This text does not answer the question of how to get into heaven. You know the answer to that question. I mean, honestly, do you believe that Jesus has saved you?
Seriously, I’m asking you: do you believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have destroyed sin and death for you?
Great. Then let’s not spend our time trying to unravel some secret code that we punch in to sneak past the heavenly gates. Let’s trust that God’s promises for life and mercy are true. Since we are God’s people, let’s hear this story as it is intended: how God calls us to live, not because we need to get ourselves into heaven, but because we love God and we love others.
I’m convinced of this because of the context of the passage, even though we don’t get it this morning. When we read selected Bible passages like we do in worship we have to take them out of their context, which can sometimes make them hard to understand. In this case, we can better hear what Jesus teaches us by hearing what leads up to it in the book of Luke.
Just before this passage, Jesus teaches his disciples about money. He tells them, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? You cannot serve God and wealth.” (16:10-11, 13b)
Jesus and his disciples are then interrupted by the Pharisees, who Luke says “were lovers of money” (v 14). Jesus calls them out and tells them: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (v 15) That thing he’s talking about, what is prized by human beings, is wealth. That leads us up to the text we heard today.
So, this is a passage about how to live your life, and specifically, money’s place in your life. What should we hear from it? Perhaps you hear it say that rich people inherently disobey God’s will and so are doomed. You should be terrified of this potential reading of this text. If you have more than one pair of shoes at home, you’re rich. This passage is not good news for you. But then, I just told you that this passage isn’t about how to get into heaven or stay out of hell, so maybe that reading isn’t what Jesus intends.
Maybe it says that poor people don’t really need to be cared for in this life because they’ll get their reward later. Like Lazarus, those who are in need and suffering just need to buck up and endure, because their pain redeems them. There are several problems with this reading. The first and most weighty is that it is a direct contradiction to the Bible’s repeated instruction. The Bible mentions justice twice as many times as heaven. There are over 300 Biblical texts telling us to take in refugees, feed the hungry, provide for the poor, protect the defenseless, and care for those who are in prison.
Let me read you just three of those texts. From a book of the law, Deuteronomy 15: “ 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.” (v 7-8) From the prophets, in Isaiah 1: “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (v 16b-17) From the New Testament, one of my favorite passages of scripture, 1 John 3: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (v 17)
If you want to write off those in need, you have zero foundation in scripture. God spends a whole lot of time telling us to wake up, to pay attention to those in need, to share our good things with them.
And that is the key to this text, too. There is a rich man covered in purple robes and a poor man covered in sores. A rich man eating like each day is a party and a poor man starving like each day is his last. And never, not once, does the rich man ever even notice the poor man sitting literally on his front step. It’s why the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, that maybe they would notice Lazarus and be reminded of the hundreds of times that the law and its teachers demanded that they care for those in any need. Maybe they will finally listen.
But no, Abraham points out. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (v 31) And just hearing this gives you that sinking feeling in your stomach, because you know that in just a few weeks we will celebrate that our Lord came back from the dead, promising us that he has secured our salvation and we are free to love and care for our neighbors just as the law has always expected of us without fear of our actions determining our salvation. And yet we still act as if we are not convinced. We still act like God doesn’t care when we ignore the hurting like the rich man ignored Lazarus. We hold on to our good things as if those good things are all that matter.
And all the while, we try to make it okay. We live with the lie that good things happen to good people. We act like people who are rich or healthy or beautiful or talented somehow earned it, deserve it, and are reaping divine favor, while those who are poor or sick or suffering or struggling somehow brought it on themselves.
We do it when we say that people who need subsidized housing should pass a drug test, because surely addicts don’t deserve stable homes. We do it when we say that people who need food stamps can’t be trusted to pick healthy food for their families, because surely hungry people needing help are greedy for more. We do it when we say that if you’re on welfare you have to show you are looking for a job, because surely, if you can’t provide for your family you’re lazy. We do it when we say that refugees should find somewhere else to live, because surely, if you got yourself into that mess, so you can get yourself out of it.
Do you hear it? In each case, we try to claim that a person who struggles deserves their struggle, but that those with good things are obviously good people. Jesus upends that lie in this story. Good things don’t come to good people. Good things come to people, and we who are beloved by God share those good things with everyone – not because they’re good people, but because they are people. We do it not because we must, but because we can. Not because we fear hell in the afterlife, but because we do God’s will on earth in this life. Not because it buys us salvation, but because our salvation is already bought.
This text isn’t about getting good things the afterlife. It’s about ensuring good things in life now. It’s about God’s constant call to feed the hungry, take in the orphan, protect the refugee, provide for the outsider, comfort the sick, and take the side of oppressed – not because it gets you to heaven, but because your love of God and your love of neighbor sit side-by-side. One who believes that Jesus is Lord acts like it. One who knows that Jesus is all she needs gives her good things to those who have none, because this life matters. God calls you to use this life to bring good things to all, because God tells us to, and that’s all the reason we need. Amen.