Formations: October 21, 2018
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
From childhood, my family taught me that responsible choices shape a life for good. Experience taught me the challenges that result from combining the ideas of responsibility and choice. Within the Gospel of Luke, today’s parable follows the story of a prodigal son who threw away his family inheritance – both money and standards – but found new life in his father’s forgiveness. It also follows an odd parable about a dishonest manager who cleverly manipulates debts to win his master’s favor. All of these are “dinner conversations” in which Jesus contrasts the world’s values with the singular gift of God’s love.
In Luke 16:14 Jesus describes the dominant leaders of Jewish society, the Pharisees, as “lovers of money,” following Jesus’ teaching that a person cannot serve both God and wealth (v. 13). Then comes this dramatic story about a rich man living in his worldly splendor while Lazarus, a poor beggar, dies outside the rich man’s gate. Outrageous! But that story gets to me every time, when I hear the stories of children dying because they cannot get necessary medical care, when immigrant parents and their children are separated, when veterans and poor people sleep in alleys or makeshift camps. I know I can’t resolve all the problems of the world … but is that a valid reason to do nothing?
Jesus taught us that God’s people must be compassionate and help the suffering and the strangers in our land. This idea goes back to God’s original directions to Israel: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). We can make all the excuses possible – they are lazy, should get a job, manage better, not have children – but Lazarus remains outside the gate of our comfort and wealth. Compassion involves generosity and the willingness to confront the problems and poverty that can be resolved.
Jesus really gets under our skin with this parable. Do you wish for more details in the hope that the parable will not be so uncomfortable to read? There are two characters: 1) the rich man who lives secure in his world of comfort; 2) the beggar Lazarus who dies outside the rich man’s gate. But there is so much more. The rich man dies and goes to the torment of Hades, but he can see beyond the flames, Lazarus with Father Abraham in a heaven of mercy (vv. 23-24). If in this life you choose to build a wall between yourself and those trapped in poverty or suffering, then there will be a great chasm between you and God’s heaven in the next world.
I want to keep up with current events, but the tragic stories of people without health care, separated refugee families, gun violence, child abuse and racial conflict overwhelm me. I do not want to be like the rich man who lived in isolated comfort while Lazarus died at his gate. There are graphic details in Jesus’ parable: the rich man is dressed in “purple and fine linen,” while Lazarus is “covered with sores” (vv.19-20). The rich man dies and is buried, but there is no funeral for Lazarus. But only Lazarus is carried away by angels to be with Abraham (v. 22).
Obviously, the eternal dimension is quite different from our world. The rich man pleads with Abraham for a drop of water from Lazarus to “cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames” (v. 24). But it is too late: The rich man has made his choice. So he asks one last favor, to send Lazarus back into the world to warn his five brothers that there is a terrible fate for those who choose to live without God’s love and build their life on that love (v. 28). Abraham’s reply is realistic, but not unexpected: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them … if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (vv. 29, 31). Jesus was speaking clearly to the original audience that day, but also to every generation to follow. The Jews of Jesus’ day lived with the history and sacred writings of their people and yet they celebrated their status as “chosen,” lived isolated from the rest of the world, celebrated wealth and security, and ignored the lost world around them. Even Jesus’ resurrection was denied as God’s ultimate gift of life. Yet our world continues to live out the tragic picture of this parable.
Who is the Lazarus at your gate? The needs of our world overwhelm us when we see through the compassionate eyes of Jesus.
When and where can you make a difference? The world begins at your gate, on your doorstep, in your neighborhood.
What ministries in your community can you support as a volunteer and donor? Volunteer at a grocery distribution center, an afterschool tutoring program, daycare ministry, clinic for single parents, English language classes for immigrants, etc.
Perhaps there is an immigrant family in your neighborhood who simply need a friend, someone to guide them in this new culture. I served a church in California that ministered to Hmong people from north Laos. Viet Nam was over and our troops were helping those people who had been our allies for so many years escape to the U.S. Not only did we teach them English, we also helped their children get into schools, taught them how to use modern plumbing, cook in a kitchen, shop in a grocery store and settle into a strange new world. That ministry always included a clear message of God’s love. Yet some people in our city wondered why we were spending time and money on those foreigners!
Lazarus was one person, alone and without hope. You are one person, blessed by the grace of God. That grace carries with it responsibility to be the voice of God, the hands of God, the love of God. Lazarus is at your gate!
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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