Almighty God, give us ears to hear and hearts to understand, that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice. May we all be taught by you through your powerful Word. Amen.
I went to seminary on the east coast, about an hour north of Boston. (Seminary, by the way, is essentially graduate school for aspiring pastors and ministry leaders). And in my final year of seminary in the spring of 2013, myself and a couple others went and cheered on a friend who was running in that year’s Boston Marathon. We stood near the finish line and cheered, and shouted our friend’s name as he finished in just under three hours. And what I didn’t realize at the time was just how grateful I was that he ran at the pace that he did, for just a couple hours after we left the area, just a couple shops down from where we stood went off two homemade and deadly bombs, killing three and injuring hundreds of others.
From there a manhunt ensued across the city of Boston, in search of the two brothers who committed this heinous and evil crime. One brother was eventually caught and now finds himself in a maximum security prison. The second brother died days after the bombing in midst of a deadly shooting spree with local police.
Now, here’s why I take you back with me to this tragic moment in Boston in the Spring of 2013. And that is to ask you, regarding this second brother, who is now dead, where do you think he is now? Where do you think he is now? As uncomfortable as it might be, we’re diving into the deep end of the pool today as we address weighty subjects such as eternity itself.
Now, I would hope this goes without saying, deciding someone’s eternal destiny is something that cannot be found in my job description nor can it be found in yours.
And yet, if I were to ask those of us here this morning or were to survey all Americans as to this young man’s eternal destiny, my hunch is many would be okay saying that he’s in hell, even if it might make us uneasy to say it out loud. We might even think to ourselves, “He got what he deserves.”
This, I believe, is how most people understand the basic criteria and dividing lines when it comes to eternal destinies in heaven and hell. That hell is a place that is reserved for the worst of the worst among us. For men with last names such as Hitler and Mussolini and Putin. For those who create homemade bombs that cause mass destruction. For those who commit the worst injustices, atrocities and acts of evil known to humankind.
And friends, if everything I’m sharing with you so far is making you a bit uncomfortable, Jesus, I believe, will make you infinitely more so as he shares our parable with us for today.
Where he tells us that hell is not simply a place for those who do evil, but also for those who are wealthy and who continue to fail to do what is good and right.
Last week we looked at the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, a strange and perplexing parable in and of itself and this week we come to the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.
And here’s how we might connect the dots between the two. If the Shrewd Manager was a parable about how we should steward our wealth rightly and shrewdly, then the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable about the severe consequences if we don’t.
And if the Shrewd Manager parable was difficult to understand, then the Rich Man and Lazarus parable is difficult to hear. Yet hear it we must.
As I did a couple weeks ago, I would encourage you all to have your bibles open to this parable as I want you to be able to see where I’m getting the ideas I’m getting. After all, as a preacher, I am not meant to be an artist who brings before you a new and creative message, but rather it’s my responsibility to you to simply be a mailman, to deliver the news before you, as is, good or bad.
So that said, here’s the single main thing I want us to see from our parable today, and then we’ll head into application, and that is:
A lifetime of indifference towards our neighbor’s earthly suffering will result in eternal suffering of our own.
The basic structure of our parable today follows a playbook that Luke has been reiterating time and time again, what we’ve at timesreferred to as the great reversal.
Where in verse 19 we’re introduced by Jesus to a rich man, who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.
And in verse 20 & 21 we’re introduced to a beggar, a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.
And here’s the great reversal that we see verses 22 and 23. Jesus says that the rich man, the one who experienced riches and earthly blessing will now experience eternal suffering in hell (or Hades, as it’s called here), while the poor man, Lazarus, the one who experienced poverty and earthly suffering will now experience eternal blessing in heaven.
Now, why is this the case? Certainly, it would be too simplistic and biblically inaccurate to conclude that wealth is bad, poverty is good and that whatever you experience here on earth you’re destined to experience the opposite for all eternity.
Instead, Jesus’s point is this, that … A lifetime of indifference towards our neighbor’s earthly suffering will result in eternal suffering of our own.
Notice those three sneaky little words in verse 20 that demonstrate the rich man’s culpability: And those three words are: “At his gate.”
That while the rich man was living a life of decadence and indulgence each and every day, right in his vicinity, like a next door neighbor of sorts, was a poor man who was badly suffering. And yet the rich man didn’t attempt to relieve his suffering in the slightest way.
The rich man even exposes himself for his lack of compassion, when, in his later conversation with Abraham while suffering himself in hell in verse 24, begs for Abraham “to send Lazarus, to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
Think about that. The rich man knows this beggar well enough to know his name, but doesn’t care about him enough to help.
The rich man is asking for Abraham to show mercy toward him and relieve his eternal suffering, all while the rich man never showed any mercy towards Lazarus to relieve him of his earthly suffering. And so,
A lifetime of indifference towards our neighbor’s earthly suffering will result in eternal suffering of our own.
Now, in case all this talk of heaven and hell weren’t making us squeamish enough, there’s another layer to this as well that might make us squeamish too.
And it has to do with a question that we addressed ever so briefly last week, and that is, “Isn’t it faith in Christ that determines our eternal destiny? Why does it seem as though in this parable it’s how we steward our wealth and our love for our neighbor that determines whether we’re headed for heaven or hell? It almost seems as though we’re saved by works, by what we do, rather than our faith, what and who we believe in.
Here might be the simplest way of untangling this knot. This quote has been attributed to Martin Luther, the 15th century theologian who once said: “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”
Yes. Real, genuine, authentic faith in Christ will naturally be evidenced by good works, characterized by a deep devotion towards the Lord and sacrificial love towards our fellow neighbor. Because when Christ gets a hold of us, we are a new creation, with a new heart. And just as a healthy tree bears fruit, so does a healthy and active faith. Real faith does good work for the good of those around them. “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”
So friends, all that said, here are two simple points of application as we consider how to live in light of this parable in our everyday lives.
Seek to address your neighbor’s earthly suffering
Warn people away from eternal suffering
These two objectives are sometimes pitted against each other as though they were opponents fighting for our focus and attention, when in reality, I’m convinced they serve as teammates and are meant to complement the other.
Seek to relieve your neighbor’s earthly suffering
Chances are you and I don’t know someone exactly like Lazarus, given the extremely dire and depressing circumstances he finds himself in, though maybe you do. But chances are there is someone in your circle, wherever it is that you live, work, play or learn, that is suffering.
Maybe it’s the single mother who works three jobs. Maybe it’s the elderly widow who’s often overlooked. Maybe it’s the homeless man outside of Safeway. Or maybe it actually is your neighbor next door.
Right next door to our house on South Idaho Street is an apartment building filled with college students. Callie and the boys and I had a couple of them over for a BBQ a month or so ago, we got to know them a little better. And though I certainly wouldn’t compare their situations to Lazarus here, they’ve got their own struggles. We all do. And it’s got me thinking how we can walk alongside them in what they’re going through.
When it comes to addressing the earthly suffering of those around you, maybe give through a non-profit that’s better informed on how to address the systemic reasons behind various social ills. Maybe it’s connecting those in need to sustainable and humanizing work. Maybe it’s making a homemade meal. It’s hard to know exactly what the rich man should have done, but my goodness, at the very least, he should have, we should, do something. Anything would have been better than nothing.
Friends, Jesus calls us to seek to relieve, rather than turn a cold shoulder to our neighbor’s earthly suffering. We might even say we’re called to give them a taste of what heaven will be like in the midst of their hell on earth.
And yet, there’s a second part to all this: If we really care about relieving suffering, we’ll want to see people saved from eternal suffering as well.
As humans made in the image of God, we are this beautiful and mysterious mix of body and soul, designed not just in need of food that fills our bellies, but also hope that fills our hearts. And as people who have been created to live forever, we will either live eternally united with Jesus in heaven or eternally separated from Jesus in hell.
And so, we must warn people away from eternal suffering in hell and invite them towards eternal blessing in heaven.
This seems to be part of the focus of the second half of the parable, where the rich man pleads with Abraham in verses 27 & 28, begging him, saying “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.’
Even if his own fate is sealed, he’s desperate to see that his brothers are warned so that they don’t end up where he is.
You all, when I consider my own reservations about telling someone about Jesus and eternity itself, I confess it is usually rooted in my own social anxieties and insecurities.
I think to myself, “what if I’m all awkward about it?” Oh for goodness sake, I already am.
“What if they think I’m weird?” Oh, but they already do!
Somehow, you and I have to get outside ourselves enough so that our love and concern for others can overpower our own fears and insecurities.
So friends, next time you're with someone who’s struggling, who’s faith you do not know, maybe just simply ask, “Where are you finding hope and strength these days?” Listen to what they say, and then kindly ask, “Can I tell you where I find mine?”
Seek to relieve your neighbor’s earthly suffering. Warn people away from eternal suffering. If we care about suffering, we’ll care about both.
And I’ll finish with this:
There’s an unusual detail in our parable today, a detail that may help us better understand the realities of heaven and hell and who ends up where. And that is, this parable is the only instance in all of Jesus’s parables where one of the characters in the story is given a name. it’s the only one. Where sitting at the rich man’s gate lay a beggar named Lazarus. His name means, “God helps.” “God is my help.”
Lazarus’s life here on earth was a living hell. Poor and hungry, unclean and in pain. Even the street animals came and licked his sores. Yet he was not forgotten by God. God was his help.
So consider this: For those who are poor and suffering and yet united in Christ, this world is as close to hell as they’ll ever get.
Friends, you might be experiencing hell on earth, facing your own financial crisis, in the midst of a messy divorce, diagnosed with a terminal illness, and yet, if you’ve got Jesus, with God as your help, what you are experiencing here on earth is the most hellish thing you’ll ever experience.
Put to death any preconceived notions of heaven and hell, divided between good people and bad people, or the worst of the worst and everyone else. Or that, in a karmic way, we always get what we deserve.
Instead, it was Jesus who got what we deserve. Taking upon our sin, dying on a cross, facing the wrath of God himself. Who, as it says in the Apostles Creed, he descended into hell and on the third day rose from the dead.
Ultimately, heaven and hell won’t be divided between the good and the bad, or the rich and the poor, but rather the forgiven and unforgiven. Who, whether in poverty or riches, proclaim that God is their help.
Or as Jesus says, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”