Christ has done for you. The apostle Paul put it this way when talking about the topic if money, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
But it doesn’t stop there – it can’t stop there. Instead the Gospel of Jesus Christ prompts us to do things through the work of the Spirit. We begin to see money and wealth in a new way. We recognize it as an asset that can be used for service rather than something we cling to so that it can serve us. And we also begin to deal with it in a new way. We begin to return more of it to God for the work of Gospel in this place and around the world. We begin to use more of it to assist other Christians in need. We begin to use more of it to help our neighbor who is in need.
We are fallen people who still must struggle against the old Adam within us. And so as the new man within us is nourished by the Means of Grace, this is probably not a change that we make in one giant leap. Realistically, it is probably something best accomplished in a continuing series of small steps – one grace filled step after another by which we live more and more as what Christ has made us to be.