Dangerous Wealth and Encouragement

Sermon, Theology

The Kingdom of God will bring balance to the world. This is a story of both encouragement and caution. Encouragement that no matter the pain we suffer in the present, we are not forgotten by God. God cares for the poor and suffering. If we find ourselves in great wealth, we are to use that wealth for others. Wealth is responsibility.

Throughout the NT, we see images of how God’s order of the world is not the same as our order of the world. “God chose the foolishness of preaching to confound the wise…” “The first shall be last and the last shall be first…” “To be great in the Kingdom is to serve others…”

Here, God brings balance to the world. 

Luke 16:19-21 “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

22-24 “Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

25-26 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

27-28 “The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

30 “‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’

31 “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”

What did you see?

What did you experience and observe?

It is fascinating to me that Jesus mentions “Hades” in this passage. Hades is a Greek term. It refers to the god of the dead. It was used in the NT period to refer to some kind of place of suffering where those not fit for the “bosom of Abraham” would go. It was a place that brought balance to the world as a place where the evil suffered. Often the term “Sheol” would also be translated as “Hades.” It’s description is often like “Gehenna” which was a real place in Jewish antiquity. It’s thought to be the “valley of Hinnom” which would be located immediately southwest of Jerusalem. Here, it’s surmised that the worship of Molech took place by Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh. Here, a huge, hollow brass alter was erected and, according to some traditions, infants were placed in the arms of the idol to be burned to death. However terrible the means of execution, it is certain that the worship of Molech involved sacrificing children with fire. It was a time of grave sadness and pain. Gehenna, forever associated with this dark time in Israel is also associated with the great trash heap of Jerusalem where the garbage of the city would go to be burned. This term of pain and suffering became, over time, Hades. It is used in the NT to describe a place of great torment.

Recall who Jesus is talking to in this text. The Pharisees have come at Jesus and he is calling them out for their love of money. He is very much saying that they are like this rich man and deserve Gehenna, Hades, Sheol. The poor have been resigned to the trash heap in life and in death, God would bring the balance to this world. This is offensive Jesus. He’s not being nice. Everybody knows it and it’s not a friendly scene.

Hades is a place of torment and in Revelation, it is cast into hell. Forever.

It seems that God has no use for those that abuse the wealth to which they are entrusted.

Here’s the thing: In the ancient Mediterranean world, there is no concept of “coming out” of poverty. Jesus lives in a world where people believed that all the good in life (land, wealth, honor, blood etc) had already been distributed. It was limited in quantity. There was no more to be had. This is the opposite of the Western American viewpoint that hold that there is always more and it’s available to whoever works hard and has the pluck to go and get it. To “get ahead,” to improve one’s lot in life is really unthinkable. This is why it was so remarkable that Jesus chose who he did to serve him – the disciples are not leadership material – they are blue collar fishermen, necessary for life but no one is inviting them to any parties…

The rich man does not work. To be rich in this culture means that you were born into wealth and working was not in your lot. However, in Jewish culture, wealth came with the responsibility to care for others. This man clearly did not.

I wonder what the relationship was here. It is remarkable that the rich man knows the name of the destitute. He knows him. I wonder if Lazarus was the rich man’s servant at one time. This wealthy man had a servant who became injured which prevented him from doing his job. Now, he just sat at the gate of the house – not begging (an actual occupation) – eating table scraps. I wonder if this rich man prided himself on the fact that Lazarus was not just any poor man, he was his poor man. I wonder if he greeted him by name from time to time. I wonder if he tossed some scraps from time to time. I wonder if he came home from important meetings and gave some alms in front of his friends (remember Jesus is making a stinging relationship to the Pharisees here) to demonstrate that he practiced those ritual associated with caring for the poor.

But it was all for show.

I wonder if he ever said of this man, “Hello Laz, how is today? Good old Lazarus, you never see him down or depressed. I don’t know how he does it. He’s an inspiration to us all…” Then leaves him there, at the gate, this man entrusted to his care, suffering so that the dogs lick the puss out of his wounds.

We live in a world that has always been knit together in an intricate web of relationships where we respond to one another. We relate. It’s one of those things that make us human.

Response – ability.

Now, we leave that to someone else. We leave the response to suffering on the shoulders of governmental agencies. We pay others to keep those with whom we are uncomfortable away, far away from us. “Put them at the gate” we say. Let them work for their welfare check. Don’t let them abuse the $200 a month food stamp benefit. Let them pay for their own health care. If they  need so much, let them work for it. Put them at the gate. Don’t let them inside. I don’t want to be made unclean with their suffering…

This ritual continues day after day. Week after week. These two souls connected together. Then, death.

The ritual changes.

The scene opens with the rich man in torment. Suffering in the burning garbage heap. Across a great divide, he sees Abraham and Lazarus. Even in torment, he gives command. Even in torment, he is still entitled. Even in torment, he is proud. Even in suffering, he holds to a world that no longer exists.

“Father Abraham, Send Lazarus…”

But there is a problem. Abraham points it out. In life, you had it all and did not share. In death, the tables have turned. There does not seem to be vindictiveness in the voice, just an explanation of the facts. You experienced good in life and now, in death, Lazarus is being “comforted.”

This word translated comforted is “parakaleo” You can see how the translators got to comfort here. If this is a story about reversals, then the rich man’s enjoyment is turned to “torment” (a word originally contrived to describe the process where a coin was tested – scratched by a hard rock – to determine it’s genuineness) and Lazarus’ suffering was turned to _______. Comfort right? However, this word does not mean that. This word is put together words using words that mean something like, “call on.” If you check the lexicon for the meaning of that word, you’ll see a variety of words that flow in the channel of comfort, encourage, and exhort. If someone is worn out or weary, you might encourage or exhort that person. But think of what that might look like – we’re not talking about feather beds here – we’re talking about something much more active. What sort of thing requires this “call upon?” I think of runners who have hit the wall. Warriors that are weary from the fight, athletes with their hands on their knees wondering if they have it in them for “one more…”

I remember going out for soccer in college. I walked on the field that day during tryouts and coach Whitecar said, “Fisher, you want to play?” YES! I replied. He motioned to the waiting bus which took us to Mount Baldy. This was a sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan. Up and down is one time. Do 25.

I didn’t need a lazy boy, I needed coach behind me yelling, “come on! You can do it! Make it happen! You want to play?? Get some!”

Call upon.

Deeper translations of the word can have the connotation, “I am called upon as a witness.” Perhaps Lazarus is called upon to witness that the world has been set right. Either way, what I love about this is that no matter if we are worn out in this life and seek comfort in the Kingdom to come or need the “kick in the pants” here on earth – encouragement from our God is in the form of service! We are always useful to God. We don’t retire to a life of leisure – we retire to be useful, purposeful, always in the fight! Whether our need is to be reminded that we are not forgotten in this world – no matter the suffering, no matter how much it feels like it’s over – we are not forgotten!! Keep going! Get some! You have a purpose! You have meaning! You matter to God!!

If it’s your time to enter rest, know that our rest is eternal worship of God. Forever. Worship. You can make it.

The rich man sees his situation in full focus. It’s ugly. Abraham was not mean. He even responds with “my child!” The rich man has, perhaps for the first time in his life, a thought of others. In a scene that Dickens ripped off for Jacob Marley, he cries out, asking that someone be sent back to warn his brothers. Someone needs to go! Surely, if they could see the pain! Surely, if they could smell the sulfur, feel the heat… they would repent! They would change.

Here, the passage is, I think, at it’s darkest. Abraham looks at the suffering man.

“They know.”

“Yes but…”

“They have Moses and the prophets – let them hear them. If they will not – they will not hear anyone.”

Abraham’s response to the rich man’s second request is that the brothers have Moses and the prophets. Did not Moses say, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deut 15:7)? And are not the words of Isaiah clear enough?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa 58:6-7)

I believe when Jesus finished this story, he ended by looking hard at the Pharisees that surrounded them. Silence. No one had anything whatsoever to say. Jesus literally says, referring to them, that if a rotting corpse should rise from the dead to tell them their future, they would not hear, they would not have ears to hear, they would not listen.

Saints, this passage is both a warning and an encouragement.

What do you need?

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