“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (NIV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus the Christ, our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
What did Moses and the prophets say?
Moses gave the commandments that showed the Hebrew people how to live in harmony with God and with the world God made and to live in community with each other. The prophets spoke out, to reinforce the purpose of the Torah and God’s priorities for the world. The also spoke passionately, especially when the people weren’t maintaining the standards of the law.
Micah, one of the minor prophets gave one of the most famous statements of God’s priority.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)
Isaiah, one of the most prolific prophets said something similar along with warnings about the consequences of not doing justice.
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 1:16-20, NIV)
And it was true. Jerusalem was destroyed. The people of Judah were conquered and taken into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah explained the exile as God’s punishment for not following the laws given by Moses. It would be terrible. They would be in exile 70 years, to the third generation, and yet, God would be watching over them while they were in this distant land and would bring them through it:
“‘But all who devour you will be devoured;
all your enemies will go into exile.
Those who plunder you will be plundered;
all who make spoil of you I will despoil.
But I will restore you to health
and heal your wounds,’
declares the Lord, (Jeremiah 30:16-17, NIV)
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Jesus’ followers, and the Scribes and Pharisees, and anyone else who had even the remotest sense of their national identity and history would have known these warnings and these promises. They all knew about the exile. They knew it to their very bones. The way of God had always been to do right by your neighbor, to take care of the stranger, to be gentle with your brothers and sisters, to be a blessing to those around you, especially those who are vulnerable and weak, as exemplified by the urge to care for ‘the orphans and the widows.’ They were the ones that we stranded without the safety net of a family. That phrase, ‘orphans and widows’ stood for all who were alone, all who were at risk, all who were poor, all who were powerless.
But was that happening? Were the widows and orphans being cared for? Were the ‘haves’ watching over the ‘have nots’? No they were not. They were disregarding them. Even worse, in many cases, they were taking advantage of them, making them poorer and more vulnerable day by day, week by week, year by year.
So Jesus had to say something.
Remember last week, I added two verses after the parable of the shrewd manager? That parable reads better with those two verses added on because it gives a sense of what Jesus was thinking. And it does with this one too. I could easily have added those two verses on the beginning of this parable. Let me read them now, to remind you.
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight. (Luke 16:14-15, NIV)
Wealth gained at the expense of others, self-importance, status, and the like are things that people in our society gravitate toward, but those are things that repel God. Jesus just HAD to say something so he told this parable of the rich man. This was someone who the Pharisees could look up to. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. (Luke 16:19, NIV) What envy and admiration must have burned in their hearts as Jesus described him! I can imagine they were envisioning him as someone they would like to have as their friend. And they wouldn’t have been put off as Jesus continued, at least not right away. They had to walk past the poor and the beggars all the time. I can just hear them thinking, “Oh those ‘poor people’ have no tact. They will just set up camp in the most inconvenient places. How sad for this man. His beautiful gate befouled by this beggar.”
But then Jesus turns the tables, as Jesus so often does, and they get the first hint things are not at all as they had imagined. Jesus is not impressed by them and does not make the rich man the hero of the story. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. In that moment they are the same. Death will take them both, regardless of their status. And Lazarus is with Father Abraham, the greatest figure next to Moses in all of Jewish history. The rich man is burning with jealousy. And of course, the rich man stays in character. He starts ordering Father Abraham around. “‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” Oops… no matter who you are, Father Abraham is not someone you ought to be bossing around! He denies the rich man this relief, of course. It is time for things to be evened out. And the Pharisees would have been shocked.
Now remember, this is a parable on compassion and community. It is not a parable about the life to come. I don’t think Jesus is intending here to say anything predictive about the life hereafter and what it will be like. The barrier isn’t between this life and the next. The barrier is between rich and poor. The symbolic barrier was the gate and fence around the rich man’s house and property. The real barrier was the rich man’s disregard of anyone’s needs but his insiders. That barrier is not from God. That barrier is a human creation and it has been around forever. But that barrier is a problem because it is false. The rich are not more valuable than the poor. Neither are they more valued by God. There is no difference. And from the beginning, Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by the turning of the tables; from Mary’s declaration that “the rich would be sent away empty” (Luke 1:53) at Elizabeth’s door before Jesus was born, to the fact that the news of Jesus’ resurrection didn’t go to the disciples first. Just as the news of Jesus’ birth was given first to shepherds, the lowest of the low, the news of Jesus’ resurrection was given to the women.
Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for not seeing the humanity of the poor. The poor man, Lazarus, is the only one who gets a name in this story. No one gets names in parables, but Lazarus does! There is a message in that. Lazarus is poor, but he is a person who deserves dignity and respect. Life has not gone his way, but that isn’t because he doesn’t matter. It is because the business of human civilization has not been conducted according to God’s law. God’s law is the law of love. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the heart of it. You cannot step over a homeless person, not acknowledging him or her as a child of God, and think even for a minute that you keep the commandments. We convict ourselves all the time.
So what is this parable telling us? How are we to live? With compassion and generosity, trusting that God’s goodness is for us and for them too, whoever ‘them’ is to us. The advice written to Timothy that was read a few minutes ago is great advice we would do well to keep in mind:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8, NIV)
Contentment with what we have is a good place to start. Expressing gratitude for what we have rather than resentment for what we don’t have is a key to happiness. Yearning for more gets us into a lot of trouble. Knowing how much is enough is great knowledge to have. And verse 11 is worth committing to memory. This is being written to Timothy and warning him against being tempted to waste his time and energy striving after worldly goods. “But you, [Timothy,] man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11, NIV) And finally, the last few verses of our 1 Timothy text are directly for us: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God,” (1 Timothy 6:17)
And if you think for one minute that we aren’t the rich, think again. I wrote about it on my blog on Monday, but there is a website with a formula where you can put in your household income and where you live and find out where you stand in the larger picture.* So I put in $40,000 living in the USA in a household of 2 adults. If that represents you, you are wealthier than 94% of the world’s population. We are the rich.
So continuing the advice to Timothy, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19, NIV)
Life that is truly life is a gift from God. It is not secured by our Retirement Accounts or our cash flow. It is not secured by our property or our possessions. Those are tools we can use be productive members of society and to be a blessing to others. Being a blessing to those around us matters. It makes the world a better place. It ushers in a bit of the reign of God. It recognizes the other as worthy of care. The grace of God matters. It makes us right with God. God’s love matters. We can spread it to those around us.
So my brothers and sisters, spend your time and energy on what matters. And I invite you to spend the next few moments praying about how you can do that.
A minute or more of silence
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/?country=USA&income=40000&adults=2&children=0 Their methodology is explained on the website, and adjusting for the cost of living in each country and the size of the person’s household.