Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, November 15, 2019
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Do All the Good You Can (9/29/2019)

Luke 16:19-31

There’s something unusual about this parable: A character is named. This is the only time in the parables of Jesus that a character is named. Now from what I’ve read, it was not unusual in the Hebrew tradition of parable-telling to name a character. But Jesus only did it once, that we know of.

So of course, people have to ask why. Some have suggested that Jesus is telling a real story here. Others have suggested that Jesus names Lazarus because Lazarus is one of his own. But at the end of the day, we’re going to have to live with the mystery. We don’t know why Jesus names him.

“A certain rich man,” the story begins. Now some interpreters have named the rich man in the story, too. If you ever read anything about this parable and they refer the rich man as “Dives,” you’ll know why. Dives is the Latin word for “rich.” I guess some people felt bad that Lazarus got named and he did not.

The rich man lives in luxury. He is dressed in purple cloth. In the ancient world, purple was a color of royalty and wealth. The dye used to make the color purple in cloth was very difficult and expensive to produce, so only the wealthy and royalty wore it. And he feasted every day. As in, it wasn’t enough just for him to eat every day, he had to go all out every day. It is a picture of ostentatious luxury. He’s not just rich; he’s showing it off. He’s like the Antonio Brown of the first century.

At the gate to his home lies Lazarus. His name is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, Eleazar, meaning “God is my help.” He longs for just the scraps from the rich man’s table. In the first century world, there were no spoons or forks at the table. You would eat with your fingers, placing food on pieces of bread. There were also no napkins. So the wealthy would wipe their hands clean at the end of the meal with pieces of bread, probably bread left from the day before. Then they would just throw them away. Lazarus longed just for the garbage from the rich man’s table. But he got nothing. Instead, the dogs would come and lick his sores. When you think dogs, think mangy, unclean scavengers, not pets. First century Hebrew people did not keep dogs as pets, as dogs were unclean animals. Sorry to break it to you, dog lovers.

The rich man’s sin is not that he’s rich. It’s not that he did any harm to Lazarus. He simply did nothing for him. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that to live a Christian life is to live by three simple rules: 1. Do no harm. 2. Do all

the good you can. And 3. Attend to the ordinances of God, which was an 18th century English way of saying, “Do the things God wants you to do.” The rich man did no harm to Lazarus; but he also did no good for him. To the rich man, Lazarus was just part of the scenery. He saw him every day. Lazarus was at his gate. He just paid him no mind.

He did not think it strange that he should live in luxury while Lazarus suffered. His sin is that he was hard-hearted toward another human being and self-centered in his use of his own abundance. He was blessed but took no opportunity to be a blessing. It is a terrible evil to see the suffering of others, to be able to help, and to do nothing.

None of us should hear that and walk away comfortable. We all see suffering in the world around us. We are all able to alleviate suffering, at least to some degree. And we all have a tendency to ignore suffering when we see it.

I was reading for this sermon, and I came across a quote from a fellow named George Buttrick. He was an English-born American preacher and seminary professor of the early to mid-20th century. He said, “True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar… Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.” Maybe that’s the real issue. The rich man did not help Lazarus, let alone seeing him as a person, a human being, and a neighbor. How often do we see people suffering and stop to say, “That’s a human being. That is my neighbor.”

And then there’s the second part of the story. The rich man and Lazarus both die. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham. It was a Jewish folk belief of the day that the truly righteous spent eternity with Abraham, the father of all the faithful. And the rich man is taken to Hades, the place of the dead, to be tormented.

Jesus challenges a widely held piece of first century Jewish theology called the theology of retribution. Basically, this was the idea that those who enjoy wealth and ease are favored by God, and those who have suffering and poverty are objects of God’s disfavor. If things are going great, it’s because you’re a good person and God likes you. If you’re suffering, it’s because God is angry with you. Jesus denied that theology.

The decisions made in this life are fixed in eternity, and sometimes the result of those decisions is eternal judgment. And that makes some Christians uncomfortable. Some Christians don’t like the idea of “God sending people to hell.” “How could a loving God condemn people for eternity?”

I think part of the issue is that we have a tendency in 21st century Christian thought to over-emphasize the love and mercy of God. Yes, God is love, and God is merciful. But we emphasize those characteristics to the exclusion of other traits the Scriptures clearly tell us that God possesses; traits like justice and wrath. Wrath is God’s righteous anger against sin and evil. And frankly, if you listen to some preaching, you might come away thinking that there’s no such thing in God.

It is not just for God just to ignore evil, to sweep it under the rug. Think about in human terms. A person commits murder. They are hauled before the judge and the judge says, “I’m feeling merciful today, so I’m just going to let you go.” Was justice done? Well, the family and friends of the victim certainly wouldn’t think so. Frankly, I doubt anyone would think so. Likewise God would not be just if he simply brushed aside all the sin and evil of humanity.

And what about people who want nothing to do with God? There are certainly people out there who want nothing to do with God; some who even hate God. Would it be a loving act for God to force them to spend eternity with him?

I think it’s better to think in terms of God honoring our choices to accept or reject him, to live according to his word or not, rather than talking about God condemning people.

There’s one last matter in this parable: The rich man begs “Father Abraham,” appealing to his birth, to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers. And Abraham responds, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if a man rises from the dead.”

Now, of course, part of this is foreshadowing Jesus and the religious elites. They rejected him when he was alive. When he rose from the dead, they still rejected him. But in more general terms, it reminds us that rejecting the truth is a serious matter. We each need to decide for ourselves if we will receive the truth or reject it. But if we reject it, then it may not matter what happens afterward. A person could rise from the dead and it might not change our minds. That’s the thing about us human beings: Once we make up our minds on something, we often won’t even let inconvenient things like facts change our minds. So, are we open to the truth or closed off to it?

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