The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Jesus warns the rich (sermon of Sep. 30)

with 2 comments

Proper 21 (26); September 30, 2007
Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6,14-16

We sang: You Are the One; You’re Worthy of My Praise; Be Thou My Vision; In Christ Alone. (And the phrases Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me save that thou art were still on my mind early this morning. See more on worship music, below.)

Sermon: [with Bible on screen, ask for volunteers to act it out, and ask the congregation to direct the vols in response to my questions. Now read:]

Luke 16:19-31 (The Message*)
The Rich Man and Lazarus

19-21“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption.

OK, directors, what’s he wearing, in modern terms? What do you see him doing? [They put him in leather and silk and driving either a Mercedes-Benz or a Jaguar. He often hung out by the pool, sipping drinks. Perhaps Bertie Wooster fits the bill; here’s Hugh Laurie’s version of the Wodehouse dimwit.]

A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

Why is he here, on the rich man’s doorstep? Why would dogs who licked his sores be friends?

22-24″Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

25-26″But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented.

Rich guy in hell, poor guy in heaven. Strange, eh? Wonder how the rich man might feel about this:


Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

27-28″The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

Notice he still thinks he can give Lazarus orders?

29″Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

30″‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’ 31″Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'”

It is, apparently, very difficult for people to take this message seriously. In fact, another man named Lazarus was raised from the dead. And they wanted to kill him. But I wonder if we’re all so different.

Look at the Bible for what it really says here. You may need to set aside some of your theological sophistication. What does this parable teach? Perhaps that Jesus settles the score in the end? What is unfair here will be set right then?

But what does Lazarus wish he had done? And what message would the rich man wanted Lazarus to bear to his brothers? Isn’t it something like this: We’re responsible before God to use what we have to care for the poor? [We found these messages very hard to say – try it! They are outside many of our views of how this heaven-and-hell business works!]

Let’s see how very hard it is for us to get it: Start at Luke 19, then skim backwards through the chapters to Luke 4. Count every time you find Jesus showing kindness to someone of no status, or telling a story using a no-status person as its hero. And remember, no-status, in the day, would include those who were poor, dead, sick, foreign, immoral, female, or young.

[As they counted, they called them out, and I listed them on a marker board. I believe they found 26, mostly by looking at chapter sub-headings in the NIV. With more time, they would have found more. This took some time, but it was an important moment, and some changes in body language were evident.]

OK, twenty-six in fifteen chapters: nearly two in every chapter. Given that, what would the buzz be about Jesus? What would people who’d seen him be saying to their friends? [He’d be astonishing to everyone for the attention he pays to the excluded.]

Now take a hymnal, look in the topical index (after #594). Find a category that reflects what we’ve seen about Jesus. Find the sections about Jesus and the church helping the poor. Or welcoming the rejected. Or caring for the sick.

[They looked for a time, but found no such categories.] Our songs are mostly about how good God is and what he has done for me. Those that mention serving him usually don’t mention the poor, they mention surrender to God’s will in a generic sense. Jesus, all for Jesus, all I am and have, and ever hope to be … Beautiful, and useful. But caring for the needs of the poor or the excluded? Virtually absent from our hymnology. Yet we saw it twice in every chapter! It is right at the very essence of what Jesus cares about! How could we have a hymnology that never quite gets around to what Jesus does most?

Then think of the Christian doctrines you have learned. We’ve heard discussions of heaven, hell, worship, salvation, sanctification, end times – but what doctrine of Protestant theology explains the story we just read? I know of none. How strange! That which Jesus does most is not found in the major points of Protestant theology! Here we are in the richest country on earth, and Jesus’ primary passion has become his church’s occasional hobby. I wonder if the two are related.

Am I too harsh? Let me ask you, if you wrote the history of our church, or of any church you’ve ever been a part of, would you find 26 different examples of passion for the poor and excluded in 15 chapters? We’re not very much like Jesus, are we?

But there is good news. People with genuine hearts often live better than their theology. We have within us an awareness that caring for the poor is our task. Seeds of Grace people sensed it, and give their time to it every month. WTG. That’s leadership! That’s responding to what you know about God.

And, every time I post something about this, someone writes, “You know, I think I’m starting to get it.” Or, “I’ve been feeling this way, too.” Or, “I’ve been seeing this in the Bible, and wondering where to start.” Something is happening all across America in small places – people who want to follow God are waking up to the call to serve the poor and rejected.

A week or two ago, I posted this video about the book Justice in the Burbs. Listen to how they, too, become aware of the deficiency and decide to do something about it.

Something’s happening. This is America—book publishers don’t publish books unless they believe there’s a market for them. It suggests an uprising in the works.

Let me close with the epistle reading:

1 Timothy 6.6-19 (NRSV**)

6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 17

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Who are the rich in our world? Perhaps you remember Global Rich List. Here’s an example of the worldwide perspective on the wealth of a person who earns US $40,000 per year:

Global Rich List 40,000

Whoa! Top 3% of all the people in the world? Amazing, huh?

But suppose I earn US $2,000 in a year—many American teen-agers do:

Global Rich List 2,000

Yow. Troubling, isn’t it?
Truth is, when Jesus talks to the rich, he talks to me, to us. And that leaves me with a responsibility. According to the verses we just read, I am to give you a command. Not because I am any better than you, but because it is part of what we have agreed I am to do here. So here it is (from vv. 17-19, above):

You are rich, for wealth is always comparative, and you have much more than most people. According to Scripture, then, I command you not to be haughty, nor to set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18You are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for yourself the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that you may take hold of the life that really is life.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury*The Message, copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
**The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.


2 Responses

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  1. Great sermon. Can’t figure out why we don’t hear more of this from the pulpits of America. Is it perhaps we don’t want to offend are largest tithers? Oh how cynical of me.

    The rich man and Lazarus – that’s what that parable is all about. Nine times out of ten our hear it being used as Biblical support for a place called hell. If those folks would take the time to really understand what Christ is saying they might become a little bit nervous. I know I am.

    Monte Says: Thanks, Christian, me, too! I’ve been a pastor for twenty years, and I marvel at the number of times I have read this passage and missed the obvious point, leaning instead on theological convention. Preaching through Luke has been eye-opening – you have to face stories like this again and again and again. We are a disturbed bunch right now, looking for ways to move it into our lives – to put our treasure where we want our hearts to be.


    October 8, 2007 at 9:31 pm

  2. Our local radio talk station, KMBZ, was asking the question last night (10/2/07): Where would you take your out-of-town guests in Kansas City? There were the normal responses: Take them to KC Bar-B-Q, out for KC steak or to sports complexes, the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museums, Negro League/Jazz museum, NASCAR track, etc. But one lady called in and stated that she takes all her out-of-town friends to downtown Kansas City and she takes coats and clothes to the homeless and lets her friends interact with the less-fortunate! They get home, feel good about themselves and feel GREATLY blessed! WOW! That totally blew me away! The hosts tried to play it off as “real exciting” to see people get shot and watch them die and to watch fires burning (which she had seen in her adventures). They tried to keep the conversation light. And so I called in and got on the air, I said that I’d go with Ruth downtown ANY DAY and see a different side of life in Kansas City. What better way to change the world than with one person at a time? Ruth sounded older, maybe even elderly, what a great example of love! Her friends look forward to visiting! THEY LOOK FORWARD TO VISITING DOWNTOWN KANSAS CITY! Even if they have never been here! They look forward to the change in perspective and an opportunity to make a tangible difference in a hurting community! Sure it may be exciting to go downtown where it is a little bit scary. But to have an opportunity to really help the poor and the helpless? I can’t think of a better place to visit. Sign me up. Thanks for preaching ALL of the Word of God.


    Monte Says: Wow, beautiful comment! Thanks!


    October 3, 2007 at 4:52 pm

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