Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost / Fifth Sunday of Luke, November 3, 2019
Galatians 1:11-19, 12:1-9; Luke 16:19-31
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
At a recent conference where I was giving a talk, I was approached by a young man—a neurosurgeon—who asked me some big questions about why God was going to send so many people to Hell simply because they failed to believe in Him. He further wanted to know why God didn’t just reveal Himself to the whole world all at once so that everyone would have a much better chance of getting to Heaven, since they would know that God was real.
I thought about that conversation again this week as I came across that line from today’s Gospel: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”
In this Gospel, there is a rich man who has died and is suffering in Hades, “being in torment.” And while he is in torment, he sees Abraham across a great chasm with the poor man Lazarus whom he had despised in his life and whom he had not cared for while he lay at his gate in suffering.
Being in great pain, he calls out to Abraham to ask for some relief from his torment. Abraham replies that no one can cross over from the place of delight where he is to the place of suffering where the rich man is. It is too late, and nothing can be done.
Yet while it is too late for this rich man, he nevertheless remembers his five brothers who are still living. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to tell them of his torment and to warn them of what will happen to them if they do not repent. That’s when Abraham gives him that reply: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”
What did Abraham mean by that?
To understand that, I think that we should return to the question asked me by the neurosurgeon. In a sense, he was asking for something very similar to what the rich man was. The rich man believed that, if someone would come back from the dead—which is how he responds to Abraham—then surely his brothers would believe. The doctor was asking why God didn’t just spectacularly reveal Himself to mankind—surely most people would believe.
First, let’s look at the assumption that mankind would simply believe if God jumped onto the world stage in an obvious manner. By what measure would we know beyond a doubt that that is God? How do we know that most people wouldn’t think we were being visited by an alien from another world? What about a mass hallucination? What about a massive government conspiracy? How would we know what God would look like such that we could be sure it was really Him? That presupposes some prior knowledge of what to look for when God shows up. If God showed up, would we even know or believe it was really Him?
And what if when God showed up He announced the same message? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Would people believe Him? What is this “Kingdom of God,” anyway? What does it mean to repent? How would they know that He wasn’t just trying to control them or manipulate them in some way? If God spoke, would we really understand and believe what He was saying?
Likewise, if Lazarus came back from the dead, how can we know that the rich man’s brothers would believe what he said to them? We know that the rich man ignored him in the earthly life. Would his brothers even know who Lazarus was? If they saw him, why would they believe that he had been dead and was now alive?
Even if they believed he had come back from the dead, why would they believe the message that he gave them about repentance to avoid suffering in Hades? They had never seen such a place. Maybe he came back from the dead but had hallucinations and didn’t really know what life after death was about—or if there even was such a thing.
What is the problem with this assumption that some grand spectacle would convince people to repent and become obedient to God? The problem is that it assumes that they have the proper framework already in order to find such a display believable and to interpret it correctly.
There is also a deeper problem here, though: As we have seen a number of times in the Holy Scriptures, when God visits the earth, it is a time of judgment, a time of vindication, a time of setting things right. When God appears among mankind, things happen. You cannot simply be in the presence of God and not be changed. If you are not prepared for His presence, you will die, be damned, be destroyed. If you are prepared, then you will live, be justified, be vindicated.
When we wish that God would just show up, that is what we are wishing for. We are wishing for Him to come and to judge the whole earth, because that is what God’s very presence does. His presence makes things right. And if we are not ready for that righteousness, then we are in big trouble.
So where does that leave us? Well, as Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And as he said to the rich man who insisted that a resurrection would do the trick, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
What does it mean to “hear Moses and the prophets”? It is to receive what God has given to us. In the rich man’s case, he and his brothers had received the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and they did not heed them. So because they were not cooperating with the truth that God had given them, they would not receive more being given. And indeed, the more truth that you are given, the more you will be held responsible for responding to it in faith and obedience.
What about the rich man’s insistence that a resurrection from the dead would do what Moses and the prophets apparently could not? Well, Someone did rise from the dead, and most of the people who encountered Him still did not believe. And the proclamation of that resurrection has gone out into all the world, and many people still do not believe. Why? Because they had not believed and become obedient to the truth that they had already received.
For the rest of us, if we are Christians, we have received even more than Moses and the prophets. We now have the Gospel. We now have the full revelation of God to man in His Son Jesus Christ. And if we have been given holy baptism and chrismation, we have Christ and His Holy Spirit in us, working in us to be prepared for the Day of the Lord.
Those who are saved are not saved simply because they believe in God. And those who are damned are not damned simply because they do not believe in God. This is a reduced and false way of understanding how this works.
The Scriptures tell us again and again that every man will be judged according to his works (Matt. 25:31-46, Rom. 2:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, etc.). We will not be judged on on whether or not we agreed with certain ideas about God or that He exists — the demons agree with all the right ideas about God and know full well that He exists! Rather, we will be judged according to what we did with what we had received.
At this moment, God is being merciful. He has not yet brought to the whole world the Day of Visitation, when His presence will be obvious to all but will also bring judgment and vindication. He is being patient. But His patience will eventually run out, and that day will come. If we would be ready, we must hear Moses and the prophets, and since we now have them, Jesus Christ and His Apostles. In this way, we will be prepared to receive the coming of the Lord.
To the One Who has come and will come again, our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.