Appearances Can Be Deceiving

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

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[Jesus said:] “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 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. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he 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.’” (Luke 16:19-31).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Appearance. Style. Image. They’re everything in our world. In debates. At work. In school. Even in the church. Among Christians. Are you healthy, wealthy, and successful? Is your church growing rapidly? Well then, God must love you. That’s the popular thinking.

But appearances can be deceiving. Take Lazarus for example. A beggar. His body riddled with oozing sores. Dogs lick the pus, and he’s too weak, too depressed, to stop them. He’s an outcast who rummages through the dumpster, looking for the scraps that have fallen from the table of the rich and elite.

Does Lazarus look like he’s blessed? No, he looks like he’s a man to be pitied. He appears to not be blessed by God. In fact, maybe God doesn’t even like Lazarus too much. Otherwise, he’d be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. That’s what the world would say in a culture where image is everything.

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

Then there’s the rich man. Clothed in purple and fine linen. The ancient Middle Eastern equivalent of Armani suits and custom-tailored silk shirts. His daily menu is nothing short of royalty, either. Sumptuous feasts. Think Caviar. Lobster. Escargot. Filet mignon. Waldorf salads. Trifle and frozen custard. Claret and champagne. From all appearances he seems to be blessed by God.

But appearances can be deceiving. What counts is what God sees. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). What counts is how these two men stand before Him, from whom nothing can be concealed.

Then comes the great equalizer: Death! Both men die. Death strips them of their outward appearances. Angels escort Lazarus to heaven. No more sickness. No shame. No hunger. And the sores are all healed. He’s given a place at the banquet of salvation right next to Father Abraham. Now we see Lazarus as he really is. Clothed with the righteousness of his Savior. His poor life redeemed. He shines in a glory not his own. He is in the presence of His God and Savior Jesus.

Death peels back the veneer of prestige and fortune of the rich man. It unravels the wealth he used to hide his spiritual corruption. Notice, how the rich man is not even named in this parable? And there’s no angelic escort. Jesus simply says: “The rich man also died and was buried.”

Now, the problem with the rich man is not that he was rich. Being wealthy is not a sin. Neither is being poor and miserable a virtue, in and of itself. The sin is that the rich man trusted in himself… in what he had… in what he did.

And so, he ends up in hell. Forever separated from Jesus. The agony and torment of hell is immense. Never ending regret. Forever seeking Jesus but having no access to Him. Seeing what could have been and now can never be. And so, Jesus pictures the rich man looking over that great divide. That unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell.

Remarkably, even in hell, the rich man still displays his arrogance. Wants to use Lazarus as his lackey. “Father Abraham,” he demands, “send that poor chump Lazarus over here with a drop of water to cool my tongue.

“Sorry Rich Man. I can’t do that. Lazarus is in Paradise. He’s forever separated from all that would cause him pain.”

“Well, at least send Lazarus to my brothers to warn them. We don’t want them to end up in hell here with me, do we?”

“You don’t get it, do you, Rich Man? Your brothers have Moses and the Prophets. They have the Scriptures. They’re read in worship every Sunday. They proclaim Jesus the Savior. Let them listen to God’s Word preached in church and they will not end up in hell.”

“Yea, right Abraham! Nobody pays attention to sermons. Been to church lately? I’ll tell you what. Let’s do a crossing over thing. If Lazarus returns from the grave, surely my brothers will get religion. They’ll clean up their life for sure.”

“No way,” is Father Abraham’s icy reply. “No wonder you’re in hell, Rich Man. The Scriptures plainly proclaim Jesus as the Savior. The one true God. And guess who did die and came back from the dead? That’s right: Jesus.”

Father Abraham continues: “Moses and the prophets preached this. But you would not listen. You would not believe. The prophet Amos warned about your idolatry. Putting all your trust in your possessions, wealth, and comfort. And one of our Lord’s apostles wrote: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ Rich Man, in this life you appeared to be blessed. You fooled a lot of people. I heard what they said at your funeral. But appearances, especially in your case, were deceiving. You’ve wandered from the faith. You’ve pierced yourself with the eternal grief of hell because you would not listen to God’s life-giving Word.”

Dear Christian friends, there is a word of warning here for us. The rich man is anyone who trusts in himself or anything other than the merits of Christ. If we trust in ourselves, if we believe ourselves to be self-righteous, we are as lost as this rich man. For the truth is none of us have anything to offer God.

“We are all beggars before God. This much is true.” So said Dr. Luther on his death bed. You and I, before God, have absolutely nothing on our own—nothing but sores and other hideous things that we just wish we could hide or make go away. We have nothing to hold up before God. Nothing but sins that show just how poor and miserable we truly are, lacking any righteousness of our own.

We can’t look up. We can’t do anything but hold our heads down and hands up in desperate hope that God would have mercy… that He would help us, forgive us, and save us. And we know without doubt that it is totally by grace—for we surely deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.

Still, we should not rest on our Lutheran heritage. We need to watch ourselves, too—because we have a way of saying the right words: “I’m a poor, miserable sinner,” yet live and speak as though we don’t really believe it’s true. In the process, we end up emptying those words of real meaning. “I’m a sinner, Pastor. I know I am, but the problem is (so and so). You should see what they do. I realize I’m not perfect, but…” “But”—the chief tool of excuse making. The verbal eraser that cancels out everything we’ve just said. And with that little “but” we put our faith and trust in something else other than the righteousness of Christ.

Beggars don’t even have excuses to cling to. They are completely empty, devoid of any imagined righteousness of their own. And they know it. “Mea culpa,” they say. “My fault. My fault. My own grievous fault.” It’s always their fault. It’s always their sin. And they are always willing to accept the blame.

Imagine that! Being the one that accepts the blame rather than pointing a finger at the next guy. That’s what it means to be a beggar before God!

“The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” by Eugene Burnand

This text warns us, repeatedly, of sins that would distract us from God’s Word. It warns us not to trust in ourselves, our own comfort level, our own self-righteousness, or what we see. It bids us to hear the Word of God and believe it.

So far, you’ve heard God’s word of Law directed at the rich man, but it really applies to you, too. Like the rich man, you are also tempted to trust in appearances. You desire to look for God’s presence in what you see rather than in His Word. You’re tempted to look for an indication of God’s favor by the number of your possessions or the level of your comfort or the status of your health or your level of success. But such signs are no proof of the Lord’s blessing and approval. There are plenty of people who are blessed by God with material things, who still do not believe that Christ is risen from the dead. There are plenty of “good” people who are trusting in their own filthy rags of righteousness rather than Christ’s perfect robe of righteousness for their salvation.

But praise the Lord! The Law is not God’s last Word. Once it has convicted you of your sin, you are ready to hear the Gospel. You are ready to hear of your Savior who humbled Himself to become a Servant among us.

Talk about how appearances can be deceiving! God’s only Son was born to a humble virgin, a manger for his bed. In His ministry, the Son of Man had no place to call His own. The God-man endured the scorn, suffering, and shame of those who considered Him to be among the dregs of society. Christ bore the weight of our guilt and shame and sin to the cross. He suffered and died for the sins of the world—yours and mine included. Then He came back from the dead to prove that His Word and promise is true. And now He reigns over His Church here on earth, despite all appearance to the contrary. Hear His Gospel now.

Are you afflicted? Troubled? Worried? Sick? Without comfort? Old Adam will use these things to convince you that God has no love for you. Your sinful nature will use your exhaustion, hurt, and circumstances to say that the Lord must be out to get you. But you don’t listen to Old Adam, your circumstances, or your fatigue to know God’s will. Instead, you listen to His Word.

God’s Word tells you this: There is no way that God does not love you or is out to get you. Why? Because of Christ. Out of love for you, your Savior was afflicted, beaten, and troubled. He bore your sins, sicknesses, and infirmities all the way to the cross for you. There, God poured out all His wrath for all your sin. He has no more wrath to pour out upon you now. He is not punishing you, but disciplining you, patiently teaching you His way of righteousness as a loving Father instructs his own dear child. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”  

God has not run out of love for you, nor is He out to get you. Old Adam will do His best to get you to think so, but Old Adam wants you to share the same fate as the rich man in the parable. So don’t try to learn about God from sinful thoughts, temptations, signs, or life conditions. Learn about Him from His Word. Cling to His promises… even more when you are afflicted. Because there Christ promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Do you suffer for the name that you bear… for being a Christian? A Lutheran who takes doctrine seriously? The world has little tolerance left for the saving Gospel that Christ has died for the sins of the world, and that the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to deliver forgiveness and faith. If you cling to this Word, you will likely face scorn. You will likely be made to feel uncomfortable. In fact, I would be more concerned if you did not suffer some than if you do for the sake of Jesus.

But again, you don’t get your identity from the world. Because the world rejects Christ and instead looks to endless torment, it will mock His people. It will seek to make you so uncomfortable to be a Christian that you decide you’d rather be worldly instead. So don’t listen to what the world calls you. Cling to the Word, and hear what Jesus calls you. He calls you His beloved child, for whom He has shed His blood and risen again. He calls you an heir of heaven. He’s placed His name on you in your baptism, and He will not let you go. You are not a Christian because of appearance or because you say you are. No, far better: You are a Christian because Christ says you are.

Does the world seem to be crashing down around you, so that there is little good to see? Do you long for a sign of the Lord’s presence and love? Don’t look too far because the Lord is near to you. Look to the font and remember that He saved you there. There in the waters of Holy Baptism, He has quenched the fires of hell for you, marking you as His own, no matter how little the world esteems you or your Baptism.

Look to the Word, for there He speaks and strengthens your faith. There, through the mouth of His called and ordained servant, God speaks His Law, which exposes your sin and calls you to repentance. There, in His Gospel, you hear that Good News that for Jesus’ sake all your sins are remembered no more. Cast into the depths of the sea. As far away as the east is from the west.

Look to the Lord’s Table. To keep you in the one true faith unto life everlasting, the Lord feeds you with what the world thinks are only crumbs and a great big nothing… while they feast on the riches they have piled up for themselves. What the world thinks are crumbs, we poor Lazaruses confess are the true Body and Blood of Jesus, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.

By all appearances, none of these things looks spectacular or powerful, but by them you have everything you need. There, in these means of grace, you have the Lord Himself present for your forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

With Jesus you have everything. Your life is full and complete with Him no matter how sick or poor or unsettled you might appear in the eyes of the world. You are heirs of heaven. You’re numbered with Lazarus. One who believed and trusted in Jesus alone. And when you die the angels will carry you to heaven. You can count on it. You are among God’s elect children. For you are forgiven of all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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