Scripture Reading: Luke 16:19-31
Even though we live in North America, what is considered the richest continent in the whole world, even here we are not immune to poverty. Most days we probably don’t really notice it much in our own neighbourhoods. But we don’t need to go far to see it.
Here in Cape Breton the statistics tell us one in three children live in poverty. I would suggest that in industrial Cape Breton those numbers are even worse as we look at the very high rates of unemployment around here. But again, those are people we don’t regularly run in to in our daily routine. Poverty exists all around us, but it just isn’t on public display.
But, if you go to Halifax, you begin to see people panhandling on sidewalks, looking for loose change. During rush hour you see people standing at street lights looking for loose change from cars that are stopped. You might even see some squeegee people who are willing to clean your windshield for a couple coins.
Go to the downtown core of any large city and you’ll see even more. Yes, you’ll see panhandling, yes you’ll see squeegee people, but look even more closely and you’ll see where the homeless sleep on heating vents, or on park benches, or back alleys.
Yes, even in Canada we have poverty, we have people who are homeless, we have people who sleep on the streets. We have homeless people here in Sydney Mines too, but not too many sleep on the streets. Usually the homeless around here find their way on to a friend’s couch for the night, then move on to another friend’s couch tomorrow. We call that coach surfing.
It’s hard to believe isn’t it? That with all the riches, all the advantages of living in North America, people still don’t have access to the basic necessities of life: clothing, food and shelter.
We just need to look at the stats the food bank gives us every year. They just keep getting busier! We’ve moved to supporting them financially instead of bringing in a few boxes of spaghetti or cans of soup, which allows them to buy a lot more food to help with the increase in families they serve.
However, even if we gave $10,000 a month, people would still be hungry; people would still be homeless.
As Luke wrote his gospel account of the life of Jesus, and even as he wrote in the book of Acts, Luke didn’t shy away from the stories of Jesus around talking about money and how we care for each other. And when Jesus talked about these things, you can bet it was a challenging message for the people to hear.
We live in a world, even here in Canada, where people are encouraged to pursue the “American Dream.”
James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as this in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…”
The general consensus on the American Dream is that everyone should have wealth, everyone should have freedom, everyone should have big homes and fancy cars.
The reality is, that after generations, this still has not yet happened.
So what went wrong?
Well, the problem is, for people to become richer, something else has to give. Someone else has to serve, someone else has to sacrifice so people can buy their fancy homes and cars.
To put it simply, if someone is going to win, someone else has to lose.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But it’s real. It’s the way things work.
No matter how hard we try, the world cannot sustain million dollar homes and six figure salaries for its 7 billion people.
So, as a result, we have people who live in poverty, sometimes very extreme poverty. We’ve all seen the pictures on TV of starving children in Africa and many other places in the world.
Did you know there is an extreme famine happening right now in Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen? Climate change has resulted in an extended drought which has brought on shortages in food and water in the area. Farmers can’t grow food and their livestock is dying because they can’t be fed or watered. And people are dying.
Poverty is very real in our world right now.
Yet it’s really easy for us to ignore. Well sure they are starving in Africa. It IS Africa after all. They chose to live where it’s hot, where it never rains, where’s their poverty and sickness.
We’ve become accustomed to their extreme poverty. We’ve even rationalized it.
Now when Jesus tells the parable about the rich man and Lazarus, he’s challenging the people around them to look at how they live their lives.
Lazarus is a homeless beggar who sits the the gate of the rich man every day. He’s covered in sores, and can’t even shoo away the dogs who come and lick his wounds. He is weak, he is sick, he cannot do much of anything for himself.
When we look at the rich man, we see quite the opposite. We see a man dressed in fine purple linens. Purple is a sign of wealth, and even royalty at times. We’re told he lived in luxury every day. He ate well and he lived well.
If poor Lazarus was lucky, he managed to find some table scraps to feed on after one of the rich man’s parties.
When both of the men die one is carried to heaven while the other is buried in the earth. This is the first twist of the story.
Wealth is seen as a sign of God’s blessing. And realistically we haven’t changed all that much today. If we see someone with lots of nice things, we will say they live a blessed life, do we not?
And if someone is struggling in their life financially or socially, what do we do? We ask God to bless them. Meaning, we are asking God to help them out of their situation and give them a better life.
But in the story, who is it the angels carry to heaven to sit beside Abraham? Abraham, who is seen as the father of the Jews, one who was chosen and blessed by God, and all others who came after him were his children. It’s Lazarus who has received a prize seat in heaven to be able to sit next to Abraham.
Meanwhile, the rich man finds himself in Hades. Hades is a place of separation from God. It’s place where sinners wait to receive their final judgement. It would most certainly be a last stop before hell itself.
By tradition, the opposite should have happened. By the culture of the day, it should have been poor, wretched Lazarus who is in hell, and the rich man should be seated next to Abraham.
This is where Jesus really begins to challenge us.
The rich man begs for relief, yet because of the separation from God, it cannot be found. So the rich man seems to resign himself to eternal punishment, yet asks that Lazarus be sent back to teach his brothers how to mend their ways to avoid the same torment.
Think a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley to warn Scrooge to change his ways before it’s too late.
God responds that his brothers already have the teachings right in front of them which will show them how to avoid the same mistakes. Even sending a dead man raised will not change them, since they won’t bother to listen to Moses and the prophets’ warnings.
Being wealthy is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. Just as being homeless is not a sign of God’s judgement.
What it boils down to is how do you live your life?
Being rich is not a sin, neither is being poor.
A sin might be not using our wealth to help others.
Notice the rich man knows Lazarus by name. He has passed by this man lying at his gate many, many times. The rich man may not know anything about his life, but he does at least know his name.
Yet, he doesn’t do anything to help poor Lazarus. And why should he? He’s covered in sores, he’s living on the street… Lazarus is an outcast, an undesirable, he’s unclean. No one, by cultural standards, should be helping this man.
Yet Lazarus is the one who gets the most desired seat in all of heaven.
What does this mean for us today? It means what we are seeing here is God’s overwhelming preference for those who are poor and unwanted. Think of this after what we looked at last week when we saw just how much passion God has for those who are lost and how He rejoices when they come into relationship with Him.
What are we supposed to do?
We’re supposed to help. Not just by sending food or money, but to help rebuild lives so that people can live sustainably on their own.
It means that we need to reevaluate what our Christian response is to those “blessings” we enjoy as people who are fed, warm and have a place to sleep.
Jesus, in his life, was generous to a fault. If someone was in need, they received help from him. But notice he never met their worldly needs by giving wealth. Instead, he healed people, he gave them back their lives, he showed people how to live lives devoted to God.
But he didn’t make them rich.
Instead, he challenged those who are rich to rethink how they manage their wealth.
The teaching in the Bible says we are to give 10% of our income to God. That’s where we get our term “tithe.” We are called to tithe to the church 10% of our income. According to the Bible, that’s automatic.
How we are judged is how we treat that other 90%. Yes there are basic necessities of life that need to be paid for. But beyond that, where are our priorities as children of God? Our priorities are shown by how we spend the rest of our budget. Our priorities are shown by how we spend our time.
Remember, God has an overwhelming passion for His children. Especially His children who are struggling in their lives. Jesus came to the earth to show those people God loves even them, and how they are not to be excluded or taken advantage of.
As followers of Jesus Christ, how is this love for all God’s people reflected in how we manage our money and our time?
The rich man walked past Lazarus every day, yet did nothing to help him, or for that matter, apparently even acknowledge him. The rich man was seen as blessed abundantly by God because of all the wealth he had in his life. Yet, in the eyes of God, this man deserved to go to hell.
Because he was rich? No. Because he refused to use his position of wealth, and of power, to help someone in need right on his own doorstep.
What the rich man realized is that once he died it’s too late. There’s nothing he can do to change the course of his eternal life. And there’s nothing he can do for those he loves either.
We have the instructions right in front of us. We have our Bibles where we can read God’s word and seek to understand how it applies to our lives today. And through these words of God, we are challenged to reevaluate the priorities of our lives over and over again.
If you are unsure whether or not you have the right priorities in your life in regards to how you manage your money or how your manage your time, then you need to take it to God in prayer and let Him sort it out for you.
The warning seems pretty clear, and they should alarm us.
However, we have an advantage the rich man no longer has. We have the opportunity to repent of our sins of neglect and mismanagement of our resources. We have the opportunity to let God speak to our lives through the reading of our Bible and through prayer so that we can make better choices in our lives which will benefit those in need in this world.
We have time to commit ourselves and our church to the ways God would have us serve in a world of great need.
There is no question this story of the rich man and Lazarus should shake us to our core as we consider the eternal consequences of the decisions we make in our lives.
But it’s not too late.
We can choose today to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, following his example, and hearing the challenges he lays before us as people who call him Lord of our lives and of our church.
The other night I asked the Board, “Who is the owner of this church?”
They gave the “legal” answers: the United Church of Canada… us… Those are who own this building.
But the real answer is, Jesus Christ is the owner of this church. He is the one who leads us, he is the one who challenges us, he is the one who transforms us into people with hearts like his heart.
Hearts that love those who struggle. Hearts who long for others to know him and realize that they too are loved by our Father in heaven.
Hearts that are generous and kind.
Just like God’s heart.
Let us pray,
Today we see where your heart lies. We see it lies with those who are hurting and suffering in our world. And we may also see how our hearts have been hardened causing us to look the other way.
Help our hearts, Lord Jesus. Help us to submit our lives to you so you may transform our hearts to be like your heart.
Help us to see those in need on our own streets and in this world, and help us to see how we can use the things we have: our money, our possessions, our time, to heal this broken world.
Lord Jesus, you see where we fall short, yet you still love us as you love all God’s children.
We ask you again Lord Jesus, transform our lives, transform this church of your’s, to be beacons of hope, love, grace and mercy in a broken world.
We pray this in your most holy name.
Amen and amen.