Monday, October 17, 2011

Luke 16:19 - 31 -- Lazarus and Ourselves

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Why should we pay attention to the beggar Lazarus?  After all, he’s only a character in a parable.  First, Jesus tells the parable, and we take to heart anything he says.  Second, we ask what Lazarus’ situation illustrates for us.
            For one thing, we have a chance to reflect again about what God thinks about the differences between riches and poverty.  The Bible teaches us that laziness, love of pleasure, drunkenness and gluttony can all lead to poverty.  “A little sleep, a little slumber,” one of the proverbs says, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond and want like an armed man.”  At the same time, Scripture assures us that God cares for the poor.  The prophet Jeremiah wrote,  “Sing to the Lord...for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.”  God insists on justice for the poor.  Here’s another proverb: “Whoever stops his ear at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself but not be heard.”  Jesus encourages kindness to the poor.  I’m sure you remember what he said to a rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”
            But Lazarus is not only poor, he is also very ill and can’t move unless someone helps him, the sort of person who needs support and ought to receive it, but his neighbors neglect him, and so he lives on the street, begging and in pain.  He stations himself in front of the home of a rich man and people ignore him.
            Riches in themselves aren’t evil.  King Solomon wrote: “Every man to whom God has given riches and wealth and has given him the power to eat thereof and to take his portion and to rejoice in his labor, this is the gift of God.”  But riches are fleeting and deceptive.  They can be a powerful temptation to greed and to forgetfulness of God.  Riches can lead to shallowness of life and can hinder entrance into God’s kingdom.  Riches can also disappoint and bring worries.  Psalm 39 speaks of a man who heaps up wealth and doesn’t know who will gather it in.
            The rich man in Jesus’ parable lives in comfort; he has his bit of revelry every day, but his life is hollow.  He doesn’t put his earthly possessions to work in a way that pleases God.  What’s more, as an expert on the subject wrote, Jesus told his parable to the Pharisees, who believed that wealth was a special gift from God to people he highly favored.  The man in our parable was not only very rich, he was also very religious.  He knew God’s teaching about justice and kindness to the poor, but he was proud of his wealth and the life it made possible for him.  He ignored the suffering on his doorstep.
            But God did not ignore Lazarus.  He didn’t make him rich; he didn’t heal his skin disease so that he could work; he didn’t even satisfy his longing for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  Instead, he gave him something else – saving faith, which not only provides the strength to endure the hardships of this life, but also filled Lazarus’ soul with the assurance that rest and peace would come to him in the next life.  Lazarus was like Job, who suffered unspeakable miseries and yet held on in faith; he was like Paul who suffered numerous discomforts – and without complaining – as he served the Lord.  In a physical, earthly sense, he was even like Jesus, who suffered on the cross for all of us.
            Faith in Christ works that way.  Despite all external evidence to the contrary – his abject poverty and the fact that his hunger and pain went on and on – Lazarus knew that God was on his side and would not let him down.  Jesus had wonderful things in store for him that our human imaginations can’t grasp now, and by the grace of God Lazarus was able to hold onto Christ in faith.
            The case of Lazarus reminds us that our own society is turned toward comfort.  We feel deprived if we lack one nicety or another.  When I was in a barbershop years ago, I heard another customer say in a loud voice, “The problem with people today is that they don’t know how to suffer.”  I don’t suppose that’s true, because there’s plenty of suffering in the world and lots of poverty, but the preferences of our day give suffering a bad name.  “If you suffer there must be something wrong with you,” people mistakenly say, “or else God must be mad at you.”
            Lazarus’s story reminds us that the problem was not with him but with the shallow values of a materialistic culture.  Anything inconvenient is to be pushed out of sight.  Lazarus is different.  The neglect he experienced didn’t break his spirit. He didn’t ask to die.  He asked for food instead so that he could go on living, however cramped and maimed his life may have looked to the people who passed by him day after day.  Lazarus, like God, was on the side of life, and Jesus gave him the faith to endure the horrible suffering that came to him.  Better days were coming – much better days, as the parable tells us.  A great reversal of fortune would take place.  The one who lived in heedless splendor would suffer.  He wouldn’t receive even a drop of water to relieve his torment.  And as for Lazarus – we ourselves who stick with Christ by faith will discover firsthand the blessed joys the Lord put before him after the cares of earth had ended.
            Jesus’ parable also teaches us that when God dispenses rewards and punishments he demolishes earthly expectations and man-made traditions.  The world separates into categories and classes.  God looks at the heart.  The rich man had the advantage of theological training and knowledge.  The Lord blessed Lazarus abundantly with faith of the heart.  Even in destitution, Lazarus gave a powerful testimony to God’s love.  Jesus intended that Lazarus and the rich man not be divided from each other but to work together to build and expand his kingdom, each benefitting the other and together they would spread the good news of God’s blessings to the world around them. 
            Lazarus reached out to the rich man, not only to receive some of the earthly things he needed but also to offer him the love of God, a sign of friendship from a faithful heart or even a stern warning from the law that the rich man had put himself in eternal danger.  Lazarus may have had in mind a picture of God’s community of faith, but the rich man did not.  He recognized only people like himself as worthy in God’s eyes.
            This was not what Jesus wanted, but even so he used the corrupted situation to serve his kingdom.  He raised a street person up and brought him into the comfort and rest of paradise.  He uses Lazarus to remind us of a basic Christian teaching.  The formerly rich man begged Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers as a messenger of warning, but Abraham, wiser, advised the man that if they failed to listen to Moses and the prophets in God’s written word, they would pay no more attention to a special ambassador from heaven.  Faith in God’s Word is the key that opens the door to his blessings – now and in eternity.  It’s one of God’s miracles that a man whose life was in crisis received the gift of faith and lived on it in trust.
            Now, one final point.  Martin Luther once wrote that every believer is a true Lazarus, for we are all of the same faith, mind, and will as he, centered in trust that salvation comes only through what the Bible teaches about Christ.  Anyone who isn’t willing to be like Lazarus will share the fate of the rich man in hell.  We are to trust in God as Lazarus did, subdue our rebellious wills and surrender ourselves to him so that he may work in us as he pleases.  Even though we don’t suffer the way Lazarus did, we should possess a mind like his, cheerfully bearing whatever fate God sends us.
            Luther said that humility of spirit like that of Lazarus may exist even in people who are rich in possessions.  Job, Abraham, and Jacob were all outwardly rich but poor in spirit in the way that pleases God.  David as king owned a lot of land and even large cities, but he said nevertheless, “I am a stranger here, a sojourner as all my fathers were.”  He saw life from a Christian point of view.  Though he was rich, he didn’t cling to earthly things.  His heart was with God.  He valued much more highly the riches he received from the Heavenly Father.  Bodily health, too, for David, was nothing compared with the health of his soul.  He would not have complained if he’d been afflicted with the sores and sickness of Lazarus.  The same is true for Abraham, Luther said, and even of ourselves, for God’s people have one and the same mind and spirit directed toward him, even though our outward circumstances and the degree of suffering that falls to each of us are different.  This is why Abraham recognized Lazarus as one of his own and received him at his side.  The suffering of his saints is precious to God.  He will reward his people in the next life.
            Extreme differences of wealth and poverty are nothing to God.  All of his people are like Lazarus in faith and the willingness to endure trials.  No matter how the times tempt us, we do not cling to dreams of riches or regret the absence of wealth we may not have.  Instead, Jesus opens our hearts and with the astonishing freedom he gives to his people, we become like Lazarus, trusting in the Lord, happy to obey his will, whatever it may be.
            The week ahead may have good times; it may have trials.  I hope that all of us will abide in the assurance that our sins are washed away in the blood of Christ and his promise that he will keep us through every circumstance, as he did Lazarus.  The key is to keep the Bible’s teachings about Jesus in our hearts.  Nothing then can do us permanent harm, for he is our friend and guide and savior.  In his name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.             

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