Sunday, September 29, 2019
“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Jesus told a story about a rich man named Ira and a very poor man named Lazarus. Ira drove a Mercedes, lived in a fifteen-room mansion, ordered his suits tailor-made from Europe. Poor Lazarus was a street person. The Public Library, where he tried to rest during the day, particularly on cold days, threw him out. Even the police turned their heads when they drove by. They were tired of giving him a free ride to jail for a meal and a night’s lodging. He had nowhere to sleep except a hard sidewalk.
There was a gate in front of the driveway leading up to Ira’s mansion. So, Lazarus, tired and hungry, dirty and covered with sores, sat on the sidewalk and propped himself against the gate to Ira’s mansion and tried to sleep. Ira’s Dobermans wandered out to see the sleeping man. They saw he was no threat and quietly came over and licked the sores on Lazarus’ face. Each time he drove his Mercedes out the gate, Ira looked in disgust at the filthy piece of humanity leaning against the gatepost of his house and wondered why somebody didn’t do something to get people like that off the street.
But that, of course, is not the end of the story. Eventually, both Lazarus and Ira died. Unexpectedly, Lazarus went to heaven, but poor, rich Ira went to Hades. Obviously, the very affluent Ira couldn’t believe what had happened to him. He made it a personal rule in his life never to experience any discomfort. He was of the opinion that he deserved to travel in style, after all, in the words of the popular commercial a few years back, he was worth it! But now he was experiencing an eternity of discomfort. The air conditioner was broken, and the water was turned off. His comfort level was non-existent. So, he said please 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.
Interesting, isn’t it? Ira is in Hades. Lazarus is in heaven, but Ira still thinks of Lazarus as no better than an errand boy.
Abraham pretty much told him “no can do”. 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 said they have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. Ira is desperate now. No, father Abraham, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. Abraham shook his head. He said to him, if they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
You would think that, if a man is resurrected from the dead, people would listen to what he says, but not so. Are we willing to listen? It’s amazing how many who call themselves Christians aren’t willing to listen. There are at least three things that Jesus seems to be saying to us in this popular story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The first is that we’re responsible for one another. The message of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is no different than the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’re responsible for the good of our neighbor. The great commandment, which we all know is: We are to love God with all our heart, soul mind and strength. The second commandment: We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Anyone who is in need. That is the entirety of the truth that runs through both the Old and the New Testament.
In Deuteronomy 15 the people were instructed to deal generously with the poor. Every seven years all debts are to be canceled. That’s one of the most radical laws in human history. We’re not sure if that was ever followed, but it shows how God’s heart works for the poor. According to the tenth verse of that chapter, the people are to give generously to the poor and do so without a grudging heart; then because the people have obeyed God’s command in caring for the poor, God promises them that He will bless them in all their work and in everything they put their hand to. Of course, there are a few poor people who are that way because they refuse to work, most however, are the victims of circumstances beyond their control. We have to be aware that throughout the entire Bible, Old and New, Testament that God is concerned about the unfortunate.
Jesus was concerned about the poor, as this story and several of His other teachings show, as was the early church. If you love God, you care about people, all people, rich and poor alike.
You and I have so much. Others have so little. The seven billionth baby was born on planet earth recently. Chances are very, very high that baby will live all his or her life poorly clothed, poorly housed, poorly fed. That’s because most of the babies born today are in the so-called third world where poverty is the rule and not the exception.
Most of us have never seen real poverty. We drive past houses that are run down and see children who are neglected. We say, “That’s poverty.” However, what impresses people in deprived countries around America is not how the wealthy live, but how the poor live. Our poor are wealthy compared to the poor in many developing countries. This isn’t to say poverty is not a great problem in America. It’s probably more painful to be poor in America than in any other country upon earth, because everywhere you look, you see other people with so much. Though, we’re living in a world where there are millions of people who face such dismal lives that even death is a welcome option. And in Jesus’ name we must care about those people.
But there’s a second thing to be said: Judgment is a very real part of the Gospel message. There are consequences to our actions. Or to use the words which are mentioned often in scripture, “we reap what we sow” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
It’s very difficult for me as a pastor today to talk about judgment. Because, most Americans don’t believe in a literal hell anymore. We’ve done a wonderful job of convincing people that God loves them, but we’ve done a bad job of convincing them that actions, both positive and negative, have consequences. It’s almost impossible to speak from the pulpit about judgment without sounding moralistic. Even though we see judgment being worked out in people’s lives every day, it’s difficult to deal with such a grim theme in worship, except perhaps in humor.
A young pastor was uneasy one morning when he heard a church member boasting about how he had used a radar detector to avoid getting ticketed for speeding. The pastor couldn’t help but think that this sounded a little unethical. Moments later, however, he was pleased to hear another parishioner tell this ethically-challenged church member in a somber tone, “It’s the man upstairs you need to be worried about.”
The pastor was about to chime in with a hearty “Amen” when the second man added, “That guy in the helicopter will get you every time!” Ah, yes, the man upstairs will get you every time.
Scholars tell us that Jesus probably didn’t mean for us to take the story of Ira and Lazarus as a definitive statement of the nature of life after death, but as a firm Biblical principle that we will be judged on our treatment of the poor.
Do you think this is the only time that judgment comes up with regard to our treatment of the poor? Remember Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment when the sheep and the goats are to be divided? Do you remember what was the decisive factor between heaven and hell? I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was naked and you did not clothe me. I'm not standing here telling you need to have a theology of works, no, but if we’re faithful to the Scripture as a whole, we have to know that caring about the down-and-out is very important spiritual business.
Our country should have learned that lesson from our own history. Germany lay devastated after World War I. Poverty and unemployment provided fertile ground for the terrible weeds of Nazi dogma to grow and prosper. It took a Second World War to show us that it is a mistake to leave your enemy desolate and forsaken. So, after World War II we wanted to rebuild our former adversaries and it worked! Today Germany and Japan are among our finest allies.
I hope that our neglect of Third World countries today doesn’t produce a terrible judgment on us someday in the future as the Second World War judged our conduct after the First World War. If we don’t seek justice and compassion in such places as the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America, if we don’t become peacemakers, we face the possibility that one day we ourselves may pay horribly? This is becoming a tiny world. Other nations are only a matter of hours away. Terrorism has become a part of our twenty-first landscape. The spread of nuclear weaponry and even biological weapons means that a mad man could one day wield awesome destruction upon our land.
What I’m trying to say is that not only is it sound Christian doctrine for us to care for the needy at our door, it’s also in our best interest.
Ira couldn’t see that how he dealt with the street person outside his gate would determine his own destiny. Many of us may be making the same mistake. We are our brother’s brother. The problems of the down-and-out are our problems. There’s a judgment built into the very fabric of creation on those who ignore the needs of their neighbors.
That brings us to the final thing to be said. More than ever before, you and I need a missions-consciousness both at home and abroad.
Can you possibly think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus without thinking about our responsibilities to those who aren’t as blessed as we are? And here is my observation on this matter: the happiest people in the world are people who have learned to share a bit of their time and personal resources with those who are in need.
I honestly don’t know if Ira ended up in a physical hell or not. I do believe this, there probably was not much joy in his life while he was alive. You simply can’t have a truly abundant life without Christ, and you can’t love Christ without loving your neighbor. We’re responsible for one another. Judgment is a very real part of the Gospel message, what we sow, we reap. Perhaps more than ever in human history, we need a missions-consciousness both at home and abroad.
As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
Ira ignored Lazarus at his door, and he paid a price. We pay a price, when we ignore our neighbor too. That’s the abundant life which only Christ can give. He gives it to those who walk in His footsteps.