Lazarus and the Rich Man

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Luke 16:19-31

When Jesus first began His ministry, his message was “Repent, for the kingdom of God” (that is, the rule of God in our lives) “is here.” When first giving the parables in Matthew, he said, “He who has ears, let him hear,” and explained that there were those who were too hard of heart and could not grasp the message of the parable. In fact, Jesus even said he used the form of the parables to hide the meaning from these people.

Jesus also talked more about hell than any other person in the New Testament. All of those folks that like to think of Jesus as some sort of 60’s peacenik kind of guy have no idea who the Jesus of the Bible is. He was very clear and vivid in his imagery, drawing from facets of life and locations around Jerusalem itself, speaking of heaven and hell and the urgency of following God.

He was a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker in many ways, because he spoke the truth to those that were in power and didn’t want to hear it. And he made it clear that Hades, or hell, was a place of judgment, or where judgment would occur.

In today’s parable we see two men. We have minimal knowledge of either. One is very rich, and the other is a beggar. We never learn the name of the rich man; but Lazarus is the name of the beggar, and apparently he had some skin condition that gave him open sores.

Lazarus’ chosen spot for begging was outside the rich man’s house, and I found it fascinating that someone brought him there every day. He lay there every day, desiring to be fed by even the scraps from the rich man’s table.

Despite the fact that we don’t know a whole lot about either one of these two, we are given a window into the life of each man. The rich man was ostentatious. He wore purple linen, which was very rare and very expensive (that is why royalty liked to use it, in the Middle Ages and before), and he “feasted sumptuously,” according to the words of Scripture, every day. This gives an idea of much more than just having a dinner with some friends.

As with the rich fool, the rich man in this parable doesn’t seem to be evil per se. There is no indication he was a cheat, a liar, or dishonest in any way. There is little indication of any particular virtue in Lazarus either – other than his pressing forward with life despite his intense suffering and tribulations (not to minimize those either).

The rich man goes to Hades, and is tormented by thirst there. Why did he go to Hades, if he wasn’t evil? I think we can get an inkling of that from his attempt to interact with Abraham. The rich man was self-centered and I would even go so far as to say narcissistic (much as the rich fool), and he took his economic privilege for granted.

He was condemned by what he didn’t do as much as what he might have done. Call it sins of omission. He knew Lazarus’ name; we discover that when he talks with Abraham from across the great divide. So he wasn’t unaware of what was going on around his house while he was alive.

But apparently, he just didn’t care. The rich man’s indifference about Lazarus’ situation was a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem that gives us an idea of what his attitude towards God might have been. Despite God’s commands to help those destitute, apparently the dogs got the scraps from his table. By the way, the dogs’ presence with Lazarus, in their licking of his wounds, kept him in a constant state of ritual uncleanness, because dogs, being scavengers, were seen as unclean.

So we have privilege and power set across from illness, poverty, and being a social outcast. Is this really enough to send someone to Hades? To receive judgment rather than mercy?

As we look further into the parable, we see that death apparently hasn’t changed the rich man much. Despite being in “torment”, there seems to be little remorse over his life lived. When he sees Lazarus, what does he do? He asks Abraham to send Lazarus over like some kind of servant with a drop of water to drink.

He still sees no value in Lazarus, and is focused on his own desires. No apologies, no repentance, just a plea to someone who he at least recognizes as his “better” (that is, Abraham) to have mercy on him. He doesn’t even take into account the great chasm between them, but expects it to somehow be managed.

Abraham sets him straight, and gives him two very important lessons. One is that Lazarus’ value to God had nothing to do with his success in life. He received “bad things,” and endured; now he is comforted in the arms of Abraham himself. The rich man, on the other hand, despite receiving “good things” in life, is in anguish created by his own choices.

The second thing Abraham tells him is that once you are dead, it is too late to change your mind. The judgment comes to us all, and we need to have made our decision during life in order to receive mercy.

In Lee Stroebel’s book Case for Faith (great book, if you haven’t read it you should), there is a chapter on hell and God. On pp 246-247 (at least in my paperback copy), J.P. Moreland makes the case (and I paraphrase because of time) that people who end up separated from God would have been profoundly uncomfortable in heaven, placed in permanent proximity to someone who outclassed them in every way by an infinite amount.

All their lives, they made decisions that placed themselves at the center, not others, and certainly not God. God is actually showing love and expressing a profound respect for the intrinsic value of each human by basically honoring their wish. They don’t want God in their lives, and He gives them their wish – for eternity.

Even in the Gospel of John, when it says “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,” it notes, as you go on past those verses, that they rejected the Son because the world loved darkness more than it loved the light. So they stand condemned by their own choices.

Jesus indicates this in some ways as well, as he continues the parable. The rich man begs to him to send Lazarus (again as a servant!) to go tell his five brothers so that they might avoid his (that is, the rich man’s) fate. Abraham notes that they have all they need to know – Moses and the Prophets.

In other words, they have God’s Word, and their own history as God’s chosen people. When the man indicates that wouldn’t be enough (surprise, surprise!) but that someone coming back from the dead would bring about a change, Abraham says that if they can’t decide from God’s Word, then they won’t be convinced even if someone came back from the dead.

It seems that they are set on their course, and little could change it. Of course, it also foretells the response of many people to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. It remains a stumbling block to many, and they simply cannot believe it, and have no faith to trust what they cannot know for certain empirically.

But where does that leave us? What can we draw from this parable as people who already believe? It would seem, at least traditionally, that this parable is for seekers. The parable gives a great warning, and is very important to hear. Hell is real, you have a limited time, and the decisions you make here will affect your afterlife. You can condemn yourself as much by what you do not do as by what you do.

But what about believers? This may be a tough sell, but let me see what I can bring out. First of all, never judge a book by its cover. I know that’s a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Just because someone seems to be cursed, or afflicted, doesn’t mean that God is judging them – or that you should.

There is a meme I can’t remember in its entirety that says that with every person you need to show grace, because you don’t know where they have been, and what they have experienced. I would also note, the same goes for people who seem to be doing well. It could all be a facade. Things could be going very wrong in their hearts and they might be spiritually empty, lonely, and in desperate need of the good news of the gospel.

Second, show compassion whenever you are able to. This doesn’t just mean giving to the poor, and volunteering to help those less fortunate. Those are great things and we want to do them. But sometimes, someone who may seem alright on the surface needs our compassion as well – perhaps forgiveness for a wrong done, strengthening in a time of weakness or temptation (as Jesus talks about immediately after this parable), and care in an increasingly lonely world.

Third, be aware of your own privilege. I don’t speak of “white privilege” here, and other catch phrases. But we live in one of the richest countries in the world, and are afforded freedoms that you don’t see hardly anywhere else. Don’t take your position and your freedoms for granted. Be thankful to God, and seek ways to use that privilege, not for your own gain but to help others, to continue to make this country a better place to live in.

Fourth, both compassion and using privilege appropriately flow out of being “other-centered.” Our natural state is to be self-centered; it is a survival trait, it comes from the time of birth. It takes the Holy Spirit working in our lives to truly focus on others with no thought to our own gain. I think this is the key to much of our discipleship. It is that ability to be able to focus on others and serve them.

Fifth, I know I say this a lot, but read the Word. Meditate on it. Learn about it, and from it. If you do not know the Word of God, Jesus himself implies in this parable, you cannot know God. You might know of Him, but you can’t know Him; and that personal relationship is the key to reconciliation with the Father, salvation itself, and growing into our God-designed purpose for our life.

Not everyone who thinks they are going to heaven will. Elsewhere, Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, and about the wide and the narrow paths. In Revelation the churches are warned that there are those (like Ephesus) who seem to do all the right things, but their heart is not in the right place.

They are just going through the motions, thinking that will get them where they want to go (that is, heaven), or they are doing it for the praise of men rather than to glorify God, even as the Pharisees were. We must always examine ourselves and our motives.

Do you take your place in this community, and family of faith, for granted? Do you look more for what either can do for you, rather than what you can do for each? I know that that’s a common issue today. “I left this church because it didn’t feed me.” Or “the music just didn’t bring me into the presence of God.”

Or “those people there are hypocrites.” Of course with that one I always want to say, “Join the bunch.”

Do you tend to judge people’s worth by their dress, their accent, their apparent education, or their general demeanor? Are you suspicious of, or indifferent to some people? Because every person has worth.

You folks have dealt for years with some families with special needs children, and I must say you do it well. It is one of the greatly appealing things about this church. Yet there is so much more. We no longer have an outreach to the children in the community, and apparently little interest in it. Between the two church, Wapello and Morning Sun, there are three Bible studies and two adult Sunday schools available, and few attendees. There is a place for you to learn.

The prayer service tomorrow evening was mentioned in the announcements. It was brought to my heart by the situation in Las Vegas, followed by my awareness of what happened in Burlington. It is to recognize the pain of people who have lost, and for the peace and healing that only God can bring to a life, a family, a community, or even a nation. There is a chance to participate in the life of the larger faith community, and I would encourage you to participate.

I could go on, but I will close with this. I believe we have so much potential here. Despite the average age, you all have the energy to do many things. You folks live right, and are far more active than most people. Because of your age, you have much intelligence, wisdom, and experience that we can use to be effective in our reaching out, should we apply it.

Many have the time now to spend glorifying God through service in ways they could not before retirement. I know it seems like with some people, in retirement you get busier than you ever were during work. But you have the choice to prioritize what you want. When you’re still working, you’re kind of at the mercy of whoever is employing you.

No one wants to be Lazarus – that is, poor and destitute, and put through trials and tribulations and illness. But don’t be the rich man either. Instead, be what God has called all of us to be – disciples of the Lord Jesus, sharing the good news of salvation and the message that the kingdom of God is truly at hand, as we joyfully witness to His goodness and grace in our lives, for others.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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