“Agony In The Fire”
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 (O.T. Lesson)
Luke 16:19-31 (Gospel Lesson)
The last time we were with Mr. Happy/Fun Guy, Jeremiah, he was moaning about the absence of the Balm of Gilead. Actually, what he was moaning about was that the people had the medicine—they were applying the medicine—but they were rejecting God.
Today, we find Jeremiah in the slammer. Not the ordinary jail we might think of. He’s on display, he’s confined in the courtyard of the palace for everyone to see. His crime—speaking out against the king—which was the job of all the prophets. Jeremiah is proclaiming the exile of God’s people and the king wants him to shut up. But he’s telling the people to be cool with it. To go along with the Babylonians—because one day they will return.
To show his faith, he buys a field from his cousin. Who would buy a field that he will never get to use. He did this to show God’s people that everything would be fine.
Ironically, Jeremiah never got to use his field. There was a grass roots movement of folks planning to go to Egypt rather than to exile and Jeremiah told them they would all die there. That movement went to Egypt, they kidnapped Jeremiah and forced him to go with them—and they all died there.
Jesus shares a story or a parable with us this morning that involves two men who have their fair share of troubles. For one it was a life of troubles and for the other it seems like he might face trouble for the rest of eternity.
It has been debated over the years as to whether or not this is another of Jesus’ parables or not because for the first time He gives one of the main character’s a name. It’s usually just a farmer in the field—or a father who had two sons—or a fisherman or something in that order but in our story for today we meet a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man.
In our society today this is just the opposite isn’t it because we know the names of the rich men—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and the like. We know all about those considered to be rich and many long for their lifestyle. With the poor it is exactly the opposite. They aren’t named. We refer to them collectively as “the poor”—“the homeless”—“the third world”—“the welfare cases.”
In my travels around the world on mission trips I have seen these folks that have no name. I’ve seen people who live in homes that we wouldn’t make our dogs or other animals live in this country. I’ve seen homes with no doors or windows where the pigs and other yard animals walk through as they please. I’ve seen lean-to’s and huts and shanties that make you cringe to think that someone lives there. In Kenya I saw a man with no legs who had a little cart on wheels, and he got around by sitting on this cart and pulling himself along with his arms.
In our story for today the lives of the two main characters went in totally opposite directions here on this earth. The rich man is described as clothed in purple and fine linen—living in luxury every day. The Greek word for purple was used first for the murex, or purple fish, and then for the dye made from the fish. It was very expensive because it was so scarce. To live in luxury every day meant, “Making merry every day.” For this man life was one long, gay party.
The beggar named Lazarus, which means, “God has helped,” lived a different life. It would seem that if not every day than many days he was laid at the door of the wealthy man, desiring to be fed from the leftovers from his table. But the only ones who seemed to take pity on this poor man were the dogs who would come and lick his sores.
Notice that Jesus said that Lazarus “was laid” at the rich man’s gate. He didn’t walk there or drive there. He was an invalid who had to be laid there and we don’t know who it was who took him there every day, but we do know he was totally hopeless. There were no welfare systems back then and it would seem that he had no family to take care of him. All he could do was beg but it would seem that the rich man couldn’t be bothered with him.
There is no evidence here that says that the rich was mean to Lazarus. He never kicked him or chased him away. He never called the authorities on him or lectured him about getting up and getting a job. He may have even given Lazarus some of the leftovers from his table from time to time but basically, he chose to simply ignore him.
I saw a Garfield comic strip once where on a cold winter night Garfield was looking out the window and sees Odie the dog peering through the window. Garfield thinks to himself: This is horrible. Here I am in the comfort of a warm house, well fed, and there is Odie outside begging to get in, cold and hungry. I can’t stand it anymore. I just can’t stand it. So, at that he goes over to the window…and closes the curtains.
Bible teacher William Barclay titles this passage, “The punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed.” That’s us. How many of us have ever noticed how often Jesus talked about our responsibilities to the poor and the down-trodden?
“For I was hungry,” the son of Man will say on the Last Day, “and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
How many times has Jesus been there in a person who was hurting, and we didn’t even notice? How many of us ever really notice the problems of the poor in our society? Like the rich man in this story, we are the people who refuse to notice.
It’s possible that this story is about the conflict between early Christianity and Orthodox Judaism. The rich man and his brothers represent the unbelieving Jews. Jesus is made to assert that they have stubbornly refused to repent in spite of obvious testimony to Himself in Scripture and to predict that they will fail to be impressed even by His resurrection.
This is ample evidence that if people will not listen to the Word of God, the written Scriptures, they would not be convinced by any miracle. Unbelief is primarily a moral rather than a mental matter. In most cases people do not believe because they WILL not believe.
I heard about a Sunday school teacher that told his class this story about the rich man and Lazarus. He highlighted the good end of Lazarus and the bad end of the rich man. He pointed out how one man went to hell and the other man went to heaven. He also pointed out how rich one man was and how poor the other man was. After the teacher taught the lesson he said to the class, “Now, which would you rather be boys, the rich man or Lazarus?” One boy raised his hand and said to the class, “Well, I’d like to be the rich man while I’m alive, and Lazarus when I’m dead.”
Well, that’s what we all wish, but you have to decide which kingdom you are going to be a part of on this earth. You’ve got to decide what you are going to surrender your life to on this earth. You’ve got to decide before you leave this earth where you are going to spend eternity after you leave this earth. Whatever decision you make, when you die you will live with it for all of eternity.
This story tells us that life here fashions an eternal destiny. Every time the rich man walked past Lazarus, he chose to ignore him and thus by doing so was building his hell. And every time Lazarus refused to be embittered by the bitter bread of poverty, he was building a home in heaven. Every step is destiny.
“If only I knew then what I know now I would have…” Have you ever said those words? Have you ever regretted a course of action or words you have spoken once you gained experience or knowledge about the subject and saw consequences more clearly? Have your eyes ever been opened to a new perspective, which changed everything about how you had judged reality previously.
Have you ever passed someone up broken down alongside the highway and felt convicted about it? I remember breaking down on I-75 once. The cars were going by so fast it sounded like the microphone they have on the outside retaining wall at a NASCAR race. I felt totally helpless, and nobody seemed to notice or care. This must have been how Lazarus felt about life—helpless—alone—people just rushing by like they didn’t notice and for sure didn’t care.
Here’s the point of today’s message. There was a time, spiritually, when each of us was a beggar lying at the gate totally helpless, and Christ noticed us, and Christ loved us just as we are. As we remember that truth, that compassion, that grace, Christ calls us to look around and see someone who needs our attention, our compassion, and our love.
We are called to be evangelists. Do you know what evangelism is? It’s one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
Don’t be like the rich man who will forever be remembered as the person who never took the time to look beyond his own cares—concerns—and refused to notice. Look around you today—be an evangelist—and find someone who needs your love—someone who needs help finding a piece of bread.
Thanks be to God!