Here is a sermon on Luke 16:10-31. The issue is especially poignant in the wake of the recent U.S. House vote to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps.”
The Five Brothers
A Sermon on Luke 16:10-31
A few of Jesus’ parables, like the ones we heard last week about the lost sheep and lost coin, seem relatively tame. But not this one. This parable is a tough one. It deals with a sensitive subject: wealth. And it has a big stinger.
In Jesus’ day people loved to hear stories of people getting what they deserve in the hereafter. Jesus took one of these popular tales that was circulating at the time, changed some of the details, and aimed it straight at the religious authorities of Judea.
Jesus was tough on them. He made no attempt to handle them with kid gloves. Jesus had just gotten through pointing out that you can’t serve both God and wealth, only one can be the most important to you, and that the things humans value are an abomination in God’s sight.
The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus. Why? They refused to see the serious spiritual problems that money and affluence pose. They insisted that possessions were a sign that God was pleased with you, that God was blessing you. Poverty was a sign that God was cursing you. They came by this view honestly. They drew it from scripture. Check out Deuteronomy 28. That’s just one example. There Moses says that “if you obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God.” Then there’s a long list of blessings of every kind, from victory in battle to strong, healthy livestock, to highly productive fields, to many healthy children, to rain just when you need it. If you obey, you’ll be blessed. If you don’t, you won’t.
But Jesus saw the flaws in their too-neat system of rewards and punishments. For all their intense study of scripture, these particular leaders, anyway, had skipped over the deep and powerful message of Moses and the prophets giving the people of God solemn responsibilities towards all people in need.
There were two men, Jesus said. One was the richest of the rich. He ate gourmet meals every day. He dressed in the finest clothes right down to his linen underwear. His clothes were purple, the color of royalty, power, and authority. He had it all.
Just outside the rich man’s gate lay a man who was the poorest of the poor. He had nothing. No food, no home, inadequate clothing. Like Job, he was clothed in sores. He was sick. He couldn’t walk any more. How he longed for the rich man’s table scraps.
Now note: Jesus makes no moral judgments here. There’s no explanation of how the rich man got his wealth, no hint of any dirty doings. Plus, there’s no explanation of how Lazarus got in the fix he was in either, and no hint that he was particularly righteous.
Scene 2: Both men died. Now everything is exactly reversed. Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The picture here is of the way people reclined at banquets in Jesus’ day. Lazarus reclined next to Abraham at the heavenly banquet.
Far, far away the rich man found himself in Hades with nothing but pain. If only he could just get one drop of water. He begged Abraham to send Lazarus over with just one drop of water.
“Sorry, my child. Not possible,” Abraham replied. The rich man and Lazarus never connected in life. Now they can’t connect in death.
Now why did things turn out this way? Well, the point is not that the rich are going to hell and the poor are going to heaven. The problem wasn’t so much that the rich man was wealthy. The problem was that he failed to share. He did nothing for this one who was in need right on his doorstep, one who was well within his reach. For whatever reason, whether it was because he felt Lazarus deserved his fate, the rich man did not even do the minimum he could have done to ease the suffering. He saw no connection whatsoever between himself and Lazarus. He treated Lazarus as if he weren’t even there, though he obviously knew his name.
Another way to put it is that the rich man was hard-hearted. He shut out Lazarus, and it was because he had shut out Moses and the prophets. He had shut out all God had said about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. The rich man cut himself off from the word of God, he cut himself off from the poor, and hence he cut himself off from God.
The rich man’s heart was hard. But he was by no means the only one so afflicted. Now we hear about some characters we didn’t know were there. The story says that the rich man had five brothers still living in their father’s house, presumably in the same situation: self-satisfied, living more than comfortably. They could share, they could help, they could do something to help the people on their doorstep. But they weren’t doing it, either.
At least the rich man thought of them. He begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn the brothers, lest they end up in this pain. He wanted Lazarus to go and wake them up.
But listen carefully to Abraham’s response. “They have Moses and the prophets,” said Abraham. They have scripture. They have the Bible. The truth is right in there. They should listen to what Moses and the prophets say.
“No! that’s not enough,” cried the formerly rich man. It sure hadn’t been enough for him! “But they will listen and repent if someone goes to them from the dead.”
Abraham: “No. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if somebody speaks to them from the dead.”
The rich man actually has many more than five brothers, and he has many sisters, too. They include the comfortable, respectable religious leaders Jesus first delivered this parable to. And they also include many people now who have warm homes, nice church buildings, more than enough to eat, more clothes than they can wear, insurance to cover calamities, reasonably good health, clean living people, all. But who read right over what God said through Moses and the prophets, namely: you shall be open-hearted, and open-handed.
For the book of Deuteronomy also says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. (Deut. 15:7-8). And that’s just one of many, many passages in the law of Moses commanding God’s people to care for the needy, with special attention to the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the foreigner living in the land. Why? Because that is what God did for Israel in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt.
The prophets are full of God’s call to take responsibility towards the needy. “What kind of worship does God want?” the book of the prophet Isaiah says. “Loose the bonds of injustice. Share your bread with the hungry. Bring the homeless poor into your house. Clothe the naked. Care for your needy kinfolk. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted” (From Isaiah 58).
And there’s our lesson from Micah: What does God want, endless sacrifices, thousands of sheep, rivers of oil, our first-born children? No! “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Our Lord God wants justice. Not just criminal justice, but the kind of justice that sees to it that people’s basic human needs are met. As long as anybody is hungry, we don’t have justice. As long as anybody is ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-educated, sick and uncared for, we don’t have justice.
As long as any person is in need on the doorstep, we don’t have justice. And as long as the people of God fail to seek justice, we won’t have righteousness. And as long as we don’t have justice and righteousness, we won’t have peace.
God’s people today have more than Moses and the prophets. We do have One who did come back from the dead: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But how well is Christ’s church listening to him? This stinging parable demands that we ask that question! Where is the church’s focus? On the inside, keeping things going and comfortable, like we like ‘em? Is anybody checking the doorstep?
Those five brothers had a doorstep. All the sisters and brothers now have a doorstep. The church has a doorstep, the community has a doorstep, this nation has a doorstep, the world has a doorstep. And hungry, hurting people are on it.
Every single one of these people is a human being. Every single one has a name, like Lazarus. Every single one is a precious creation of God.
Brothers and sisters, we are alive today. We have the opportunity to listen and hear Moses, the prophets, and the One who came back from the dead, our Lord. We have the opportunity to reach Lazarus, alone, together, and together with others all around our nation and world, one act of kindness and mercy and love, one person at a time
This week I came across a beautiful prayer in a book of prayers for children. It goes this way:
“God does not neglect the poor
and neither will I;
God does not ignore their suffering
and neither will I;
God does not turn away from them
and neither will I;
God answers them when they call for help
and so will I.” (From A Child’s Book of Prayers by Lois Rock. Lion Children’s Books, 2002, p 72.)
Sisters and brothers: listen, look and act—while we still can.