Sermon for Sunday September 25th, 2016, the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Text: Luke 16:19-31
Theme: God’s command to care for those in need
US Census Bureau statistics released this month show that just over 20% of Californians live in poverty. California’s poverty percentage is second highest in the whole of the USA. Yet others in California earn extremely high incomes. The disparity between the rich and the poor is a troubling factor in our time, and it is not confined to the USA, but found also in various countries of the world. The Lord Jesus Christ himself remarked, “The poor you will have with you always” (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8), a saying which echoes Deuteronomy 15:11, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” The point of all this is that poverty cannot be abolished on this earth while human greed remains; yet God requires of His people to be generous to the poor according to their means.
THE CONTEXT OF THE PARABLE OF DIVES AND LAZARUS
The Parable of Dives (Latin for “the rich man”) and Lazarus follows the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, and Jesus’ warning that one cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13), as well as his warning to the covetous Pharisees that God knows their hearts, and that which is highly regarded by people is an abomination to God (Luke 16:15). The Parable also amplifies the Lord Jesus’ declaration that is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest letter of God’s law to fail. This Parable proceeds to warn people that the command of the Jewish Law to take care of the poor stands as a precept of God’s Law forever, and the consequences of persistent selfishness in place of ministry to people’s needs are serious.
THE RICH MAN AND THE BEGGAR
The elements of this parable point to things that just happen in life. There happened to be a rich man luxuriously clothed and feasting on the finest delicacies every day. How he became rich, why he became rich, are details omitted from the story. It was just his lot in life. Now it also just happened that a certain beggar named Lazarus was laid at his gate, and he was full of sores. He was so hungry he wished to receive just the scraps of leftover food from the rich man’s table, but he never received any. Even the dogs (not the friendly pet dogs of America, but vicious, ravenous brutes that wandered the streets to scavenge for food) came and licked his sores. Lazarus happened to lie at the rich man’s gate – perhaps those who put him there had hoped he would at least get something to eat. In the course of things that happen, the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Paradise (also known as Abraham’s bosom), while the rich man died and was buried. Being in Hades, and in torments, for the first time in his life he could have spoken to Lazarus, but regarded him as a servant not worth speaking to. Instead he spoke to Abraham, calling upon him to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue to ease his torment.
What is so striking about Abraham’s reply is that he explains how things just happen in life, and now there happens to be a great reversal of fortunes, and Lazarus does not remain poor and helpless, but receives comfort and blessing in heaven, while Dives is tormented in the fires of hell. He tells him to remember how in his lifetime he received good things and Lazarus likewise evil things. Now things are completely reversed – Lazarus is comforted and he is tormented. If we want to use the argument, the poor happen to be poor and the rich happen to be rich, and there is nothing we need to do to help the poor, then we must take care the argument is not turned on its head in the life hereafter.
After this, Abraham explains how there is a great chasm, or gulf, between heaven and hell which cannot be crossed either by those in Paradise or those in hell. This doctrine is one of the Biblical teachings which clearly excludes the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, or a kind of temporary hell which serves to purify the soul in preparation for entry into heaven. The choice to enter heaven, it is clear, must be made in this life, and it is a choice of obedience to God.
Dives, the rich man, now pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his five brothers, and testify to them, so that they do not come to hell. Abraham’s reply is significant. All those five brothers have to do is obey God’s written word, which at that time consisted of at least the Law and the Prophets. When Dives adds that if someone went to them from the dead, they would repent, Abraham replies that if they don’t pay attention to the Law and the Prophets, they will not listen, even if someone should rise from the dead.
What it comes down to is this, reading the Bible and obeying it, especially the commands to repent and believe in Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead, whose life fulfilled the Jewish Law, keeps one from the torments of hell.
The command to care for the poor and minister to their needs is so fundamental to God’s character and law, that we ignore it at our peril. Even today, the poor lie at our gates. What do we do for them? Indeed, there are many state and county programs to help the poor, but with rising costs every year, so often the poor get poorer, while sometimes the wealthy become wealthier through all their investments. In some churches, the Senior Pastor becomes wealthy at the expense of the members of his church, when he puts pressure on them to contribute far more than they can afford to give.
Irenaeus (Against Heresies, IV.4) pointed out that the Lord “has taught us, in the first place, that no one should lead a luxurious life, nor, living in worldly pleasures and perpetual feastings, should be the slave of his lusts, and forget God.” One’s greed is so often at someone else’s expense, or else it makes one blind to the needs of others around one.
The Lord Jesus, through this Parable, warns everyone that privilege and wealth cannot guarantee entry into heaven, but constant neglect of the poor at one’s gate when one has abundant means to help them, will guarantee one entry into hell. Some may mistakenly think that salvation by grace means guaranteed everlasting life with the Lord Jesus Christ no matter how selfishly we live after our decision to believe in Him. But it is clear from Holy Scripture that God loves the alien, the orphan, the widow, and all, in fact, who are poor, and wants us to love them by taking care of them. Not all the poor in the world are beggars. Many work very hard for their living, but earn only a pittance. These may be among your friends or acquaintances. What will you do to help them? If you know of someone who has lost his job, will you help him and encourage him? Every month we have a collection of groceries for the Palo Alto Emergency Food Closet. If you have some spare groceries, please bring them to church on the first Sunday of the month. This, too, is helping the poor.
In whatever way you can, according to your means, and with wisdom and discernment following the direction of the Lord, minister to the needs of the poor, so that they will not have to wait for the life hereafter to receive any comfort and refreshment.