Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

This Sunday's Sermon

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25TH 


RICH MAN, POOR MAN

Luke 16: 19-31

 

     Think of our morning scripture reading as a drama performed in three acts. Act 1 begins at the front gate of a huge, opulent mansion. The lord of the estate is un-named in the Good Teacher’s telling; but generations of storytellers living ever after have called him Dives – a  name which, in the ancient language of the Christian scriptures, means Rich Man.

 

     Let it be said of Dives that he pampered himself with the highest quality of linen sleep wear. The garments he wore in public were dyed with the deep, rich, violet extracts from oyster shells; a rare, exquisite, and exceedingly expensive luxury that was otherwise reserved for monarchs. And there wasn’t a day in the week that did not find Dives dining on the most tender cuts of meat and the most delectable of fine, imported foods. Nor did he dine alone. The invitation to a Dives dinner party was THE most sought after prize in the region. At the end of the evening, Dives’ servants distributed one last round of the finest bread so that dinner guests would have absorbent material with which to wipe food grease from their hands. As they bid their host goodnight, the well-heeled crowd discarded their soiled bread crusts on the ground just beyond the manor gates. Waiting to gobble up that food waste was the poor man, Lazarus.

 

     As you may know, a deficiency of protein and essential nutrients will wreak havoc on the human body. It was just such a deficit that created huge eruptions of oozing, ulcerated sores on the body of poor ol’ Lazarus. He undoubtedly craved some soothing, healing ointment; but, alas, his only comfort was the cool, moist lapping of a dog’s tongue against his sores – which rendered him all the more "unclean” to Dives and his God-fearing friends. As Lazarus was too weakened to walk for any significant distance, he was compelled to use the gutter as his prayer closet. And goodness knows but Lazarus was, absolutely, a praying man. If there was no one on the face of this earth that cared in the least for Lazarus, the God who created him surely DID care. Indeed, the poor man’s name would become a prophecy of sorts. Lazarus means "God is my helper” – which brings us to the next act.

 

     In Act 2, the scene shifts to the graveyard. Lazarus died – no surprise there! He was, in fact, just one person amongst tens of thousands of men, women, and children living on the earth this very day who will die before sunset from starvation and malnutrition, not to mention water-borne disease caused by natural disaster or universal poverty. Lazarus is laid to rest in an unmarked pauper’s grave with no one present to remember him but the junk yard dogs. Yet in the blinking of an eye, he finds himself in the eternal embrace of the ever-living God who calls him "beloved.”

 

    The truly unexpected action in Act 2 is the death of the other lead character, Dives. His funeral was a grand affair! His gold-leafed casket lay amid an ocean of mourners; all of whom recalled his gusto for living. The preacher shared of how it was that he’d contributed all the funds for the purchase of new hymnals for use at the local worship center; and everyone agreed that he was truly a son of their spiritual father, Abraham – which is kinda’ ironic since Dives, from his place amongst the dead, was seeing things quite differently.

 

     Act 3 – as you might guess – transports us to the world beyond. Dives, it seems, finds himself in one hellish of a place. Referred to by Master Jesus (elsewhere in the Gospels) as "the outer darkness,” it’s an isolated existence far removed from the God of Light. Now it’s not so much that the LORD God "sent” him there; but, rather, that Dives was given, in death what he’d prioritized in life; which is to say, the "SELF-sufficient” existence. Lazarus, on the other hand, relied in all things upon God’s Grace. Lazarus lived the GRACE-sufficient existence; and insofar as the God who offers Divine Grace is eternal, then such life is of ever-lasting quality. Thus does Lazarus receive in death what he prioritized and cherished in life – that is the transforming embrace of the Most High God.

 

     You doubtless noticed how, in Jesus’ telling of the story, the Realm of God is represented with the person and presence of Father Abraham. And it’s from across a great abyss that Dives shouts out to Abraham with a desperate plea. Dives wants Abraham to send Lazarus as a Messenger to Dives’ earthbound survivors, warning them against the building of personal security based on the strength of profits and prestige, of position and possessions. Dives wants Lazarus to tell his brothers and sisters that they will surely be required to give account to the Divine Giver of all gifts for their care-taking of God’s gifts – pleading with them to love God with everything they’ve got and to love their neighbors as self. That is, after all, the point of Jesus’ story-telling: not that money and possessions are in and of themselves a great evil, but that they are to be used for Godly, life-giving and life-cherishing purposes and NOT for self-absorbed priorities.

 

     Lest we miss the force of Jesus’ parable, it’s important to notice that Dives never, ever bullied or even harassed Lazarus. His sin was in ignoring his neighbor in need, as though the poor man were unworthy of even being counted as a person beloved by the Creator. Instead of hurting Lazarus, Dives stepped over him and walked around him – treating his pet dogs with more compassion than he treated poor people and families. Dives, you see, had been playing one of those ageless and universal mind tricks – not unlike the ones that have tempted me. You know how they work, don’t you? Poor people surely deserve their lot in life; while, on the other hand, my good fortune is the reward from on High for having exercised responsible citizenship.

 

     Goodness knows, but I’ve been lied to and exploited by a number of people who’ve come to my pastor’s study asking for money assistance. Do you think that I haven’t made rationalizations regarding whether or not they deserve my compassion? Of course I’ve been tempted by those thoughts and sometimes caved in to them. And yet… this morning’s scripture reading and others like it have drawn me toward uncomfortable conclusions that I’ve become too complacent and indifferent in my attitudes. Will I withhold Christ-like compassion because the poor man or woman seeking help doesn’t deserve it? The truth of the matter is that neither do I deserve the saving Grace of Christ crucified and risen. NO one does! Grace – by its very definition – is NEVER deserved! Grace is the undeserved, unmerited, unconditional love of God, in Jesus Christ, who’s died and who lives again to the end that you and I and all seekers can be forgiven and transformed. Besides, there are ways to offer compassion that don’t necessarily involve us in simply handing out the cash.

 

     There are ministries in Washington County that are striving to help churches help people in need. Perhaps you’re aware of the ministries offered by R.E.A.C.H. – an acronym meaning Religious Efforts to Assist and Care for the Homeless. Then, too, there’s the SALVATION ARMY, VALOR MINISTRIES, HOPE MINISTRIES, CITIZENS ASSISTING AND SHELTERING THE ABUSED, and a number of Christian congregations offering food pantries and soup kitchens. We can help people in need by helping and supporting those ministries. And, of course, the personal contact with people in need – a simple smile and word of greeting – can go a long way in full-filling Christ’s law of love.

 

     As Jesus’ three-act drama concludes, it becomes apparent that there will be no miracle for the brothers and sisters of Dives. The truth of the matter comes down to this: if people like Dives won’t listen to the clear, plain Word of Scripture, then they won’t be moved, for very long, at least, by the miracle of a crucified Christ rising up from the dead to the end that his followers will – by the Power of his Living Spirit – continue his live-giving ministry.   

 

     Yet even when people take seriously the Christian scriptures, there’s STILL the risk that they’ll miss what’s obvious. Opposing factions in American Christendom argue continually over mysteries such as the timeline of Creation; and they insist on dividing and conquering over a hand-full of scriptures related to same-gender relationships. But let’s put the scripture in perspective! One Christian writer tells of the time when he and some seminary buddies took an Exacto knife to every sentence and paragraph in one of their Bibles that deals with God’s priority of compassion for broken humanity; and with every passage warning against love of money and the idolatry of materialism. When finished, he said, their Bible was in tatters. Care for the widowed! Nurture the homeless, hungry, orphaned child! Show hospitality to the stranger. Advocate justice for the poor and oppressed! Strengthen the weak! Help the afflicted! Forgive those who have sinned against you! These are the clear commands and priorities of God that are continually repeated throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures!

 

     I met Peggy in the decaying home where she lived with her adult daughter and two little grandsons – the younger of whom was developmentally disabled. There were parts of Peggy’s history that deeply troubled her – stories of broken trust and domestic violence. Our small team was working to patch up the leaky roof of her house, along with other home improvements. We got to see in Peggy the same hurting soul that Jesus Christ sees and loves. We talked with her, listened to her, prayed with her – even laying hands on her for the healing of the back pain that so disabled her. At the end of the week we hugged and said good-bye.  "I didn’t think that there were people like you in the world,” she said. Well! There are PLENTY of people like that in the world. They are numbered amongst the countless believers who are citizens, not of a particular city, state, or country – not identified with any one race, tradition, history, or heritage – but who belong to God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

 

     Granted, the Kingdom Come is not yet here in ALL of its fullness. But to those for whom the Christ is Master, Shepherd, and Savior, the Kingdom HAS dawned, is visible, and has becomes a treasure beyond compare – which hints at the great paradox as summed up in 2nd Corinthians 8:9. It reads, "You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (New Living Translation).  To be truly "rich,” in God’s Realm, is to be wealthy in the things that really matter and that last forever; the things of Christ-like hope, faith, joy, and love. And remember, always, that the greatest of these is love.