Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 3:1-13
Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.
Watch just a few minutes of the news these days and you will see that there is trouble everywhere. There is war and fighting around the world, people are dying at the hands of their neighbors; people are suffering from natural disasters. Illness is rampant; it seems like there is more dis-ease in body, mind and spirit than there ever has been. People are frustrated financially, lonely because of broken relationships and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Even our entertainment is filled with the promise of suffering rather than hope.
Amos certainly did not offer much consolation in his prophecy to Israel. Unlike the other prophets, who interspersed promises of God’s mercy in their books, Amos only gives four verses, the last four, of consolation. God was angry. Amos was angry. Sometimes, it seems, we have moments when we, too, are angry.
Amos was a prophet who was sent to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the middle of the eight century B.C. This was a time of prosperity and security; the people were comfortable. They thought their prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. They believed that they were reliving the golden age of Israel, the time when David and Solomon were kings. They practiced all the religious rituals, worshipping as expected, and attributed their prosperity to God’s pleasure. Unfortunately, God was not pleased with their worship; their beliefs were pagan in nature.
The Northern Kingdom was situated close to Assyria, so close that the Assyrians were able to assimilate themselves into the lives of the Israelites. The Assyrians were strong and offered protection for Israel. The people of both nations intermarried and the foreign gods became part of their daily living. They were politically secure and they were spiritually arrogant. They did not see the destruction that was happening to Israel from within: within their hearts.
The scene in today’s passage is a gathering of leaders, comfortably feasting in Samaria. It was opulent and excessive and lasted for days. Amos warned that they are ignoring the reality of their future, that invasion and exile was near. The luxury in which they were wallowing is obvious: they lay on beds made of ivory and overindulged in the finest meats, wine and oil. Not only were they gorging themselves on the finest resources of Israel while danger waited around the corner, they were using the resources that were meant for God. The choice lambs and fatted calves were meant for sacrifice. The bowls were taken from temple in Samaria, and originally part of religious ceremony, and they were being used by the leaders to get drunk. The oil was also used for ceremonial services. In other words, they were not only ignoring the turning of Israel from God, they were stealing from Him to celebrate their prosperity and security.
Amos warned them that it would end. Though they thought they were safe and comfortable, they would be the first to fall. Those who thought their prosperity was the very sign that God was with them would be the first to realize that He had left them to fend for themselves. In this they would learn that not only is the Lord God Almighty ruler over Israel, but He is ruler over all the earth. He commands even the armies of His enemies, granting them the power over His people for the sake of the life and their future.
This warning should have brought those leaders to their knees, turned them back to the God of their fathers. They did not hear, ignoring the promise of downfall because they thought that they had done enough to earn God’s grace. They worshipped as was required, but they had forgotten what was most important: that God calls His people to practice justice and mercy. The leaders who gorged on the finest meat and lounged on ivory covered couches had no concern for the welfare of the people over whom they had been appointed. The reward for their indifference would be that they would lead their people into the exile. They would no longer have ivory covered couches or fine meats at extravagant feasts. They would suffer at the hands of those whom they trusted because they stopped trusting the only One who could give them peace.
The reward for the man in today’s Gospel lesson is far more personal. He wasn’t destroyed by an earthly enemy; he met death and discovered that his life of leisure was his only consolation. He had stopped trusting in the God who gave him his prosperity for a purpose and lived for himself, only to discover in death that he would not receive the benefit of God’s mercy.
Lazarus was obviously very sick. He had sores all over his body and he was so hungry that he was willing to eat the crumbs which were given for the dogs. Lazarus was poor, not only in money, but also in flesh and in friends. He did not have anyone to care for his needs; those apparently responsible for him were so uncaring that they simply laid him at the gate of a rich man in the hope that he might get some compassion and help. The rich man was exactly the opposite. Not only was he so wealthy that he had a home with a gate and food enough to eat, but he was also healthy and surrounded by friends. The rich man never noticed the sick man at his gate, distracted as he was with all the good things he enjoyed.
Both men died and came to very different fates. Lazarus was carried away on wings of angels to live for eternity with Abraham. He was so alone in this world that he did not even have anyone to dispose properly of his body. Those responsible for him were probably relieved to be set free from the burden, perhaps not even mourning the loss. The rich man was buried, most certainly with great pomp and mourning. Perhaps the family even hired people to fill his funeral with tears and cries of grief. He was probably wrapped with the finest oils and linens and then placed in an expensive tomb.
This is where Jesus turns the story. The rich man, who had been blessed in his life, found himself suffering the torment of Hades. To add to the torture was the fact that the rich man could see Abraham caring for Lazarus in his bosom. He could see Lazarus blessed with a place in heaven, but there was no way for him to be part of that blessedness. He cried out to Abraham, “Have mercy on me.” All he wanted was a drop of water for his tongue. Abraham could not provide for his needs and answered, “Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But here he is now comforted, and you are in anguish.” Abraham had compassion and concern for the rich man. He still called him “son,” however the chasm between the two was too great for Abraham to cross.
The rich man realized his failure and wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to tell his family how to live so that they would not have to suffer the same torment. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man argued that they needed something drastic to help them see the truth even though they lived according to the words of Moses and the prophets. These were not bad people. Wealth, in itself, is not bad. They were probably even good Jews, doing all that was expected and living according to the Law. However, they had forgotten the intent of the Law: that all God’s people would share in His kingdom on earth. They had forgotten that they were blessed to be a blessing, that they were given good things to share with those who did not have good things. They had forgotten that true joy came with living by faith, being content with enough and giving the excess to the glory of God.
Lazarus was obviously sick in body, but the rich man had a less obvious dis-ease. He was sick in spirit, separated from God by his apathy and blindness to the needs around him. While Lazarus will live for eternity in the bosom of God, the rich man will suffer without the love and mercy of Christ Jesus. This is a message we all need to hear so that we will make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering. Jesus is not telling us that we have to be sick or poor to be admitted into heaven. He is not telling us that the rich will automatically be sent to Hades. He is reminding us to not be so distracted by the things of this world that we miss out on seeing those who need mercy and grace. We have been blessed to be a blessing and that it is in sharing the Kingdom of God with others that we will know the joy and peace of eternal life.
The rich man was not necessarily someone in power, although his wealth almost guaranteed that he was held in high regard among those in his community. The problem with the rich man is not that he had wealth, or even that he liked to party, but that he ignored the needs that were right under his nose. He was blinded by his ease and feelings of security. Lazarus did not ask for help; the rich man did not directly reject Lazarus in any way. But, there is no way that the rich man could have missed the poor, sick man by his gate. I wonder how long it took for Lazarus to become nothing but a blob, no longer a person, just an annoyance.
The text from Amos can be seen as a warning to the rich man that he will end up in exile. Now, there weren’t threats from Assyria or Babylon in Jesus’ day, but exile can happen in many other ways. The rich man in today’s Gospel was exiled to Hades, far from the bosom of Abraham. If we miss others in the quest to satisfy our own needs and desires, where will we be exiled to? Fired from our jobs? Divorced from our spouse? Life crashing down around us?
Perhaps, like the rich man in today’s Gospel story, we just stop seeing. I wonder how many times God places before us a need that we fail to notice; instead of giving bread from our table, we just step over them. We ignore a lot of needs in our world for one reason or another. Today’s Gospel lesson makes us uncomfortable because we have seen the needs of those around us but we all too often ignore them. The rich man knew Lazarus by name; it is likely he passed Lazarus many times as he entered and exited through the gates to his house. Just as I have passed, many times, the man begging on a downtown street corner.
I struggle with this because I know there are homeless people in my city, but I also know that there are those who take advantage of the generosity of strangers by pretending to be homeless. I’ve seen reports from many different cities about panhandlers that make a fortune. They drive expensive cars. Reporters have followed them to expensive suburban homes. The problem is that there are many truly homeless people who need help, so we have to make a judgment call: “Would I be a good steward of my resources if I give to this person?” Sadly, I usually ignore the guy on the street corner while I’m comfortable in my air conditioned car on my way to wherever. Then I wonder, “Was that my Lazarus?”
I was once in the parking lot of a grocery store when I was approached by a woman who seemed desperate. She told me her car had broken down a couple blocks away and she needed bus money to get somewhere while she waited for her brother to deal with the car. Her story seemed a bit contrived, but I gave her a few dollars anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was probably scammed. At that point all I could do was pray and give it over to God.
Last week’s lesson taught us that we must be shrewd with our worldly wealth. There have been times when I’ve come across those who are certainly scamming people. As a matter of fact, my husband was meeting me for lunch when he got caught up in a conversation with a man who gave him a story, begging for help. My husband decided not to give him cash and then we learned that he had approached others, not only in that parking lot, but all over town. He had become so “famous” that his exploits made it to the news. Unfortunately, he did not just beg, but often became belligerent and threatening to those who refused his request.
We live in a world where people will take advantage of other people. It forces us to make judgments about how to be good stewards of our resources. We’d rather not see so we turn a blind eye. We’d rather hide behind our safe walls; we’d rather eat, drink and be merry. Yet, God reminds us not to ignore those whom He puts upon our doorsteps because in serving them, we are serving God.
We are blessed to be a blessing, but we are often solely focused on our own little corner of the world. We feast in times of prosperity and we wallow in times of suffering. The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God’s promises. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God: who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.”
We might not be wealthy or powerful, but we are to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives. How are we failing to see those outside our own palaces that need a few crumbs of what we have to offer? We may not have much, but there’s always something, and it doesn’t have to be material. Do we have a gift or talent, the time or the physical energy to do something for another? Our neighbor may not ask for help, but when we see the need, it is up to us to step forward and share what we have. We are reminded in these scriptures that God has called us to be His hands in a world full of people who need something we have to give.
While God is concerned about our salvation and the destination of our souls after death, He is also concerned about the life we live today. Christian faith is not just about whether or not we’ll end up in the bosom of our father Abraham. It is about reconciling the world, bridging those gaps that seem too hard to cross. In this life, however, the gaps are not impossible. The rich man and Lazarus shared the same space, but they were worlds apart. A simple meal and a clean robe would have bridged the gap not only in this world, but in the one to come.
Have we created gaps in our own eternity because we have failed to share a few crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, reconciling people, and sharing God’s grace. This means turning away from the things that distract us; it means keeping our priorities right. It means keeping God in focus and remembering that He is the Lord of heaven and earth. It means listening to God and responding to the opportunities He drops on our doorsteps. It means being the best we can be. If only the rich man had shared some bread and some drink with the man named Lazarus who lay at the gate of his home, perhaps the chasm between them in eternal life would have also been bridged.
We are called by today’s texts to see our own failure, to see where we have allowed the gaps to widen between us and the others. Our prayers of confession not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. It might seem like lying on the ivory couch is the choice life, but the reality is true contentment comes when we live in faith, trusting in God, serving others. As we live that life of prayerful praise, we will see the ones who are right in front of us that need something we can give. Contentment gives us the freedom to take our crumbs to the gate and share it with whoever might be waiting.
When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We see what justice and mercy look like. We see what it means to be righteous. We see how He bridges the gaps between people and reconciles them to Himself. We see the Lazarus who is on our doorstep and realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to share what we have. We might have doubts about whether we are being good stewards of our resources, but we can trust that God will make all things right.
Our wealth will fade. It will not take us into heaven or follow us into hell. When we die, everything we have done on earth will be lost. Everything will be lost but faith. What is most interesting is that faith is the greatest treasure that we have, and yet we all too often take it for granted. And while these lessons are definitely about the proper use of our wealth in this world, we have a wealth beyond our imagination that we tend to hoard for ourselves.
The most important gap we have to bridge is the one between Jesus and those still lost in the darkness. We have been given bread that will satisfy our greatest hungers, but are we willing to share even a few crumbs with our neighbors? When was the last time you shared the Gospel of Christ with someone who crossed your path? The world is filled with people who are hungering for Jesus, starving and they don’t even know it. So, let’s be holy people, righteous, seeing the world through God’s eyes. Let’s work with Him to bridge the gaps that divide us now and forever. Let’s see the Lazarus God has dropped on our doorstep, feed him with bread and the Bread of Life so that we’ll dwell forever together in the bosom of God our Father.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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