Written by Pastor Ed
Caring For Others
Sept. 25, 2016
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7; I Tim. 6: 6-19, Luke 16: 19-31
What if you could see what the future holds? Would that change the way you live now? Of course, the classic tale related to that question is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge is shown the past, present, and future and changes his ways accordingly. That’s a bit different than the story we encounter in our parable for today, found in Luke 16, often called the story of Dives and Lazarus; Dives being the traditional name given to the rich man in the story.
This parable is somewhat different in that it is often called an example story, that is, it is still a story to make a point, but it’s not a “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” comparison story so much as a “think about this example” story. However, like other parables, we need to be careful that we don’t read more into it than is there. There was a period of time when there was a great debate over what this parable said about the afterlife. Just what did it mean to be “in the bosom of Abraham?” Was this somewhere other than heaven? And so forth. But other than inspiring the spiritual, “Rocka my soul” we shouldn’t read too much into the story. It is a story, after all, not a factual account.
We’ve heard the story, again fairly straightforward. It is a story rich in contrasts, meant to heighten the disparity between the two characters. The rich man is dressed in purple, eats sumptuously –every day! While the poor man is covered in sores and goes hungry most days.
Then the scene shifts to the afterlife, where their roles are reversed, and the poor man is carried away by the angels and rests comfortably with Abraham, while the formerly rich man is in the place of the dead, tormented in the flames of Hades. In agony he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus with a little water to relieve his suffering.
And Abraham gives several reasons why this can’t happen. First, you had your good things in life, while Lazarus didn’t, so now the roles are reversed. And second, there is too big a chasm between where you are and here, and no one can cross over, in either direction.
Well then, Dives says, at least send Lazarus back from the dead to warn my 5 siblings so that they don’t end up like me. But Abraham says they have the law and the prophets, and if they won’t listen to them, why would they listen to someone who comes back from the dead? Now, there’s a bit of irony going on here that we may not think about. Perhaps one of the reasons that Jesus names the poor man Lazarus, is because, in fact Lazarus was raised from the dead. And secondly, for Luke’s readers, for remember that each of the Gospel writers had an audience of readers in mind as well, that would have gotten a chuckle out of that line, since indeed someone had come back from the dead, namely Jesus, and still people wouldn’t listen, just proving the point Abraham made!
So what did the law and the prophets teach that the rich man missed? Well, scattered throughout the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament are many admonitions about how to treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, and even the stranger. There are laws about not gathering in all the grain, leaving the edges of the field or some of the grapes, so that those without land could glean the fields and have enough to eat.
There are the Sabbath laws and the Jubilee laws when debts were forgiven and land reverted to its original owner, all laws that were meant to keep the economic playing field even and not put anyone into slavery. And there are numerous admonitions to look out for those most vulnerable in society.
And then there are the prophets. We could cite any number of them, but Amos is perhaps the most vocal. One of the commentators said that one of his professors had made the comment that “if you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” Amos, again and again, like in the passage we read this morning, takes the rulers and leaders to task, not so much because they are rich, but because they take advantage of the poor, and sometimes don’t even pay attention to them.
“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (6: 4-6 NRSV)
The New Testament and the early church continued with that emphasis on helping those in need. Alan Kreider, in his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, notes that one of the marks of the early church that made it so different from the rest of society, was that they cared for the poor, no matter who they were. He cites an early writer who took issue with the great orator, Cicero, who had said that we “should support ‘suitable people in need’ “ Rather, said Lactantius, as Christians we should take out that word, “suitable” because everyone who is in need deserves our help. To quote him from the Divine Institutes;
“Give to the blind, the sick, the lame and the destitute; if you don’t, they die. Men may have no use for them, but God has; he keeps them alive, gives them breath and honors them with light…Anyone who can help a dying man but doesn’t is his murderer.” (Krieder p. 258)
Strong words that echo those of Amos, and I believe the point of this story as told by Jesus. Really there are two points to the story.
One has to do with our relationship to wealth and those around us. A.K.M. Adam says it well when he says:
“The insatiable appetite for wealth narrows a person’s field of vision; when one gazes fixedly at wealth, one cannot look around at neighbors who demonstrate that riches are not necessary for abundant life. Wealth’s blinkers conceal from us the people whose need for bare sustenance far surpasses our desire for newer, better, more intense satisfactions.” (A.K.M. Adam, Working Preacher.org)
Do we become so comfortable that we fail to even notice that others are in need? Are we aware of the homeless in our city, or those who make their living picking through the garbage to find bottles to recycle so they can eat? We want to say, “yes, of course we see them” and yet all too often I’ afraid that we don’t recognize what’s going on around us. And even if we do, how do we respond?
While I believe we are saved by God’s grace, it is also clear that as Christians we have a responsibility, when we have been entrusted with much, to make good use of what we have and care for those around us who are less fortunate. Just as it was a mark of the early church, so it should be a mark of the church today. The children are learning that as they make school kits to give to MCC for children around the world who don’t have the luxury of supplies and stores like we enjoy.
In a couple weeks we will have our annual food drive for the Calgary Food Pantry, which I suspect is getting increasing calls for help given the current economy. Those are just a couple, relatively easy ways to share of our abundance. And I’m sure you can think of many more ways, and are involved in many ways. The challenge is to continue to see those around us who are in need, and the bigger challenge is to become personally acquainted; to see the person who’s lying at our gate and pay attention to them.
And that’s really the second piece of this story. As someone pointed out, we are really those five siblings who are still alive and able to change our ways. And as I said, we not only have the law and the prophets, we actually have someone who came back from the dead! The question is, will we listen even to him? Barbara Rossing says,
“We are those five siblings of the rich man. We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation, the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we — the five sisters and brothers — see? Will we heed the warning, before it is too late?”
Let us not get so comfortable on our “beds of ease” that we fail to see those in need around us and care for those who are the most vulnerable in our society or around the world, not so they will come to church or that they will somehow reciprocate. It doesn’t have to do with whether they are deserving or not. It has to do with seeing every person as made in the image of God and worthy of our help when we are able to do so. It’s what God did for us, and expects us to do for those around us. It’s really just the Golden Rule – do to others as you would have them do to you.