Luke 16:19–31 (NIV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Wealth is not distributed justly in the world we live in as we see the huge disparity between first and third world countries. Inequality.org, a web site which analyses the world’s statistics, says:
“The world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. Adults with less than $10,000 in wealth make up 64 percent of the world’s population but hold less than 2 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total less than 10 percent of the global population but own 84 percent of global wealth. Credit Suisse defines “wealth” as the value of a household’s financial assets plus real assets (principally housing), minus their debts.”
There are amongst the wealthiest and most powerful in the world those who squander their wealth on themselves and waste the economic resources available to them not caring to help anyone but themselves.
For example, in Dubai there have been two people who each spent $817 on a Scoopi’s ice cream parlour “Black Diamond” dessert which has a relatively simple Madagascar vanilla bean ice-cream base. The cost is in the toppings.
This ice cream is covered with Italian truffles and rare ambrosial Iranian saffron (the saffron retails for about $100 for 30 grams - about one ounce). The dessert includes 23-karat edible gold flakes.
An example of decadence may also be found in our Gospel reading for today. There was, in Jesus’ time, according to New Testament scholar William Herzog II, the practice of using the flat breads provided with a meal (these same flatbreads would have been a significant part of the diet of much of the community) –as napkins to clean their hands while eating – much as we might use a serviette.
The “used” flatbread would then be thrown under the table for the dogs to clean up. It may have been such “scraps” that Lazarus received from time to time.
Lazarus was a destitute beggar with ulcerated sores which made him unacceptable to “polite” company. He was placed at the gate of a self-indulgent rich man’s home – close enough to observe what went on in the residence.
He was also probably close enough to receive the odd scrap of food cast aside from the rich man’s table - possibly from the scraps thrown into the street by the house servants or from a sympathetic guest or even brought to him by the dogs, who also licked his sores.
It’s interesting to note that “Lazarus”, in the Hebrew language means, “the one whom God helps”. God cared for Lazarus through the saliva from the dogs’ tongues as they licked his ulcerated sores. In modern times dogs saliva has been tested and found to have anti-bacterial benefits.
Help was always near at hand for Lazarus, yet he was deprived of it by someone close to him who was well aware of his existence and need, who lived in a gated house (only the super wealthy had gates), who was over-indulgent in his expensive purple garments, silk underwear and extravagant dining – who could have easily relieved Lazarus’ suffering.
We like the rich man, have as I mentioned last Sunday: the car window washers, the homeless in motels and beggars in the streets. These “Lazarus” like people are all around us – not to mention those we see in the ads on television for World Vision, the Tear Fund, Doctors Without Borders and Fred Hollows Foundation to name a few.
If I take the statistics from those I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, and see them as individual people with needs, there seems little hope for the majority of people in the world.
Recently, listening to a South African teacher sharing her growing up experiences in the 1960’s, I heard that her family lived in conditions where there was no running water – it had to be carried some distance in buckets to her family’s home. I, along with most of you, grew up with no end of hot and cold running water here in New Zealand.
Like Lazarus many, even in our wealth filled world have to wait for heaven to be relieved of their suffering. I once saw a photo of a small girl in central Africa who was blind because she could not get a 20 cent treatment which would have kept her eyes healthy. She wore a coke can tear tab as an earring.
How is it that our world gets it so wrong – and we worry about paying 50 cents extra to get a coconut milk latte?
The rich man in today’s Gospel is so wrapped up in himself that even when in the torment of hell he only sees Lazarus as a lacky to bring him water to cool his tongue: ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
The rich man knows Lazarus’ name but is still only thinking of himself and his plight. He claims his racial purity, being a descendant of Abraham, appealing to family honour as when one member of the family is in need those in the family who are aware of it were honour bound to help.
The rich man, when he was alive on earth, did not apply his own understanding of honour to Lazarus who was also a descendant of Abraham whom he deprived of help. In Matthew 25:40 (NIV) Jesus tells us, … ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
It was God who helped Lazarus and who blessed him when he died with the angels carrying him straight to heaven.
Greed and selfishness are the exact opposite of God’s character. The rich man in Jesus’ story was not hospitable and nor was he generous.
Jesus invites people to share all that He has – remember the quality of the wine Jesus provided at the wedding in Cana.
Remember the feeding of the 5000 and the abundance which was left over collected – not wasted.
And most importantly, the forgiveness of sins offered by Jesus though His suffering death and resurrection which He brings and offers to all in Baptism.
Jesus creates community with His hospitality as we see in Acts 2:39 (NIV) when Peter says, 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
This call is issued in this life through the Scriptures as the rich man realized too late when Abraham tells him, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
WE also have Moses and the Prophets – the Old Testament - along with Jesus Word and work in the New Testament. We have no excuse for being like the rich man.
The results for those who receive Jesus’ Word are true belonging, care and community – community which is eternal. We who have been baptized and believe share in this community and we all have the name Lazarus which means: “the one whom God helps”.
When we have this name, Lazarus, we are part of the living community of God as described in Acts 2:42–47 (NIV):
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As Rev Gordon Wegener told Church Workers at our conference last week when speaking about Lazarus and the rich man:
“A way of life that believes that self-reliance and self-sufficiency and self-security brings true joy or genuine well-being, cannot bring us to our true, best selves, created in the grace filled image of God.”
Whether we are rich or poor in this life is not what determines our final destination.
Ultimately it is the relationship our Lord Jesus has with us and by the power of His Holy Spirit, being attuned to His grace, which inspires in us attitudes and values which create real community – community which comes to fulfilment when we enter heaven.