Spiritual Poverty? The Rich Man and Lazarus

[The audio for this sermon can be heard here.]

Luke 16:19–31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and 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. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’
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. 26 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.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for 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.’”

Right now, where I live, I don’t see very many homeless or beggars on the street. But in almost every other place that I’ve lived before living in Mt. Pleasant, seeing homeless people or even having near my house was normal.

One of the homeless men that I knew during these same years that I was living in Waco, TX, I knew a homeless man who would beg outside of this coffee shop I would go to regularly, and his name was Gary. Gary was a veteran, and he had a leg injury that gave him a limp. And it always seemed to be bothering, and I knew that he trouble getting the proper medical care that he needed for his leg. But we knew each other, and we would talk, because I ran into him fairly often.

And one day, after a while, I stopped seeing Jerry around that same coffee shop. But he had a friend that I recognized, who was also homeless, and I saw his friend one day. So I went up to him and said, have you seen Gary? Do you know how he’s doing? And Gary’s friend said to me that Gary had died. I was pretty shocked by this, and asked, well what happened?

And he told me that Gary had been in and out of the hospital and finally died from an infection related to his leg injury. And honestly, I hadn’t thought about that story in a long time until I read this parable again recently. One of my first emotions, in addition to just being sad, was maybe not feeling responsible, necessarily, but definitely somewhat guilty and like I had missed an opportunity to take a greater interest in Gary’s circumstances and do what I could to help him.

Now, I may be exactly like the rich man in the parable; nor is Gary the same as Lazarus. But I couldn’t help but draw the connection. And it raises the question about the text this morning: What is lesson we’re supposed to take away from the story about the rich man and Lazarus? Is it just to instill fear in us about what will happen if we don’t take care of the poor, or is it just about how the haves and the have not are going to switch places?

The context of this story is that it is set within a series of encounters with the Pharisees — the religious leaders. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife and a final judgment. But they don’t care about justice. They don’t care about the poor. And Jesus knows this.

Maybe one of the first things you notice in this story is that, our attitude toward God and toward God’s will in the kingdom, is confirmed in this life and that it cannot be altered in the next one. What we do in this life and how we do it really does matter and have lasting significance even beyond the present moment, Jesus is saying.

Now, obviously there is this mention of a place called “Hades” in the parable, but I want to wait to comment about that until the end, because it’s not the main point of the story, and it can become a distraction if give it too much attention right away.

Another aspect of the story that probably stands out as well is the great reversal of fortunes that the rich man and Lazarus experience. This is one of many places where Jesus seems to indicate that, ultimately, those who are first in this life, or those who seek to put themselves first, are in for a surprise and a rude awakening. While those are at the bottom — who are last — will be first, will be raised up.

Luke 13:30 “Indeed, those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
Luke 14:11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms and the Prophets, makes this same promise, in many ways, warning that the proud will be brought down, but that the humble will be exalted. God is taking a side here, between these two characters…

Proverbs 3:34 “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.”
Isaiah 2:11 “The eyes of the arrogant will be humbled and human pride brought low.”

Now, we like to think that God never shows favoritism, and indeed, the Bible says as much. We know God is just, but the world is not. Life is not fair, so sometimes, in order for God to be fair, it may seem like in some of the stories in Scripture, God is taking a side!

Notice, for example, that the beggar has a name, but the rich man does not. This is actually the only place in all of Jesus’s parables in the gospels, where a name is given to one of the characters. And the one who is named and remembered is the poor, sick beggar.

But this is consistent with the whole sweep of Scripture! In the Exodus from Egypt, in Jesus’s own ministry — God’s first move, again and again, is toward those on the margins. Those who have been victimized, excluded, oppressed — those who are invisible to the world! Like this beggar. God is with those who are in distress. This doesn’t mean God isn’t with those who are not. This is where God’s work tends to start. This is where God speaks and goes and shows up! On the margins — with those who the world doesn’t see.

Now I know what we tend to want to say though about parables like this, if we are ourselves, well off. We say oh, this parable, like all of Jesus’s teachings, is talking about our hearts — the rich man’s heart, right? It’s not wrong that he has money. It’s wrong that he views money the way he does. He worships money. He trusts in money, social status, etc.

Ok, the problem is, Jesus doesn’t make it that easy for us. Just two chapters later in Luke, Jesus say this:

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” — Luke 18:25

Now, right after this, Jesus does say something hopeful. He’s asked by those who heard him:

“Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

But still, maybe you’re still wondering, why is there such a barrier to the kingdom of God for the rich — as long as you’re generous, as long as your heart’s, isn’t that enough?

Did y’all see this week, where Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook — who’s actually my age — pledged to give 3 billion dollars to disease research? He’s on a mission along with Bill Gates and others to give the vast majority of his wealth away during his lifetime for causes such as this one. And we might see this and say wow! How generous! He’s one of the greatest philanthropists of all time.

But Zuckerberg’s net worth is also 56 billion dollars. And I don’t say that to take anything away from his gift. But I just want to point out something very simple: It’s easy to think that you do not love money when you have enough money.

Yeah, and listen, I’m right there with you on this one. I was convicting myself when I was preparing to say this to you. I’m not exempt. I feel this at a deep level — that it’s easy to think I don’t love money when I have enough money. — Seriously, like, we have some savings. If Saint Peter’s couldn’t pay me anymore, we’d be ok. You all would take me and Whitney and our baby for a few days, and then shuffle us along to the next house — we could probably make it last for a long time.

Ok, so I can’t really relate to what Lazarus has experienced, or what my friend Gary went through — not knowing when they’ll eat next, where they were going to sleep, or how they’re going to get healthy.

I mean, can y’all imagine what that would really be like? To truly be at the end of your rope, socially and economically, to such a degree that you are asking people to help you find your next meal?

And yet, in the context of Luke — again — there’s just something about poverty that continues to be at the center of what Jesus is most concerned about:

Luke 6:20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Why are the poor blessed? Does this mean we should all just become economically poor? Well, I’m not going to say no unequivocally — because for some of us, the answer may indeed be yes! After all, Jesus told one rich young ruler to go and do exactly this if he wanted to be saved.

But no, I think in order to understand Luke’s message about poverty, it helps to hear Matthews as well:

Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

So why are the poor blessed? Because poverty is not good, and God in Christ is with those who suffer. And yet, here’s the mystery — there’s always a mysterious element (if not, we’re probably making it too simple) — the mystery is, even though physical poverty is bad, it may be a practical necessity. For some people, the only way they’re ever going to get to spiritual poverty is through physical poverty.

But someone like Lazarus, I think it’s safe to assume, is past the point of disbelief about being in that situation. He’s over the whole, “what are people going to think about me” thing. He’s not ashamed to ask. He knows he can’t help himself, and he has admitted to himself that he’s in a state of total depravity. He’s probably even grown somewhat accepting of it. He knows that he is totally powerless to save himself and to make a change in his life on his own.

Recovery Groups in the 12-Step Movement call this step one! And it’s the hardest step to take. But beggars have already taken it.

And the most incredible but also difficult thing that we can do, spiritually speaking, is to take this same step — you and me, we who aren’t socially and economically outcast. Because it’s the only way for us to move to a place of full recognition that everything we have and everything we ever we’d earned, is completely gift from God. That without God’s generosity, we would have nothing. We would not even exist.

And if we genuinely come to this place, we start to see people and things differently, and we start to see people and things that we didn’t even see before — people like the beggar. And if we don’t come to this place — if we avoid it, deny it, run from it — then we’re setting ourselves on a course toward what is called Hades in this parable.

Now, I said I’d bring up Hades again, since it is mentioned. This passage is different from some of the others where Jesus uses the word “hell” instead. It’s the word “Hades” rather than the word “Gehenna”, which is found in other places, especially in the book of Matthew. But it’s used in a similar way here, nonetheless, even though it’s a different word. So how are we to understand “Hades” here?

If we read other passages that talk about judgment and hell, here’s what you’re going to find: they’re normally addressed to religious people more so than non-religious people, which should disturb us a little bit.

And the second thing is that you’ll see apparently contradictory kinds of language used to describe: from words like darkness, or “being thrown outside,” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth to fire and flames, like we see in this passage. All of these phrases and terms are metaphors to characterize something that’s definitely not good, and it’s real, but probably not literal description.

Matthew 8:12 “But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

So this verse talks about darkness, while our text today speaks of fire.

Fire is, though, a powerful analogy for what sin ultimately leads to. Because sin is destructive… And darkness, it’s a descriptive word for isolation and despair, which is what hell is like.

Listen to what Shane Claiborne has to say about this story:

“I think this parable shows us we have a pattern in our culture that teaches us to insulate ourselves from suffering, to build up gates and walls and border fences that separate us from those who are suffering right outside of our comfort. But we come to find out that not only are we locking the suffering out, but we’re locking ourselves in — to a life that’s incredibly lonely. Those patterns rob us of life and community.” — Shane Claiborne

So to say that this parable is metaphorical or allegorical is by no means to let ourselves off the hook. The message is still clear. There is something going on in this rich man’s life and in his heart that has put him on a trajectory that ultimately creates a chasm between him and God! Not what you want! And it’s a chasm that appears to be irreversible.

And is this chasm a result of God’s vindictive retribution or cruelty? Or is it more self-imposed than we’d care to admit? I suspect it feels like punishment, and that it seems unfair or even vengeful.

Again, part of our problem today is that we don’t see beggars right outside our homes. At least not very often, most of us. This is one of the great challenges of our time — the invisibility of the suffering and the marginalized in the world, that leads us to not feel responsible.

I think the invitation is to rewrite the end of this parable. We have an invitation to break down the barriers that separate us from suffering, and to get to know the names and the faces of those who are on the outside of our wealth and comfort.

How we see other people and how we see ourselves in relationship to them. Do we recognizes that everything we have is a gift from God? Everything! Or do we feel entitled to it.

And it’s probably easier for wealthy people to feel entitled — especially those who have earned it over the course of time and after lots of hard work. But you and I both know, even the freedom and economic opportunity to build wealth with hard work and innovation — that itself if a gift. If we lived in most other times, or most other places in history, there would be far fewer freedoms and opportunities afforded to us. Or to put it another way, even if you think you’ve earned what you have, we’ve all taken our fair share of handouts from God.

Yes, this is always a heart issue. What we do with our money is a direct reflection of our heart. But it’s also more than that. Our wealth and our possessions can determine who, what and how we see, and how we see determines where we end up.

So I want to do before we close, is simply pose a couple questions:

  1. Who are the invisible people in my life that I ignore or that I’m not seeing? And why?
  2. What is the posture of your heart toward the poor? Is there empathy and compassion, or suspicion and indifference? The way you answer this question says a lot about whether you understand your utter dependence on God’s grace for everything you have.

Originally published at William A. Walker III.