Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, September 25th, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The rich man is suffering in death because he ignored poor Lazarus’ suffering in life. He doesn’t want his brothers to suffer a similar fate. And so he asks Abraham to send someone to his brothers to warn them of what happens to those who ignore the poor and suffering. Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” The rich man says, but that’s not enough! He had Moses and the prophets, and he didn’t listen; that’s how he ended up in this mess.
This begs the question: what is it that Moses and the prophets said that the rich man should have listened to? By Moses, he means the first five books of the Bible, which were traditionally attributed to Moses. And, most specifically, he means the laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These laws told the ancient Jewish people how God wanted them to behave. They covered everything from farming to economics to political questions to business laws to how to dress and what to eat to what garments the priests should wear and how to celebrate the various festivals. And the thing we Christians often forget about those laws, is how much care they take that everyone has enough and no one gets cheated. In every section, on every subject, there are explicit instructions for how to treat the poor and the vulnerable. Widows, orphans, immigrants, poor people, those suffering in any way: the laws God gave through Moses continually put their needs in the center of the question.
Farmers were instructed to farm so that everyone in the community had enough to eat, whether they had enough money to buy food or not. Merchants were instructed to be especially honest with poor people. The entire economy was set up so that no one could be left permanently destitute through high debt, if they followed God’s laws. Every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that had been sold out of the family reverted to the original family that had owned it. And it was everyone’s duty to protect foreigners, because, as God repeatedly said, God’s people needed to remember that they, too, had once been strangers in a strange land, wandering in search of a new place to call home. The rich had no special rights or privileges, only greater duties to those less fortunate than they were. This is not because God loves the poor and vulnerable more than the rich; God loves everyone equally. But the rich can take care of themselves, by and large. It is the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, who need special protection. These were the heart of the laws given by God to his people through Moses.
And the prophets—from Elijah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Zechariah, the Prophets of old whose words and deeds are collected in Scripture had called God’s people to be faithful. They had condemned sin, and told people that unless the people of Israel and Judah turned from their sin God would not protect them from their enemies. And what were the sins that the people of Israel and Judah? In most places, the prophets left it vague. But when they got specific, there were two sins named far more often than any other. The first was worshipping other gods, and not being faithful to the one true God. And the second great sin was exploiting the poor and vulnerable. Even just ignoring the needy was enough to be condemned by God’s prophets. When you ask a modern Christian what the major sins are, a lot of us will answer with something about sex. But that says more about us than it does about God’s priorities, because the Bible says very little about sexual morality. But from cover to cover, one of the primary ethical concerns in the Bible is how we treat people who are less fortunate than we are. From Moses to the Prophets to the Gospels to the Epistles, one of the constant themes is concern for the poor and vulnerable.
So. With all of that—with Moses and the Prophets and the whole Jewish cultural tradition of charity—why didn’t the rich man lift a finger for Lazarus? Why didn’t he even let him have the crumbs that fell from his table, those scraps and leftovers that were just thrown out, that were still better than anything Lazarus could afford? I don’t know; the parable doesn’t say. But I know why some Christians today walk right on past the Lazaruses in our society. One of the questions I get asked about the Community Cupboard of Underwood is what kind of screening process we’re going to have. How are we going to weed out the scammers and the addicts and the people who don’t deserve help? The people who could work, but don’t? The people whose misfortunes are caused by their own continual bad choices? The ones who take advantage of peoples’ generosity?
Funny thing, folks. With all that the Bible has to say about helping the poor and needy, there is only one verse in the whole Bible that says anything about who deserves help. And even that, it’s in the context of participation in the work of the congregation. You don’t get to take credit for someone else’s work. Aside from that one single verse, the question of whether or not people deserve help is irrelevant. And I guarantee you it’s not because scammers and lazy bums are some kind of newfangled modern phenomena. People are people, and have been since Adam and Eve first ate the apple. But the question in the Bible is never whether or not people deserve food—it’s whether or not they’re hungry. The question is never whether or not people deserve charity, only whether or not they have the necessities of life. And if we see someone who lacks basic necessities—food, shelter, clothing, healing, community—and we don’t help? We are sinners who have failed in one of God’s purposes for us.
A man was at a Bible study one evening, and afterwards as he walked to his car he passed a homeless man who asked him for money. The Christian asked him why he wanted it, and the homeless man was honest: he wanted a beer. The Christian said no, he couldn’t give him money for that, and walked past him to his car. Where he drove to a bar, and bought a round of beers for his friends. The Christian could buy drinks for his friends, who didn’t need his help—every one of them could afford their own drinks. And every one of them wanted a beer to help them enjoy the evening. But the homeless man might be an alcoholic, so he didn’t deserve a drink to help him enjoy his evening. Nevermind that there are plenty of homeless people with no substance abuse problems, and plenty of addicts with homes and jobs. Something that is unquestioned in someone with money becomes a mark of being undeserving in someone without it. And of course there’s a difference between enabling an alcoholic and feeding the hungry, but the point is that our society today, Christian and secular, spends more time and money looking for reasons not to help than helping. Private charity and government welfare program alike spend so much time trying to weed out the bad apples that we turn away people with genuine needs. We spend more time judging than caring. We harden our hearts and our minds, and listen more to fear and anger than to God’s good word.
The thing is, it’s very convenient to focus on who deserves help and who doesn’t. Because there’s a million reasons to disqualify people. They made bad choices. They sin. And if we can find a reason why they don’t deserve our help, well, then we don’t have to give it. We don’t have to care about them. We can keep our time, and our money, and our caring, instead of spending it on people who will probably never be able to pay us back. If we can label someone as undeserving of help, then we can ignore God’s commands to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, ensure justice for the vulnerable, and visit the prisoners. We can ignore God’s commands, and still think ourselves perfectly just and righteous. Just like the rich man in the parable.
The rich man had the Scriptures to guide him. He had Moses’ laws and the prophet’s words, and he found a way to convince himself they didn’t apply to him and Lazarus. When he died, he found out otherwise, and asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers. Abraham said no, because “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
We have someone who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord. He did not come to condemn this world, but to save it. He came to break our hard hearts, to wash us clean from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our fears and angers and all the things that separate us from God and one another. He came to be the living Word that speaks in our hearts; he came to bring the Holy Spirit, which sets us on fire for God. He came to save us—whether or not we deserve it, whether or not we earn it. He came to show us what true love and compassion really look like, in his life, death, and resurrection. May we follow Jesus’ example, trusting that no kindness is ever truly wasted, and having faith that even when we fall short, he forgives us.