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The following sermon, preached on September 25th, 2016, speaks into the eternal consequences of our actions. What does God’s word mean when it talks about the rich being poor and the poor being rich? What about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? Please click the play button on the audio widget below to listen to the sermon. (The audio can also be downloaded below, as a podcast.)
(Note concerning the audio: we apologize for poor audio quality! Thank you for your understanding.)
The text follows below.
(Note concerning the sermon text: the sermon text reflects the actual manuscript and was written to be spoken colloquially, not academically. It may contain grammatical errors such as run-on sentences, or special notation, etc. Thank you for your understanding.)
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So 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.’
25“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. 26And 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.’
27“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31“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.’ ”
This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ.
OK, this is certainly a very poignant passage, isn’t it? This is known as the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and it occurs only here in the Gospel, in Luke, chapter 16. You will not find this in Matthew, Mark, and John, because the emphasis here, in Luke, is the radical reversal that God’s Kingdom entails. This parable is precisely about the radical reversals of the rich, and of the poor, in the Kingdom of God, and this is a very important message for all of us today. So that’s what our sermon is all about this morning—how one you expect to be well-off is not well-off, and one you expect to be poor, is actually blessed in the Kingdom of God, and how this should affect our actions in our lives—that is to say, our Christianity.
So, what this parable is all about, is Jesus’ stance on wealth, status, and the role of human action in life. Jesus is engaging the religious leaders and teachers of the Bible (see Luke 15:1 for that context) and he is telling them, that, just like in the Old Testament—hence Moses and the Prophets—we are supposed to live a life for God, in service to God, and not for our own wealth. Jesus is saying, that always striving for status in society, American Dream, having nice things and looking down on the needy people, this is the opposite of how God calls us to live. Things are in fact radically reversed in the Kingdom of God, because the rich are poor and the poor are rich. Something else we learn by extension—not immediately here but important to all of this—is that compassion is actually the very heart of all of Scripture, even the Scripture written before Jesus—Moses and the Prophets—which of course, Jesus came to fulfill, and not abolish (Matt 5:17). So, this parable, again, is about Jesus’ stance on wealth, status, the role of human action in the midst of those two things—wealth and status—and Jesus’ stance, of compassion as the right action, as even previously spelled out by Moses and the Prophets.
Now let me give some background to the central issue of radical reversal here: In the ancient world, specifically in Jesus’ day, and around where Jesus lived and traveled in Jerusalem and Galilee, most people believed that material blessing was a sign from God. They basically thought—and by the way many still think this way today—if you were a good, godly person, you would have lots of nice things: lots of money, lots of friends, lots of nice stuff. But that is not what God’s word says. According to God’s word, plain and simple: “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” Luke 12:15. Jesus even said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24–25)—and Jesus is not talking about a camel gate which never existed historically.
So, let’s start at the beginning of our parable. There was a rich man, and in the next verse, we read that there was a poor man, named Lazarus, verses 19 and 20. Now, even here, at the beginning, if we are reading carefully, we can begin to see something of what Jesus is already getting at. So I want us all to notice this. The rich man, he, he is not being named. He is anonymous. The rich man, someone of some standing, obviously—one who you could say made a name for himself—is not being named. But on the other hand, the poor man, he is the one with a name here—the poor man with nothing to his name, has a name. His name is Lazarus, and in fact, he is the only person to ever be named in any parable—Interesting! Not by accident. So we can learn here that, by naming Lazarus, and by not naming the rich man, Jesus is simply saying all of what we’ve been talking about, the radical reversal—who is really blessed here? It’s as Jesus said earlier in Luke, chapter 9, verse 25: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self” [or their very soul]. The rich man, one could say, is losing his soul here, he’s not even named, but not the poor man. So let me tell you a story.
Outward appearances can be very deceptive, can’t they? A friend of mine recently introduced me to the wonderful world of estate sales. Estate sales. For those of you who don’t know, an estate sale is essentially a way of liquidating the belongings of a family, or estate, when someone is in need of a way to sell items due to downsizing, be it moving, divorce, bankruptcy, or death. In other words, it’s a big old sale, where you could can find some really, really, top-dollar items, at extremely low prices—it’s an estate sale, And, well, I confess to you all, my darkest sin, that there was a point in my life where I became infatuated with this idea of the estate sale—of filling my home with nice things, slowly accumulating them over time, via the estate sale. But in all this, I eventually came to realize something—God worked a work in me. I actually realized that I should not be going out of my way, and spending all of this time, just to acquire nice things. I can spend my time in better ways. And it was very strange to me how wanting nice things—and knowing I could get them cheaply—sort of became a lust that took over my soul. And upon reflection—how much less did I think about God when I was thinking about those sale items instead? I want to say with Scripture this morning, don’t be like this. Don’t be like me. Do not fall for the trap and begin to believe that material blessings always constitute God’s favor, and start to lust after them, like I did. I think this is a mistake we Americans have been making for a long time, and it needs to stop.
OK, continuing in this parable, we read some more interesting things here. When the poor beggar dies, we read about how the angel carries him to the side of none other than Father Abraham, verse 22. Well, what does this mean? What does it have to do with reversal in God’s Kingdom? One thing I used to always ask was, “why doesn’t Jesus say here that Lazarus was carried into heaven? Right? Why is it Abraham’s Side?—Or in older Bible translations, ‘Abraham’s Bosom?’” instead? Well it turns out, during Old Testament times and places, when great fathers like Abraham were buried, it was customary for the family to be buried with him. Folks were buried with their fathers. In Genesis chapter 49 verse 30 and following, we can read about this—how Abraham buys a field and a cave for a burial site. Genesis 49:31 says, “There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and…” Jacob was also buried here, by his sons, in verse 33 of Genesis chapter 49. So, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives—big names here—were all buried in the same place, at the side, or the bosom, of Father Abraham. So this is where the dead of God’s people go. God’s people go to Abraham’s side in death, not people who are not God’s people. So, since Jesus could have very easily have said “heaven” here, but he instead uses “Abraham’s side,” Jesus is saying that, Lazarus, the man without outward wealth, money, or status—a poor beggar, in fact—Lazarus is the one who was or is God’s people, Abraham’s people, buried at Abraham’s side, whereas the rich man, with all his material blessings— actually he is the one we read about in Hades, by contrast, which is not where Abraham is. The rich man was not—even though by all outward appearances he seemed like he would be—God’s people. This is exactly Jesus’ point.
Let me ask some questions here. Have you ever noticed something about American Christianity? Have you ever noticed that it seems like most people who call themselves Christians are living in a way that is basically indistinguishable from everybody else? This is a sad thing. It’s almost as if the sacrifice of Christ is absolutely meaningless, or that Christianity is simply about believing something in my head, but not really acting a certain way, differently, in the world. Like we’re Jesus words, “If you love me, you will do what I command.” Well, like all of the Bible, including Moses and the Prophets, as Father Abraham says here, we can easily see that being a Christian in fact does mean that we live our lives in a very different way than the rest of the world. We can see that the rich man, here, is wishing, that he did so in his life.
Continuing in our parable, this parable ends by the rich man wanting to warn his five brothers of what has happened to him, verse 28. Essentially, the rich man wants to warn his brothers that if only he would have helped the beggar Lazarus during his own lifetime, he would not be suffering. In other words, his helping and serving others, for God, would have worked, through God, for the salvation of even other people, like his brothers. Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:17)—This parable is telling us the same thing, that living our lives today in a manner where we just sort of experience an unending succession of delight, comfort, and luxury—this is not the kind of life of the Kingdom of God, and there will be eternal consequences. Eternal consequences. I don’t talk about eternal consequences, and the Bible doesn’t say these sorts of things about eternity, just to scare anybody, but rather, in fact, it is just simply the truth of the matter, that’s all: that what we do right now, has eternal significance. This is a good thing. What we do has an effect on everyone we touch, be it our family, our friends, our neighbors, or people we randomly come into contact with, eternally. What we do even has a sort of ripple effect which eventually touches more and more people whom we normally wouldn’t come into contact with. And, for an example, on this, you can actually see what I’m talking about, what this parable is revealing, you can see this in Kansas City. Kansas City.
If you ever find yourself driving around Kansas City, downtown, and I’m thinking of the Westport area in particular, you can see this very parable, or this concept, in action. One can see house after house, inside gates, with beautiful architecture and well-kept lawns. But, just a few minutes the other direction—hop on some parts of The Paseo, or hop on Troost Avenue—you will see house after house, broken down, dilapidated, and people who genuinely and truly need help—not fakers, but people born into poverty. Clearly and obviously many, including those born into poverty, are not responsible for that poverty. In this parable, we can see that the great wealth of the rich man, exists right next to the poor beggar Lazarus, within less than five minutes of each other, and yet look what happens, eternally. Eternal consequences. It’s the same thing in Kansas City. Great riches—and genuine, poverty, side by side. And if the rich man in our parable suffers because he did nothing to fix this problem, here on Earth, to help Lazarus for example, I have to ask myself, and I want to ask all of us this morning: am I doing, or are we doing, anything to fix this problem? I’m not talking about salvation by works, but here’s the deal. I live in America, a rich Western country, just like the rich man in the parable, but what am I doing for the majority of the world, who live in desolation, and poverty, right next door? Couldn’t I be doing something more—and isn’t a well-known fact that God commands me to do more? These are tough questions.
Well, as we come to a close this morning, I want the message to be a wake-up call for all of us. I’m not talking about guilt-tripping anybody into doing anything, and neither is the Bible. The Bible, and this parable, are also not trying to scare us into some sort of compulsory obedience, or on the other hand, the Bible is not trying to make us feel depressed either. But, the Gospel, is called, the good news. The good news is that God’s Word is telling us that the Kingdom of God is real. Jesus is telling us that what we do matters in this life. Life is not meaningless. And this is very important—why? because everything is sacred and valuable, eternally. When everything has eternal significance, we treasure and we value every member of society, every person whom God has created in the image of God, and He said it is good. This is the radical reversal. So let us go out today, and this week, and for the rest of our lives, may we be transformed by the truth of God’s Word, The Spirit in us, Moses and the Prophets and the Parable of Jesus here, so that what I do matters, and that, I do things, and that material blessing is not the key to my life, and that in fact, material blessing is very deceptive. Let us instead fix our eyes on Jesus, which means doing things for the Gospel, so that we can go and make an eternal difference not only in God our own lives, but also, in the lives of others, particularly those who need it the most, who are suffering daily.