A poor man is about to marry into a rich family when the father of the bride-to-be asks the poor man: “how will you provide for my daughter?” The poor man replies: “The Lord will provide.” The father of the bride thinks that the poor man is at least religious, and he will treat his daughter well. During the rehearsal, the father of the bride asks the poor man: “how will you provide for the children you have with my daughter?” The poor man replies: “The Lord will provide.” Again, the father of the bride is impressed and thinks well of the poor man because of his devotion to his faith. Finally, the poor man is married to the daughter and after the poor man kisses the daughter, the father-in-law walks up to the new couple, shakes his new son-in-law’s hand, and says, “congratulations and welcome to the family.” The son-in-law replies: “Thank you Lord”.
If you were listening to the scriptures today, you would have noticed that the conditions of poverty and wealth are on the chopping block. We have a rich set of scriptures before us beginning with the prophet Amos, who warns the people of his time that those who are wealthy and comfortable, in the face of suffering, will be first to go into exile. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches and eat lambs from the flock … they shall now be the first of those who go into exile” (Amos 6:4,7). The Old Testament lesson doesn’t make us feel warm and fuzzy in our complacency.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverb 30:8) while a different proverb reminds us that “the rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverb 22:2). And then, Paul leaves us with a wonderful promise saying, “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 through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Then “there was a rich man who was clothed in purple … and at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores” (Luke 16:19, 20). Today, Jesus is telling us a parable about a poor man named Lazarus, who has been lying hungry and wounded at a rich man’s gate where he has been only noticed by the dogs. When the end of life is upon him Jesus describes how Lazarus is carried away by angels to comfort. But, on the other hand, the rich man, who in life was more concerned about himself – when he encounters death he is left in agony. While the rich man is suffering in Hades, in the flames of misery, the rich man is still completely focused on himself – his thirst, his family and what others can do for him as he begs Lazarus to help him, to bring him water and to warn his family.
Within this parable are some very important truths and something that we need to know before the end of life also comes to us and catches us by surprise. As with many parables, we must be careful to not read too much out of them but rather to listen to what Jesus is saying to us through the Word. For example, it's too easy to assume that the poor are all going to heaven and the rich are all going to hell – but that’s not the context in which the parable is being recounted. Back in chapter 15, “the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear [Jesus]” (Luke 15:1) which included the Pharisees and scribes grumbling and listening to Jesus at a distance. No doubt, the parable of the lost sheep and lost son would have created the atmosphere of dualism in the world of the living, while the contrast between rich man and Lazarus sets up a different struggle in the world of the dead.
Before we look at this eternal struggle within the realm of the dead, let’s examine the life of the two living members Jesus highlighted today. Unlike any of Jesus’s parables, the poor man is given a name. The Greek word Lazarus is derived from the Hebrew name Eleazar which simply translates to “God has helped”. “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” (Luke 16:19-20). When we first hear the parable, we must wonder how anyone could be so cold and callous as to allow a poor man to lie by their doorway without doing anything for them. Lazarus is covered in sores that are being licked by stray dogs and he longs for nothing more than the crumbs that might fall off the rich man’s table. But he goes completely unnoticed by the rich man.
Let’s be honest, the parable makes us angry, even outraged that this rich man, living in a fine mansion, dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every day, simply ignored this poor man? But in the end, we’re not surprised when the rich man dies and ends up in Hades in torment and now, he can’t even get a tiny drink of water. “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” (Luke 16:24). He got what he deserved, we might even be so bold to think. What was that rich man thinking? We’d never do that to anyone - would we? It’s easy for us to feel self-righteous about the rich man. It’s also just as easy to think that this isn’t a hard parable for us to understand. The poor man who suffered on earth is rewarded in heaven. The rich man who had more than enough on earth is sent to Hades because he didn’t share. But is it possible that Jesus is trying to teach us something more important than simply right and wrong behaviour? If we take the parable at face-value it's all about the people who have many gifts being willing to see those who have nothing and give them the assistance needed to live a decent life.
But is there more? Understanding one of Jesus’s parables can be a lot like looking back and evaluating your ministry in a particular time and place. For example, what conclusions can I draw from my own vocation as a pastor? Would I be able to judge how well or how badly I have done in the past 4 ½ years of serving Jesus in this church by only looking at this one moment in time and what is happening today. I might appreciate being told that you liked a particular sermon, but it doesn’t give me a true picture of how I did in the long run or as Paul might say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7). Consider, we’ve have gathered in this place today as a family of the children of God to worship, to hear God’s Word, to pray for the needs of others, to share in a foretaste of the meal that leads to eternal life and in the end, we are sent forth by God to leave this place to go into the world. We do the same thing every time we gather.
Once it’s all said and done, it’s the love that we share in the name of Christ that says everything about our life and ministry together. It’s not hard to be self-righteous and judgemental, as we look back. It's a human trait that we all share and that’s why it’s always best to focus on the positive aspects of our life together. As a church, we regularly pray for others on Sunday morning while some within our church family put flesh to their prayers. This is what we don’t see happening in Jesus’s parable. As we turn our attention back to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we hear how Lazarus is rewarded for his suffering and the rich man is punished for his lack of concern. The parable on its own can be seen as a warning that we must be helpful to those in need to not receive the same fate as the rich man.
But when we take a look at all the events and teachings that lead up to this parable, we get a different perspective on the parable which actually forms a climax for all the previous stories. For you see, Jesus has been teaching the crowds (while the Pharisees are listening) about the good Samaritan, a rich fool, being watchful and faithful, about a great banquet, and a dishonest manager. Now, Jesus ends with a story about our eternal fate. Surprisingly, what comes before all these teachings of Jesus is the disciples’ request to “increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus responds by teaching his disciples that being a disciple requires holding to a different way of seeing and living in the kingdom of God.
For example, we feed the hungry not because we think it’s the right thing to do, but because we see their hunger, and then we act accordingly. We do for them what we would want others to do for us. “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). This ought to hold true in every aspect of our life when we do ministry to each other, freely doing for others what we would want done for us and not being forced out of compulsion or because others want us to do it their way. Let’s not forget that “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). For you see, when we misunderstand Jesus’s parable, by doing good works to avoid the fate of the rich man we deny the work of the cross. When we try to save ourselves by doing the right thing in order to be made right with God, we enter into works-righteousness that also leads to death. And when we hear this story and the fate of poor Lazarus and what it means to live a godly life, we might also begin to see where we have fallen short. It might be better, we think, to suffer now and take up our cross – rather than ending up like the rich man in Hades.
But Jesus is not trying to teach us what we need to do in order to receive the poor man’s reward, otherwise he would be teaching us a man-made salvation. In effect, Jesus is teaching us that we are all like Lazarus and that we are all poor beggars, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Each and every last one of God’s children is dependent on God for everything—even for life itself. Not one of us is good enough to merit being carried to Abraham’s side when we die. It simply doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of God. What you do or don’t do won’t get you into heaven. Salvation and eternal life are gifts. We can’t earn them, no matter what we do. We are all dependent on God, and in need of God’s grace. I repeat – “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). And because of this, we are all rich. Every person on this earth is rich in one respect: in that we have been freely offered and given God’s unmerited, and unbounded love through the cross of Christ.
Of course, the rich man in the parable could have helped Lazarus if he had even noticed him sitting by his gate. No doubt, money and wealth are powerful tools in alleviating the suffering of the world. But, instead, the rich man’s wealth became, just as strong and powerful a tool alienating him from the riches of God’s love. God cares about everyone and those who live in God’s kingdom ought to do the same for others. We all have something to give out of our richness. Even Lazarus could have given something to the rich man if he had been open to that possibility. The rich man only begins to realize the possibility when he is in anguish in the flame and asks for “Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue” (Luke 16:24). When he finally acknowledges his eternal isolation, he again asks if Lazarus can be sent back to the land of the living to warn his brothers about the terrible place of torment. The rich man could have learned the joy of receiving a gift that he didn’t merit if he had himself given such a gift to Lazarus.
For you see, Lazarus, was not just some poor beggar? He was a fellow human being, another child of God, someone else who had been created in God’s image. When we say that God cares for us that invariably means that we are called to help everyone in need based on our ability to help. That means that we all have the potential to help others in one way or another and ultimately, we will also receive from those whom we have helped. The conclusion sets the climax for what is coming. We need to remember that the Pharisee and scribes have been listening at a distance. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, (begins Jesus) neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). One of the foundations of the Reformation stands on Word Alone. If we cannot hear or see Christ in his Word – we cannot believe that he is God or in the resurrection. Only once we accept Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnate and alive can we begin to experience our God given faith and live in response to God's great mercy, grace, and love.
Then, we will be living according to Paul’s instruction to a young preacher named Timothy whom Paul sent to the congregation in Ephesus. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Now, that’s what living in the kingdom of God is all about.
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